Joe Parlock is an opinionated YouTuber, streamer, twitter addict and occasional writer from the British midlands with 2+ years of experience and a passion for being a general grump about games. Starting out roughly 15 years ago with a Sega Megadrive and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, his favourite genres of games includes platformers, stealth, fighting, roguelites and the budding survival sim genre. Joe’s also a fan of comics (particularly X-Men) and animated films.

Lo and behold, the age-old discussion of “what is a game?” has erupted again, thanks to a video by Errant Signal on Silverstring Media’s Glitchhikers. Glitchhikers features minimal player interaction or gameplay mechanics; the player simply partakes in conversations with the hitchhikers they’ve picked up on a long, dark road. Due to the very limited control the player has, akin to more a choose-your-own adventure book or a visual novel than a traditional video game, and the lack of any defined ways to win or lose, Glitchhikers ultimately sparked the debate of what is and what isn’t a game once again.  Errant Signal’s video on it then spurred popular YouTube critic TotalBiscuit to release a video titled “In defence of specific definitions.”

In this video, TotalBiscuit argues the case that having a specific definition of what a game is is an important thing for the purposes of consumer protection and critique – coverage of something that is not a game could cause consumers to buy something they were not expecting, and so by defining something as not being a game it allows them to have an idea of what to expect from their purchase. He defines a game as a piece of media that has an explicit or implicit fail-state; if you can lose, it is a game.

glitchhikers

I believe while this is a fair enough definition, if a bit restricting and somewhat arbitrary; TotalBiscuit’s own definition of a game does not actually fit the classical game theory definition of a game, and ‘what is a game’ is a topic that has been debated long before video games existed. However, every time the debate of “what is a game?” comes up I always want more people to ask “why does it matter?” Does it actually matter if the ‘thing’ we’re talking about is classified as a traditional “game”? Why should I care that Gone Home isn’t considered a game when Monkey Island is?

I believe that the debate really is irrelevant with the massive abundance of independently made, downloadable games. We live in a world of Itch.io, Indie bundles, and Steam Greenlight. “Games” are not just constrained by what comes in a box or through a publisher any more.  Now more than ever, these games, be they games or “not-games”, are accessed through the same avenues – there is no physical difference in buying Dear Esther, Sonic Adventure 2 or Dead Island on Steam for example, despite them being three very different games. Furthermore, I think defining something as “not a game” is a dangerous distinction to make for future development of the “not-game” genre and of the medium of games in general.

Games and “not-games” all use the same avenues for release and go through the same channels of critique – “games” are built using the exact same tools as “not-games” – Unity, RPG Maker, Twine etc. are all capable of making both a “game” and a “not-game”, depending on the developer’s design choices. This then means all get released through storefronts such as Steam or Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network – again, regardless of if they are a game or a “not-game”, they are all released together. All of these games or “not-games” have coverage from the same sorts of websites, streamers and YouTube channels. They’re all packaged and released in the same format, regardless of if it is a first-person shooter or a dating sim or a “walking simulator”.

Ultimately the difference between what is a game and what is a “not-game” is only in subtle changes to the mechanics. If it looks like a game, is sold like a game, runs like a game, and is discussed in gaming circles or press,  it’s not a stretch to call it a game regardless of what it is actually about or what mechanics are part of that experience.

Proteus-2013-01-04-[96;uP;uB

Additionally, I also feel that using strict, rigid definitions of “games” damages the worth and existence of “not-games.” In his video, TotalBiscuit pointed out that something not being a game is not inherently a bad thing, and while that is technically true I tend to disagree. Not every piece of software can even be likened to a game in any way – email clients are not games, for example. However, the overlap between “game” and “not-game” is so tenuous and vague, and promulgating something as “not a game” pushes that work out of the focus of the “gaming community.”

By saying something is “not-a-game”, it can also be inferred that what is also being said is “and so shouldn’t be discussed here.” Many of the developers of these “not-games” are independent and so rely on the press and the discussions of the “community” for them to find players or even success; Gone Home would not have been noticed had it been brushed under the rug for being “not a game”, neither would Proteus or Dear Esther.

