When is a game not a game? It’s an interesting question. Unfortunately it’s a question that usually takes the form of accusations that are thrown at things calling themselves video games. I’m not sure why people feel the need to do this. It’s possible they are attempting to undermine something that they don’t like, although I’m sure that’s not it – the internet is such a friendly place after all.

I first came into contact with “That’s not a game!” syndrome when writing about Proteus. Developed by Ed Key with music composed by David Kanaga, Proteus is a game in which you wander around a randomly generated island, chock-full of interesting landmarks and object generated music. The seasons change as you progress through different iterations of the island (and possibly move it forward in time?). Not-gamists became so vocal that Ed Key actually felt he had to defend its status as a game. Also the affirmation that article makes about academia in games is, to put it bluntly,  plain stupid.

Countless other things (better not call them “games” otherwise I might upset… oh sod it) games have also come under fire for daring to create something that doesn’t involve shooting another thing until it falls over. Here is a short list provided by our own Chris Higgins:


As you can see from the list it pretty much boils down to games that attempt to approach a situation in any way other than the broadly accepted solutions offered by the dominant genres (platformers, FPS, third-person RPG etc.) which are generally distilled into: shoot the thing/jump over the thing/stealth past the thing. It should be obvious to most that these accusations are pretty ridiculous, especially since many of the above games definitely fall under the category of “adventure game” so, y’know, under those rules Monkey Island isn’t a game either. And we all know how the internet feels about Monkey Island. [Cue the romantic montage]

However, even though these claims are obviously ridiculous, they’re still being made. It seems as if when defending individual games isn’t working, people will just move on to the next (ugh) non-game or anti-game.

So here’s a general defence of this sort of thing… from 1944, now shut up.

Think about the ‘gamification’ games like Zombies, Run! which simply pop a framework around a mundane task in order to help motivate users by bringing out the element of play in those tasks. If we can turn going for a run into a game, then why would you accuse a game about exploring a mysterious island, such as Dear Esther, of not being a game?

Homo Ludens, in which Johan Huizinga looked at the idea of play and its effect on human culture, is that defence. I’m not going to go into huge detail, read it yourself if you want to (that link has the entire PDF – hosted by Yale, so it’s legit don’t worry). But to very broadly sum up: he shows that culture, and society in general, is founded on the concept of play. Creatures cannot help but play, and play in poetry/music etc. is a concept which has been shown in cultures which have no possibility of cross-communication. For example, he notes that using a musical instrument is described as “playing” in both Arabic and Germanic/Slavonic languages: languages which developed independently of one another.

Basically what I’m getting at is that if humanity can find play in anything, and the action of play is known as a game, then everything is a game.

Oh, but these “games” have no point, why would you play something like Proteus when you can’t win it? There’s no score, you don’t get a cake at the end, you just exist in it and have a bit of a look around. Well my counter-point would be: just because the game itself doesn’t provide you with an objective doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Experiencing the game is a form of play. Lego doesn’t rate your creation after you’ve built it, but that’s certainly a toy you play with. Similarly Minecraft, even before the Ender Dragon and the Wither were implemented, was never accused of not being a game.

If you don’t like a game, if you think it’s too artsy or pretentious or whatever, then that’s fine. Say that. Don’t try and undermine the entire thing by accusing it of not being a game. As I hope I (and Johan Huizinga) have shown, that argument is ridiculous and stupid; using it makes you ridiculous and stupid.

About The Author


Ben is pretty damned nerdy. If he isn't playing video games, then he's probably rolling some dice to hit goblins and thugs or designing, running and crewing a host of LARP systems. He lives in Brighton, because it's nice there. You can follow him on twitter @benrlmeredith

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  • The real problem I see with “not-games” is they are doing something new, and I bet most people who level that “criticism” haven’t even played the games. Which what is crazy is understandable because it really isn’t easy to just try out a game. It isn’t like music where it can just be listened to for free any number of ways, and it isn’t like film which you can find plenty of free stuff on television…

    And even if you have a free service for playing games, many new games are huge, and cannot be streamed, and I only have experience with Sony’s PSN but there is absolutely no information on there promoting the games. Then if you play the games on your PC, assuming your PC can play them, it probably isn’t wise to trust every program you download from everywhere. I don’t know if Steam has free demos like PSN sometimes does or not, but I feel like most people probably wouldn’t even suffer the hassle of setting up the demo to try a new kind of game that they had to decide to buy or not.

    I feel like un-games to catch on probably need a few things in their corner: A non-commercial media format, like music and movies have that isn’t a software that can execute on your computer and do god knows what to it. Especially if we are talking about self publishing; Said format needs to be good at streaming content so that you only download as much as the game as you’ve played into it; And probably the games would do much better if they were just free, and said after you finish playing them, donate however much money you felt like it was worth to you, plus however much it means to you for the team to keep making more games like the one you just enjoyed.

    We are incredibly shortsighted. If you believe your game will make all of its money around its release, then what you are really making is a marketing scheme, and you’re probably not even a marketer. If you think your game is actually good, then people should be playing it and patronizing the game for at least a century! Why do games on GOG.com cost nothing? That doesn’t even make sense. If people are playing those games when do they have time to play the new pricier games? Why can’t we think long term and quit trying to dupe audiences to bait them into playing some shiny new thing because they don’t know anything else exists? So last I guess you need data centers to deliver the streamed content. Maybe something like bittorrent failing all else (if the content of games were mostly shared resources delivery would be less of an issue, if totally free unlimited bandwidth isn’t in the future)

    I am BTW working on such a media format and content delivery system. It’s called SOM after From Software’s Sword of Moonlight JRPG walking-simulator maker. It’s totally free public domain. Link’s in the profile.