What Are Video Games?

What are video games?* Serious question. I get that not everyone cares about this stuff, so if you really don’t care, then, hey, that’s cool, don’t worry about it. But I do, and I know plenty of others do as well, so I’d like to ask this question and get some serious responses back. For the rest of this essay, I’ma tell you what I think a video game is, and then I’m going to tell you what I think that means, and I’m going to tell you what I think the future—the most promising offshoot—of games will be. And maybe you’ll feel differently; I’m really interested in hearing what you think.

“Doc,” said a friend, after reading an essay of mine, “I don’t like that phrase, anti-game. People use that for things like Proteus and stuff, and I don’t think it fits.” I mulled over this for a while, and then offered an explanation, which sort of turned into this piece, but not entirely, which is why I’m writing this essay now. I had my reasons for using the term, and I think they’ll become apparent soon, but before we talk about what isn’t a game, let’s talk about what is.

We should get something out of the way, first: whether something is or isn’t something doesn’t mean it’s bad. If I argue that Casablanca isn’t a Western, I’m not arguing that it’s less than a Western. If I want to argue that something is bad or less than something else, I’ll argue that. If I say “X is not Y,” I am not making any value judgments. Please keep this in mind.

To put it at its simplest, I think a video game is any kind of digital, interactive experience, primarily emphasized through visual means.

I think I’ve seen some people argue that Johann Sebastian Joust is a video game, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s something more like Musical Chairs—you can use a digital device to play the game, but it’s not a video game.

That said, I’m going to argue that games don’t need to be games, at least, in the traditional sense of the word. I’ve written about it years ago, and Pink Zapper Helmet’s done a great job as well, so I won’t go too far into this, other than to say that culture looks at the word “game” and immediately connects that with the idea it’s “not serious.” When someone yells “do you think this is all just a game,” do you think they’re asking if it’s serious business? No! They’re asking why someone isn’t taking something seriously. The concept of games isn’t a serious one.

So I’ve always kinda felt like “game” doesn’t really do the subject justice, because I think it inherently limits us to thinking about games in a very limited context, and, contrary to some opinions about my tastes, I think gaming should be a very broad thing indeed.

I think we’ve got a mindset about games: we see them on a screen, we use some sort of computing device to interact with them, and things happen as a result of our actions.

And I’ll be the first to admit, we’ve got some problems with this definition: what do you call a game that mixes media more uniquely? What happens when you play a (hypothetical) game that’s about being a blind guy, and the only way to play is through using headphones to listen to your environment? Is that still a video game? It certainly seems closer to video games than anything else. What about a touchscreen ad for toothpaste? It’s digital, it’s interactive, and it’s an experience explored through video, but it’s an advertisement, and most of us would say “yes, that’s not a video game. It’s a series of videos you click through.” If we took that definition to its logical extreme, we might start arguing that Youtube is a video game, and most people wouldn’t run with that. Likewise, if we argued that the primary purpose was artistic intent, we’d neglect all the sports games or flight simulators or things of that nature, which aren’t created as works of art, but as virtual realities to inhabit. We can’t really claim that they exist primarily to entertain, because if we do that, then we rob ourselves of the concept of “serious games,” which are educational games and things of that nature.

So, as I sit here, writing this with the stream-of-consciousness approach I always take, working my way through the idea as I go, I recognize that it’s an imperfect definition, but it’s the best I’ve got: Interactive, digital experiences, with some implicit understanding that some experiences will be entertaining, some won’t, some are artistic, some aren’t… yeah. It’s all wibbly wobbly, innit?

What Are Video Games?

That’s huge.

Just think about how many things fit under that umbrella. You might have a game that sends you texts on your smartphone or on your computer, a sort of adventure experience where you’re interacting with a digital life form. Or maybe this same game is played through a 2D top-down pixel interface, and you raise this creature in its digital world. Or perhaps the same thing uses over-the-shoulder 3D. Or maybe any genre you think of as games are games, from puzzlers to brawlers to shooters to racers, and many more. Proteus, I think, fits within this realm of things we call video games, even though it might not fit the traditional mold. Likewise, Dear Esther, which is only interacted with through movement buttons, is a video game.

Now, me, I have my preferences, so I don’t talk about certain types of games all that much. I haven’t got much to say about fighting games, for instance, because I’m not really that interested in them. Surely you’ve got genres that never really grabbed you. Maybe you don’t like my beloved first-person shooter; perhaps you’ve just never been fond of real-time games at all, and need your turn-based fix. We’re all different people, we all need different things, and exploring this medium and discovering all the things that can be done? That’s awesome. We need more of that. Less variations on a theme and more new themes.

Okay, right off the bat, we’ve got a bit of a problem in the way games evolved: to put it simply, games have evolved in a way that mimics human behaviors. At first, it’s really abstract stuff. Click “stab with sword,” and the game determines whether you hit based on your skill and whether the enemy can dodge. Then later, you’ve got a 2D model of a character stabbing something with a sword, and you can use the space around the player, as well as real-time details, to determine whether you hit. Less abstract, more simulated. Follow that up with 3D, and shift from a third-person perspective to a first person perspective, and you get an even more realistic experience.

