What defines a “game” has always been a tricky question for both gamers and non-gamers and there have been numerous titles that have been hotly debated as to their entitlement of the “game” label. This has been seen with “Animal Crossing, “The Sims,” “Journey,” and many, many other titles, and the debate touches further than on a surface layer. Some might argue, “who cares if some people call it a game, it still exists in its own right and why need a title to justify the existence of this program of 1’s and 0’s?” While this is an idealistic idea in theory, it ignores a very real and somewhat unfortunate side effect of sectioning off what is and what isn’t a game. If a title is criticized as not truly being a game, it’s casually dismissed as not being worth the time or effort to advertise or promote the game, which has been seen for near a decade now. While this is more often seen with so-called “casual games” (and there may be other correlations between the success of casual games due to their previously limited market before the advent of mobile gaming, Farmville, and more popularized games) it cannot be denied that “Nintendogs” hadn’t received the same amount of media attention as “Scribblenauts” due to the wholesided dismissal of it as an actual game, rather than a dog-raising simulator.
As for the definition of the game itself, this is frankly an absurd concept to wrap one’s mind around. The major three arguments I’ve heard of what defines a game are as follows:
I. Games are interactive systems
II. Games are interactive software programs used for fun
III. Games require a winstate (I’m sure that there are other tenants that can be thought of, but these three are the most common that I’ve heard, and will be the three that I address. If you have your own definition of what constitutes a game, please feel free to include that in the comments!)
I. Games Are Interactive Systems
It is a fair assessment to say that games require some sort of player input to continue a narrative of experience, but this also unintentionally includes several “games” that I believe can be fairly easily ruled out as games, yet they meet this definition. Traffic lights and government branches are interactive systems… Yet, games? And to decide on a true definition, there cannot be exceptions for “this meets the criteria, but it still doesn’t count.” So we’ve tripped at the first hurdle already.
II. Games are Interactive Software Programs Used for Fun
While the previous definition was too broad, this definition is far too narrow. This automatically rules out sports, board games, or card games, and even rules out games that aren’t traditionally fun. Very few play Silent Hill, The Walking Dead, or Amnesia: The Dark Descent to laugh or smile, yet these games are still experiences that many wish to have. And while fun is defined as “enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure,” can feelings terror, fear, or unease be defined as enjoyment, amusement, or pleasure? Further reading on why some people seek a simulated feeling of terror or fear can be seen in an article titled “Complexity, Coherence, and Halloween” on the magazine http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-chaotic-life/200910/complexity-coherence-and-halloween, which the author makes a point of declaring as “not fun.”
III. Games Require a Winstate
Minecraft and even Skyrim do not technically possess a winstate, yet most are still defined by most as games. While Minecraft may have an informal winstate of slaying the Ender Dragon and Skyrim possesses an informal winstate of slaying dragons in order to finish the story progression, neither game ends after having slain a draconian beast. Many would argue that the true enjoyment of both titles is from the free-range environment that does not section players off into a linear progression; rather instead it fosters creativity in a large open-world. The lack of winstate does not detract from the game, instead it reinforces a player’s imagination and enjoyment with the experience created.
What a “game” is still evades me, though I feel as if attempting to limit what constitutes a game and what doesn’t potentially limits the freedom and success that a title may have. An outright dismissal of something as a game seems archaic and outdated, as even Guitar Hero once was under scrutiny over whether or not it was truly a game before the subcategory of “Rhythm Game” was established. Ultimately, I’d like to see a definition be formed that could universally apply to all games, though the probability of finding an adequate definition is easier said than done.