The Videogame Misnomer, Part 1

Definition and categorization have got to be some of the most-discussed issues that fall under the umbrella of aesthetics, or the philosophy of art, in regards to videogames. On the one side, we have gamers defending against allegations from folks like Roger Ebert that videogames aren’t art; on the other, we have gamers declaring (often without support) that videogames like Dear Esther and Bientot L’ete aren’t “games” at all. While dot Game doesn’t believe the former question is worth your attention, we find the latter question of considerable interest. Is Dear Esther a videogame? If it is, what does that say about the medium? If it is not, what does that say? If it isn’t, what is it? Is that distinction meaningful?

These questions span far more than a single post. The question of definition in videogames is, as in all art, expansive enough that it might be considered open-ended for the time-being. For our purposes right now, we only seek to establish one thing.

The most commonly cited reason – probably the only reason – used to indict (or perhaps elevate) Dear Esther and its ilk (referred to by many, perhaps problematically, as notgames) as “not videogames” is that, strictly speaking, there is no way to lose. Granted, in Dear Esther there are certain ways to get more out of the experience, but let’s say for the purposes of this argument, they are correct. You have to be able to lose a game, or it isn’t a game, and videogames are games, right? It’s right there in the name.

Unfortunately, as I shall argue, the only evidence we have that videogames have to be games is in the word videogames. Furthermore, this post seeks to establish that it is at least plausible that the name “videogames” is, and always has been, a misnomer. To prove that it is will be a grander task, for the subject of a later article; one step at a time is good walking.

The first, most obvious, and in many ways most persuasive argument that it is possible or plausible that videogames is a misnomer is that of precedent. Many other media in art have misleading, incomplete, inaccurate, or blatantly false names. In fact, in this optional sidequest I demonstrate how the name of almost every artform is lacking in some way.

The point of that article is, briefly, that the name of an artform is not equivalent to its definition. To view it as such is to invite disaster. Such a line of reasoning fails trivially against well-defined artforms like film (digital?) and theater (Shakespeare in the Park?); do not attempt to use it on games, a medium still struggling for cohesion. It will only confuse matters.

But the precedent argument is only the first half: even if other media have had ill-fitting names, it need not be plausible for videogames to have had one. It is not enough to instill doubt on the naming scheme in general; I must instill doubt on this name in specific, as I have done with the others. I must demonstrate that the medium discovered at the dawn of computing may not be inherently playful, even if its examples always were so.

My work is cut out for me: the name videogames, as descriptive instead of prescriptive, seemed apt enough for 50 years of the medium. The very earliest videogames, from Tennis for Two and Spacewar! up to Colossal Cave Adventure (which challenges the designation “video”, if not “game”) were explicit in their gameplay structure. Points, failure, competition, and rules were a major factor in their design. Respected visionaries in the artistic possibilities of the medium, such as Chris Crawford and Raph Koster, have touted the fundamental nature of play to the human experience as the key to the artistic power of videogames. This is a dense jungle; I’ll need my sharpest machete.

I would be remiss at this point not to mention this insightful post by Chris DeLeon. Its argument is essentially that videogames don’t truly fit with our understanding of games in the real world. No videogames are inherently games; any games we play with them are artifical rules imposed on extremely sophisticated electronic toys. This distinction is subtle, but meaningful to consider. However, it will not be the thrust of my argument.

My argument is based on a single premise — that videogames represent a distinct artistic medium due to certain formal characteristics (a fairly uncontroversial premise, I should hope) — and explores two questions: a) what are these characteristics? and b) is gameplay a necessary characteristic for the medium?

Now, the use of so-called necessary and sufficient characteristics as definitional sets has fallen into disfavor in analytic philosophy; and perhaps rightly so. I reiterate my goal here is not to define videogames, or to demonstrate positively that their definition does not involve playing a game — it is only to demonstrate that there are other potentially viable factors that can define the genre.

