Posts Tagged ‘definitions’

The Language of Games

April 5, 2008

If I might be permitted to make an assumption about you, the reader, I would say that you probably have little or no idea how difficult it is to have an intellectual discussion about games, game design, and the successes and failures therein. For example, let’s take that old hat – the “games are art” debate. One side would contend that games are a purely entertainment-oriented medium incapable of representing the full depth and breadth of artistic statement you’d expect from another medium, like film or literature. On the other side stand a group (that I don’t understand as well as I should, since I agree with the statement just laid out, but for reasons that will soon become apparent) that contend that games still represent an artistic endeavor because of their capacity to tell stories, convey emotional response, and evoke emotion. Or something. Seriously – if you’re in that crowd and that’s not what you think, you have my apologies, but I’m not trying to argue with you here, so hopefully you can forgive me my transgression.

The problem with this discussion is that both sides are correct. Pretty screwed up, huh? Unfortunately, both sides are defending points that are only tangentially related to one another because they fail to first agree on just what in the hell a “game” is in the first place. We’re all at fault for that sort of misunderstanding, I’m afraid, since an awful lot of intellectual discussion these days bases itself less in logical argumentation and more in selective definition and rhetorical jousting. All of this subjectivity and fuzzy thinking runs a self-diagnosed Asperger’s sufferer like me the wrong way, so I figure that the first thing that I ought to do before I even try to discuss an issue on this website is present just what I mean when I use the term “game” and why I think that’s the best way to define the term.

A “game”, when I am speaking (and preferably when and if I am spoken to, because it avoids some problems I’ll address shortly), shall be defined as a discrete activity conducted under a defined set of rules and conditions with specific conditions distinguishing a successful execution from an unsuccessful one. I like this definition for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the most academically useful one that I’ve encountered to date. It also fits the expectations that most people have of anything that you label as a “game.” Unlike some of the more video game centered definitions of the term, this meaning accommodates games that have existed since long before the advent of the cathode ray tube and allows for their examination (it is possible, for example, to examine American Football and God of War using the same set of analytical tools if those tools are tailored to this definition).

“Gameplay,” which Microsoft Word insists isn’t even a word, shall describe the mechanics and structure that the player must act through to affect or experience the game. “Controls” are a subcategory of this broad subject, dealing specifically with the mechanical interface between the real world and the imaginary field of the game, in cases where the game is not played out in the real world (as in American Football, or most other sports).

These definitions mostly exclude things like art design and narrative structure, which is probably for the best, since this allows us to discuss those subjects without having to infringe upon the core subject of game design, which also happens to be the most frequent failure I’ve encountered in my history with video games. Also note that the term “game” pertains to a specific play instance (a game of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune), but easily expands to include all of the design elements which influence that single play through. What it does not include, however, is a game with no beginning or no end – the so-called “sandbox game.” This is one of the areas where I think that the industry’s lack of a cohesive vocabulary has really inhibited our capacity for self-examination, as I cannot conceive of a situation in which I would want to analyze The Sims and Ninja Gaiden side by side. I would categorize sandbox games – or really any game where the player is simply given a structure, some objects, and sent out to make his own fun without a goal or condition for success – as toys, which may seem like a derisive term, but I certainly do not intend it that way. If and when I end up discussing such a game, however, I will describe it in those terms to avoid confusion, if for no other reason.

Honestly, the fact that I feel it necessary to go through the entire exercise is a sad commentary on the video game industry. The business right now is absolutely full to bursting with notable individuals who clamor individually and together for games to be considered an art form, but the fact that there’s enough of a misunderstanding that a discussion of “games as art” can derail over something as simple as the definition of a term proves how ill-suited to that role this emerging expressive form really is. One central feature of any artistic medium is a comprehensible critical language through which that medium can be examined, discussed, criticized, and praised. So, if I ever write my “Games Are Not Art” essay (probably a waste of time, since I would be examining a point so academic that it’s irrelevant to anybody other than a college professor), hopefully this preliminary set of definitions can keep us from diverging into equivocation on some simple, misused terms. I’d also encourage you, if you write critically about the industry (and there’s remarkably few people who do – most of “games journalism” is really consumer coverage concerned more with what is happening in the future than a discussion of what ought to happen, and there’s nothing wrong with that) to start using these definitions, or some of your own that you state clearly and precisely, before you pitch your thoughts over to Gamasutra or get in an argument on one forum or another. It’s my hope that by setting out these definitions here and now, we can avoid any confusion here on my current forum for discussion and hopefully understand what one another is saying.

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