Chi-Coder: The Term “Game”

This is another one of those, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for a long time’, type of posts.  It’s also a post that I feel puts me at great risk for sounding horribly pretentious.  I’m going to do my absolute best to not sound that way, but if I still do, feel free to lambaste me!  With that out of the way, let’s get to the topic at hand; the word “game”.

In a nutshell, my problem with the word game is this; not all video “games” feel like games.  To me, many would be much more at home with a title like “interactive experience”, “interactive narrative” or even “digital adventure”.  You see, to me games feel more like sports, card games, or board games.  In that sense, many video games are games, but calling The Last of Us, or even Super Mario Galaxy a game can sometimes seem like we’re selling it short.

Is this a game?

All movies are called movies because the nomenclature of the time was to call the moving pictures “movies.  All movies moved so it made sense to call them movies.  By contrast, not all video games feel like games.  They’re all on a video screen, so you could make a case that the word video belongs, but not everything under the classification game feels that way to me.  I don’t think I’m the only one either.

Telltale’s games are good examples of experiences that feel less like games and more like interactive novels; more like an evolution of choose your own adventure books than poker or football.  While the term video absolutely makes sense here, game makes a lot less sense.  What Telltale makes are experiences, not games.  Ok so, the 6 million dollar question then…why does this even matter?

The terminology matters for a couple of reasons.  First and most importantly, it matters because of perception.  As gamers get older and more sophisticated the problem becomes slightly less evident, but there is no doubt that there is still a stigma about gaming.  The biting satire of Grand Theft Auto is constantly misunderstood and criticized when a good 20 years ago Mr. Show was doing pretty much the same thing with very little fanfare.  But because Mr. Show was an HBO comedy that aired late on Saturday nights (grown-up time), there was no issue.  Slap the term game on Grand Theft Auto though, and everyone seems to think that it sits on the shelf next to Tickle-Me Elmo (is that still a thing?).  If we could change the nomenclature, and perhaps the perception tied to it, maybe products like Grand Theft Auto could dodge some of the heat they catch via accusations of being something that they’re not.

The perception is important because of how the term “game” is viewed, too.  That stigma I mentioned extends to the many people who still viewing games as products meant only for children (or psychos).  Those who know better, know that games can as mature and powerful an experience as any film or book; more so in some cases.  That doesn’t change the perception tied to the term video game though.  On some level I’d imagine that this perception was born out of the fact that early video games were most certainly aimed at children.  I’m 32, grew up in the NES era, and love video games.  Many my age loved games as kids too, but grew out of them as many grew out of LEGO, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That’s fine, different strokes for different folks and all that, but that perception that games only consist of Mario and Donkey Kong is incredibly unfortunate, both for the makers of mature games, and the audience who’s missing out on them.

The other factor to consider when discussing the term “game” has to do with what games are these days.  Above I raised a question about whether or not a product like The Walking Dead should be considered a game. A fair question, but you might argue that it is a game.  By contrast, I think it’s much harder to argue that some of the experiences being created for the Oculus Rift are games.  The rollercoaster demo, for instance, while fun and exhilarating, is an experience, not a game.  Wii Fit, while used on a game console is also not a game.  The technology that produces games is evolving and as such the experiences being produced are blurring the lines between game and experience.

The Oculus Rift and Microsoft Hololens both have the potential to change things a lot more, too.  Using Hololens to read a holographic pop-up book to your daughter, or experiencing the Great Wall of China via an Oculus Rift experience are both, most assuredly, not games.  They can be interactive though, so they’re not quite movies either.  They’re interactive experiences.  What’s more, these examples barely scratch the surface of what’s possible, and where that line blurs.

The tech that made games what they are today is changing what games can be.  I’d like to pose a discussion…  Should Papers Please be a part of a high-school social studies or political science curriculum?  I think it should.  When Chris and I played Papers Please on YouTube we poked a little fun at the experience.  Afterwards though, I couldn’t stop thinking about how interesting it was.  It stuck with me in a way that I didn’t expect.  Was it fun?  Not particularly.  Would I play it again?  Maybe.  It was meaningful though.  It truly gave me a different perspective on things.

The term games has become just about meaningless.  It now encapsulates all sorts of experiences that go far beyond jumping and shooting.  These experiences, teach, touch, examine, invoke, and change us, just as films and books do.  I’d like to see the term game begin to fade out of the digital experience picture.  Sure, Madden is a video game, so it’s fine to call it that, but I think that a great number of experiences available these days are far beyond that, and I’d like to see the terminology and the perception therein evolve as the experiences are.  In the meantime I’ll just be over here in the corner with my ascot and my pipe.  Games were so last year anyway.