On Games and Non-games, I Made a Game Too [Playtesters Needed]

May 5th, 2013

Over the past week or so, I’ve been having a rather extensive conversation with indie games developer, Dan Cox. Dan has been refreshingly direct and open, so it’s been easy to quickly drill down into specifics. One of our discussion points was, and still is, the difference between a game and a non-game, or more specifically the definition of “game”. We both agree that games involve interactivity, but we disagree over whether they require challenges of player skill. I believe that they do need challenges, something which the academia Dan linked to also supports (that’s not to mention other academics whose work revolves around the premise of games as challenges, Jim Gee and Henry Jenkins are two good examples). One of the questions I’ve proposed to Dan is that if games don’t need challenges, then what distinguishes them from, say, a light switch, which has interactivity, but no challenge? I think that this question gets to the heart of the matter: if it’s not challenges, then aside from interactivity, what makes a game a game?

Some say that differentiating between games and non-games (like Proteus, Judith, and dys4ia) is a value judgement, but this is nonsense. In reality, it’s quite the opposite. A clear distinction prevents unfair and unfavourable comparisons between the two mediums, as some of the coverage of non-games by the games press has been of late. Here is an example of a non-game (well, not quite, but we’ll get to that in a minute) being treated as a game and here is an example of a non-game being treated as a non-game. Notice the difference?

There’s another dimension to this discussion, which is that within the definition of games, there are games which privilege gameplay and those which don’t. Think of games as existing on a spectrum of gameplay. On one side there’s pure puzzle games like Picross DS, on the other there’s games with only interactivity and a few easy challenges like Journey, and between them is, say, the new Tomb Raider game. Picross and friends are all about gameplay. They have no fancy graphics or gripping stories to distract the player, it’s just pure knowledge skills. Tomb Raider has solid, if not generic, third-person shooting gameplay, however, it often puts story and set pieces ahead of the player’s learning and mastery. Journey borders on a simulation, but because its easy challenges are compulsory, it still qualifies as a game. Because gameplay is learning and learning is hard, in recent years, game companies have been pushing the industry closer to the right-hand side of the spectrum, including more passive elements in their games so as to appeal to a larger audience and rake in more cash. That is to say, capitalism is killing gameplay. It’s no wonder I’m a socialist.

So why bring all this stuff up?

A few months ago, I caught onto the recent Twine phenomena and did a little investigating. (For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, here is a super short explanation of how Twine works). What I found was that many of the people out there claiming to be making Twine games are in fact making choose your own adventure stories and calling them games. The only game, as in interactive system that tests the player’s skill, that I could find was, incidentally enough, Dan Cox’s Cnossus, which is a game on the grounds of being so obtuse that just figuring out where you’re meant to be going is a challenge. So in response to all the misconceptions around Twine games, I thought that I’d try to make the first ever video game in Twine. No, not an interactive fiction, text adventure or a poor emulation of a pre-existing game (like quizzes or game shows), but a video game that tests player skill. Furthermore, I wanted to stick to the essence of Twine, text and hyperlinks,. After all, it’s all too easy to just import a Flash or Javascript game onto your main page and call it a Twine game. So, after stress testing a game design and story concept, I finished my Twine game last week. I’m reasonably content with what I’ve made, but it still needs to be playtested so that I can tweak up some of the gameplay challenges. If you’re interested in trying out my Twine game and giving some feedback, then please leave your name and email in the comments and I’ll send you a copy and some information to go with it. Oh, and I’m still looking for anyone who wants to discuss game design for female players. So, if you’re an avid female player or have a female friend, partner, or sister that plays games, I’d love to chat.

  • Xaver

    I’d be interested in testing your game.
    I signed in with name and email

  • Let me flip this on you. Why is this important to you, specifically? What does it matter if I call my projects games or even notgames? Why does it matter to you if anyone else does?

    As you can probably tell, I’m all for an open discussion, but when you use the phrase “the first ever video game in Twine” I feel more than a little insulted. Not just for me own projects, as silly as many of them are, but for the countless many of voices who you just reached out and silenced.

  • Pingback: Convince me. Make a game. | Digital Ephemera()

  • “Let me flip this on you. Why is this important to you, specifically? What does it matter if I call my projects games or even notgames? Why does it matter to you if anyone else does?”

    From the post: “A clear distinction prevents unfair and unfavourable comparisons between the two mediums, as some of the coverage of non-games by the games press has been of late.” If people are to discuss games and non-games, they need a clear and common language to do so.

    Given that I have clearly defined what I believe a game is, have provided much evidence on the matter, and you haven’t been able to answer my key questions, my comment shouldn’t be offensive at all. A game requires interactivity and challenges of skill, most of the Twine projects out there don’t have challenges. It’s really that simple. I’m not hating on Twine projects or non-games at all. In fact, I have covered several on them favourably on the blog.

  • The central problem, at least as I see it, is that you are refusing to maintain the labels the creators are calling their projects. If they want to call them games, they should be allowed to do that. No one else should come along and call them “not-games”, not-games, or not games.

    That’s the dominance I am trying to point out. Many people, and I would like to exclude you from this list but it doesn’t look like I can, are taking the power away from projects by putting them into some other box. Just because you like some of them, but still call them not games, doesn’t somehow redeem that first exclusion.

    If I decided to call your Twine project a webpage, I think you might be upset about that, especially if I wrote something to the effect of “Well, I like it, but it’s a webpage and clearly isn’t a game.” That’s the same dynamic I am seeing applied to other things.

    “If people are to discuss games and non-games, they need a clear and common language to do so.”

    I have a problem with that because, to put it bluntly, neither you nor me get to decide that. As I tried to point out the other day, the Oxford English Dictionary maintains 21 separate definitions of “game” ranging from its association to prostitution to some that include the word “sport” too. That’s clearly a concept with a wide range of usage and meaning throughout time.

    “…prevents unfair and unfavourable comparisons between the two mediums, as some of the coverage of non-games by the games press has been of late.”

    I’m really not sure what you mean by this. Are you writing that some games are getting unfair treatment, or that what you might consider not games are getting better treatment? Are you trying to protect some games by making a new category for them? I really don’t understand the point of trying to segregate them by some new arbitrary line that is going to change anyway.

  • I’m going to start with your last point first.

    I think that some non-games have gotten unfair treatment from players, or at the least very polarising reactions, because they’ve been presented as games when they’re not. The Path is a good example of this.

    Now onto the first point.

    Well, boo hoo. If it’s a choice between talking about both mediums more clearly and thereby coming to understand the artistry behind them better or not hurting the feelings of a small group of people because they dubiously called their work games (even the Twine website doesn’t refer to Twine projects as games), I would choose to understand and appreciate their art better, even if it meant upsetting a few of them.

    On the middle point.

    The word “common” in common language is quite important. The word at the top of the dictionary is the most common/used definition. In the case of the Oxford dictionary, it says this:

    “a form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

  • Gareth

    I’m interested in looking at your game. I’ve been battling with audio in Twine trying to twist it to my own uses: see here http://www.moongold.me.uk/5/post/2013/08/interactive-photography.html
    I came to your blog searching for Hype+Twine after realising I could use Tumult Hype for my purposes – I think.

  • Hey there. Sorry, I finished the player testing a few months ago. I will probably put my game online in the next month or so, so stay tuned. Good luck with your Twine project.