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What is a game, EGM?

posted on February 13th, 2008 by jay

It’s depressing to see prominent video game publications play the role of the conservative establishment. Edge magazine recently doubted that games should strive to be more than simply games. Thank god a modern day equivalent didn’t convince Disney or Groening that cartoons should be no more than children’s entertainment.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Electronic Gaming Monthly has begun reviewing what they call “non-games.” Try as I might, I cannot come up with a satisfactory definition of the word game. EGM must have, though, if they now dedicate a portion of their magazine to video games that are not games. EGM owes the entire community this definition because it may end many squabbles over which consoles are doing well, which games matter, and where the industry is heading.

Before they enlighten the world with a precise definition of game, they need to consider some of the difficulty others have had with the word. Lets start by looking at how the word “game” is defined by Merriam-Webster online:

1 a (1): activity engaged in for diversion or amusement
(2): the equipment for a game
b: often derisive or mocking jesting

2 a: a procedure or strategy for gaining an end
b: an illegal or shady scheme or maneuver

3 a (1): a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other
(2): a division of a larger contest
(3): the number of points necessary to win
(4): points scored in certain card games (as in all fours) by a player whose cards count up the highest
(5): the manner of playing in a contest
(6): the set of rules governing a game
(7): a particular aspect or phase of play in a game or sport
b plural : organized athletics
c (1): a field of gainful activity
(2): any activity undertaken or regarded as a contest involving rivalry, strategy, or struggle
(3): area of expertise

The first definition looks like the most relevant, only it’s so vague it doesn’t offer much help. Generally accepted concepts of a game include goals, challenge, and rules. Rules is the easiest category to ignore. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, but I’d be surprised if someone could write game code that doesn’t force a player to follow certain rules within certain parameters. A game that is the reconstruction of reality would still be full of rules, which are mostly lame and part of the reason we play games in the first place.

Hitting F, D, F, HP enables the de-finment fatality.

Goals is a hard one because games can have both explicit and implicit goals. Explicit goals like “save the princess” are straightforward but implicit goals the player must define for himself are less concrete. Sim City lacks explicit goals but I’d argue is a game because the player can easily create their own metrics for being successful.

Endless Ocean, the Wii game EGM used for their first non-game review, has few explicit goals. The world will not end if you don’t catalog every fish, no one will perish of a horrible disease if you do not thoroughly explore the ocean. Still, there are a finite number of sea creatures to find and the ocean isn’t actually endless. Most games rely on narrative to create an explicit goal, or at least to clearly convey the goals to the player. New games lacking narrative often come across as casual or non-games but to agree with this classification you need to ignore that most games of the 70s were essentially plotless. Or reclassify Pacman as a non-game if it makes you feel better.

Challenge is tricky because it opens up a can of worms – if a game is no longer challenging to me does it stop being a game? Let’s ignore that philosophical question. If I leave a game on and nothing bad happens is it a game? In other words, are there consequences for inaction or acting poorly? This is a decent definition of what I mean by challenge, but even EGM non-games such as Endless Ocean fit the description. Whether or not you act, your air is running out. If you pick a winding path to get to your destination this lack of planning leaves you with less time to find new fish.

Challenge is directly tied to goals and this is why open-ended games are often thought of as non-games. If a goal is not explicit then challenge is entirely up to the player to create. If I don’t care if my pirate in Pirates! fills in the list of things he can do then the only challenge left in that game is what I define. Never lose to the Spanish seems like a fine goal but this active role of the gamer defining the goals of a game scares away many people, including prominent game journalists.

Gamers should embrace the most open definition of the word game. There is little to be gained by deriding software as a non-game and this practice ultimately makes us look alternately like nerds and snobs. Instead of taking offense at games that challenge convention we need to embrace them if we ever want to see the full potential of games as a medium fulfilled. Merriam-Webster got this one right, but I’d like to hear from game journalists.

EGM, what is a game?

7 Comments

  1. christian said on February 13, 2008:

    You set yourself up Jay.

    What is a game?

    ….no, I can’t do it.

  2. TrueTallus said on February 19, 2008:

    Being practical seems better than experimenting, particularly for a printed game magazines like EGM- a business which seems to have been teetering on the brink of obsolescence for years. If non-game is a term that’s useful enough for EGM to get its point across to its readers, why not use it? I read a charming letter in Game Informer recently from a miffed subscriber blasting the magazine for the high score (and obviously therefore universal recommendation) it had given Mass Effect because it sucked compared to Gears of War (“You can’t even zoom in the sniper rifle!”). That so little attention was paid to the review in question (I’m assuming a quick look at screenshots and the review score was enough to convince the poor reader that this was THE sci-fi third person shooter to buy last holiday season) shows how bluntly magazines have to outline the information they contain to make sure it’s interpreted properly.

  3. Matt said on February 19, 2008:

    What is a game, you ask?

    Why, it’s a miserable pile of secrets! DUH!

  4. christian said on February 19, 2008:

    With all this being said, I appreciate that EGM is not giving out a quick and dirty conversion chart for their new letter grade system. Its about as big a fuck you to metacritic as they can give.

  5. jay said on February 19, 2008:

    TT, it is EGMs point itself that I disagree with and so I want them to back it up with a cogent argument. The term “non-game” is pejorative and if they insist on labeling games with it they should at least be able to explain why.

    As Shota said when he played Endless Ocean with me this weekend, “You just got a mission, fulfilled its requirements, and were rewarded with an item. How the hell could this not be a game?”

  6. TrueTallus said on February 20, 2008:

    Fair enough, Jay. I’m curious though; did EGM outline the purpose for including a new category for reviews? Usually some sort of explanation would be included for a change like that and maybe looking it over would give you less reason to believe they’re insane.

  7. jay said on February 20, 2008:

    My girlfriend stored my back issues somewhere deep in the closet but I have EGMs 222 to the newest 226. 225 and 226 are the only ones with the nongame review and cover Endless Ocean and My Horse and Me respectively. There is nothing introducing the feature, though it’s possible they started it earlier than 222 and left it out for three months.

    The Endless Ocean review explains it isn’t a game because it lacks, “danger, conflict, enemies, a story, obstacles, a health bar, bosses… you know, game stuff.” I would like a more theoretical approach to the discussion (like I attempted in this article) and less, “dur Tetris doesn’t have a boss and the plot sucks so it’s not a game.”

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