It’s an argument that most developers find themselves in at some point. With Telltale’s signature cinematic style and Metal Gear‘s 20-minute cutscenes, the line between films and video games are constantly being blurred. The team over at Extra Credits think it’s a bit of a moot point—the question limits our creativity, forces us to stay within our safe zone, and holds our medium back from what it could be. I agree. Defining what a game is just leads to harsher boundaries and things we’re not “allowed” to do—but at the same time, it’s still important to be introspective. I still feel that it’s important to try and answer the question, even if it’s meaningless in the end.
So: what is a game? Luckily for us, we’re not the first to talk about this.
It seems like a silly question, right? We all know when we’re playing a game. Mega Man, Grim Fandango, and Saints Row may have very little in common, but we can still point them out and say “this is a game.” Even if they follow different sets of rules, there has to be some overarching theme or mechanic that ties them all together. They wouldn’t really be the same medium otherwise.
The obvious answers are interactivity and choice. By picking up the controller and playing the game, we can influence its outcome. Sometimes, this is as simple as winning or losing, or it can be as complex as branching storylines and multiple endings—all that matters is that we have a say in what direction the experience goes. This works for all types of games, too, from board games to consoles. Is “an interactive experience” a fair definition for a game, then? I still wouldn’t say so, because this can include things that very clearly aren’t games. A Give Yourself Goosebumps book obviously isn’t a game, but we can still influence its outcome by following the branching paths. Is this any different from a visual novel? At what point does something interactive become a game?
If you follow Salen and Zimmerman’s definition, a game is “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” That’s a broad and fancy definition, and it sounds good on the surface. It never says that a game has to be violent. “Conflict” here just means some tension between different forces, be it the player and the environment, a time limit, racers on a track, etc. It’s broad enough to include every type of game.
I don’t think it’s very valid today. A “quantifiable outcome” implies an ending—something that we can look back on after we’ve played the game. Many modern games are legitimately endless, or at least lack a real outcome.
Take Minecraft‘s Survival Mode. While the player is free to decide their own goals, they have three that are given to them through the game’s mechanics: find better materials, build a shelter, and survive. The conflict here is between the environment and the player, but where is the outcome? Even after dying, the game does not end, because their buildings still stand and their effect on the environment are unchanged. Even if the player closes the game, it will all still be there the next time they load it up because Minecraft auto-saves. Does this make Survival Mode not a game if it doesn’t tick one of the boxes?
Let’s take it a step further and look at Creative Mode. The player can now use every block and item in the game without having to find or make it themselves. The fundamental challenge of Survival Mode is gone—and with it, any source of conflict in the game. Here, Minecraft really does become a digital LEGO set, and I’m yet to see anyone call LEGO anything but a toy. Is Minecraft not a game? If not, what is it?
Games like Minecraft —even entire genres, like the visual novel—show us just how pointless defining such a young medium is. There will always be exceptions to the rules, but that doesn’t mean they break the spirit of them.
It just goes in circles. You can’t define an art form without holding it back. I think the question’s a bit of a red herring—it’s not important that we find an answer, but I do feel as if we should discuss it. If we narrow down our medium to a series of checkboxes and criteria, we limit our own creativity. In an industry based around our imaginations, I don’t think this is acceptable. At the same time, though, asking ourselves what makes a game gives us a standard to break—gives us a direction to shoot away from. It’s like a dog chasing its own tail or a riddle that’s not meant to be solved. We may not ever find an answer, but it’s the journey that matters most.