Essentially, the longer games have been around, the better they’ve got at mimicking human behaviors. As this happens, it becomes harder to create new things. Oh, someone’s already made a game where you solve a mystery. Someone’s already made a game about jumping or shooting or driving or any one of a number of basic human behaviors. This, I think, is why a lot of indie games are based on puzzle mechanics and gimmicks; they’re trying to forge innovation, but they’ve not really figured out that innovation comes from recreating human behavior within a new context. Every genre, from RPG to platformer to FPS to action adventure… has basically just gotten better at letting players do human things. As such, there just isn’t that much stuff to really go with. No one’s going to be creating a new genre as groundbreaking as a driving game, because we’ve already come up with that human behavior.

Instead, I think innovation lies within other things, like making AI that feels more responsive and human, because I really think the next major step in gaming… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

If games can be any number of things, the next question is should they? What makes a bad game?

Okay, so, for you art scholars out there, what makes for bad art? What makes for a bad photograph, a bad painting, a bad story, a bad anything? I’m betting you’re saying “well, the technical stuff, the stuff that, though thousands of years of human civilization, we’ve filtered and developed standards for,” and yeah, that’s generally what academics say.

(as an aside, it’s hilarious to bring up people who say “art is subjective!” to art teachers, especially when those people are arguing that their work’s good, and the teacher just didn’t appreciate it, which is why they got a bad grade)

So I think we can generally argue that a game’s quality is determined by its technical qualities, as determined filtered through the scope of cultural standards. “Good” art is, as per the dictionary definition, that which compares favorably to a set cultural standard, and “bad” art, of course, compares unfavorably. That’s why we can call Twilight bad, even though millions have bought it—because by all cultural standards that have stood the test of time, Mary Sue characters and improbable romances are generally seen as crap, despite momentary popularity and thrills.

It’s also why our language has separate words for personal taste: “like” for what we personally enjoy, regardless of cultural standards (I enjoy watching the Transformers movies, even though they are bad), and “dislike” for what we don’t enjoy, regardless of cultural standards (I don’t enjoy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

So, in other words, we can say “this is bad” and not mean “this should not exist,” but “this does not live up to the cultural standards of the medium it exists in.”

What Are Video Games?

Now let’s take that a bit further, beyond the technical details. I’d posit that a bad thing isn’t just something that does what it should do poorly. I’d also suggest that, independent of that, a bad work of art is one that is antithetical to the medium it’s in. For instance, I would argue that if someone made a movie titled “Hamlet,” and it was nothing more than filming someone turning the pages of Hamlet’s script, it’s a bad movie.

Hamlet’s good, but using film to show a script isn’t what makes for a good film. It’s a bad film, but I won’t begrudge its existence as long as people aren’t imitating it. If people start making all their adaptations with just cameras and books… I’d say it’s a bad thing and shouldn’t have existed because it legitimized a bad concept, something antithetical to film.

And that’s why I use the term anti-game.

An anti-game isn’t something that goes against established trends and mores, it’s something that rejects something core to the medium. If a film shows nothing but the written word, it’s rejecting all the things that make film what it is. If a theatrical presentation is just a guy sitting in a chair reading the script aloud, it’s not really theatre.

This is why I take issue with games like Max Payne 3 and Uncharted 2: they rob the player of control, of interactivity. It’s why I resent hand-holding: because it’s diminishing my involvement in the experience. By all means, show me what you want to show me, but don’t you dare diminish and reject my participation, because when you do that, you stop making games, and start making something that wobbles between game and movie and never really succeeds at being either.

Alright, but what about fun. Most reviews seem to include the word “fun” in there somewhere. If someone asks “did you like it?” then the response is often “yeah, I had fun.” It’s a qualifier, a metric: if the game is not fun, it is not good, if the game is fun, it is bad.

What Are Video Games?

…which is why Spec-Ops: The Line and Gears of War 3 are such interesting games. At heart, both are anti-war video games. Spec-Ops is more about criticizing video games than Gears of War 3, while Gears of War 3 focuses more on gameplay than Spec-Ops does. Read what the developers have said about the games, look at how the people at Epic are talking about ‘fun’ and ‘the player,’ while Spec-Ops lead designer Cory Davis called multiplayer “cancerous.” My understanding is that this totally-ignored-by-the-audience-as-expected multiplayer addition probably wasn’t perceived to be in line with the message the folks working on the game were trying to convey.

Some of you might find it odd that I said Gears of War 3 is an anti-war game. To be honest, I should have said that the entire series is anti-war. The protagonist is at odds with his excessively-militarized government. The monsters in the game are equipped almost entirely with weapons abandoned by the humans after millennia of war—which, by the way, is why the humans were so weak, having been fighting amongst themselves for far too long. It’s a series that explores our innate destructiveness… but it’s punctuated by “nice!” and “awesome!” as audiovisual rewards that let the player know they’ve finished the battle and are ready to move on.

