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What the hell is a videogame anyway?

Posted by CaptainBinky | Posted in Games, Rants | Posted on 16-01-2016


Whenever a game hits the internet which pushes the limit of what many would consider an actual videogame, it’s not uncommon for that to be met with a certain amount of hostility. Sometimes it’s because the themes are not felt to be appropriate, it’s political, has an overt agenda, is dogmatic, is linear to the point of having barely any interaction, or any number of other reasons. This is not ideal, to put it mildly.

I’m all for videogames exploring these sorts of ideas – that’s not to say that those types of games would necessarily appeal to me – but that doesn’t mean I object to them existing.

The trouble is, that depending on how you define these things, it can rather stretch the definition of a “game”. Are these things really games? Do we really have a concrete definition of what it actually is to be a videogame? Wikipedia (bear with me) defines a videogame as, “an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. I can agree with that, although the word “game” would need defining in order to really nail that down. A game, they say, is a, “structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool”. So, combining those to remove terms which also need defining yields a videogame as, “an electronic structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool, that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor”. That sounds perfectly reasonable to me, if a little verbose.

So it seems to me, that the structural and recreational aspects of “play” are really rather fundamental to what a videogame is. So really, is something which is not recreational – in other words, something which you do not engage in for fun and pleasure, something that’s entire raison d’etre is to make you feel uncomfortable, for example – is this really a videogame? If not, what is it? Do we even have terminology for these kinds of things?

Back in the early CD-ROM days, we had games which branded themselves as “interactive movies” and that was an excellent description of what they were. The trouble with that term was most of them were flupping awful so I’m not entirely convinced that were I to make one, I’d particularly want it associated with that name. But surely we can come up with good terminology for this stuff? It’s not like your endeavour is suddenly less interesting or exciting if it wasn’t called a videogame any more. Are visual novels “games”? To me… no, not really. They’re visual novels, and that’s a perfect description for them. Some are fantastic, some are shite – same as everything else. They’re not good or bad because they’re a visual novel any more than a narrative is good or bad because it’s explored as a documentary film.

Steam has “Games”, “Software”, “Hardware”, “Videos”. What if there was another section called “Interactive Movies” (I’m using that term for lack of anything better). Would there be so many raging arguments on forums if that’s where those things were filed? There were a few arguments when films started appearing on Steam, but they were all filed under “Videos” so, once people got used to the idea, arguments decreased. While there’s a million reasons in play as to why there’s often so much hostility towards certain games, does this not in part revolve around people’s differing ideas of what games should or should not be? Surely this, at least, is a solvable problem?

Perhaps this is all just the result of the number of videogames which aren’t necessarily technically videogames representing only a tiny fraction of the whole. That to take those games and file them somewhere else would seem like relegating them to the back corner of the shop where no-one will see them. But on the flip side, maybe there’s a whole bunch of people out there who’d say they’re not interested in videogames but would actually be really interested in this stuff, and that putting all these things together – away from the shoot-people-in-the-face games that they’re not in the least bit interested in – could actually draw attention to them , particularly from mainstream press outlets who would not normally cover videogames as part of their Arts coverage.

I don’t know, ultimately. I just feel like these ludicrously broad terms – the likes of “videogame”, “indie”, “gamer” – need concrete and specific definitions if we’re going to have useful conversations about them. Otherwise we’ll just have arguments which, fundamentally, are fueled by us all having different interpretations of what these terms actually mean. As it stands, all we can really say about videogames is that they’re electronic things, indie is just a vibe, genre or the lack of publisher ownership (how does that make a game better or worse? Oooh I LOVE videogames which aren’t owned by a Publisher because… uhh… yeah, sometimes they’re shite too actually), and a gamer is anything from pretty much everybody who’s ever used a phone, to a tremendously specific subset depending on which article you read. None of this is tremendously helpful.

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