This is the second entry in a series where I use the trigon theory of video games and the Critical-Language established on this blog over the last five years to better understand fellow gamers and designers. The articles I have selected not only present interesting points of view, but the manner in which these views are expressed, the actual words used are particularly rich. When I read anyone's words or encounter their works of expression, I generally use a fine-toothed critical-eye. I know no other way to take expression seriously. Though writers may not be conscious of it, every word and every utterance in their expression says something.
The text we'll be examining for this article is What Are Games by Ed creator of Proteus. This article was written in response to this Gamasutra article titled Opinion: It's totally OK to not like 'anti-games' as well as comments from the Steam user forums like these.
I find this rather burdensome to write, but it feels necessary to set out my thoughts given recent rumblings, and specifically to respond to this article and its comments.
I don’t call Proteus an antigame* or a notgame. I call it a game, but obviously I am at pains to make it clear that it doesn’t have explicit challenge or “winning.”
The conflict that Ed wrestles with centers around the difficulty of expression and communication, two efforts that are made more challenging because of the inherent complexity of video games coupled with the lacking language within our industry and culture overall. According to my trigon theory, the three main ways we view games are each set in opposition to each other. This inherent clash in what we value in video games is powered by a clash of ideals. And these ideals crash in the many conversations we have in our gaming discourse as we try to communicate with each other and express ourselves. Without a clear language, it's impossible to clearly communicate what you feel about video games (at least deeply moving or complex games). Video games are just too complicated. Self expression, clear communication, and listening are important to culture and we should not take such efforts lightly.
And so we have Ed who is burdened and in "pains" from both trying to express himself through Proteus and attempting to address the discourse around Proteus through his written defense. And right at the top of his response he addresses a familiar yet important point of tension; what is a game. As I've explained in my series The Verdict on Video Games, there are two popular meanings for the word game. One is a rule based system with at least one goal or goal like structure where the player exerts effort in order to influence the game state toward a quantifiable, system determined outcome. (More on what games are in my series A Defense of Gameplay). Then there's the much broader, and in my experience, much more problematic, definition that is not very descriptive at all. The second definition of game includes any experience that is minimally interactive. Even when applied to digital products, this broad definition of game applies to everything from interactive screen savers, music visualizers, DVD menus, and 3D spaces.
Ed uses the more general definition. We'll see throughout the rest of this critique how his understanding and communicative ability is shaped by this one decision.
If you want to narrow your definition of “game” for purposes of academic study or personal taste, then that’s fine, but the vagueness of the term itself has been around as long as things that we call games. “Snakes and Ladders” is my favourite example of this inconsistency: it involves no decision making and therefore is well outside of many of the stricter definitions, but clearly is a boardgame as far as society is concerned. More recently, videogames like The Sims and SimCity are also “not games” according to some.
Ed seems to have a bias against "academic study," which attempts to understand and clarify through structured language, theory, and procedures. I find it odd how Ed and others seem to think that academic or intellectual pursuits are fundamentally different from the efforts of the average person. As we saw in my critique of Tevis Thompson's article We Are Explorers In Search of Mystery, Ed also firmly pushes back against what he thinks are the goals of academic study. This is not an issue of academics versus "normal" gamers. Both sides are "in search of" ways to better understand, better enjoy, and better express themselves about video games. Both value games and gamers, and both work in support of these things, though in very different ways.
If I had to pick a side to make a point, I say the "academic" side is really the only side that's making serious progress in pushing the gaming industry and culture closer to deeper understanding and clearer communication. It's the people, like me, who look closely at what's being said at all levels of the gaming discourse, attempt to create terms, and present ideas to help us untangle our feelings and ideas. And for those who really study language, we know how language morphs and evolves over time. We're aware that terms often lose their exacting, descriptive quality as more and more people use terms. It's natural that words change over time as people use and misuse these word-tools to express themselves. But let's not lose sight of the ultimate purpose of these tools.
