“Are videogames actually games?” and other stupid questions

Originally posted 7/6/07 on www.ggl.com.

I checked out an article entitled “Ten reasons why computer games are not games” for two reasons. First, it’s highly rated on Digg, which means it has to be good, right? And second, I was intrigued by the title.

This has to be the dumbest gaming article I’ve seen online, ever. And that’s saying a lot.The anonymous author’s point seems to be this: there are certain (largely imaginary) differences between videogames and “traditional” games. Therefore, videogames are not games.

Here are my point-for-point responses to the post:

1. Intimacy
Most computer games, including many multiplayer ones, are played by single humans behind a machine… The intimacy between the game and its user creates a potential depth of mental exploration unseen before in any medium.

This makes no sense to me at all. Whether traditional or hobbyist, any game is either played alone, or with/against other people. Every game is interactive; sometimes the player interacts with inanimate objects like playing cards or miniatures, sometimes with other people while using inanimate objects, sometimes with a computer, and sometimes with other people over a computer network.

I can’t see what the author means by “intimacy” here, unless it is exactly what he means by “immersion” below.

2. Stories are more important than rules
… computer games feature characters. Creatures that we can empathize with, in whose behaviour we can recognize our own. Unlike the pawns and dice of traditional games.

If this author is looking for stories and characters in non-videogames, I guess he’s right. They’re pretty hard to find. The only ones I can think of are: Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Champions, The World of Darkness games, and every other RPG ever written; Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, and many other plot- and character-based tabletop war games; Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game, and other plot- and character-based collectible card games; Illuminati: New World Order, Car Wars, and other plot- and character-based tabletop games.

But of course I’m cheating. All of the non-RPGs above were heavily influenced by RPGs, after AD&D became popular. I guess my point is that RPGs constitute a massive genre of story-based non-video games. And need I add that every single story-based videogame, from the earliest MUDs and MUSHes to World of Warcraft and Gears of War, is based upon earlier non-computer-based games? Of course I don’t.

3. Immersion
Computer games allow you to step into their worlds, to become part of the events. To some extent you become one of the pieces on the board, one that acts autonomously.

This breaks down two ways. On the one hand, tabletop games can be as fully immersive and engrossing as any videogame. I don’t have to explain this to any actual gamer. If you’ve spent all Friday night and Saturday day playing D&D, without bothering to sleep, then you know that offline games are just as addictive as the online ones.

On the other hand, videogames can offer something that meatspace games cannot: virtual reality. Sure, it’s not the fully immersive virtual reality that William Gibson promised us 20 years ago; you’re still sitting in a chair staring at a screen. But there’s a world of difference between having a dungeon master explain something to you, and actually seeing it and interacting with it in World of Warcraft. In this sense, videogames are truly more immersive than offline games. LARPers try to recreate that magic, but let’s face it; they’re just playing D&D while standing up and wearing clothes from Hot Topic.

But I don’t see how virtual reality makes videogames “not games.”

4. Not (just) for children
Games are traditionally considered to be for children. … They tend to contain simple structures that are easy to understand. As we get older, the things we need to learn become more complex.

Oh, come on! Do I really have to argue this? “Games are traditionally considered to be for children.” By whom? Poker players? There have always been children’s games and adult games, going back to the beginning of time. And I hate to break it to this author, but the vast majority of people still consider videogames to be exclusively for children, despite this being patently untrue. Unless someone out there is letting their 6-year-old play Rule of Rose.

5. An artistic medium
Some people try to defend games as an age-old art form. But this is not a widespread belief. Games have their function in society but they are generally not considered very high on the cultural ladder. Computer games are different. They have an enormous impact on their users. They can lead to life-changing events.

This may be true for videogames in some circumstances, but it is also true for other games as well. The author does not try to defend his statement with examples, and I don’t blame him.

The author is once again appealing to the views of the general public, which is always a mistake when it comes to gaming. It’s true that most people don’t consider games to be “high culture,” but they don’t see videogames that way either, even when it’s warranted. Okami could be displayed in a museum; but so could the best wargame miniatures.

Granted, art and design are integral to videogames, and often marginal in traditional games. But look at any Games Workshop game, whether RPG, wargame, board game or card game – the perfect example of how excellent art can enhance a game.

I had more “life-changing” experiences while playing RPGs than I ever have had playing videogames. But that’s just me – I’m not holding tabletop RPGs over videogame RPGs or MMORPGs. I just can’t see why on is inherently better than the other.

