Tuesday, November 4, 2014

What is a Game?

In today's Idea Channel Video, Jamin Warren posed and responded to the question of what constitutes a game? This question has popped up quite a bit in the past few years with the rise in prominence of abstract indie titles that straddle the lines between games and stories. It is my belief that this question stands not only to show us how little we truly understand games,but by extension how little we understand media as a whole as I find we're starting to blur the lines between arts and commodities, two things which I propose hints at the true root of the problem to begin with.

Video games from the moment they came about dealt with the question of whether or not they merited the label of "art". It was recently here in the United States where I live that our law recognized games officially as works of art worthy of protection by our first amendment right to expression. However, I think it needs to be asked why this question needed to be proposed in the first place in order to understand the point I wish to make.

Unlike other mediums, games are differentiated by their disposition towards harnessing user inputs. When I play Mario, I have to control my jumps and momentum carefully and in Call of Duty, I have to aim quickly and shoot, in chess, I have to pick my moves with care to try to outwit my opponent. Each of these items have their aesthetics located in the emotions and thought elicited within the inputs the player makes themselves. The "story" here lay in the actions, not the pieces that perform the actions. 

This is a far cry from other mediums like literature or film because the latter two place an emphasis on the user drawing meaning from what they're interacting with rather than the act of  interacting. Do I read a book to flip pages or follow the story the words create? One could argue that a pick your own adventure book or visual novel is a game by saying the path we choose makes it a game, but we usually don't really think about the act of choosing the path (the click or page turns) so much as we think about the plot thread we get out of it.

It is in the question of "Why am I interacting with this medium?" that we can get an answer to whether or not something is a game or not. This can be problematic question since software often has an IMMENSE amount of versatility as is compared to anything else before it. A game can contain a wide variety of assets for the user to impress upon. So many that it can be easy to get lost in what we're experiencing. 

Many of today's games employ an asset types that many consider non-interactive (I disagree with this notion as EVERYTHING is interactive, it's simply a sliding scale of degrees). Let's focus on one called the cut-scene which presents a brief sequence of events to the user. In these, the only interaction the user is having with the asset is placing in the mental effort necessary to understand the sequence. Most people wouldn't even count this as a form of interaction due to how little thought it takes, so it would stand to reason that on its own, the cut-scene isn't a game, but rather a video or film. However, many games don't just have cut-scenes, they have these scenes interspersed in between other more active interactions typically called gameplay such as platforming, aiming, shooting, navigating, planning, etc. 

This makes it tricky since the question now can only be "empirically" answered by either a time-ratio comparison, where in by the user figures out the time in spent interacting with things they consider "gameplay" or "non-interactive", and count an item as a game if the gameplay outstrips the "non-interactive". Some might refer to this as the Story-to-Gameplay Ratio. It may seem like this would solve things, but it fails to end the debates due to one big problem, there is no way to define gameplay without obtaining somekind of human special mode or median gameplay qualification scale, a nigh impossible feat considering it is both subjective and variable.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, everything is an interaction! If everything is an interaction, than arguably everything is gameplay, but I've also mentioned before that there is a form of sliding scale for gameplay to non-interactive based on the amount of effort needed to interact with the item. Effort necessary can change for a person based on a variety of factors, from mood to talent. What one person may call an interactive challenge another may call an time consuming and complex page flip.

So, in the end, how do we reconcile these two disparate, changing stances? I'd argue there may be no way other than to either not ask the question or figure out a way to get everyone to agree with each other and define a perfectly sliding scale that every sentient entity follows constantly. I'll go with the former and simply enjoy the interaction for what it is and ask what I thought it was later. At this point, I've taken questions of definition as undecidable problems that will either sort themselves out as culture grows, be forced out by some form of overlord (robot, aliens, big brother, god, take your pick, seriously), or just won't be answered and will waste the time of everyone by inciting flame wars and rants, not wholly unlike this one.  ;)

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