The obvious truth is the more we bend the meaning of words and terms, the harder it will be to communicate precisely with them. If game means everything from the strict Jesper Juul definition to the broad anything-goes definition, then supporting such a lack of fundamental specificity will tend to cause greater communication problems down the line. This is where the gaming discourse is currently.
In Critical-Casts Ep3: Trigon B-Side my friend Matt Fairchild explains that the way the populous expresses itself isn't ever wrong. And in the gamer-to-developer relationship, it's the job of savvy community managers to work at the necessary translation, converting what players say, weigh these desires against what they need, and convey this information to developers. While this system works for many game development studios, the scale that I focus on is much larger. Every part of the gaming discourse needs help communicating, with the largest group being gamer-to-gamer and even gamer-to-nongamer.
So it doesn't matter how many fringe examples you can find where game has been applied to things that fall outside of the incredibly clear Jesper Juul definition (referred to simply as "game" on this blog). It doesn't matter if "snakes and ladders" or slot machines are called games. It doesn't help if we're arrested to broad labels like "boardgames" or focus on how how these labels are applied to many different kinds of products. And it's not insightful to do a ctrl+f for the word "game" and try to extract some kind of meaning directly from whatever you find. "Society" doesn't have a concern in this case, only an emergent nature. The way language evolves is emergent and chaotic. We're looking for order and clarity, so we must move toward the more narrow definition of game.
Snakes and Ladders is an activity, not a game from my understanding. Without "decision making" or any kind of player choice, it's really no different than following the instructions to build a Lego set or simply rolling a dice to see if you win or lose. And yes, games like The Sims and SimCity are better categorized as simulations than games. Depending on the version and the mode you play in, there may not be any gameplay. And only having a strict definition makes this statement clear.
The stricter the definition of an inherently nebulous concept, the more absurd the implications. Should Dear Esther and Proteus be excluded from stores that sell games? Not covered in the games press? Since Sim City is either a toy or a simulation, that should be excluded too, along with flight simulators.
Are all comics “comical?” Meanings are fluid. Most of the words we use don’t mean what they originally meant – that’s just how everyday language works.
I don't think Ed understands how language works and what should be the focus of gamers in support of a stronger gaming culture. Even if we want to go with a very broad or "nebulous" definition of "game," we would still need a more strict definition to precisely talk about the games that only fall into that more narrow category. And make no mistake, there are tons of games that fall into this category. In fact, I'd say most video games do. And it's important to be able to communicate the different experiences these kinds of interactive products produce.
It doesn't make sense to bring in so many outside considerations to prove a point about language. Gamestop and other games stores sell non-gaming products like headphones, dvds, point cards, and other accessories, which means that even if Proteus was universally accepted as a non-game it could still be sold in such stores. Likewise, the gaming press covers many products that are related to digital interactive entertainment like TVs, simulations, new gaming hardware, and yes, non-games like Electroplankton and Pixel Junk 4AM. In fact, Pixel Junk 4AM (a non-game, music product) got more reviews from the gaming press than the downloadable 3DS game Aero Porter.
The mistake people often make in defense of retaining vague terminology is that they tacitly believe forming strict definitions will somehow directly translate into immediate and exclusionary action in the real world. As if calling Proteus a non-game would instantly take it off of Steam and off of gaming websites. To be clear, semantic and language issues like this are primarily and almost entirely concerned with communication and understanding, not with taking action.
It's fun to take a moment and consider that not all comic (books) are comical (light hearted). It's also fun to consider why we drive in a parkway and park in a driveway. Yes, language has its quirks. But once the terms are set and definitions are made, we can operate within our colorful quirks and use language to be very precise. It's nothing new that the words we use have more than one meaning. We use context and modifiers in language to be more precise and eliminate as much ambiguity and nebulousness as we can. Yes, as Kieron Gillen says in the article linked in the quote above, "the name 'game' is always going to confuse people," but this isn't because of the history by which "game" was formed; it's because people aren't clear when they communicate, education is universally tough, and because video games are complicated.
In part 2, we'll wrap up this critique.