What does it mean to be a game?

You probably play videogames. In fact, you’re likely to be deeply familiar with the form. But are you prepared to attempt a working definition of the term? You might even make them, but can you describe them?

When Sid Meier described a game as “a series of interesting decisions”, he wasn’t the first or last to attempt to linguistically pin down this slippery concept. His definition makes workable sense, assuming you arrive at the table with a suitably elastic understanding of the words ‘interesting’ and ‘decision’.

Meier’s definition certainly captures the experience of playing SimCity, or even The Walking Dead, but does something like Super Hexagon really contain a series of choices? It’s a game with one decision – to rotate the cursor clockwise or anticlockwise – repeated ad infinitum, and the interesting part of the game is not making the decision but trying to successfully carry it out. In a sense, Super Hexagon bypasses decision making altogether and operates on a reflexive level below choice. You can tuck Terry Cavanagh’s game under the edges of Meier’s broad umbrella if you so wish, but it’s emblematic of a whole school of game design for which the ‘series of interesting decisions’ label doesn’t quite fit. Meier’s definition is enduringly popular, but it’s far from the only attempt to define what makes a game. It is, however, one of the few attempts to distil games to their essence that entirely avoids using the word ‘rules’. In a keynote speech presented to the Level Up conference in Utrecht in 2003, Jesper Juul proposed a definition of ‘game’ that, frankly, is a bit exhausting, composed as it is of six discrete criteria. First on the list, however, was that games have rules.

For a less academic example of this philosophy put into practice we can turn to independent designer Anna Anthropy, whose book Rise Of The Videogame Zinesters contains within its opening pages the following definition: “a game conveys what it’s like to experience [its] subject as a system of rules”. Now this comes with a caveat, in that Anthropy is talking about games as an artform specifically, but it’s interesting to note how well a game like Super Hexagon fits the “system of rules” part of the definition. It’s rules are so transparently clear – if the cursor touches anything, you’ve failed – that they make “avoid missing ball for high score” seem positively convoluted.

One man who’s spent more time than he’d probably have liked in recent months pondering the definition of a game is Ed Key, whose beautiful, meditative Proteus has inspired precisely the kind of frothing, rabid response you wouldn’t have expected in relation to a title about going for a walk around an impressionistic island. The most popular thread on the game’s Steam forum is, at the time of writing, “Buyer beware: This is not a game!” the author of which sadly fails to provide their own definition of the term.

“I think this has focused my mind on some things,” admits Key. “I think there’s a certain aspect of the word ‘game’ linked to the word ‘gamer’ – the Steam audience – and I get the feeling that there’s a more conservative trend, post-achievements and all that stuff, where people want validation.

“Something I’ve realised about Proteus is that, well, it doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s not even particularly clear if there’s an ending to it. I think that doesn’t sit well with some people. They want the classic clichéd Call Of Duty thing, where you’re following a guy with an arrow and you’ve got to make the numbers go up. These conventions make people more comfortable, knowing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

Proteus’s detractors, then, seem to feel that the game fails to provide a system of rules and the associated clearly defined failure and success states that will guide and measure their playing of it. It’s telling that the author of the Steam thread cites “no objectives” as one of his major complaints.

Of course, Proteus isn’t the first title to spark this debate. Dan Pinchbeck’s Dear Esther caused a flurry of discussion last year, while only a few months ago Tomorrow Corporation’s Little Inferno frustrated fans of its creators’ work by being noticeably less ‘gamey’ than World Of Goo. But what exactly is the problem here? All these experiences have their advocates, yet seem to attract a throng of bitterly disappointed players who feel they’ve been misled as to the nature of the work they were paying for. In short, are developers like Key and Pinchbeck misusing language in their attempts to describe and sell their work, or is it language failing both developers and players?

“There’s no consensus of any sort on what ‘game’ means,” argues Adrian Chmielarz, ex-People Can Fly creative director and a co-founder of indie studio The Astronauts. “There are people who will give you a definition as understood like 15, 20 years ago: ‘There has to be a winner, a loser…’ and so on. It started changing with Sid Meier’s definition. [That helped me] start looking at the definition of ‘game’ from a slightly different perspective.”

The problem with ‘game’ is that it’s used by both traditional designers and those making experimental projects. Does it follow that arguments are inevitable as long as Gears Of War and Proteus go by the same moniker?

