It’s not a game


Moving pictures, or the motion picture, was invented in the second half of the 19th century. Since then we’ve gotten as diverse uses of this technology as movies, sitcoms, debates, news shows etc. Even though the underlaying technology is the same, we’d never dream of using one word to describe all these very different expressions.

Interactive entertainment was invented during the 20th century. As the decades have passed, the medium has evolved into many different forms. We have multiplayer action titles, interactive dramas, puzzles, family games, etc. Even though the underlaying technology is the same, we’d never dream of using one word to… wait a minute!

When the industry was young and not as multifaceted, the word “games” sufficed. But I think we’ve gotten to a point now where we have outgrown the term. No longer are “gamers” unified by a nerdy fascination for the medium itself, with all its products. We’ve opened the flood gates to new audiences, all expecting very different things.

Just like someone who watched every episode of Friends doesn’t necessarily wait for Michael Moore’s next documentary, someone who followed Zoë’s journey in Dreamfall might not want to sit down with a plastic toy guitar to play Guitar Hero. With such a diverse medium as interactive entertainment has become, the term “games” fails in actually describing what it encompasses, and becomes a blunt tool for both professionals and consumers.

Isn’t it also the case that many titles defined as games simply aren’t? While I’ll happily call Buzz and Peggle games, I’m less sure about titles like Fahrenheit or Call of Duty 4. Are they games, or are they something more? Let’s try to come up with a definition.

“A game is an entertaining activity performed according to a set of rules to reach a goal.”

In CoD4, when I’m fighting in the streets of a middle eastern city to save a friend from a downed Black Hawk helicopter, that’s an experience. Yes, it has rules, but they are transparent and recieve very little focus from me. They are simply there to generate the experience, enabling the interactive narrative which I am exploring.

Game? I think not.

More importantly, I fear that the term “games” limit the designers and directors of the industry. The traditional meaning of the word, and all the baggage it carries since Pong, probably makes it harder for visionary ideas to break through. Our legacy controls the expectations of consumers, the demands of publishers and the work of designers.

So if you’re ever in a discussion about game design and are confronted with “that’s not what games are about”, just answer “exactly”.


  1. While I understand what you’re trying to say here, and even though I partially agree, this sort of discussion is simply masturbatory, or at best, purely academic.

    Games are called games. Words, names and descriptions don’t change what something is. Something is whatever it is going to be, and people will come to know it by whatever term is commonly used and widely accepted as long as the concept in question is communicated effectively. The term ‘game’ will expand it’s meaning to encompass whatever it is that people stick the moniker on. Should folks stop using the term “film” to describe certain movies, simply because they’re recorded digitally? That’s a technicality, and a righteously pedantic one at that. I’d just as soon walk away from someone without bothering with a further word if they pulled that kind of stunt on me, rather than engage them in meaningful conversation.

    For me, rather than wasting energy focusing on whether or not the correct terms are being used, I’d rather focus on making a better experience… err, game.. err, digital entertainment.. bah! whatever!

  2. Andreas Öjerfors

    The thing is that film describes a subset of “moving pictures”, while “games” does not. We don’t call both sitcoms and movies “film”, because it would become too generic of a term to be useful. But we do the same thing with games.

    If we put everything under one banner, I think that might put some limitations to our scope – no matter what direction we go, we’ll be compared to everything else under that banner.

  3. You make a very valid point Andreas, and I appreciate you stating it clearly and intelligently. It’s always nice to see that on a website instead of the drivel often slung at the comments section of a blog.

    Your point is also the part of Pixel Park’s post that I partially agree with. While I had originally intended to respond here, it quickly grew from a short comment into something quite long, Since I’m not sure how Pixel Park would feel about having a page or so written up in one comment, I’ve written up a response over at my (mostly unused and assuredly ignored) site (which you should be able to get to by clicking on my name, I believe). If you feel so inclined to head over there to read and respond, I’d love to continue the discussion, or, if Pixel Park doesn’t mind, I’d be happy to continue it here as well, since this is where it was birthed. =)

  4. Andreas Öjerfors

    Actually, I am Pixel Park. I’ll read your post on your blog!

  5. pixelpark

    I’ll answer here.

    I think you read too much into my original blog post. My first reply to your comment, which you seem to agree with, is an answer but also a summary of what the blog post said.

    The first idea you need to accept to understand the rest is that games is a medium, like the written word and the moving picture. It is a medium in which we can create different kinds of expressions and art forms.

    I haven’t suggested that we should call games like CoD4 “interactive narratives”. We could probably claim that even Tetris has an interactive narrative.

    “If we attempt to create labels or categories or subsets for games now, we’re likely to fall into the trap of creating labels that also don’t effectively communicate the experience either. One need only look at the genres of certain forms of music to recognize this”

    Yep, there’s a risk there. But I think that your example of music accurately describes what it is – it’s more than “sound”, it is a subset of sound that tells us of it’s form and purpose. “House” is a genre of music.

    “I don’t play games, I participate in interactive narratives. I also don’t comment on gameplay, I comment on the experience. ”

    What does this even mean? The gameplay is obviously a vital part of the experience. Do you suggest that there is not more to the experience of games than the gameplay? Take Dreamfall as an example; it got a lot of flak for the lacking gameplay, but a lot of people still enjoyed the experience of playing the game. A game is the sum of many parts; gameplay, art direction, narrative, technology, etc.

    “Or maybe was it meant to say that designers aren’t able to think of games or experiences outside of the existing genres. While that’s insulting too, the evidence of designers actually being able to think outside the genre isn’t exactly overwhelmingly compelling, so I can see the point.”

    It doesn’t mean that designers cannot think outside the box, it implies that they’re not supposed to leave the boundries of what a game is supposed to be. Your blog has the tag line “It’s about putting fun in a box.” That’s what the word “game” implies – it’s all about fun. But there are many other emotions out there that remains to be explored by our craft.

  6. When I read this I realize that the whole discussion is about one thing; are the differences between different games simply differences between genres, or something more?

    I am not sure.

    Are Fahrenheit and Buzz simply different genres? I would not say that Lost in Translation and Jeopardy are no more than different genres.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *