I decided to spice things up and post some original content this week.

When we were first asked to define ‘game’, or at least provide some key characteristics of most games, I had an immediate answer: a game is [typically] structured by rules, and a game [typically] has a defining objective.

I have a nagging feeling that I had heard someone talk about this previously, rather than actually having experienced a sudden flash of genius. Either way, I had thought about this definition of ‘game’ enough to know that I agreed with it.

While researching this topic later on (read: typing “what is a game” in the Google search bar), I came across a video by Extra Credits addressing the issue. I watched this for the first time back in 2013 when it was uploaded. The guys at Extra Credits argue that asking the question that I had Googled – “what is a game?” – is faulty in and of itself, and that the debate surrounding the definition of ‘game’ is creating artificial divides in the gaming community as well as limiting creative expression. Instead, they prefer to use the more inclusive term “interactive experience”.

Just as we discussed agency as a key component of gameplay, the video identifies volition as the defining characteristic of an interactive experience. If we have volition, or “the ability to fundamentally change an experience”, then the experience is interactive. This definition encompasses everything from Antiflânerie to “Colossal Cave Adventure” to “howling dogs” (though perhaps not the “Super Press Space to Win RPG”).

But they don’t all necessarily conform to my earlier Rules + Objective formula.  Antiflânerie, while allowing participants to make story-altering decisions, does not have a real objective to guide these decisions. I think something similar could be said for “howling dogs” – rather than pursuing an objective, decisions are primarily made to reveal a predetermined narrative. “Colossal Cave Adventure”, however, seems to lie well within these guidelines. In its case, the rules dictate how participants explore the gameworld with the dual objectives of earning points and escaping the cave alive. The Super PSTW RPG… well, the rules that dictate a participant’s decisions in this satire don’t actually allow any true decisions to be made. So I’m counting that one out.

The primary argument of the video, however, is that the debate regarding what constitutes a game is fundamentally misguided. And yet that’s exactly what I’ve addressed in this post. While I completely agree that the hostility in the gaming community surrounding this issue stifles creative expression, I don’t think it’s possible to throw out the term entirely. I also don’t think it’s realistic to suppress the debate. As with all art, the boundaries of each genre are continually molded and expanded by innovation. The ongoing debate is essential to this process – the challenge is in making this debate inclusive of viewpoints held by those other than the most powerful or prominent in the gaming community.



4 thoughts on “Semantics

  1. Anna – I really like the points you made and the video you provided. Your post gave me a new light with which to examine this “game” issue.
    I think the volition qualifier is an important one, and probably one of the only true lines we can draw to separate games from movies and books. I wonder, however, if we can honestly say that we have volition in a game such as “Stanley’s Parable”. There are multiple paths in the game that lead you to points where you only have the illusion of control. This is most easily visible in the video game ending. Once you get the third door option, your path is fixed, regardless of the ‘choices’ you make. Even more broadly, the entire game focuses on the futility of your decisions in a world of predestination and determinism. After every ‘ending’, you are returned to your office. Nothing you can do in the game changes this inevitable outcome. Volition, defined as “the ability to fundamentally change an experience” may not be applicable here. On the contrary, some may argue that the experience is characterized by the journey, and not the destination. Therefore, as you have some control over Stanley’s journey, you do in fact have volition.

    Back to your idea – whether or not Stanley’s Parable is an existential narrative about our fundamental lack of control is not the point, and the argument neither contributes or detracts from the playing experience. Rather, drawing our attention to these ‘game questions’ gives us the opportunity to become aware of the vast diversity in the realm of games. By becoming more cognizant of the varied levels of interactivity and immersion throughout different media, we are empowered to create new stories, movies, and games. Our discussions of the nature of games, when viewed through this big picture lens, can actually inspire creativity instead of hindering it.


  2. Pingback: The story-game spectrum | HDCC 208: Digital Storytelling

  3. Hey Anna,

    I thought that you did a really great job of snapshotting the discussion surrounding the semantics circulating around the definition of a game. I also agreed with your definition of a game in saying that it is usually structured by rules and has a defining objective that players work towards.

    Traditional games such as board games and classical videogames fit this description very well. There are rules as to which players agree to adhere to, and there is an objective, a goal to work towards, that must be achieved in order to win. In the board game Sorry!, players race around the board to be the first to bring all of their pawns to “home”. They are constrained to certain rules that they must adhere to in order to win like “players must only pick one card at a time” or that “players that are bumped off the board must go back to Start”. However, as with games like Monopoly, players can agree to ‘bend’ the rules. Whenever my family plays Monopoly, we agree that we can go into debt so that people don’t go bankrupts and lose the game too quickly. Of course, we put a limit on the amount of debt anyone can have so anyone who exceeds that limit loses but the point is that the game itself doesn’t hinder our ability to play it that way.

    This definition of a game also adheres to video games like Pacman where the objective is clear, to eat all of the white dots without being killed by the ghosts. The limitations that exist in this game are enforced by the design of the game rather than simply being left up to the player’s discretion as in board games. Players can’t make Pac-Man travel through walls and they can’t just decide to give Pac-Man another life when all the lives in the game are used up. Regardless, this definition holds true for both physical and virtual games.

    I was pretty content knowing that such a seemingly simple definition worked for so many games. However, when I watched the “What is a Game?” video to learn more about other perspectives of the definition of a game, I was torn as I realized that games like “Howling Dogs” and “The Stanley Parable” blur the lines when it comes to adhering to the definition of a traditional game, but I would agree that they still provide cognitive, immersive experiences that impact it’s players. “Howling Dogs” was interactive, but the player was guided along one narrative path. “The Stanley Parable” actually allowed users to choose their own ending depending on the choices that they made but regardless, the players chose their ending based on their previous methodical choices. There really was no objective that players worked towards.
    The people at Extra Credits allude to the point that instead of using the diction ‘games’, that we should use the more inclusive language such as “interactive experience” so that gamers and game creators aren’t limited by the mere rules of traditional games. I would propose that instead of calling all games “interactive experiences” which is a bit too vague, that we call games that adhere to more of the traditional, universal characteristics of games with full user control, ‘games’ and other media that simply lead the player to uncover an established narrative that they had no power in changing, “interactive experiences”.

    In both of these media, volition is key and the players aren’t simply being passively perceptive as the video said. I agree with you when you concluded that while aggression and hostility regarding the argument of the definition of a game hinders creative expression, the argument itself facilitates necessary innovation and meaningful conversation.


  4. Excellent exchange, and one that shows how important games are to contemporary culture. By which I mean, we need to think as carefully about games as we do other forms of cultural production (film, novels, visual art, etc.).


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