Games Ontology for Academics

https://twitter.com/nothings/status/857600112217825280 https://twitter.com/smestorp/status/857605252308242432 https://twitter.com/smestorp/status/857600946184093696 https://twitter.com/andrewtraviss/status/857598230246420480 Came across this conversation about the most recent story and games thing.. (thread is hard to read whole because twitter is terrible) and I know your position, and that you have a really specific definition of game, but this emphasized to me the difficulty of arriving at a consensus when someone can interpret the press space to advance text thing to fit your definition It also seems clear that just being super reductionist sort of solves it, like, right, pressing space can be called a game, but obviously there is no artistic substance in that aspect, so it’s meaningless to include it in an analysis. How would you address it so that some consensus is reached?

Consensus probably isn’t going to be reached. There’s a lot of cultural issues here that prevent consensus. We have a broad digital entertainment field that is called “games” broadly as a field. Games collectively are a mass medium, bigger than Hollywood, revenue-wise. They’re the medium of a generation.

“Games” has a really complicated ontology. Ian Bogost wrote about what a clusterfuck it is in this article: http://bogost.com/writing/videogames_are_a_mess/

When you refer to a game, like Grand Theft Auto, you refer to a bunch of layered concepts wrapped on top of each other. The word “Game” could refer to a bunch of things when you’re talking about GTA. You could mean the physical product sold in stores, you could mean the disc you store in a sleeve, you could mean the source code, you could mean the set of interactions that create challenges in the game, you could mean the contract the player enters into, using the game console as a facilitating device to act out this contract.

So the field of digital entertainment became synonymous with the word game, and not all digital entertainment necessarily involves actual games, the same way not all toys include games. By quirk of history, we happened to get a large category labeled with the same name as a subcategory of that larger category, because the larger category was primarily populated by objects of that subcategory.

So now we have a bunch of people who have been brought up accepted in the larger category of digital entertainment called “Games” who want to make things that are not games. A lot of other people (Lets call them hardcore gamers) who are really into games notice there’s something weird and a bit off about this new crop of interactive fiction and the issue with our lexicon comes to the forefront. And the hardcore gamers are also kind of exclusionary dicks about it, so all these people making non-games digital entertainment are like, “Wait a sec, we’ve all collectively been the same community up until this point, why are you kicking us to the curb?”

And it’s true, we still are part of a broader community that’s been mistakenly named “Games”. We’re all building digital entertainment products with similar means of execution and distribution on the same platforms. Steam is a “Games” platform, which happens to serve more than games, the same way you can download Netflix to any modern console.

In the peripheries we’ve always had digital entertainment that wasn’t games, but was sold under the broader label “Games”, and now that there’s a bunch of these things being made all at once, we’re forced to confront the failure of our lexicon.

We have two different groups using the word “Game” differently, and to a degree they have different ethos. Hardcore gamers tend to value a lot more conventional presentations of media. They’re okay with adventure games or even something like Phoenix Wright, they’re not okay with more “artsy fartsy” stuff like Dear Esther, Sunset, and so on. They’re fine with Yume Nikki, or LSD Dream Simulator, but not a lot of their western indie scene equivalents that tend to be more mundane or try to provide more social commentary or seem pretentious in their message. So there’s definitely a measure of exclusion going on here, which is wrongheaded on the part of hardcore gamers. All these pieces of digital art deserve to be discussed in the same communities, they deserve to be distributed through the same channels, and respected for what they are.

And honestly I’m a part of the problem. I don’t like that community very much, for an assortment of reasons, and I’ve argued in bad faith about what a game is before. I’ve obstinately argued with people, using my definition of game and ignoring the obvious overlap with the more general use of it as a category name for digital entertainment. I’m kind of an asshole for doing that and I should probably knock it off.

However despite all this linguistic overlap. Our definition of game controls our ability to talk about games and to some extent think about games. The hardcore aren’t blameless here either, even though they recognize that there’s a linguistic screwup here, they can’t identify why it happened and they make the same mistakes just as often. Discussion about games generally isn’t talking about them in the precise sense that I’ve defined it as, even among hardcore gamers. I mean, you get these hardcore gamers going, “Oh, some games are good because of their stories and it doesn’t matter if their gameplay isn’t great,” just as often as the Interactive Fiction guys that these hardcore gamers dislike.

If we generify the definition of games to include all digital entertainment, then we lose a piece of our history, of what games were before video games. We lose the word to address a specific type of entity, and that’s rather dangerous, especially because we’re already not discussing the formal systems of games very much.

A lot of the interactive fiction people are resistant to reifying the definition here, claiming that hardcore gamers are trying to say that they’re not a part of this big community and they deserve to also get to use the word “Games” to describe their own projects because otherwise it’ll exclude them from the rest of the community, and they’re somewhat right. The hardcore gamers are trying to exclude them. Fixing the linguistic issues here is a tough road to talk, practically impossible. I don’t think we’re going to reach any type of consensus because each side has a semi-legitimate claim to their position and both sides hate each other. I think most gamers and people outside of these more opinionated sides don’t have a strong opinion on the issue. I think they recognize that Interactive Fiction isn’t really a game, but they also won’t really question it being presented as one.

I think it’s still an important distinction to make because there’s parts of games we just aren’t discussing and I think the concepts that we attach words to shape what we’re able to talk about, and the definition of game is particularly important here. I abide by a ton of misnomers, like RPG, when RPGs aren’t about Role-playing, or Action Puzzle game when Tetris isn’t really about puzzles, except in Type-B, but I think losing the word to refer to games is particularly dangerous, because they’re still a largely unexplored and unexamined medium, and if the term is generified to mean interactive art, then we might not be able to refer to the medium anymore, which is kind of sad.

So the tl;dr is, shit’s fucked, we probably can’t fix it. We’re gonna have this fight forever.

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