What Makes A Game, A Game?

I love video games in almost all of their forms.  As I’ve aged, I’ve found more and more about the medium that I find interesting, from an artistic and technical perspective.  Making a great game is so complicated.  It combines story-telling – like a book – with visual and audible information – like a movie – and then allows us to interact with the world.  It’s a medium that, when utilized properly, allows the player to experience so much more than any other medium.  The reason for that though, is very simple to understand…it’s interaction.

What makes a game, a game is interaction.  Without interaction it’s a movie, plain and simple.  With that being the case, I’m interested in understanding what it is that makes interaction so important.  I think that starts with understanding what can be accomplished through interaction that can’t be accomplished any other way.

I think it’s important to first understand that interaction separates video games from movies by turning them into us.  Even when you’re playing a game with a defined main character, like Solid Snake or Geralt, their choices are still your choices.  The words they choose to say may not be 100% your choice, but their actions are still yours.  When you choose to kill an enemy instead of simply knocking them out, when you choose to save a damsel instead of collecting her head for a quest giver, when you do virtually anything in a video game, you’re affecting the world in a way that doesn’t happen in non-interactive media.  You become a participant when you had previously been a spectator.

What happens when you participate is that you begin to empathize.  For instance, when playing Metal Gear Solid 5, I was faced with the lethal vs. non-lethal choice a lot.  The lethal choice was almost always easier, but the non-lethal choice was far more rewarding.  First off, I could recruit the enemy.  Second, it would raise my heroism level which helped the staff I already had.  Something else happened though; I began to feel like it was wrong to kill the enemies.  The thing is, I wasn’t killing (or not killing anyone).  Even when we completely discount the fact that this was a video game and thus wasn’t real, it still wasn’t me doing performing the actions, it was Snake.  And yet it felt like me.  I’m not Snake, but when playing Metal Gear Solid 5 I can absolutely empathize with the choices he/we have to make.

My point here is that the empathy we feel while playing games is a huge part of what makes games so engaging.  It does more than engage us, though.  Interacting in games, and the empathy it invokes is important for more than just entertainment.  “Games” can be so much more, as products like Papers Please can attest to.  Experiences like that use the idea of a game loop to convey the incredibly uncomfortable feeling of what it must be like to live in situations that would otherwise seem unfathomable to us.

I feel so strongly about this that I feel that there should be more interactive experiences created for the sole purpose of making us feel uncomfortable and that we should subject ourselves to these experiences often.  I wonder how many Germans would have gone along with the Nazi regime if that had been able to experience what it was like to be a holocaust victim.  That’s an extreme example, for sure, but I think it helps illustrate the point.

Interaction helps us to empathize, and empathy helps us to grow.  Understanding how others feel and why they feel that way is something that cannot and should not be discounted.  To that end, I believe that games create an environment that allows us to do just that; experience situations we otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t.  Those experiences can help make us better people by invoking emotions that we didn’t know we even had the capacity to feel.

I’m not saying that movies, television, and books have no place in media.  That’s certainly not the case.  Games however, have the unique ability to bridge the gap between spectator and participant, and in doing so, offer an entirely unique perspective on exactly who we are as people in a way that no other type of media can.  As games progress, it’s my hope that they push towards this end.  I’m not suggesting that we abandon the games we love today, but I hope that interactive media grows beyond simply shooting and fighting and begins to realize it’s potential as a means to experience more than we can in our own skin.