You think it’s a game?

The question “But is it a game?” is a mad boring one. It’s often, maybe always, employed solely to disregard a videogame and dismiss it from conversation. Beyond: Two Souls “isn’t really a videogame” so what are you doing even talking about it. You’re just getting in the way of talking about real games, or you’re running the risk of promoting characteristics that are too un-game or whatever. That old blather, you know yourself.

I don’t really get what people benefit from bringing up that argument other than to make the hobby more exclusive and exclusionary, so I zone out of the “But is it a game?” discussion. My instinctual response is “I don’t care”, “maybe”, and “sure whatever”, in that order, since it doesn’t actually matter whether Gone Home is or isn’t a game for the purposes of any productive or insightful conversation about it. Even if it’s not a game, by the standards of some guy out there, everything said about it is still as relevant as it ever was.

That being said, I know some indie devs grow very protective of their games when the medium is held against them, that they vehemently retort “Of course it’s a game!” as a defence, rather than the perhaps more sensible “Bugger off.” So it seems “But is it a game?” carries weight in questioning a game’s legitimacy, if only because it offends treasured assumptions. Possibly heeding back to Darius Kazemi’s point about community back-patting. Possibly any number of reasons.

Although I’ve no time for exploring what is and isn’t a game when the question is only raised in an attempt at dismissal, I have to admit I’m interested in thinking about the nature of a game in the Platonic sense. For the purpose of avoiding the former discussion, I hold there’s ‘videogame’ to mean the medium and ‘game’ to mean an activity involving fun and rules and the like. Videogame is often abbreviated to ‘game’, too, but it’s a homonym: if you’re concerned with distinguishing the two, it’s generally easy to tell which is meant by the context. Game is to videogame as novel is to book. There, problem solved.

Now, I’m focussing on games meaning the activity with fun and rules. When people ask “what is a game?” it bears some resemblance to the question “what is a toy?” Toys, like games, are amorphous, as my cat Zoe attests. She thinks everything is a toy: a little duck teddy bear, a feather on a string, lighters, batteries, pipe cleaners, anything she can kill, etc. If she can knock it down onto the floor, it’s definitely a toy. The nature of a toy refers to her mindset as she engages with the item – whether or not it’s a toy depends on how she considers it at any given moment, or generally. The same is true for babies and children, and maybe less obviously for adults too, since we typically assume adults lack that same imaginative relationship with objects, but I reckon the habit of turning make-up, mobile phones and cars into toys shows that we abide by the same principle.

Likewise, although Gone Home is a bit shy of the usual toys you’d find in a videogame, a bit of imagination turns anything on Arbor Hill into a toy. Some players took to seeing if they could turn the porch into a ballpen of every loose object in the house, making a game out of it. Given how toys and games are manifest by self-discovery, they can come from anywhere, person depending.

Short of overtly beckoning feelings of fun or challenge that traditionally come with the notion of a game, when a videogame is scrutinized as to how it conforms to the Platonic concept of a game, we’re actually looking at our own cultural and emotional baggage.  How seriously you can regard a subject matter, how you perceive objects, how you relate to the world around you. And since games can be simultaneously uplifting and belittling: Are you empowered to make light of this topic, person or object? Should you make light of them?

There’s a sense that, when engaged in a game, the player suspends meaning of actions to enable the game’s flow, since stopping to think about what you’re doing runs counter to the frivolity of doing whatever. Train is a board game which plays off this: most players switch from happily engaged to uncooperative when they discover the game’s narrative, and consider with revulsion the actions they took as if in an stupor. Fans often say “it’s just a game” to get people to stop talking about sexism in pretty much any videogame. This levity allows for games to be used as a coping mechanism for difficult activities or moments in our lives.