If we accept these pieces of work as not being “games”, we’re also accepting they’re not relevant to gaming discussions or press, or relevant to discussion forums or gaming subreddits, or gaming livestreams and YouTube channels. We’re relegating these “interactive experiences” to something lesser and unworthy of note in the only space they could reasonably fit, which is an absolute shame in my opinion.

Just because you cannot lose in these “not-games” doesn’t mean they can’t be a source of unique experiences or pieces that deal with themes that other genres of games simply cannot. It does not make the “not-games” superior, but it would be a shame to lose them for the sake of precise definitions that wind up narrowing a concept as abstract as a “game”.

About The Author

Founding Member

Laura’s gaming journey began in the 90′s when she was given a SNES by her older brother with Mario paint. From that day video games were all she thought about day or night, be it playing them, designing them, discussing them or writing about them. Why does she want to write about indie games? Because indie devs are awesome and she wants to be their new best friend by telling them how terrible their games are. That’s how it works right? Twitter: @LauraKBuzz Email: Laurak@indiehaven.com

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  • Courtney’s dad

    Completely agreed. I can only speak as one player/dev/sometime-commentator but to me the main damage of this debate is that the games which are declared “not games” would otherwise be “exciting new ground for games”. It’s not like these definitions are objective observations anyway, just shifting cultural decisions of where we draw the line. The drive to disqualify these avant-garde games is, to my mind, an active effort to stop the medium evolving or changing in controversial directions, either by punitively disqualifying the games themselves or stymying their influence on other developers. It seems selfish and petty to decide that the game medium should stop evolving and expanding just because it already does what you personally want it to, denying the new audiences and new experiences the medium could gain from experimentation and denying developers an expanded set of tools through which to express themselves.

  • I consider something a game if a person can spend time interacting with it (not just looking at it) without necessarily making real-world progress. For example, programs on a computer that accomplish goals relating to hobbies, jobs, etc? Those aren’t games. Drawing pictures for fun isn’t a game, but it does accomplish real-world progress – you get practice at something that you may share with others, or which you may get paid for at some point. Going through “Dear Esther” or “The Mountain” doesn’t accomplish anything except distracting you for a while, and it does provide interaction, even if it’s limited. Entertainment is entertainment. I don’t understand why these questions are even an issue, except for the fact that folks seem to think being elitist is somehow “revolutionary.”

    Of course, I’m in the same boat, hobby-wise (and professionally, I suppose) as Parlock, so maybe I’m a bit biased.

  • Fargus Fakeaccount

    I see your point, but you emphasize the fact that we need to call these things games, because otherwise they wouldn’t get noticed. That is very backwards. These interactive experiences are only remotely games because of the shared technology with games. It’s like recording a concert and calling it a movie. But of course these types of interactive experiences should have their own corners as games have theirs.

    • Courtney’s dad

      “Concert movies” are exactly what those are called though?

  • This is merely a verbal conundrum. With interactive media you suddenly have a much wider spectrum of potential labels. If we had convenient four letter words for each of these kinds of media there wouldn’t even be a discussion to be had. Game isn’t even a good word to begin with. There are probably other world languages that don’t even have to deal with this just because they have more or fewer old world words to work with. If you can have 50 words for snow and 40 words for love, we can stand to broaden our lexicon a little bit towards games. My favorite is “walking-simulator”…

    Let’s call these walks or walkabouts or something. At the end of the day the only games I am really interested in are walkies. I wouldn’t mind if a website covered walkies to the exclusion of all else.

  • VeryImportantQuestion

    I recently listened to an episode of ‘game is a four letter word’ about the question “what is a video game”. Towards the end there’s an interview with Chris Bateman (game design expert and philosopher) where he talks about the idea of ‘play’ being a state of mind rather than a clearly defined activity. I can’t remember the exact words used off the top of my head, so I strongly encourage people to listen to it themselves.

    Personally I like that idea because it puts the focus on the person’s reaction and feelings about something rather than what the ‘thing’ is. Given that it’s all escapism, it feels kind of pointless to focus on anything other than whether or not it served as a decent distraction.