Rise of The Un-Game

When is a game not a game? When it’s a jar… wrong joke. The dictionary defines what a game is, but I’m not going to quote it because it’s a terribly clichéd thing to do; suffice it to say that the classification of what we have traditionally referred to as “games” seems to have been stretched to the limit in recent years. In the old days it seemed simple: Super Mario Bros was a game, Battle Chess was a game, Zork was a game. There wasn’t any ambiguity, nobody wrote a review of Doom that questioned whether or not it could really be considered a game, it just obviously was. Equally, nobody could accuse Excel of being a game (except perhaps for that version that had a weird Doom clone as an Easter egg), or Photoshop or Winamp.

Now though, is Dear Esther a game? Is Gone Home a game? How about Thirty Flights of Loving? A lot of people have derisively claimed that they’re not and, therefore, for some reason, not to be afforded the respect (what little of it there is) shown to other “actual” games. They’re all interactive to some degree, no question there, and they all feature a story in one form or another; in some cases there are failure states, in others the only way you can fail is by abandoning them without seeing them through to the end. None of them really have any real choices to make though, and there’s little challenge to overcome, no tests of reflexes, skill or intelligence, no competition and no real goal beyond simply experiencing the story.

Leaning more towards the “probably a game” end of things there’s The Stanley Parable, which at least has choices – or does it? There are puzzles (of sorts) and obstacles to overcome, there are different ways it can end, but are you really making meaningful decisions at any point? It’s rather hard to tell a lot of the time, and that’s sort of its point. At the other end of that scale there’s 9.03m in which there is only a single valid path, minimal interaction, no challenges to overcome, no puzzles to solve, it doesn’t even really have a story – although it does tell one in a rather abstract sense – and only lasts about twelve minutes, although length is no sure indicator of quality. If one were feeling mischievous, one might even ask whether something like Call of Duty: Ghosts is really a game? Sections of it seem so tightly scripted, with so little player involvement actually required, that you could just watch an AI bot do it for you and garner much the same experience.

I don’t intend this to be a petty semantic argument – it’s not about the definition of the word, but more a question of where the dividing line is between games and other media. Does the simple inclusion of interactive elements turn something into a game? Is a Choose Your Own Adventure book a game? Arguably yes, but it’s also clearly a book, so why can’t games also be novels or movies or music? Is it even meaningful to try and differentiate between a game that’s a game and a game that’s only ‘sort of a game’ and ‘sort of something else’? Ultimately, does anyone really care? I ask that sincerely. Outside of the trolls and the people who think that it’s not a real game unless you can shoot a guy in the face while a building explodes, do people really concern themselves with what label we assign to the thing that entertains us on our computer for a couple of hours?

I’ve often said that I consider games to be an art form as much as any other, and it is generally considered that the question “but is it art?” is a really stupid one; art is one of the most subjective things that we do as a species and what is seen by one person as simply an upside down urinal is viewed as a statement of genius by another. In the same vein, if I think Gone Home is a game, does it really matter if you don’t? If I enjoy playing Thirty Flights of Loving am I suddenly going to stop just because someone tells me “but it’s not even a game”? Of course not, that would be stupid and therein lies my answer: don’t let stupid people tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing as a “gamer”, play the things you enjoy and don’t get hung up on whether or not they fit someone else’s arbitrary definition of what a game should be.

Last five articles by Adam B



  1. Keegan says:

    “so why can’t games also be novels…?”

    They can! In fact, stuff like 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors and Katawa Shoujo are classified as visual novels :D

    Also, Battle Chess was the shit.

  2. Marty Funk says:

    Nicely done

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