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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Navel Gaming

Yes, it’s another video game article. This one will be more philosophical in nature.

I have spoken on the types of gamers in the past, but what makes a gamer? Why, it’s someone who plays games of course, you trite nitwit. True enough, dear reader, true enough.

But what makes something a game?

Oh G-d! Not another one of those articles! Now I bet he’s going to open with a dictionary entry!

Quiet, you.

So, Merriam Webster’s (GAH! I KNEW IT!) defines game four different ways, two of which are pertinent to this discussion:
1 a: Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement

3 a: A physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other.

I’m aware that a number of you out there might dispute the above definitions; particularly number 1; but I’m taking these as the accepted definitions of the word Game, in particular because these two definitions are what people who don’t necessarily call themselves gamers think of when they hear or use the term game.

Also, the rules I’m about to lay out, to steal a bit from the late George Carlin, are my rules. I make them up. If you don’t like them, you’re free to think I’m an idiot. If you follow me on twitter, I’m sure you already do.

Anyway, from the above definitions we can derive two fundamental rules of what makes something an actual game.

First, a game is fun. Or, at least, it’s intended to be fun. If you claim to be designing a game and making it fun isn’t one of your goals, then you are not making a game.

It’s very important to make this distinction, because a developer can intend for a game to be fun, but fail. It’s still a game, just not a good one. Plus, it we don’t make this distinction, then MS Word can call itself a game, and nobody wants that. It may be a puzzle to figure out how the heck you’re supposed to do anything (or, more likely, how to make it NOT do something), but it was definitely not designed to be fun.

If your goal in making your “game” is to challenge people’s ideas about what makes a game, then you’re not making a game.

I know of “games” that were specifically designed to not be fun, but to make a statement, or force the user to think about something. While that may be interesting to a certain type of person who is not me, it’s not a game. You can make a game educational and even thought-provoking, but if you’re not also trying to make it fun, then you’re not making a game.

And remember, that’s my rule. I made it up.

The second rule, derived from definition number 2 from Merriam Webster:

Games have a clearly delineated difference between failure and success.

If you’ll never see a “game over” screen, you’re not playing a game; you’re playing with a toy. Toys have their merit, and I’ll be the first to defend them, but toys and games are related in the sense that poems and limericks are related. One is a subset of the other, carved out by having rules that do not apply to the larger group.

But even if you have a “game over” screen, if winning and losing share the same outcome (from a narrative perspective), then you’re not playing a game either.

So sorry, Gravity Bone, you are not a game.

If you’ve played Gravity Bone, you either love it or hate it. But either way, you’re not allowed to call it a game, and here’s why: (SPOILER ALERT)

At the end of the game, you encounter the big-bad. You give chase across rooftops, and when you finally catch up to the big-bad you get shot and you fall off of the building to your death. While that may be interesting storytelling, it is not materially different from what happens if you simply miss a jump while pursuing the big bad. Either way your character plummets to his death. The only difference between victory and failure is that you get to try again if you fail, and you get a cutscene if you succeed. But since you already know the ending, I don’t know why you’d bother. Just jump off the first ledge you see and call it a speed run.

Another example of something that’s not a game is Noby Noby boy on the Playstation Network. It largely satisfies rule number one in that it’s amusing enough, but there is no hard objective to meet, no condition for victory or failure. Noby Noby Boy is a toy that keeps track of certain statistics while you’re playing with it.

I know this post will irk some people, because it sounds like I’m passing a value judgment. I’d like to stress that I’m not saying that Noby Noby Boy (or Gravity Bone) is a bad example of whatever it is. I’m not even saying I don’t like it (well, in Gravity Bone’s case I am saying I don’t like it, because I don’t). All I’m saying is it’s not a game.

I can see where some people might make that mistake, because typically when someone says “that’s not X” it means they don’t like whatever they’re describing. Like when someone points at a toilet and says “that’s not art.” What they really mean is they don’t like Duchamp or the Dadaism. Well, that’s not what I’m doing. And I can prove it.

If I were just saying that anything I didn’t like wasn’t a game, I’d condemn Braid as not being a game because Jonathan Blow was so hot to challenge our preconceptions about gaming. Well, he certainly made some pretentious crap, but he still made a game, and my perceptions of him and his game can’t change that.

I’m not going to speak about whether games are, or can be, Art with a Capital A. That is a subject for another post that I am not qualified to write, though you wait and see if that stops me.