Not a Game

Over the last few months, an increasing number of people have started to ask my opinion (or let me know all about theirs) regarding the boundaries of videogames as a medium.  More often than not, this means affirming someone’s statement that “X is not a game.”  Indeed, there seems to be a recent push to draw a line in the sand, with games on one side and “non-games” on the other.  Nintendo president Satoru Iwata applied this term to games like Animal Crossing which don’t “have a winner, or even a real conclusion.”   Certainly, Iwata is not the first person to attempt to place less conventional games into a new category.  As I have mentioned before, Maxis referred to a number of their products such as SimAnt not as games, but as “software toys.”  Recently, however, it seems that people have taken this as a call to erect hard and fast barriers between these different categories, lest some unsuspecting fool accidentally mistake something for a game that clearly is not.

These attempts to define games (though “redefine” would be much more accurate description of this process) are based on a number of rather dubious assumptions.  First and foremost is the assumption that this new, more narrow definition of what a game is somehow more accurately captures what the word “game” means.  However, this seemingly cut-and-dry definition of a game has little resemblance to its historical usage, nor to the act of playing games.  Games have never been limited to only those activities in which there is a clear winner.  To assume such a thing is not only presentist, but is also a rather modernist, male-centric way of looking at games.

So what do I mean by all these academic sounding words?

Basically, by declaring that “games have winners and this is the way it’s always been,” we automatically invalidate vast amounts of traditional activities normally categorized as games, especially games that are traditionally associated with girls.  Games like playing house, jumping rope, and clapping games have long been important parts of children’s culture.  Some of these, like clapping games, even share many similarities with modern cooperative games.  There is a fairly clear goal (completing the clapping pattern) that requires both players to perform a task with a considerable amount of skill.  There is also a very clear failure state when one of the players misses a beat.  Indeed, if we begin to break down such games to their basic rules, stripping away the layers of gendered meaning, there are very few fundamental differences between clapping games and Guitar Hero except that one is digitally mediated and the other is not.

Playing House with Mario

While there are clearly issues with both historical fidelity and gender politics in many of the ways people try to draw boundaries between “games” and “non-games,” it’s not just the way we draw lines that’s problematic, it’s the fact that we’re trying to draw lines at all.  The idea that everything can be accurately categorized and placed into a grand, cohesive narrative is one of the hallmarks of modern thought.  As someone who has a significant leaning toward the postmodern, I find any hard-and-fast definition of “what is and what is not a game” hard to reconcile with reality.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we want to enforce a strict definition of “games” and “non-games.”  We can use Iwata’s criteria of having both a winner and a real conclusion.  A winner can be either one player beating another, or one player overcoming the game.  A conclusion is a bit more vague, but generally encompasses some degree of finality.  You have achieved the main objective of the game and can consider your experience somehow completed.  This does not necessarily mean that there is nothing left to do in the game, but there is a sense of arriving at some agreed upon end point.

Naturally, many games fit into this mold rather nicely.  Super Mario Bros. is a game because you can win by reaching the princess and although she gives you a new, harder quest, it is really just replaying the game with a slight variation.  Finding the princess is easily identified as a conclusion to the overarching game narrative.  Likewise, Metroid, Mega Man, and many other games have a clear win state and easily identifiable conclusion, often explicitly labeled as “The End,” after the style of old movies.


Other “games” don’t fit so well into this definition.  Tetris, in many of its incarnations, has no way to win (though as my sister once demonstrated to my surprise, the NES version actually reaches a sort of win state where little dancers rush out on the stage and do a victory dance).  It is certainly easy to lose, but no matter how long it goes on, the blocks just keep coming.  If you can’t win at Tetris, what’s the point of playing?  Is it to beat your high score?  Is it to beat your friends’ high scores?  Is it just to play around for fun for as long as you feel like it?  That doesn’t sound our hard definition of a game.  What about other notable games like World of Warcraft?  How do you beat WoW?  Is it merely a question of defeating all the bosses?  Is it getting your character up to the maximum level cap?  Can you only beat the game if you complete every achievement ever?  Does that mean that World of Warcraft is a game that only one person has ever won?  While there is certainly some logic in each of these definitions, none of them really seem to encompass what WoW is all about.  Some of the main motivations for playing the game are social interactions with other players and self-expression through creating and advancing an avatar.  Does that make World of Warcraft a sandboxy non-game like Minecraft or even…Second Life?

Any kind of definition for games that potentially leaves out such noteworthy titles as Tetris and World of Warcraft should immediately raise a few red flags.  While you could argue for a more precise definition than Iwata’s, adding more and more levels of nuance is unlikely to unmuddy the waters.  Can you draw a clear line between a very linear game and an interactive story?  Can you identify the key differences between a game like Warcraft III and a non-game like SimAnt?  Can you say that a bunch of college guys tapping on plastic guitars are playing a game, while a bunch of grade school girls clapping their hands are not?

Names and categories are important for the way we create meaning and in general, the term “game” is a fairly good category (the term “videogame” can be a bit more trouble, but that’s a different debate).  I am clearly more interested in studying games than agriculture.  I would even consent that certain things are more “gamey” than others.  I also have no objections if developers want to call the thing they create “software toys” or “non-games” if that is how they want to situate themselves in relationship to the existing games ecosystem.  Where I take issue is when one group sees it as proper and necessary to deny the use of a word for some object to which it can certainly be applicable.  I consider this to be an example of what Donna Haraway terms (quoting Watson-Verran) “a hardening of the categories.”1 Words and meanings are not static, neither are they apolitical.  Telling someone that something is “not a game” is not a matter of fact.  It is a value-laden assertion.


1. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse. Donna Haraway.

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