There are multiple lenses through which to focus on computer games, each giving a useful, albeit partial view of the medium. We can view them as cultural artefacts, commercial commodities, entertainment media, software programs and design products. They offer solitary or social experiences and enable people to take on new identities and play out fantasies in other worlds. They are made up of exciting verbs such as race, jump, dodge and shoot. They can be used almost anywhere by way of a great many devices. They involve pattern, colour and motion. They are things which people play.
Given their ubiquity, the question ’what is a computer game?’ appears on its surface to be simple to answer. The average person is likely to be able to offer a functioning definition involving a computer and a means of interaction, and they could probably name some well-known examples, such as Space Invaders (Taito, 1977), Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) or Angry Birds (Rovio, 2009), from which we can infer certain things about the properties of games.
Whilst considering the difficulty in reaching a clear definition of the concept of games, Wittgenstein (1953) remarked that the various activities we refer to as “games” (board-games, card-games, ball-games, etc.) do not have a particular set of universally common features — some are amusing, some competitive, some have skill at their heart whilst others are down to chance — yet there remain overlapping threads and similarities amongst them. Wittgenstein likened these to “family resemblances”, and through looking for these resemblances we are able to recognise members of the family of games.
Looking at our earlier three examples of computer games, there are similarities apparent: 2d representation and movement along a horizontal plane; control over an on-screen object; numbers on the screen denoting a score and other information — but the actions and objectives differ in each game and the control methods are distinct. So we can see that whilst there may be common features, as Wittgenstein suggests, none of them are defining of an inherent ‘computer game-ness’. Ernest Adams summarised that games are ‘agnostic with respect to genre, content, input devices, and play mechanics’ (Newman & Simons, 2004, p.31), which is a useful comment in stripping away some of the surface features, which would intuitively appear important to the nature of games but don’t really help to answer the question succinctly. It is therefore necessary to consider “what is a computer game?” at a more fundamental level.
Games have a very close relationship with play: they are both a subset of play and at the same time contain elements of it (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p.72). It is therefore worthwhile to develop an understanding of this term when attempting to define computer games. Huizinga (1949) described several important features of play which set it apart from other activities; broadly speaking, he described a temporary mode of behaviour, standing outside of ‘normal’ life, through which we freely enter an absorbing illusion (indeed, Huizinga points out that the literal translation of “illusion” is “in-play” (1949, p.11)). These features seem fully applicable to the experience of playing computer games — to press start or insert coin are free choices, and we remain in the mode of play until ‘game over’ flashes across the screen and the playful interlude ends. But whilst games are things that we play, they are not purely play; there are further distinguishing details, which numerous academics and practitioners have attempted to pin down.
Crawford (1984) sets out characteristics which he uses to define the term ‘game’, including his ideas of representation, interaction, conflict and safety. There is certainly crossover here between some of his points and Huizinga’s concept of play, but as Crawford builds his framework and states the requirements he holds for something to be a game, it brings into relief some notions which separate games from other types of free play. One key distinction Crawford makes is that games are interactive: they respond and their state changes according to the input of the player. He contrasts this with puzzles, which he argues are passively operated rather than actively responsive; puzzles are to be solved rather than played. Costikyan (2002) agrees that this active/passive dichotomy is useful, but believes that in his conclusion Crawford has ‘overstated the case’ (p.10) when demanding that some so-called games are really puzzles. Costikyan contends with this game or puzzle dilemma via a discussion of the early adventure game Zork (Blank & Lebling, 1977). He concludes that adventure games, in opening up avenues of progress as the player makes choices or completes tasks — whilst not interactive in Crawford’s sense — should not be relegated to the status of ‘not a game’.
Whilst certainly providing insights, and elucidating concepts of game design, Crawford’s requirements do appear problematic to an overall definition of a game. His idea of conflict, which states that all games necessarily feature an intelligent agent (human or artificial) which actively obstructs the player from their goal, is rejected by Adams (2010) due to its exclusion of creative or cooperative games. Adams’ own understanding of a game is distilled into simpler requirements: rules and a goal.
We find that many of these frameworks and definitions of games adopted by various writers contain similar elements, but as outlined above, there is also often conjecture. Salen & Zimmerman (2004) consider a game as ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’ (p.80). For McGonigal (2011) goals, rules, feedback and voluntary participation are the indicators of game-ness. There are many variations on a theme. The absurdity of reducing games into a pithy maxim is well illustrated by Molleindustria (2013), via their Game Definitions website. This uses a syntactic algorithm to generate an dictionary-style definition of the word ‘game’ by stitching together various motivations, constraints and characteristics. Users can then either disagree with the proffered construction and receive a new, equally unsatisfying formulation, or adopt the definition and send a Tweet to champion the cause.
The usefulness of robust concepts and clarity of expression should not be questioned, but the stitching together of ideas in search for an absolute definition — sometimes a box-ticking exercise — may see us lose things which are otherwise helpful to our understanding. It is also interesting to note how a definition can afford something a privileged status. We are well used to the debates throughout history of a music/not music type, and this has been true of recent titles which operate in a game-like context, such as Proteus (Kanaga & Key, 2013), which certainly had a rule-based system, by virtue of being a computer program, but the ‘goals’ were a lot less explicit that in typical computer games. As such, exclusionary definitions such as Crawford’s have been avoided by writers keen to maintain a wider conception of computer games, and to allow for the changes and potential of the medium. Flanagan (2010) concerns herself with possibilities for computer games outside of a solely entertainment paradigm, and seeks to bring into discussion those who subvert the norms of game design (and the games industry), by moving discourse towards use of the games as a tool for creative expression, conceptual art or social change. Flanagan chooses not to provide a firm definition but offers the description of ‘situations with guidelines and procedures’ (p.7) as a productive way of thinking about games. This attitude is useful as it seeks insight and enables a broad discussion of the medium, rather than being bound by strictures. Of course, being so inclusive a definition means that it can still be compatible with some of the broader schemes developed to understand the fundamentals of games, and might be used in conjunction with them.
Juul (2005) provides only a loose definition of games ‘formal systems that provide informal experiences’ (p.120) but attempts to provide a model by which all games can be identified. His ‘classic game model’ seeks to define the properties of the game as a formal system, but also takes into account the relationship between the player and the game, and the game and the rest of world. He covers rules, variable outcomes (some of which are held to be of greater value than others), the need for a player to invest effort and be attached to the outcome, and the need for the consequences to be negotiable – i.e. that their real-world effects can be determined on a per-play basis by the individuals involved. He is seeking to describe the general properties of games.
Juul’s model is perhaps a fussier version of that outlined by Suits (2005), who refutes Wittgenstein’s conclusion that games have no commonalities. He accepts that some things are definable and some are not but admonishes Wittgenstein for seeing only family resemblances amongst games, and goes on to identify three elements which he sees as fundamental to the form: a ‘prelusory goal’ (an achievable state of affairs), ‘lusory means’ (the agreed rules and system of the game), and a ‘lusory attitude’ (an agreement to adopt the agreed rules/means). This type of framework enables us to understand games without excluding game-like things on technicalities, as other definitions might.
So, what is a computer game? Computers are objective systems which provide the goal and the means under Suits’s conception, but perhaps it is only when they are experienced subjectively with the lusory attitude that the game part comes in. They are things that people play.
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