Opinion: Stop Being So Rigid In How You Define Games

by Kimberley Wallace on Nov 05, 2013 at 09:05 AM

One thing I’m consistently annoyed with as developers break new ground in interactive entertainment is a subset of gamers dismissing new experiences by saying, “it’s not a game,” or “it’s barely a game.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how people attempt to quantify how much and what type of gameplay is required to label it “a game.” Gone Home was one of the more unique experiences I’ve had, and many people dismissed it outright by saying that searching a house barely constituted gameplay. I disagree entirely. Does a game need levels? Does it need weaponry? Do you have to beat bosses? My answer would be no.

We’re often too rigid in how we categorize such a young industry. Every year, games tread new ground and explore ever-growing experiences. I understand those who don’t enjoy experimental or narrative-driven games, but please, don’t dismiss it because of a very narrow definition of gaming. Video games are a young medium; the people who invented it are alive today. The rules and conventions will continue to evolve as gaming grows beyond its roots. Just because you’ve grown to expect games to be a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how they’re always going to be, and this past year more than ever I’m seeing a change. We’re at a good experimental stage to take the medium to new places and expand. 

As we grow, more games will take certain rules, but pull the standards in different directions. Do Gone Home and The Walking Dead follow some of the tropes of gaming? Certainly. You couldn’t advance to that attic in Gone Home without unlocking various doors, or even know the attic had the final piece if you didn’t look through that house. In The Walking Dead, if you didn’t do various actions like dodge or shoot at an enemy, you found a Game Over screen. But they also evolved as an entertainment form, providing incredibly strong emotional pulls, beyond those that a movie or other form of passive entertainment could. The interactivity is what made these experiences tick.

Developers will continue to challenge how we define games. I’m amazed at how much games have done recently. For instance, empathy games, like Depression Quest, give the opportunity to learn about what it’s like to confront tough issues. More recently, The Stanley Parable challenged and defied notions we’ve been accustomed to in games. All of the buttons and knobs, the Pavlovian responses that we've learned are missing from Stanley's misadventure. Instead, it feels like an anti-game, sticking its nose up at the status quo.

Perhaps the most striking example is this year's Papers, Please. Its core is, for all intents and purposes, busy work. Can you follow different forms of documentation while managing your own life? The simulation isn't one that puts us in the shoes of a super-soldier or seasoned adventurer, but that of a simple border guard who must decide whether or not the lives of others have any more or less value than those of his family.

I don’t think Ralph Baer or Nolan Bushnell would have ever predicted that games would go to some of the places they have. It’s a great time to be a gamer; we have more options than ever and so many of them break from the norm. The expanding scope is also astonishing; more people are touching games because of their appeal beyond the expected audience. In fact, many Game Informer editors got their significant others, who normally don’t game, to try games like Beyond: Two Souls and The Wolf Among Us because they don’t feel as complicated as throwing them into Grand Theft Auto. Heck, my grandma loves Wii Sports. I always say, the more, the merrier. 

As we embark on a new generation, innovation and experiences that deviate from our expectations are bound to take flight, and I’d hate to see people dismissing them because they kept such a rigid definition of what a game should be.