“You know, words change their meaning,” responds Chmielarz. “‘Film’ meant the material: a roll of film. But now, when we say ‘film’, we mean the movie. So the same thing can easily happen to ‘videogame’ or ‘game’. When we say ‘game’, we can mean Doom or any oldschool game where there is a clear winner, a clear ending, or you die. Or we can mean any form of interactive experience that you enjoy. I mean, from my friends I’ve heard all kinds of proposals, like: ‘Let’s stop calling them games, let’s call them ludos.’ This is just one of the proposals. Ultimately, I think we’re stuck with game; we’re going to be calling them ‘game’, we’ll just mean more things by it. We’re not slaves to the language; language should be a slave to us.”

The process of words changing their meaning over time – termed semantic shift, since we’re being precise – probably will result in ‘game’ becoming generally perceived as a much broader term. There are precedents, after all. Chmielarz’s example of ‘film’ is a strong one, but Key provides a second example. “‘Comics’ is an interesting one,” he argues. “They were originally called comics because they weremeant to be funny, but then people started doing different things with the form. But they’re still called comics.” The word ‘comic’ never lost its association with humour, of course, but nowadays no one hears the phrase ‘comic book’ and presumes that the contents are meant to be funny.

Crucially, however, semantic shift is a hard process to control. In politics, words can and have been reclaimed: the gay rights movement successfully wrested back ‘queer’, for instance. But even then the process isn’t always a success, and it’s unlikely that an attempt to hurry along the semantic shift of the word ‘game’ would muster a similar groundswell of impassioned support (and the associated catchy chants) that helped shift queer’s meaning. For similar reasons, attempts to rename what we currently consider to be games or popularise alternate terms will struggle, not least because everyone would have to agree on what they’re replacing ‘game’ with first. Chmielarz, for instance, is comfortable with ‘experience’ to define interactive works devoid of overt rules and goals. But Key is not: “I can see where people are coming from with that, and why people say Proteus is an ‘experiential’ game,” he acknowledges, “but it seems an empty word.” Without a consensus, no one is going to be able to force a semantic shift.

Besides, people like Ian Bogost, an academic at The Georgia Institute Of Technology and a game designer, don’t see the point of alternatives. “Is ‘movie’ a stupid term?” he argues. “Sure, but we use it anyway. Words connote, but mostly they denote. Corn is corn. Toasters are toasters. It’s not a big deal.” In the meantime, Bogost’s personal definition of game, “a thing that participates in the conversation about what a game is” is intentionally vague.

The comic book industry did, however, manage to popularise ‘graphic novel’ as an alternative to ‘comic’ when it was going through a crisis of definition. ‘Graphic novel’ provided a useful means of presenting works such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus to the outside world, free from associations of fortnightly superhero stories. Tellingly, however, the distinction between a graphic novel and a comic book remains fuzzy, and plenty of authors still dismiss the term as needlessly pretentious. Gaming’s issue with labels is less about external perception, anyway, and more about settling upon an agreed upon definition of what a ‘game’ is in the first place.

But even if we trust that issue to resolve itself in time and wait for the word ‘game’ to be hollowed out until it brings with it no immediate associations of rules, winners, losers, goals, objectives and fail states, that doesn’t mean the wider language of gaming is ready to accommodate the expanding nature of the experiences that developers are providing. Terms such as ‘mechanic’ and ‘system’ refer to the content of games in language that makes their machine code origins overt. Words such as ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ seek to define two sides of an increasingly blurred divide. Meanwhile, complimentary terms such as ‘immersive’ and ‘artistic’ are used frequently, but is there any consensus on what people mean by them?

These questions are more important than they might seem, especially if you’re a proponent of linguistic relativity, the idea that language can shape thoughts rather than merely express them. If that’s true (and current academic consensus is that it is at least partially so) then the words that designers and developers use to think about games will, to some extent, shape the way they think about the games they’re creating.

The Astronauts is currently working on its debut title, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter. A mystery-themed horror game, Ethan Carter sees you playing “as a detective with the supernatural ability to visualise scenes of lethal crimes, investigating the kidnapping of a young boy”. There will be no combat, and the focus will instead be on exploration. “We’re not abandoning the gameplay,” said Chmielarz in Ethan Carter’s first press release, “on the contrary: we’re trying to strip it down to the bone and make sure it’s always meaningful.” Now why would he feel the need to say that?