6. Players as authors
Traditional games have strict rules. Because of this strictness, you can predict all possible outcomes of any game, based solely on analysis of the rules. Computer games, on the other hand, are much less predictable.

Ah yes, you’re perfectly right. Except for having it entirely backwards.

Computer games don’t just contain rules – they are rules. A computer program is just a long, complex series of unbreakable rules, with absolutely no wiggle room. Even a hack, cheat, bug or Easter egg follows the rules; they just mean the rules were poorly written.

Now, computer game rules are very complex, sometimes offering very many choices, some of them unpredictable. But the options are always finite – always.

In an offline game, the rules can be changed at any time; whether through unanimous consent of the players, or the authoritarian dictates of an RPG gamemaster, or even by good old fashioned cheating.

Here’s a good example: Risk. When playing tabletop Risk or Risk: 2210, players can create house rules, make and break alliances, bluff, argue and cheat. In computer Risk, one can do none of these things. A more advanced version of computer Risk might be designed to allow rules changes and alliances; but only if these functions are specifically programmed. And only to the extent that the programmers allow.

A traditional game will always have more options than a computer game; and an RPG will have the most options of all.

7. Aesthetics are more important than systems
You can play a perfectly satisfactory game with a few rocks and some sticks. It’s the activity of manipulating those objects that constitutes the experience. But computer games have such a strong desire for beauty, that they are one of the main driving forces behind the technology of the century.

This is true. But it doesn’t argue for the superiority of videogames. And it doesn’t argue that videogames are not games.

Our videogame culture is different from offline gaming culture, in that players demand exponentially increasing aesthetic technology, and publishers strive to provide it. Whether the advance of graphics and sound technology actually results in better and more compelling art is highly debatable.

Also, this need for increasingly beautiful games is not inherent to the videogame experience. It’s not the result of videogame culture. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented tech boom. Videogames, consoles and gaming PCs are very expensive, and people demand to get their money’s worth. If computing technology ever levels off, gamers’ aesthetic expectations will level off as well.

8. Persistent social context
To some extent, one could say that the social element of games only starts when you stop playing, while in traditional games, the social situation dissolves when the game ends.

So, the “social context” of a traditional game ends when the game ends, whereas the social context of a videogame ends… when the game ends. Got it.

Some people argue that only a traditional game creates an appropriate social context, and they paint pictures of fat, spotty teenage boys playing WoW for 20 hours a day in their mother’s basement. I totally disagree. Even the spotty teen is, in fact, socializing, as long as he’s playing online. If he’s not playing online, then yes, perhaps he needs to get out of the house. On the other hand, maybe we should just leave him alone and let him be happy.

9. No losing
Contrary to traditional games, computer games cannot be lost. … When people say they lost a computer game, they actually mean that they failed to accomplish a certain task. This often prevents them from making any further progress. So they give up. Nobody wins, nobody loses.

Right. So you can’t lose in a deathmatch? And you can lose in D&D? Seriously, dude, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

Anybody who ever lost a game “…failed to accomplish a certain task.” That’s the very definition, whether the task is “achieve checkmate before the other guy” or “accumulate more kills than the other guy.”

Granted, in many video games, the player just attempts the same task over and over until they get it right. And yes, they may give up. How this is different from solitaire, for example, I have no idea.

10. Cheating is allowed
Traditional games break instantly as soon as you start cheating. But computer games often include cheat codes that allow you to have unlimited money or be invulnerable, etc.

If the game includes a cheat code, then it’s not cheating. The programmer put it in there on purpose. “Cheating” means violating the mutually agreed upon rules, whether those rules are set by a family playing Monopoly, or by the World Chess Federation, or by Blizzard’s EULA. Anyone, in any game, can cheat. But it’s never “allowed” — if it is, it’s not cheating.

As for the fun of “hacking” a game, making changes, enforcing your will upon someone else’s work – anyone can do this, in any game. And it’s much easier to do this with an offline game. You don’t need to learn coding, or own a dev kit.

In Conclusion

In my experience, both as a traditional gamer, and as someone who has been playing videogames since Day One, I have been struck by the deep similarities between videogames and other forms of games.

This is not just because so many computer games are based upon, or inspired by, traditional games. It is also because a game is a game. And no matter what medium you play in, the goals are the same.

The one genuine way in which videogames improve upon, and are different from, other games is in the creation of increasingly immersive virtual realities. One day, VR realms may become utterly realistic. In that event, whether a virtual reality constitutes a “game” will depend entirely on its purpose.

If the purpose is to challenge the user, in competition against other users, the programmers, or the user’s own talents and expectations, then yes, that reality will be a game.