No Time To Play

Games and the meaning of words

by on Feb.17, 2013, under Opinion


I think pretty much everybody agrees by now that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is bunk. But while language doesn’t really shape thought, it can definitely influence the way we think about things. Just look at the way scientists use the word ‘theory’ versus how the general public understands it — the “but it’s just a theory!” brain bug is sure to drive any knowledgeable person crazy.

As Shamus Young points out, one such problem term is ‘computer game’. In his own words:

We’ve used the word for years, and we’ve always assumed that we all agreed on what a game was. Then something strange and experimental comes along like Loneliness, which doesn’t seem like a proper game to most people, even if they have no idea what else it should be called. Even the author refers to Loneliness as a “notgame.” There are a lot of indie titles like this, lurking on the edges of the hobby and challenging us to question what games are, or can be.

Incidentally, Shamus Young uses the word ‘videogame’, which strictly speaking means a game using a screen and implemented in hardware, like the classic arcade titles. But is the distinction meaningful for the layman, who couldn’t care less how Pac-Man is implemented?

Similarly, I can accept the argument that “computer game” is a good enough term for anything that walks like one and quacks like one, even though it lacks the defining characteristics of a game. But if we’re going to expand the definition of a word, it would be useful to know what the original one was.

Shamus Young opts for the following definition: “A videogame is software which can be played.” Trouble is, there are many things that can be played: you can play with building blocks, play the piano, play doctor, play Hamlet… are any of these games? Quite obviously not, even though any actor or musician will tell you that there is indeed a significant element of playfulness in their respective occupations.

Then what is a game? If you compare various definitions, you’ll see there are a couple of traits games must have that other similar activities don’t:

  • a well defined goal — if you’re just fooling around, that’s no game;
  • some degree of uncertainty — if reaching the goal is a pre-ordained conclusion, it’s also not a game.

Notice how these restrictions make SimCity fall outside the definition, unless you’re playing a scenario. And even in survival mode, Minecraft is at best on the edge, since the game doesn’t end once your long-term survival is pretty much guaranteed. (You might argue that it’s tricky to measure such a victory condition, and indeed the best you can do is something like “survive for a week”.) Also on the edge are classic text adventures, in which you might get killed or stuck, but you will win sooner or later; and in more modern works you can just go on playing undisturbed until you figure it out.

Which leaves the question, do these subtleties matter when you just want to have a little fun? Depends on the player, but as pointed out above, the word ‘game’ does create certain expectations. Notably, neither the term ‘text adventure’ nor ‘interactive fiction’ contain ‘game’, and predictably enough nobody’s feathers are ruffled by linear, puzzleless works in the genre that are quite clearly just electronic literature. Some players might avoid them, but nobody will contest that they belong.

So. what do we call all those computer-games-that-aren’t? Well, it’s hard to replace a word after several decades of widespread usage. So I vote, like Shamus Young, to simply extend the definition of ‘computer game’ to include interactive works that don’t have a goal or clear ending. Note the interactivity requirement: we already have a word for computer art that isn’t interactive, and that word is ‘demo’.

After all, nowadays one can’t claim that computer games aren’t art without attracting heaps of ridicule. It’s us developers who haven’t quite gotten used to the idea just yet, so we’re still catering to the stereotype for fear of confusing the public. Or are we?

(Illustration: Games, by Ian Dick; CC-BY)

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Games and the meaning of words by Felix Pleșoianu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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