This one’s a thinker.
Most of the readers of Gamnesia have been playing games all their lives, and they are pretty familiar with most of the conventions characteristic of the medium. However, most of us have never questioned what is it that makes games a unique medium; we just recognize what a game is instinctively and enjoy it without ever thinking much about it. Curiously enough, though, defining a game can be quite a challenging task. Let’s see why.
One of gaming academia’s most famous quotations comes from Sid Meier, who said that “a game is a series of interesting choices.” That would mean that the thing that turns a bunch of code into a game is that its players can go through its interface by choosing some options instead of others, that the game lets them make an informed choice, and that not all of these options are equally good.
However, this definition has been rebated by many researchers, one of whom is Jesper Juul. He argues that, while most games let you choose, in whatever small or big away (think about the huge difference between choosing what platform to jump to in Super Mario Bros. to the wide array of narrative plots available in the Mass Effect franchise), there are many, many other games whose value reside not in choosing, but in performing. Think, for instance, of Dance Dance Revolution or Elite Beat Agents; you don’t choose when or how to hit a note, you just do it right or wrong. They depend on how well or badly you perform the tasks that they set out for you. Of course, most games include a mixture of performance and choosing, as you do not only choose where Mario should jump, but also try your best to either succeed in doing so or fail and fall to the void.
Most video game descriptions will emphasize the interactivity of the medium, sometimes disregarding all the other qualities it has in its favor. This would be the perfect panacea to the illness of video-game-description-indeterminism: it is very difficult to think of a video game that works without player input. It doesn’t matter whether you’re carefully choosing your party and their classes in Seiken Densetsu 3 or just hitting notes in Osu!, both kinds of games depend on the actions of the player to progress and reach a conclusion. This, however, is not always the case: once again, Jesper Juul, in his article on zero-player games, questions this by showing four kinds of games where player input is not really necessary or is just a first step. These games are Setup-only games, such as Conway’s Game of Life; Games played by AI, such as computer chess; Solved games, such as Hex; and Hypothetical games, such as StatBuilder.
The fact that such games even exist puts into question whether interactivity is really the quality that discern games from other visual fictions (TV shows, films, plays), textual fictions (poetry, prose) and interactive mediums (computers, modern TVs). Sure, we can find interactivity in most video games we can think of, but the fact that we can’t find it in all of them is puzzling by itself. It means that this isn’t the one quality that defines video games, that turns what would otherwise be a completely different format into a video game.
Could it be narrative? Some games have stories that are nothing short of masterpieces, and even a franchise such as The Legend of Zelda—which leans much more towards gameplay than narrative—is so complex that it could release an explanatory compendium, complete with timelines and explanation of different eras. What about Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, Ys, etc.? All these games rely heavily on the story they are telling, and much of their gameplay revolves around it. Even in instances as simple as Super Mario Bros., you can discern the age-old plot of the adventurer traveling around the world and facing endless obstacles to rescue the princess from an evil, fire-breathing dragon. However, we have games like Pong or Pac-Man where trying to find a story would be pointless and absurd. Sure, Pong is a representation of a match of tennis, but it could either be the final match of a tournament with Rafa Nadal playing against Maria Sharapova, or your drunk friends having a match of beer pong in your living room. And in what kind of world a living circle would eat pills in a labyrinth while fleeing from a bunch of ghosts, I just cannot imagine. The image to the right is a funny—though creepy as all hell—attempt at interpreting the game, which shows how much we like to project a narrative into every game. This narrative overinterpretation of games without stories led to Janet Murray (Hamlet on the Holodeck, 1997 : 144) to describe Tetris as “a perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s—of the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.”
A more interesting and relevant concept would be that of make believe: that is, you act as if you were in the game world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a character in a story: even in games without narratives, you submerge yourself into the world created by its mechanics. In Final Fantasy, you act as if you were the Light Warriors, traveling all throughout the world and even through time to fix the time paradox Chaos created to make himself immortal, whereas in Pong you act as if you were playing tennis. This point depends on a technique that has been known for ages to literature and other kinds of fiction: willing suspension of disbelief. This means that, while you are playing, you subconsciously agree to understand the game presented to you as if its events were real and relevant. That means that while you don’t know what the story behind Galaga is you still are personally invested in shooting the aliens and preventing them from taking over the screen, and that you care about piecing the different shapes together in Tetris because the game mechanics imply that doing so is important—not because there is a narrative reason to do so. Of course, there can be non-digital games that are based on make believe, as most of us will remember from when we played as cowboys, astronauts, or detectives when we were little.
A feature that is very characteristic of video games and that you can find in very few other places is that of procedurality: that means, game have rules. In Super Mario Bros., the rules are fairly straightforward: if you fall down a pit, you die; if an enemy touches you, you die; if you jump above an enemy, it dies, etc. Other games, like Skyrim, have such a complex array of basic rules that it would take millions of pages to describe them properly. Even zero player games have rules: sure, Tic-tac-toe may be a game with a timeless solution because of the fact that any two reasonably intelligent people will always end up in a draw, but that doesn’t mean that there is not a way to proceed properly about it: you are assigned an X or an O and you have to place it, in turns, in one of the nine available spaces. Even such an absurd game as StatBuilder has rules through which the game is supposed to be “played.” Of course, performance games rely heavily on procedure: if you hit the button on the right moment, you will succeed; if you don’t, you will fail; and if you do it almost at the correct moment, you’ll only get a few points. Notice, however, that traditional games also have rules, which makes procedurality a non-exclusive characteristic of video games.
In the end, there is no one feature that distinguishes games from other activities, such as reading books, watching TV or playing sports. As Jesper Juul said in his column for the IGDA, the characteristics that make games be games change over time in order to adapt themselves to their audiences’ taste. It is an industry, after all, and it has to sell. So depending on the time, games will have open worlds and rely heavily on exploration, will be linear and depend on performance, or will try to submerge its players in a charming narrative. All of the concepts analyzed here are part of video games, and so are many more, and game developers can choose among them to decide the kind of game they want to make.
What do you think is the most important property of games, though? What are the features you always look the most forward to when buying a game?