Why some people refuse to call some games "games"

(and why it was never really a question)

games opinion wooooooooooords

The question “is this a game?” poses striking similarity to “is this art?”. The latter question having been consistently subverted through history by avant-garde movements, those continually pushing and stretching the existing definition of art. The works produced in the Dadaist movement, or the notable example of John Cage’s composition 4’33” strike many parallels as “art through anti-art”.

“The cost of experiencing art” One argument is that people wish to know what they are going to experience before they pay for it, but it goes without question. Some people may not enjoy this particular movement of interactive experiences, and that’s absolutely to be expected, no one thing can please everyone. But that also makes it no different to any other work of art. You can absolutely be displeased with an experience, as was quite often the case with more notable Dadaist works such as the riot-inciting play Le Cœur à gaz (The Gas Heart) by Tristan Tzara or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, famous for being denied from an open exhibition for being “not art” by the Society of Independent Artists. However, one needs only to look at the following 90 years to see the effects of Dada artists, influencing surrealism, postmodernism, pop art and countless more individuals to see that even if only recognised so in hindsight, such work is still very much, art.

So what are some common traits of “games”? The presence of success and/or failure states? Perhaps, but is there a “failure state” in Journey? In Heavy Rain? In Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater? The most prominent “failure state” in any of the above is a lack of progress, there is no “bad ending” here, “insert coin” or hard-failure necessary. It’s a trait shared by so many games. Failure is almost entirely a non-issue in an effort to increase usability in modern narrative-driven games. Failure in a narrative-driven game, where there is only a sole pre-determined outcome, is entirely determined by the player’s patience. Stanley Parable’s failure states are equally success states, so it effectively has zero failure states.

So what about success states? Is there a “success state” in The Sims? Dwarf Fortress? Skyrim? Many popular games simply have no explicit success state, they rely on an exploration of mechanics in a rule-based system. Players can afford new items as a Sim’s pay-grade goes up, or unlock further narrative as quests are completed in Skyrim. But when a player gets a Sim to the top of their chosen career, beats a big bad in the narrative of Skyrim or manages to create a self-sustaining Fortress complete with lava-powered kitten disposal unit, there’s no “You win!” banner unfurling on-stage and no confetti falling from the sky.

So then mastery of a game must be the key! But following this restriction, games such as “September 12th” or “Madrid” from newsgaming.com start to fall by the wayside. The former, “September 12th” is a game in which the player attempts to quell the threat of terrorism, using its mechanics as commentary for an era of United States foreign policy. The latter, “Madrid” is a commentary on the 311 terrorist attacks in Spain. The player is presented with a crowd of peaceful protestors holding a candle vigil and is instructed to click the candles to make them shine brighter. Should the candles go dim, the player is simply urged to “keep trying”, a bittersweet and hopeful remark; the t-shirts worn by the crowd proudly displaying their cities and symbolising the global and personal reach of such acts of terror.

To argue that such games are “not games” does a disservice to what games are and can be.

The entire basis of argument for a distinction between game and non-game is arbitrary.

To say that something is a game implies… what? To say that something is a non-game implies…. equally as little.

So why the distinction? Why is there such protection and restriction of the word “game”? Rather than say “game” is a malleable term, in which more granularity is used for the movements and pieces within it? Personally, I’ve enjoyed this swell in games that are non-games, just as I enjoy Dadaist art through anti-art. I for one will be happy when the “cutscene-narrative-driven spectacle” movement that seems common in so many games starts to peter out.

If you can’t pin down why something isn’t a game, why bother drawing that line, when it swerves back and forth at the line-drawers choosing?

Both traditional and newer, non-traditional experiences are pushing boundaries together, there’s no reason to divide them because someone wants what games were, not what games can be.

As Adorno states in Aesthetic Theory, “even the abolition of art is respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art seriously.” If people want to accept games are a form of art, then they also need to accept that games will be pushed to the limits of what both a game, and art, are.

Written by Matt Sanders