Is "Game" Too Broad of a Category?

January 2, 2017

Roger Ebert believed that games are not art. Many would rightfully say that the validity of his belief depends on the definition of art. But regardless of how Ebert defined art, I believe it was his definition of game that had more of an influence on his conviction.

 

Ebert's definition of a game is clarified in this quote from his article, Videogames Can Never Be Art

 

"One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome."

 

This brings to mind poker, Hearthstone, chess, Civilization, basketball, and League of Legends. All of these games can be won. All of them have rules, points, and objectives as well. But most people familiar with digital media in 2017 would say that this definition is inadequate. Ebert may not have captured the entirety of what is currently available on Steam, but he does bring up a key distinction between what we have traditionally thought of as "games" and the "interactive experiences" that we are now beginning to see.

Kentucky Route Zero does not have rules in a traditional sense and it has no points. If it has an objective or outcome, it is similar to a non-interactive medium's objective (reach the end of the story) or outcome (whatever the end of the story may be). The experience of playing poker is more removed from playing Kentucky Route Zero than the experience of watching the television series Twin Peaks. So why are we putting poker and League of Legends in the same category as Kentucky Route Zero?

 

Maybe we should divide the term "game" into two (still very broad) categories that more accurately describe these very different mediums. I propose that traditional "games", the ones that Ebert condemned to not being art, be continued to be called "games". Kentucky Route Zero, Papers Please, and Journey might be called "interactive experiences", or perhaps something catchier that captures their divergent essence.

 

This is how Jessie Schell (the author of The Art of Game Design) defines a game:

 

"A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude."

 

That does seem to describe traditional games like Tetris pretty well. But again, it falls short of describing an interactive experience like That Dragon, Cancer. One would be hard-pressed to find a problem that must be solved in That Dragon, Cancer. And it would be even harder to say that this interactive poem about a child with terminal cancer is meant to be approached playfully.

We might continue to define game as "A problem-solving activity that employs rules and objectives to create an experience that attempts to be fun." And perhaps an interactive experience is "An experience that employs interactivity and attempts to elicit a specific emotional reaction." By these definitions games are interactive experiences, but I think that's OK. Colloquially, the terms could still be used to draw the distinction. And it would still remove Kentucky Route Zero and That Dragon, Cancer from the same games category that is also occupied by Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.

 

So would Ebert have changed his mind about games (in the more general sense) if he had been presented with Kentucky Route Zero and That Dragon, Cancer? Perhaps not. He had already made up his mind based on many years of seeing less emotionally resonant, more game-y games such as Doom, checkers, and Pong. But maybe if "games" and "interactive experiences" were considered different mediums he would be forced to re-evaluate his stance on the latter.

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© 2016 Daniel Mullins