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How Do We Define What Makes a ‘Game’? An In-Depth Discussion

While playing Final Fantasy XV, it got me thinking about the older entries in the franchise. I realised how ‘hands on’ the battle system of XV is in comparison to the passive/observative nature of the older entries. It all got me thinking back to my time in university, and our discussions on what qualifies something to be a “game” or not.

During our lectures, we debated a few times over what defines a video game; what is it sets a ‘game’ apart from other forms of media? One of the notable examples brought up was Final Fantasy – how it was essentially a glorified page-turning novel presented in 3D, with some number-crunching gameplay in between narrative highlights. In some cases, this statement is true. I definitely see the argument that certain JRPGs might be considered interactive stories, where the main element is the narrative, and the battle systems simply serve as a fun distraction.

If we’re to stick with Japanese games for a moment, the popular visual novel genre is a deeper facet of that sort of narrative-driven genre. You basically click to play the next line of dialogue over and over until you reach the end, maybe with some multiple choice questions along the way that personalise your experience or potential ending. Many people will play visual novels, and not consider themselves to be a ‘gamer’. The fact that they exist on a computer and are slightly interactive however, means that most people will happily agree that they are still video games in some form of its meaning.

Critically however, where does ‘software’ and ‘game’ begin or end? Where does the transition occur, and at what point do we make the distinction? Is there a possibility of both media blending to become some sort of hybrid? Mario Paint comes to mind, as well as Pokémon Channel, with both serving as a good argument over media that might be considered both software and game. Mario Paint mimics traditional media creation software, and Pokémon Channel acts just like a TV channel with some small gameplay elements of exploration with Pikachu. Hopefully I can provide some food for thought on the subject.

Mario Paint: Super Mario meets Microsoft Paint. A video game or a software program?

Without going into too much detail, there’s an easily definable condition for something to generally be considered a game. There is a win state, and a fail state. Contrary to the popular internet meme of “The Game” (which you just lost by the way), a game cannot exist if there is only a losing state (even in survival-based experiences, there is a winning condition of lasting as long as possible before losing). Whether it’s down to the player’s skill and input, or whether it’s due to random chance by roll of dice or flip of a coin, there has to be a binary conclusion to the event resulting in a win or loss regardless of what means are used to reach one of these resolves.

That’s academically considered the definition of a game. It’s very general and lacks any deeper meaning – which is a good thing, because it allows us to take that definition and appropriate it into a wider discussion. Looking at something like Final Fantasy, we can easily separate it because we know that if we don’t perform well in battles, there is a “game over” screen. So by our definitions of what makes a game in general, we can say for certain something like Final Fantasy (as well as other narrative-heavy JRPGs) are most certainly video games.

What about something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero then? Well again, because you can play so badly that you lose, both are considered games once more. What about Synthesia, a popular program used to play midi files and teach you how to play music on a piano/keyboard? You could still play really badly, but in this case there is no fail condition since the music continues to play regardless. Because of this, and the fact it offers more complex options and input than a typical game would, we can deduce that it’s software and not a game.

However, what if I turn on the score meter and rate my performance in real-time? Well, then it gets tricky. Though the song won’t stop playing even if I never hit one note, I still get a score at the end even when that score is zero. Regardless of my input or lack thereof, the music keeps playing and so there is no fail condition. If we took our definition of game at face value, we’d stop there right? Well, you could argue that a low score (or zero) counts as a losing condition, in the way that sandbox-type experience allows the player to attain higher scores by practicing and perfecting their playing skills. With that in mind, and accounting for the obvious game element of trying to place on leaderboards and outperform other people (or at least beating your own scores), could we not say that Synthesia is, in fact, a game?

This is where the waters become muddy, and definitions begin to fail us. Even though Synthesia is a piece of software aimed at helping you learn to play the piano/keyboard, as soon as I turn on the scoring system, I know I’m playing a game. I know I can’t lose, and I know the song won’t stop playing no matter how badly I play, but I still feel that I’m playing a game. The game’s challenge/objective might be vague or incredibly broad in definition (trying to achieve the best possible score), but it does indeed become a game of some sort at that point.

Synethesia turns learning piano into a game… perhaps.

You’ve probably felt it yourself before. When you turn God Mode on in a game which stops you dying, and suddenly after a few moments of blowing things up and running around in an unstoppable state, the game loses its appeal. You turn the game off, feeling it’s no longer offering you any value or engagement. As soon as you remove the potential for a fail condition to be met and you’re only being offered an ultimately unavoidable win condition, the game ceases to be a game and you lose interest. Basically, there’s no way you can lose, or the game becomes too easy, and you can’t be bothered to play anymore because there’s no challenge. Challenge is the key word here; if there is no clear win/lose condition for something, then the fallback definition is the ‘goal/objective’ argument.

