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How do you play a non-game?

posted on July 18th, 2007 by jay

Language is powerful, which is a shame since I’m not a very good writer. Instead of bringing “war” to Iraq we are bringing “freedom”, and instead of being “the worst American president in the last 300 years”, Bush has “a low approval rating”. Debating the merits of something specific may work for thoughtful people, but it’s much easier to simply change people’s minds by changing how we refer to things.

And so we have non-games. First, I must explain that I am not taking a stance on the quality of any game, non-game or partial-game. It’s a shame that this needs to be said but many people confuse the debate over language as a debate over what the language describes.

“I’m not sure the terrorists hate us because of our freedom.”
“What? You must want the terrorists to win then.”

It’s actually a fact that humans don’t use 126% of their brain.

So Brain Training is boring, happy? Even so, the term “non-game” is generally used for anything somewhat different that people dislike. The Sims is a game, a sandbox style game some say, but still a game. Animal Crossing, which is generally well liked, is called a game by most. Nintendogs somehow is a non-game. Like the two prior examples, Nintendogs lacks an ending and a way to “win” but the difference is hardcore gamers tend to think it’s lame. How to deal with this? Let’s call it a non-game.

I’ve seen Jenga and Professor Layton both referred to as non-games. How is a video game based on a game a non-game? No one has ever called real life Jenga a non-game before, so where in the programming phase do they include the “stop being a game” code? Professor Layton not being a game is probably even more absurd. The idea behind demoting it was that ultimately the game’s made up of discreet puzzles. Guess what’s at the heart of every Zelda – puzzles. Uh oh, Zelda may not be a game any more.

The only concepts I’ve come to accept as being necessary for something to be a game are goals and challenge. There is a problem in this, too, though. Do goals need to be explicit? Is it the implicit goal of Sim City to build a “good” city? The implicit goal of Electroplankton, another game frequently called a non-game, could just as easily be to make “good” music. Cosmic Osmo offers no challenge beyond exploring the world the designer created. Still, someone playing could easily decide that the goal of the game to them is to fully explore the world. As for challenge, simply using a mouse is challenging for some people (my mother, the handicapped, etc). Is it possible some software is a game to one person but not others?

There’s something curiously game-like about this non-game.

So what isn’t a game? A recipe book on a DS cart. However, once interaction beyond turning pages is introduced, what you’re probably doing is playing a game. Wii Fit may even be a game depending on the specifics. While it is exceedingly hard to determine what makes a game it seems clear that something that provides a score, a challenge and the implicit goal of improving your score is a game. If Wii Fit assigns a fitness level to each player and is composed of mini-games (or mini non-games), each one presenting a challenge, and the fitness level is attached to how well you perform the mini-games, well then Wii Fit is a game.

It’s possible some people use the term non-game only because they find it a useful way to describe something, but the majority of people use the word as an insult. Sim City was not a non-game because even though it presented no explicit goals, like most of today’s non-games, it was only enjoyed by nerds. Now that similar open ended games are being bought by the millions by casual gamers, we need a term to denote popular games we don’t like.

Instead of games, traditional games and non-games we should classify games as good games and bad games. If Brain Age sucks it is because it’s a bad game, not because some people call it a non-game.


  1. christian said on July 18, 2007:

    A couple of other examples Jay missed…. 1) Oregon Trail: If you take away the hunting minigame (yes, I said minigame) this baby among hipsters essentially becomes one big spreadsheet with a little bit of luck thrown in. Is Oregon Trail a nongame? Also, Math Blasters (or number munchers, whatever the hell those math games were): These involve doing arithmetic quickly, right? So does Brain Training. Are they all nongames? The Jenga example is the one that got me the most, and proves that the term is used in the pejorative rather than be based on any sort of reason.

  2. Tyson said on July 18, 2007:

    Oregon Trail is still one of my all-time favorite games. Back when I played it in school they hadn’t taken out such memorable moments like “Your daughter has died of syphilis while on the trail.” Then the screen flashed to her tombstone. Man, I love that game.

  3. TrueTallus said on July 19, 2007:

    This article definately brought 900 pounds of meat. But I could only cary 100 back…

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