What makes a game?

What counts as a game, and what counts as a regular story? Where do we draw the line between them? According to Janet Murray, games are set apart from normal stories if they have 1) a set of rules and 2) an objective. There is not much debate over whether or not Colossal Cave Adventure is a game or not. It has a set of rules (type in compass directions to move around the cave) and an objective (to escape the cave). “My Body” by Shelly Jackson is very clearly NOT a game. It is interactive and allows the reader to read the story in a different sequence, but there are no rules and there is no objective. However, “Depression Quest” by Zoe Quinn and “howling dogs” by Porpentine can easily be argued either way.

In the case of “howling dogs” there is a clear set of rules. You must eat food and go into the virtual reality to make it to the next day. However, what is the objective? I personally do not think there was a specific objective. There were many choices for the reader to make, creating a sense of agency, but no matter what choices were made the storyline remained the same. The main character gets more and more absorbed in his imaginary world, causing their house in reality to become more and more decrepit. This is very similar to “Antiflânerie” by Joshua Hall. In the Jeremy & Carter storyline the viewer chooses to lead the main character on a different route, giving the them a sense of agency, but this merely allows them to get sidetracked in an almost linear story. Therefore, I would not consider “howling dogs” as a game.

What about Depression Quest? It has an objective: to help the main character and help them get over their depression. The rules are to make choices and send the main character on different paths that may/may not help them. But somehow, it does not feel like a game. Is this because it is not fun? But I think Stanley Parable was boring and tedious, but I still thought of it as a game. What makes it different? I think it was the lack of space. Murray describes gaming as “a medium that includes still images, moving images, text, audio, three-dimensional, navigable space. Stanley Parable created an office space for the player to explore and used that space to create different storylines. On the other hand, there is no sense of exploration and 3-D space in Depression Quest. There is no “map” to travel.

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One thought on “What makes a game?

  1. I don’t know that Murray would agree with you when you say a game must have 3D navigable space. While many games do have that, there are plenty of 2D games, both video games and board games. One thing I would ask is, what’s at stake in defining what is and what is not a game? If we think of the Hudson article, how do power relations affect not only what gets called a game, but who gets to be the one to decide?

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