A few weeks ago, several people in the gaming industry/discussion circles created a controversy by declaring that certain people were not real game designers and their work was not real games. Instead, they were simply “zines” and there was a great need to make a solid distinction between those “zines” and “real games”. The arguments of these “formalists” were generally ignorant and facile (“games are only games if they’re fun!” and the like) and I would assume that most people within the gaming scene are tired of reading about something as obvious as how wrong-headed they are. People outside the gaming scene should do themselves a favor and if nothing else read Mattie Brice’s response. Now, weeks after the dust has settled for most people, I, a boring white dude who writes goofy nonsense about Koopa evolution, am going to bravely march in and talk about the problems in defining games. You’re welcome.
Dictionaries are not legislators. This is an idea that we really need to teach better, because its one that constantly trips people up. It doesn’t matter what dictionary.com says, there is no such thing as an iron-clad definition for any idea. Definitions are fluid tools and are constantly being challenged. This is not a phenomenon new to gaming at all, look at the debate that can rage when deciding if a certain writer is modernist or post-modernist. Its certainly not limited to art or literature either, anyone dealing with issues of social justice has had to deal with people INSISTING that sexism or racism means that people in power can face prejudice too. The definition accepted for a discussion of sexism or racism is “prejudice plus power”, and the idea that the definition in use can change depending on the context of the discussion is hard for people trained to expect everything to fit into easy boxes (boxes created by a system that has a vested interest in limiting discussion and debate). See also, people who get furious over being called out on misogyny or homophobia because “I don’t hate women!/I’m not afraid of gay people!” Its an issue that is dealt with in the sciences as well. The field of ethnobotany was created because there needed to be a way to talk about where botany and anthropology intersected. The evolution and biology of many plants was (and is) directed by human society, and they only way to understand how people influenced the evolution and distribution of these plants is by understanding the anthropology of the people connected to these plants. But even creating a new field wasn’t enough, as there are still debates over when something is botany, ethnobotany or anthropology or a combination thereof. Definitions are constantly being challenged in any and all fields.
So its not a surprise that this debate exists in games, and to be honest a game creator/critic who says “x is not a real game” is basically removing themselves from the conversation. The problem is when these people are in positions of power or gatekeepers. If we as gamers and designers really want games to be treated as art, we need to be open to the fact that this means we will be challenged. We will be challenged as to whether really fun games we like are harmful in their larger context, we will be challenged on how we have naturalized ideas about games (such as they have to be fun, have to be won or have to be immersive) and we will be challenged on basic assumptions about how games are separate from other mediums. Even more difficult for some people is the idea that not only will we be challenged, but that both our definition and the challenging definition can be right at the same time. Its ok if someone has a different definition than you, as long as you make room for each other! “You’re not a real game, you’re a zine” is not helpful for the debate, as it simply shuts down the discussion, but a question like “What makes this a game to you?” at least makes room for other contexts and views. The idea that acknowledging other views or opinions as valid means there can be no debate or discussion is a terrible strawman.
I’m not saying definitions aren’t useful, just that they’re tools. All of us have some definition of what a game is, even if we want it to be as inclusive as possible. My personal definition of a game, which I have only really defined in response to the debate, is that a game is “a space created by an artist (or artists) where a player (or player) is asked to interact with in order to participate in or complete a performance”. This is the definition that I personally believe includes everything I think of as a game, a medium which includes everything from improv to pinball to Mario to Depression Quest to D&D to tag. You might notice that its not a perfect definition in that other works traditionally not thought of as games can be considered to fall under its umbrella. Theatrical performances would often fall under this definition, but then anyone who has done improv knows that theatre games exist for a reason. Certain novels by writers like Jorges Luis Borges or Alain Robbe-Grillet (if not potentially all novels) could be considered to elicit an interaction or performance from the reader that would qualify them as games under this definition. The thing is… I’m ok with that. I’m ok with a novel being able to be a game in certain contexts, just as I’m ok with a painting being able to be a narrative or a poem being able to be a novel. My definition is not ironclad, but one that is constantly shifting in response to new ideas or work, and one that I accept is flawed and going to be forced to change. I personally accept that my definition could be used to describe works of art I wouldn’t consider games under normal circumstances because I would rather something “not a game” be viewed as a game than I would exclude someone or their work.
Even when we want to define smaller groups within this (or any other) larger definition we run into problems. We have platformers, table-top games, theatre games, board games, rpgs, jrpgs, action-rpgs, metroidvanias, shmups, visual novels, strategy-simulations and so many more. Where do we put the boundaries for these terms? How can we define one in a way that includes every game we want without opening it up for other games we wouldn’t classify that way? When does Civilization stop being a simulation and start being a strategy game? Where does Metroid stop being a platformer and start being an adventure game? Or if you want to get even nerdier, where does any similar game start officially being a “Metroidvania” (a genre description which makes no sense to non-gamers that I thought was amazingly clever when I first heard it and have grown to dislike more and more as time went on and I found more games that challenged it). Again, this isn’t a debate unique to gaming. Questions of when a novel stops being a novel still rage through academic circles today.
Games have been around for centuries, but academic discussion or critical theory of games is relatively recent, which I think is one of the reasons so many people both in and out of the gaming world have difficulty with how to define games. Lets take a look at a different medium with a similar history; puppets. Puppets exist in virtually every culture encountered, and yet there is remarkably little research and critical theory on puppetry. Some exists to be sure, and there are many people writing amazing things and putting on amazing performances with puppets. But as far as I know there isn’t a “Department of Puppetry” at any major art university. Despite the huge commercial success of The Lion King and The Muppets, puppetry is still often considered an “outdated” artform by the general public (even at the same time that same public actively consumes puppet material, has huge reactions to puppet satire, or relies on puppets for basic education and socialization). So because of this perception of the medium being “lesser” or “outdated” and therefore not worthy of academic research, there is no single formalized way of categorizing puppets. Do you categorize them by geographical origin? By the number of performers required? By their material? Their intended purpose? Everyone does it differently! But I don’t think this lack of a formalized categorization system has harmed puppetry or puppet theory/criticism in any way. I don’t think its necessarily hurt a medium with a huge history of categorization and formalism, such as literature, either. Its simply a tool that can be useful or not depending on the context. There’s no dude of note out there going “puppets have to be fun and only used in stories!” any more than there is someone in literature going “novels have to have happy endings and specific narratives!” and expecting to be taken serious. We don’t need to tolerate that in gaming discussions either.
One of my favorite bits from Scott McCloud’s seminal work Understanding Comics is in the first chapter where he attempts to come up with a singular definition of comics. He starts with “Sequential Art” and continues to define it in response to challenges from an “audience” of critics within the comic. The definition changes in response to challenges that it isn’t open enough for certain comics or that it is too open and includes other mediums such as film or even written language itself. In the end, McCloud ends up with a long, unwieldy and completely flawed definition that is not useful in the context of truly understanding comics. For the rest of the comic, McCloud sticks with “sequential art” or just “comics.” Amazingly, in the many years since then we have seen comics created that challenge the unwieldy definition McCloud jokingly comes up with even further. This is a lesson that gaming formalists can stand to learn: you can spend pages and pages and hours and hours trying to come up with the perfect definition that protects you from anything impure, but in the mean time the rest of us will be busy making and discussing games.