It’s a game that puts fun as its priority—and what a blast it is—and it does so with panache and style, but in doing so, it loses the anti-war message. So much of the game is dedicated to this, but it falls by the wayside when it also manages to be so amazingly fun.

I’ve got this theory that Spec-Ops: The Line wasn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s just that Yager isn’t a very good developer (their previous game was an already-forgotten aerial dogfighter, after all), so Spec-Ops was never going to be particularly good, but I think there’s more to it than that. I see a game that isn’t supposed to be fun because the narrative isn’t fun. The game’s basically out there saying “hey, y’know, it’s kinda crazy to find killing a lot of people fun… you are, after all, causing a lot of suffering.”

The game works because it’s not focused on trying to be fun. It’s not a game, it’s an experience. If you’re thinking about Spec-Ops in terms of games, as a trivial experience you’re supposed to have fun in, you may not see the value in it. If you limit yourself to thinking that it has to be fun… well… you may give it a 7/10 review score, move on, and never reflect on what you just did.

What Are Video Games?

So, let’s summarize what we’ve got so far: games are things that exist for the primary purpose of audiovisual interaction. They don’t have to be fun. Anti-games are things that play at being games, but fail, on some core level, to support this interaction.

Great. Let’s say you’re in agreement with this. You might be asking “so what? Interactivity is unique. But what does it mean? What can we do with this?”

Do other media allow/empower/enable this kind of interaction? Certainly, you can find examples of experimental theatre, where the crowd participates, or movies like Clue, where the audience can pick the ending, but these interactions are largely experimental, or even, in the case of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, somewhat shallow. They’re not the main point of the medium. Contrast this with games, which are all about interactivity.

I’m one of those people who ascribes to the belief that what you do defines who you are, so I think there’s room for people to reflect on their actions to learn more about themselves, which is great, because that’s kind of the whole purpose of art.

Did you ever wonder why humans create art?

It’s generally accepted in scholarly circles that we do it because we’re coming to terms with our existence. Art is an emotional tool that we are driven to create because it helps us understand reality. Even the most fictitious of fictions says something about who we are, why we’re here, and where we’re going. Traditionally, however, art is a very passive experience. That is, you and I will sit somewhere, watching a television, reading a book, attending a movie, listening to the radio, or any one of a number of ways, and we consume media.

Then along come games and everything changes. Suddenly we go from passive to active audience members. Suddenly, instead of observing and learning, we participate and discover. We make choices which we can reflect on and learn from. When I play Deus Ex: Human Revolution and consciously start killing people who are trying to kill others, while merely subduing those who have no intent to kill, I learn something about myself. When the choices I make in Bioshock 2 empower Eleanor to become a better person, I learn something about the kind of person I am. And these aren’t necessarily the best examples of choice and consequence, but they’re an idea people can latch onto.

For me, the best example of this is still STALKER for that very reason: playing the game caused me to reflect on myself and realize that I could surpass the unsurmountable. I could survive everything life threw at me, and even if it was only by the skin of my teeth, it would be enough.

But there’s more to it than that. Games are about us exploring our place in the universe. And what is our place if not shared with other people? Games don’t just have the capacity to put us in situations we might never be in to teach us about ourselves, they have the ability to put us in other peoples’ shoes, to be them for a while, to empathize and learn and grow!

Games, through interaction, have the power to elicit a reflexive response within the audience.

So, let’s recap. If games, in form, are digital/audiovisual/interactive works, then the function of that form, in its highest capacity** is self-reflection. And that, I think, is what games are: a unique tool for allowing us to participate in situations to learn something about ourselves.

What do you think? Does the logic work? Is that what games are—or, at least, is that what games can be? If we started thinking about games less as “what they physically are” and more as “how they can help us be better human beings,” do you think games might be improved?

As usual, you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter, or using Kotaku’s DocTalk tag. And yeah, I know, I kinda covered some of this a year ago over on The Verge; I feel I’ve got a better grasp on this now. Next up, I’ll be talking about Payday 2, three months after its release, followed by Shadow Warrior, Bulletstorm, First Person Shooters, and a bunch of other stuff. If you’ve got things you’d like me to write about, let me know, and I’ll do my best. For the many people who’ve asked if I’ll do The Last of Us and Heavy Rain, I’m working on it, but I literally only have $3 in my bank account right now, and I've got almost no food in my pantry, and my next paycheck’s going to be a little short, so it’ll be next year at the earliest before I can try them out. I’m really sorry about that.

* I’m going to refer to “video games” as “games” from here on out. Sorry for any confusion.

** Because, like, not all art needs to be high art. If you just want to make a video game about playing basketball and have nothing to say about the human condition, that’s totally fine, just like making a movie about robots punching each other is totally fine. Just don’t demand to be accepted as high art.