Games have always been known for being hard to define. When products such as Dear Esther or Gone Home come into the news, there is always this whole discussion revolving around whether they truely are games, unfortunately often with the intention to discredit it as an art-piece. I do not believe the two aforementioned examples are the issue. “Game” is the issue.
“Game” is a biased word. We started calling games “games” because of its earliest examples such as Pong and Tetris. They are clear cut examples of a game, where you play in a structured way for your enjoyment. Back when they started calling it games they did not predict what would be possible and what would be tried in the art form in the future (ie, now). I believe “Game” is now a somewhat destructive word, favouring certain kinds of examples in it above others.
What does “game” mean?
Looking at the first line on games at wikipedia, one will find:
Games are difficult to define objectively. What would one see as “structured playing”?
Ok. Let us dissect that. According to this, games require activities that are voluntary and intrinsically motivated. This means that it comes from the player itself to perform the activity, not because they are “told so” by others (ie, extrinsically motivated). The official definition of games has been debated for years and years, as it is really vague, and can encompass many activities by being overly generalising. Video games are a subset of interactive media. Wikipedia:
Interactive media normally refers to products and services on digital computer-based systems which respond to the user’s actions by presenting content such as text, graphics, animation, video, audio, games, etc.
What if we would have some art form, of which games are a subset, that is defined just like music?
“Something” is an interactive art form that uses a variety of media and offers agency to its consumer.
Such an art form would remove all bias that the term “game” has for its examples, allowing the art form to evolve in whatever way it likes, while still offering the old term for products that are much more clearly “games”.
Consequences of using the word “Game”
Currently, the word “game” creates many problems in the art form. Its very subjective and vague definition causes many products to be called games so they sell better, while I and many others would argue that they are probably not actual games in the traditional sense. Dear Esther, Gone Home, The Walking Dead, but arguably also products like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons I would not really consider a game. Looking at Brothers, while it offers agency and some obstacles one needs to overcome, the playing is not what one focuses on; It is the immersion in the world, and the story it tells in it what one plays it for. I think it is bizarre how products such as these are categorized and sold in a name that is much more catered towards products such as League of Legends, Tetris or Minecraft. A friend of mine even compared Dear Esther with something like football! What if “Video game” is an umbrella genre in this new art form containing other genres such as RTS, RPG, Shooters etc., but not the art form itself?
Being a gamer
Another problem is that identifying as a gamer is very limiting. I quite enjoy to “play” non-traditional products like the aformentioned, but am less of a fan of traditional Video Games, referring to games like LoL. However, if I say that I like to play “games”, everyone will assume I am talking about the traditional kind. This is not the case at all for all other art forms. If one says he’s a huge music fan, one asks things like what genres you are into. Now, I often say that I like to play “artsy” or “experimental” games, which is very meaningless and has a prentious vibe to it. Furthermore, because of events like “Gamer Gate” and other parts of “game culture” such as huge fandom over certain characters that one may of may not identify with, calling yourself a gamer can also get people to think you have certain values that you really do not.
Continuing on my previous point, alongside the fact that calling yourself a gamer causes real stigmas you will also find that people less interested in traditional games will never bother to try out the non-traditional, “artsy” ones, purely because of the bias in the word, while they may actually really enjoy those! Because of this, great artists will never bother to try out some beautiful interactive art pieces or maybe even create their art in this new, cool medium where everything still has to be figured out. I have heard many people not really into gaming (nor the “artsy” side of gaming) express that they think games cannot be art. This greatly limits the speed at which developments arise in how art is made in the medium. Of course, gaming is the youngest art form of all of them, and everyone is still testing the waters, but many innovators go to the traditional side of things because there is such a huge bias towards it. Categorising the non-traditional ones as games causes wrong expectations for the consumer more into traditional games, and makes it much more difficult for people less into those to find new products they would be interested in.
Bias against expression
Saying you are making or playing an “artsy game” sometimes has a negative connotation. I think this is caused by the word “game” itself too, as it seems like it is not used much for products where an artist expresses theirselves through a medium. One does not really consider “game” as an art form, but rather more strictly defined entertainment where performing well is very crucial, and where playing around is the core activity of the art. When it is not possible to perform well in a game because of the lack of traditional objectives in it, it will often be discredited and critised for something the art piece is not trying to be.
Gameplay where gameplay is not needed
Something I noticed is that a lot of non-traditional games add gameplay of rather low quality just to abide to some sort of amount of gameplay required to conform to the definition of being a game. Very often it seem like the gameplay is also very separate from the experience itself, in that it does not add in the story the product is trying to express. An example would be Eidolon, a very minimalistic walking simulator that happened to have a survival system that in my opinion did nothing but making the experience a bit more annoying, and another more extreme case would be Mind: Path to Thalamus where the, sometimes just plain annoying, puzzles only feel in the way of experiencing the story and environment.
Problems with the new term
An obvious problem with the term would be how one would distinguish between the two kinds of games we currently have. Interactive story sounds like a good choice, but it does exclude products such as Proteus that have no story at all and are about experiencing the environment. I would however certainly consider Proteus a very non-traditional game! Adding a third term like Environmental experience could work, but may also be too complex. Furthermore, the distinction is still very vague. Some people, for example, would play The Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear Solid purely for its story, while others might prefer the gameplay in it.
If we would think of a new term for the non-traditional games, another criterium could be how much the product challenges its users compared to other objectives, such as explaining a story, expressing a view or immersing the player. However, this is very vague again.
One can also just hope and wait until the definition of what a game is and the public perception of it changes into a more broadly accepting way so it more easily contains non-traditional products. A subgenre for many of these products, or a good descriptor would most certainly help though, because Googling for “Walking Simulators” is a bit weird.
What if we would create a new word for an art form of which games are a subset? This would allow creators to express theirselves more freely, and consumers to find more easily and identify stronger with the entertainment they so much adore. The word “game” is inherently biased towards certain products, and can invalidate a lot of potential for great art. Of course, adding a new term above game is not going to happen so quickly. Like /u/XceptionVII mentioned on Reddit, however, Virtual Reality could certainly cause a large shift towards non-traditional games, as it can greatly enhance them. This could incrase the need for such a term in the somewhat near future.