Could it be time to abandon the word ‘videogame’ altogether?

Steven Poole is an author and regular Edge columnist. Illustration by Marsh Davies.

Recently, I had an illuminating Twitter discussion with some eminent writer colleagues and the lexicographer Kory Stamper about whether you should write ‘videogame’ as one word or ‘video game’ as two. I have long argued that the former is preferable, since these things are not just ‘games’ that happen to have a ‘video’ component, but a new fusion of genera that is more than the sum of its parts. After rummaging in some databases, Stamper told us that, though ‘video game’ is still more common in US English, ‘videogame’ is gaining ground globally. Excellent! But later I started thinking: could it be time to abandon the word ‘videogame’ altogether?

Think of all the damage the word has done. The uninformed think it sounds trivial and silly. Aficionados get sucked into the sterile stand-off between ‘narratologists’ and ‘ludologists’, or feel obliged to contribute to the millions of hapless words that have already been devoted to the attempt to define a ‘game’ – as if Ludwig Wittgenstein hadn’t demonstrated adequately in his Philosophical Investigations that a single definition of ‘game’ that encompasses all the things we call games is impossible. It has also given us the unlovely derivative ‘gamer’, which doesn’t even make sense by analogy to other artforms (if I read books, I am not a ‘booker’), and also imports the unfortunate sense of ‘to game’ as in ‘to cheat’.

Edge itself does not speak of videogames in its cover strapline but of ‘interactive entertainment’. I’ve always admired this formulation as politely but polemically inclusive (yes, these things are entertainment as much as movies are), but it’s probably too much of a mouthful for the everyday name of a whole medium.

Imagine you are sitting, as we currently say, playing a game, and someone asks you “What are you doing?” To say “Playing a game” would be the same kind of annoyingly uninformative answer as to answer “What are you reading?” with “A book”. It also implies to most ears a certain kind of frivolity, despite thousands of references, in my own book Trigger Happy and ever since, to Johann Huizinga’s argument in Homo Ludens about the cultural preeminence of play.

More importantly, the description “I’m playing a game” today just fails to honour the amazing complexity and sophistication of these artefacts. When I recently spent several joyous hours with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, I wasn’t “playing a game”. I was sneaking through goddamn Guantánamo Bay like a gun-toting bandana-wearing ninja and rescuing as many prisoners as I could.

Does the word ‘videogame’ do today’s cutting edge interactive entertainment true justice?

So what about the term ‘simulation’? It’s not a new option, of course. Writers have long used it to denote various types of game, or to compliment certain games on their depth. But I think it’s a more viable and accurate universal term now, with its connotations of complexity and the rigorous engineering of a modelled dreamworld, than it was back in the day when something like SimCity was a groundbreaking dynamic collection of interlinked feedback processes, or even further back, when Elite or Lords Of Midnight implied uncannily vast spaces. ‘Simulation’ is also usefully more general than ‘simulator’, which I take to mean an accurate-ish model of something that really exists (for example, a flight simulator). A simulation is just a computer-mediated world of any kind. Like a ‘videogame’, right?

Should we even continue to say that there is something central that MGSV:GZ and, say, Candy Crush Saga have in common? Sure, they are both ‘interactive’, but so is a website or a smartphone (and, in a wider sense, so is all art). Well, Candy Crush is a money-grubbing toy, a kind of elaborate computerised fruit machine, but it is still a simulation – of an invented mechanism. And Ground Zeroes or Heavy Rain or The Last of Us are simulations too, but of vastly deeper and more complex sets of nested mechanisms.

The desirable rhetorical difference, I suggest, is that calling them all ‘games’ or ‘videogames’ tends to drag the MGSes down to the level of the Candy Crushes. Conversely, calling them all ‘simulations’ pays due respect to the most sophisticated works, and issues a challenge to the littler ones to demonstrate greater formal ingenuity and beauty. It’s not as though there is no precedent for changing the name of a young medium. Perhaps one day, the term ‘videogame’ will sound as antiquated as ‘moving pictures’, and then no one will have to argue about whether it’s one word or two ever again.