Is there a goal or objective to what you are doing, and is it possible to not reach the completion of that goal/objective without your input? If, for instance, a game requires you to beat an enemy every day for a month to save the land from monsters, you’d feel the call to action justifies your attention and effort. If, on the other hand, the game kills an enemy automatically every day whether or not you log in to play, then there’s no point in playing is there? This is where something like Synthesia‘s score mode can be easily identified as a game: my goal/objective is to become better at something, and a score system offers a measurable form of feedback to tell me how well I’m achieving that goal.

Let’s return to visual novels for a moment. Using a mixture of the win/lose conditions and goal/objective definitions of game, can we create an argument for whether a visual novel is a game or not? If we took a visual novel that has no multiple choices or input options, and it plays out from start to end just by clicking the screen to advance the dialogue, can it really be considered a game or is it just a piece of software? If your initial reaction is “If I don’t click the mouse, the story doesn’t progress, and I achieve the fail condition of not reaching the end of the story. That’s a game right?”, then I would say you need to reconsider things once more. Would that not make reading books a game? Would that not make watching a film or TV programme a game?

If I don’t turn the page of a book, I don’t get to finish the story, which means I fail the game of reaching the end of that story. If I stop a movie or pause it and don’t resume, do I lose the game of seeing the ending to that film? Yes, whilst the interactive nature of advancing a vanilla visual novel might make some people feel that it’s a type of game, I’d make the argument that it isn’t. I would say visual novels are software. However, if the visual novel has multiple endings, then I would have to reconsider what I thought once more. Technically, offering different endings means that there are certain win conditions that can be reached, which in turn means you have failed to reach another. But what about those old adventure books with multiple choices that lead you to read different pages, and offer different endings. Do multiple choice books now become games as well, or does every recreational activity we enjoy ultimately boil down to being some form of game?

You can further complicate matters by looking at the social context around the media you’re trying to discern as being a game or not. Because anime/manga art styles in visual novels are often associated with gaming otaku culture, people generally make a connection, assuming that visual novels must be games because of their style, when technically speaking they aren’t. They’re just considered games under social pretences. But where do you draw lines? Where do you spot differences? Does the context surrounding the media create different meanings as to where an anime visual novel might be considered a game whereas a multiple choice novel does not? Where does the sandbox experience of a game sit? Is the win condition based on you enjoying yourself, and the lose condition based on you not having fun? Are these meditative experiences that you are simply supposed to exist in and relax with, without any real objective?

Starlight Vega, a visual novel. Is it a game?

What do you think? How pedantic and academic do we need to be to find an accurate answer to this question, or does any of it really matter? Can we feel our way around a piece of media like I mentioned with Synthesia, where if it feels and looks like a game, then that’s good enough if you consider yourself a ‘gamer’? If you don’t consider yourself a gamer, however, would you rather not associate yourself with games, or do you find it interesting that we might all be gamers deep down, just not in the hardcore video gamey way portrays by society?

One thing’s for certain: games usually challenge us in some way in order to reach a desirable outcome, and mankind has been playing some form of game since we first learned to walk on two legs. We naturally want to win at games, and in a good game there are obstacles or challenges of some sort deterring us from reaching the outcome we desire. You could think of promotion at work as a kind of game, or our social status and our human need to be seen positively by others as being a game. Some even argue (like Charlie Brooker) that Twitter is a game where we inhabit the role of our self-perceived selves through avatars in an online MMO where we share our thoughts and opinions to acquire more followers.

You can take the definition of games into ridiculous places that most people dare not tread, but it’s an interesting topic to mull over. I think it helps you see the world differently, and to consider how a gamer might take advantage of their perspective to generate a form of self-discipline and direction in their lives. As gamers we’re really good at performing repetitive tasks to improve our characters. Perhaps we can aim that same way of thinking into helping us improve our own lives? A lot of people are already trying to use gamification to turn aspects of our lives into RPG style reward systems, that help make mundane everyday tasks interesting and fun. Pokémon Go got you out walking in the fresh air didn’t it? At the heart of it all however, whether it’s tapping our finger to our favourite song or having a good old-school game of Space Invaders, interactions and challenges are what drive us to become interested in doing things and behaving in the ways we do as human beings.

What are your thoughts? Is this all silly nonsense, and games are merely things with scores and a playable character of some kind? Do you think narrative games like The Last of Us are just posh movies that you can take part in, and the real video games are things like Mario, Pacman, and Tetris? Leave your comments down below and let us know what you think.