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?