Defining Games

I found the discussion on Episode 15 of the Big Red Potion podcast fascinating. Sinan, Joe and their two guests were attempting to come up with a definition of what a “video game” is. They weren’t saying that this was a necessary or even particularly worthwhile endeavour, but rather (as with many Big Red Potion episodes) just using it as a good excuse for an intelligent conversation about gaming.

It got me thinking about how I’d personally define what a video game is. I suppose, like Big Red Potion, I should start by thinking of a good definition of a “game”.

For me, a game is ‘play’ within the boundaries of rules. These rules could be agreed beforehand by the participants, exist already as part of their shared culture or arise and develop organically through the action of play.

A football on its own isn’t a game. It’s a toy. You can certainly play with it. You can kick it against a wall, bounce it on your head or dribble it around on the ground. But your interaction with the ball only becomes a game if you start to set goals or challenges for yourself. If, for example, you decide to repeatedly kick it against the wall or see how long you can bounce it on your head.

Just like a football, we could regard a collection of action figures as toys that can become components of a game if you play with them in a more structured way. For example through re-enacting or creating a narrative.

The introduction of a second participant automatically turns free play into a game because you need a set of regulations to govern the way you will interact with the toy. You need a shared vocabulary to define the specifics of your play together.

Even without actual physical toys or props, a group of children exploring a story in a playground quickly develop a set of rules for acceptable play. Roles are allocated, boundaries are set and the path of the narrative is dictated by the dominate members of the group.

So that’s my attempt at a definition of a “game”. Let’s try “video game”. I guess that a natural definition would be “a game played using an electronic device such as a console or computer”. How well does that description fit with some of the more unique or unusual titles out there, though?

One of the interesting examples mentioned in the Big Red Potion discussion was Noby Noby Boy, a pretty experimental title produced by Katamari creator Keita Takahashi for the Playstation Network. You could argue that Noby Noby Boy is a toy rather than a game, or rather that it was originally designed as a toy.

You can stretch and contract your avatar, in a manner similar to Play-Doh or Plasticine, moving it around the digital landscape free from the shackles of objectives and goals. The enjoyment was meant to come from experimentation, from creating your own amusement however two things spoil this pure play experience. One of which seems to have been a design decision, the other was imposed thanks to current Sony policy.

The first game-like intrusion into Takahashi’s toybox is the community target. Individual players are awarded points for how far they stretch their avatar. These scores can be submitted online and the cumulative total dictates how long the community avatar Noby Noby Girl stretches. The combined efforts of players worldwide cause Girl to stretch across the in-game solar system, with new play environments unlocked for all players when she reaches different planets.

Rather ironically perhaps, the second element that disrupts the pure play experience of Noby Noby Boy is the inclusion of Sony’s trophy system. Trophies add concrete objectives and targets to the game and allow some players to get to the point where they can say the experience has been “completed”. I don’t think that was Takahashi’s original intention.

Of course, any definition of video games does start to creak a little bit when you start to look at some of the stranger titles like Noby Noby Boy or some of the newer, community driven titles that are appearing on the market.

Take for example, Little Big Planet. How much of that is a game? Well, a fair amount obviously, as the platforming levels of the story mode are video gaming in its purist form.  But arguably half of that title is more of a creative software application than a game, a set of tools for constructing your own levels. Also consider Forza 2 which is, at its core, a fairly straightforward racing game but for a small number of people it’s nothing more than a painting package. Their only interaction with the software is to create custom liveries for cars.

If the lines between player and creator become blurred, through games like this, with some people playing games as gamers and others as creators then video games will quickly outgrow the terms we currently use to describe them. Maybe, the problem is not the definition of “video game” but the fact that it’s the wrong term to use to encompass all the software we would now consider to live under that umbrella.

Maybe the term “video game” is just too old and out of date? The medium has gone beyond the individual definitions of those two component words. How about we use “interactive entertainment software” instead? Okay, I know it’s not quite as short and snappy as “video games”. Oh, and don’t ask me to define it, either.

Anyway, those are my quick, incoherent thoughts on the matter. Why not download episode 15 of Big Red Potion, hear some slightly more focused opinions and join in the discussion yourself?

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3 Responses to “Defining Games”

  1. I agree with you entirely. The landscape of gaming is too broad now for there to be a set definition.

    The fact that Tetris, Grand Theft Auto, and something like Noby Noby can be thrown together under the “video game” label is strange, yet somehow comforting that there are so many different experiences to be had within this industry that we all know and love.

    I think that the definition would have to include interactivity, rules, and audiovisual stimulation, but thats about it. Everything else is different on a case-by-case basis.

  2. Just properly caught up with this post, and I really enjoyed it, thankyou Strident. I think that’s a great, overall point – the collective term “video game” is used too broadly, and is indeed out of date in so many ways.

  3. […] pointing you in the direction of stuff, do please check out previous BRP guest StridentUK’s piece based on our recent game-defining episode. Gareth makes some great points regards the broad […]

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