In November, Chmielarz posted an entry on The Astronaut’s blog titled Why We Need To Kill Gameplay To Make Better Games, and naturally found himself embroiled in a series of comment thread and forum arguments as a result. Lurking a few paragraphs beneath the provocative title, however, was Chmielarz’s fairly modest partial definition of gameplay: “something that a challenge is a crucial part of”. With this in mind, we can see that what The Astronauts really wants to remove in Ethan Carter are skillbased interactions with fail states. For Chmielarz, it’s all about being in a world.

“I think that games which have an old-school definition of gameplay – Tetris or Bejewelled or Angry Birds – they’re all great and I play a lot of those,” acknowledges Chmielarz. “But the thing that excites me is actually a simulation of another world, where you don’t really have endings that are better than one another, you just have alternatives, or you can just be in that world… Like in Skyrim, you can just be in Skyrim, just hanging around. Or the really famous one is GTA, just driving a car in GTA, [and] just cruising around listening to the radio. That’s just an experience. Is that ‘gameplay’?”

Either way, Chmielarz’s definition of gameplay would clearly imply that games such as Proteus and Dear Esther, as well as more overtly experimental (and mechanically complex) titles such as Tale Of Tales’ Bientôt L’été, don’t actually contain any. These games certainly aren’t devoid of interactions, however. They even contain loops that are arguably game mechanics (movement triggers sound in both Proteus and Dear Esther – the island’s environmental noises in the former and scraps of narration in the latter). Yet they are devoid of challenge, or any impediments to player immersion. To phrase this more controversially: they’re not very hardcore.

‘Casual’ and ‘hardcore’ are semantic battlefields, keenly contested by parties invariably using them to propagate gaming ideals. To many gamers, ‘hardcore’ is a badge of honour, used to differentiate themselves from ‘casuals’, whose knowledge of gaming is shallow, whose tastes are unsophisticated and whose skills are lacking. Conversely, game companies have been mistrustful of ‘hardcore’ for some time, perhaps concerned that its associations with passionate fanboyism and high skill levels are offputting to players who don’t define themselves along such polarised lines. Hence the coinage ‘core gamers’, a phrase seemingly calculated to appeal to the self-identifying hardcore while avoiding cutting anyone out. When Satoru Iwata announced that the Wii U was aimed at core gamers, he supplied the following definition to put it in context: “someone who has a much wider range of interests, someone who enthusiastically plays many types of games”.

Naturally, Chmielarz has his own definition.”I’ve started to use ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ in a different way,” he explains. “Normally, when you say ‘hardcore’, you mean a gamer who plays a lot. And when you say ‘casual’, you mean a gamer who plays every now and then. But to me, ‘hardcore’ means a gamer who is able to put up with a lot of shit in order to play a game and ‘casual’ is a person who can’t be bothered if the game isn’t something that they can consume easily. That’s my personal definition, and that’s how I’m approaching the design of Ethan Carter.” It’s certainly a useful working definition, but is he prepared to hop online and start promoting Ethan Carter as a casual game? “Fuck no!” he exclaims.

And this, perhaps, is the major lexical quagmire currently entrapping games and the people designing them. The language used by designers of experimental and, yes, experiential games seeking to leave overt challenge and other traditional design principles behind – words like ‘casual’, ‘easy’, and ‘accessible’ – is currently being shared with the language used by manufacturers of the sort of throwaway experience that many ‘hardcore’ gamers abhor, associating the phrases with the shallow inanities of Facebook games or the slight content of Kinect titles. Players can tell the difference between Proteus and FarmVille, we’re sure, but it’s the shared vocabulary inviting the comparison in the first place. In The Astronauts’ case, meanwhile, Chmielarz is forced to qualify and define his terms even as he’s using them.

Bogost argues that the point is moot, stating that “casual means everyone. It was never a good term, but now it means everyone who plays Solitaire or Minesweeper or Angry Birds or Words With Friends. Who doesn’t do that? Nobody. Casual is everyone.” But that statement, while true, doesn’t change the fact that casual is a loaded term.

As with the definition of ‘game’, these arguments will resolve themselves in time. New coinages will take on, or meanings will shift to the point where people are able to quibble about the content of the games rather than fighting over the phrases used to describe them. Because that’s what these disputes over definitions are really signify, after all. When an angry Internet commentator says Proteus “isn’t a game”, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want games to be like Proteus. It’s a debate worth having, perhaps. But first we must define our terms.