Redefining The Term: Game
Everyone defines a word differently. This is how I define “Game”. And it involves choice.
A game is most commonly defined as an activity or contest involving skill or chance. It’s a very narrow definition that doesn’t encompass the wider array of possibilities that we’ve seen games become. A game is also defined as “an activity that one engages in for amusement,” according to Google, that too is a very narrow definition.
Given that games have come to encompass roleplaying, storytelling, random number generators (aka luck), skill, simulations and more I think a better definition is in order. This stems in part from Ian Bogost’s latest article in The Atlantic: Video Games Are Better Without Stories. But also because I’ve been thinking about the term in reference to everything I do.
First my definition, then an explanation.
Choice is a key factor in determining if something is a game. In part because compared to other mediums, games allow for far more choice than music, poetry, literature, film, sculpture, painting, etc. With them the only choice is to participate or not. And often its not a choice that’s reevaluated at every moment. We can choose to watch a movie, read a book, listen to a song, or we can choose not.
The most basic games, such as Ludo are little different than other mediums in how little choice they present us. But the competitive element in it along with the luck factor means the outcome is never set in stone as it is with so many other types of creations. The more complex a game the more choice a player is presented with.
This is true of sports as well as board games, card games, roleplaying games and video games. As a player you’re tasked with choosing again and again every moment. Do you move forward, back, left, right, attack, defend, hide, search, ad infinitum? Those choices may connect to create dynamic systems or complex mechanics that enable further choices or ultimately limit it. But you, the player, have a choice beyond simply watching or finding another activity.
Unless it’s a quicktime event. Or a cut scene. And people rightly find those problematic for the very limitations they impose on the player. Those limitations, even in simulations, are what make a game interesting, what make them fun. The prescribed limits allow for surprises to occur, for stories to arise, and for players to have an impact on the game itself so much so that future versions are different. Even in a very linear narrative.
Rugby, a game and a sport that has affected my life more than any other given how many times I’ve broken my nose, is a constantly evolving game. It does so because of the choice inherent to its premise. The strategy and tactics coaches and players use changes every season and with every game. So much so that sometimes people can get into a rut, as we saw in this years Six Nations when England played Italy.
Italy refused to participate in rucks, basically contests for the ball once a player has been tackled. And as such this affected the rules on what else was possible and allowed them to take advantage of the differing regulations. So much so that England was on their back foot for the majority of the game as they were slow to adapt. Had Italy contested for the ball once the English players were tackled this would have formed a ruck, thus limiting Italy’s attacking options to coming directly through the ruck from the front as the offside line would have been formed. Because Italy didn’t engage there was no offside line, meaning the Italian players could attack from any direction.
Italy made a choice. It’s not even one they had to stick with throughout the game. But every interaction they had with England, with the ball, with their own teammates was a choice - pass, run, tackle, hold, setup, support, etc. England also made choices, choices that weren’t the most optimal.
Optimal or not, choices allow for a lot to happen in a game. They mean a game can tell a story, can simulate an experience, or can simply be a straight forward contest. Choice and how its implemented is what makes games a unique medium, and with that comes the need to always think of games as their own medium, doing something different than other types of art.
There are of course other mediums that have at time offered choice. Choose your own adventure books, for example, or theater experiences such as Sleep No More. Some may argue these are more games than they are any other medium. They just happen to use the trappings of another art. At the same time they illustrate how viable choice is as a mechanic in art, regardless of medium.
Even “walking simulators” are games, because their very nature offers choice. You choose where to go and what to do, however limited that may be. The world and the story may be extremely linear, but your choice in participating in the game is always greater than the binary offered by a movie. So titles like Gone Home, Firewatch, Dear Esther, Abzû, Virginia, and What Remains of Edith Finch are inherently games.
Whether or not the use the nature of the medium to their advantage is a different matter, but they are games nonetheless. This of course is only true for the playing of games. Their creation is another matter, but that too is affected by choice in its own way.