But first, a  few words on the concept in aesthetics known as “the proliferation of artforms.”  The idea here is that we want be liberal in our definitions so as to be conservative with the number of artforms defined. It is meaningful, for instance, to distinguish motion pictures from still photography, and, many would argue, still photography from hand-created visual art; it is doubtful, however, many would want to consider live-action and animated films truly distinct artforms. Sure, they are different modes of creation; the Academy Awards offers animated films an award to themselves, distinct from Best Picture; but Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents them both, and occasionally an animated film is nominated for Best Picture (as in Toy Story 3). Yet there is no videogame nominated for Best Picture. Thus it seems safe to say that the various artforms have diversity within them. The idea here is to forestall objections that notgames rightly represented a similar, but distinct medium. If film can be so versatile in its members, then why not also videogames?  Again, a common response is to point to its name; the rebuttal thereto is the thrust of this article.

So as for the first question: what are the fundamental characteristics in videogames as we see them? Certainly the game structure is present; it is foolish to ignore or deny it. Graphics, however they may be defined, are not such a characteristic: few would deny that interactive fiction is a type of videogame. It seems compelling to suppose that all videogames are programmed on computers and computed dynamically each time the game is run; but I believe South Park is animated this way, and it seems to much to suppose that South Park is secretly a videogame. This suggests another characteristic: interactivity. It does not, I believe, stretch the imagination to suggest that videogames are unique among the arts in their interactivty (Chris Bateman’s opinion notwithstanding). One might bring up examples of certain interactive theater performances (such as improvisational comedy); it is simple to add that videogames are computerized interactive artworks.

It seems therefore plausible to me to suggest that an interactive, computerized artwork would be, uniquely, a videogame.

This of course requires a definition of interactive. There are certain shallow definitions of interactive that do not hold; we would not want a hypertext novel to be a videogame, nor a DVD, which, with most software, can be paused, played, and rewound at will. In The Art of Interactivity Design, Chris Crawford suggests a conversation as a definitive model for “interactivity”; that it must involve thinking between stages of input and reaction; of course he leaves the definition of “thinking” up to the reader; but surely it is to be understood that videogames have a deeper level of interaction than normal software for experiencing other kinds of art; furthermore, it may be supposed that while such software as a DVD player facilitates experiencing art, a videogame cannot exist separate from the software; it is equivalent to the software itself.

Therefore it seems that interactivity might be considered a unifying condition of videogames, a possible alternative to the game structure. This is consistent with all extant videogames: everything considered videogames already is interactive; but there still remains the question of whether gameplay need be considered necessary for the medium. There are two relevant considerations: if it is, then how shall we classify so-called notgames, and how do we resolve the proliferation of artforms conflict? and if it is not, then why have so many videogames focused on this aspect?

As for the former consideration, I don’t think there is a good resolution, and I think this is a strong point in favor of considering notgames videogames.

As for the latter, one can only speculate. Certainly there is a cultural expectation, at this point in videogames’ development, that they will have a win/lose game structure. This arose from a broad base of games developed along these lines. As to why all the earliest games were of this form, there are many possibilities. The earliest experimenters with videogames were computer programmers; these people had more logical than artistic sensibilities; when given a chance to create a simulation, it seems reasonable that they would create formal games. The barrier to entry for computer games was too high for artists. Consider how quickly hypertext novels arose after their creation; hypertext is a far simpler technology than computer programming. Furthermore, computer games were marketed to the same kind of logical, right-brained personal computer owners for the longest time. Then, they were marketed to children, who, of course, as growing mammals, are genetically predisposed to enjoying structured games. This created a market of videogames, designed by and targeted at people who enjoyed the extant game structure.

But it is dangerous to spend too much time on this kind of speculation; it is at best unreliable, and at worst stereotyped. I do not believe it necessary to prove that the development of videogames continued along this path; I think it is sufficient to suggest that it might have developed differently.

And thus I have established it plausible that something very much like videogames but without a win/lose game structure might exist; that it might even fit under the umbrella of videogames; and that it is not worthwhile to cite the word videogames as an objection to that categorization. The task of demonstrating positively that videogames actually do live up to this plausibility is still ahead of me.

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