Which is possibly why the idea of an all-gamified utopia sounds terrifying to me, since it impresses all this emotional baggage that everything is an activity against which you need to cope. It dissociates from the action by making it about some placed-upon secondary goal or structure, so gamified romances are really about being rewarded with sex and not about treating this character like a person and enjoying hanging out with them. The all-gamified utopia is predicated on a global existential crisis where we lose sight of the value of our actions and you need a coping mechanism just to brush your teeth. It’s someone else’s existential crisis which I’m just not feeling, and I don’t want to be complicit in this devaluing of life by accepting that emotional baggage as a valid frame to my existence.

Likewise, it doesn’t strike me as particularly enjoyable to laugh and frolic with the portrayal of transgender folk in Grand Theft Auto V, for example. My emotional baggage stops me from perceiving those stereotypes as delightful or humourous, and the mockery of these characters as an activity worth engaging in. Possibly because I’m not convinced that there is a placed-upon secondary goal here, that laughing at trans people is serving anything other than laughing at trans people. I don’t see this activity as a game since there’s no framing that distinguishes it from the same transphobic actions occurring in reality.

Just like it’s telling of a person’s emotional baggage what they can or can’t perceive as a game, it’s remarkable that someone would use their interpretation to try to diffuse controversy or waylay criticism, and they do it in such an honest way. “It’s just a game, you don’t need to criticize it” translates a person’s unwitting complicity in an activity (now revealed to be possibly heinous) and defensiveness of both their sincere experience – the joy, the adrenaline, the despair – and the worldview allowing them to experience that. Perception of something as a game or not as a game is such a personal thing, it’s a slap in the face when someone exclaims an automatic inability to relate. Like many other things, the ability to treat something like a game is a privilege granted to you by your emotional baggage and your cultural and personal values.

5 thoughts on “You think it’s a game?

  1. That’s quite the perspective you’ve got there. I can’t say that up to this point I’ve put too much thought into what makes a game and what doesn’t — though in the case of things like Beyond: Two Souls I prefer to judge based on the question of “is it good?” instead of “is it a game?” (The Ace Attorney series is just above the threshold of interactivity, but that hasn’t stopped it from earning a well-deserved fanbase…myself included, obviously.) It is a discussion worth having, but you have a point; we’re not doing anyone any favors by arguing over what is a game and what isn’t. In any case…

    “The all-gamified utopia is predicated on a global existential crisis where we lose sight of the value of our actions and you need a coping mechanism just to brush your teeth.”

    I…don’t suppose that brushing your teeth is just something worth doing because it freshens breath, right? Silliness aside, that does sound like a pretty nasty way of thought to start spreading. It’s just a good thing that our world will never get that bad, right?


    Okay, then. Time to go hide under my bed for the next eighty years. Thanks for sharing.

    • Yep, I think “Is it good?” and “Why is it good?” are more productive lines of inquiry for games criticism in general and the analysis of particular games. I do think philosophizing about games has its place but not if that revolves around the legitimization or dismissal of particular titles or types of games.

      I made the mistake of not linking to the all-gamified utopia concept earlier, sorry about that. Jesse Schell isn’t the only one to sing of it but his TED talk is one of the first things that spring to mind when I think about how it horrifies me.

  2. A really nice article. I don’t like the whole “it’s just a game” argument, either. It feels like a slap to the face to games like Journey or The Walking Dead, where empathy is the entire point of those two games and countless others.

    There’s also this really good video by Errant Signal where he talks about what constitutes a game and debunks common interpretation of what makes a game, check it out.

    • Cheers, and thanks for the link. It’s an interesting video, I think he fairly nails some of the counter-arguments to the “not-game” crowd. But he falls foul to examining the “what is a game?” question as one of ascertaining definitions above all else – something I was hopeful to avoid in the above, as it promotes the discussion as one interested in prescriptive language, rather than exploring the nature of the medium.

      It’s still an interesting video in that he comes to the table with his own baggage on what makes a game without even realising it: this business about how interaction is at the soul of games. Which is a viewpoint I’m unconvinced of, personally, and one I’d be wary ends up dismissing games that deliberately deprioritize or avoid interaction a a mode of player conduct. Games like Killer Driller and others mentioned in this post by Line Hollis.

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