What is a Game?

ku-mediumAfter a brief conversation with an acquaintance, I have come to realize that many people seem to misunderstand the concept of a video game. In my conversation, I discussed with my friend the merits of several video games, including the recent Bloodborne, versus that of many indie titles like Gone Home. In the conversation, the idea that the always controversial Depression Quest, to quote my friend, “is not even a real video game”, then he went on to discuss issues such as win or lose conditions and degrees of interactivity – elements which, curiously enough, I discuss in my hopefully soon to be published manuscript that I am currently editing to begin pitching at publishing houses. In order to illuminate my friend’s perspective – and that of many others – I thought I should write a bit about what it means to be “a video game”, because why not beat a dead horse with a stick, right?

In today’s discourse, many seem to equate the idea of video game with the idea of game. However, there is, to my mind, a clear distinction. A game is an activity – it is something that you “do” or “participate in” and that has clear definitions (with one of the more commonly accepted being Juul’s definition of game). Some games can be digital and represented in computer screens or television sets, but not all of them have to. Things such as Pokemon: The Card Game, Basketball, Chess, and Tic Tac Toe are games. Video games, however, are a medium. When one speaks of “video games” broadly, one is not speaking about a specific title, they are talking – whether knowingly or not – about a means in which something is stored in order to later be represented, they are talking about the Medium of the Video Game. Video games and games should, thus, be considered as distinct things.


Before moving on, consider the concept of a poem. A poem involves rhyme, meter, and some sort of language. A poem can be represented through speech, etched on a wall, written on the sand, or penned in a book. A poem is akin to a game. The book, however, is a medium. A book can hold poems, stories, essays, drawings, or musical notations. And some books are books of poetry, but not all are. A book is the container for content, and the book is akin to the “video game”.

If video games are containers for content, then the content can vary. As I suggested to my friend, a video game can be a game, but it doesn’t have to be. This might seem counterintuitive, given that the term of video game itself implies “play that happens in a digitally represented space”, but throughout the history of games we have seen several titles that are considered video games but which don’t really emphasize play. Visual novels, for example, are widely considered as video games, with some even being sold on gaming consoles. However, reading text spoken by on screen avatars and choosing multiple options is not something that one would consider play. X Blaze Code Embryo for the PS 3, for example, is one such video game which, despite its fleshed out narrative and compelling characters, cannot be called a game as it lacks play. It’s a video game, but not a game. This, I think, is a differentiation that, if widely accepted, might help fans and reviewers alike engage in more thoughtful discussion of games that skirt the line between narrative and play.

headerWhen discussing Gone Home, many said that it was not a real video game because it didn’t have any fail states. I think an argument can be made about whether it’s a GAME or something else – do we consider exploration as play? Do we consider experiences with a win state but no lose state as play? I think what it means to be a GAME has some space to be argued over. But there is no question, to me at least, that Gone Home is a VIDEO GAME. The same can be said of any narrative-heavy point-and-click game. Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Dontnod’s Life is Strange both feature choice making at the core of their narratives. Players (or perhaps participants?) control the on-screen characters and engage in some minimal exploration. Both of these titles are video games, but are they games? Again, it comes down to how you define “game”. Going by Juul’s definition, they are borderline games.

This brings us to Depression Quest. Is Depression Quest a game? I would argue that no, it is not. It is hypertext fiction. The participant reads through a narrative and makes choices. This is by no means play, and indeed in Juul’s definition of game the genre of hypertext fiction is defined as “not a game”. But can hypertext fiction be considered a video game? Again, it depends on one’s definition of ‘video game’. According to some definitions of video game (Arthur Asa Berger’s comes to mind), hypertext fiction, very much like text adventures, can be considered as video games. However, I can see how some might make the argument that hypertext fiction cannot be a video game because it lacks the core visual element needed to fulfill the “video” element. I personally don’t have a problem with this. Zork, Colossal Cave Adventure, and other text adventures are often considered video games, so why not hypertext fiction as well?


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on April 12, 2015, in Media Commentary, Video Game Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. There are games and experiences. I lump them into two different sections. Games that there’s no loss, I lump into experiences. Even things like Home have no loss, they’re experiences. Home looks like a game. Controls like a game, but you can just sit and go through start to finish without dying. I mean Home and not Gone Home…. but its the same thing there. Gone Home, Proteus and various others.

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