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What's so game-like about videogames? Are videogames simply anything we find fun, as long as it's on a computer? Interactive movies? Digital roller coasters? Where is the game in videogames - and why should anyone care about the answer?

Nick Halme

March 27, 2014

11 Min Read

The production of videogames is often a very practical one - as is the case in many creative fields - no matter how much the word "creativity" is thrown around the office, your job is, well, a job. What some fields, like game development, can sometimes suffer from is the nearsightedness that is developed while developing videogames. We tend to think about videogames as compared to other videogames, and not necessarily as things in themselves. Then, what are we making when we make videogames? First of all, what the heck is one of these "videogame" things?

The title here is pseudo-philosophical - it's not really philosophical because we won't learn anything about the world thanks to thinking harder about videogames; but we're not too concerned with the real world in this article, and I think we can condone a bit of mental legwork in this area.

I'll first of all differentiate between "videogame" and "game" to avoid semantic confusion - the two are not interchangeable terms. A videogame is not just a game on video. The "are games art?" debate sparked in part by an article written by Roger Ebert did not go over well with developers or fans of games in large part because "art" and "games" mean very different things to different people. The result was simply a lot of strongly opinionated folks arguing past one another with their own unspoken definitions - and I'd like to avoid that here.

To say that what constitutes a game has been a hotly debated topic would be misleading, since very few people have ever asked the question - and they've asked the question to a largely empty room. The man who gets some mention among developers is Johan Huizinga, a Dutch anthropolgist and medieval historian - this is the guy who coined terms like "magic circle" and is, perhaps, largely responsible for the buzzword that is "immersion".

Huizinga, importantly, starts his book Homo Ludens with the word "play" in stating "Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing." - and goes on to elaborate the way in which the act of play informs the activity we call a game: "All these hypotheses have one thing in common: they all start from the assumption that play must serve something which is not play, that it must have some kind of biological purpose."

The implication is that play transcends the needs of real life - eating, sleeping, surviving - and so must have some purpose which is psychological in nature.

The "magic circle" is a sort of designated space for play, defined by Huizinga in Homo Ludens as such:

"All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart."

The American philosopher John Searle makes a similar distinction, although not explicitly applied to games, when he suggests that all human civilization is built upon a foundation of language constructs which have a similar effect as the concept of the magic circle. In this framework we only say that there is a President of the United States of America because in the first place we have chosen to believe that there is such a thing as an area designated as the United States of America, and so on. In the "real world", there is just a man in a suit residing somewhere on a certain landmass - but we have constructed a space in which we accept that this person is the leader of a country full of people who call themselves Americans.

We commit to a similar belief then when we play a game, as Huizinga posits - but the conceptual net can maybe be cast very widely. But for our purposes, considering that a game is a special case within this world, we can at the very least say that games are the product of what takes place within these specially designated play-spaces.

Note that Huizinga doesn't constrain this space to actual physical space - he extends his theory to the game-like nature of physical contests in societies and in the game-like nature of human warfare, noting the parallels between historical generals committing grand errors in the name of "honour", or a sort of fair-play, within the rules of a game system.

The definition I'd like to reify here for "game" is not just this sort of "sacred space" for play, but the added element of contest. Rolling a wheel around with a stick is not a game, it's play. But rolling a wheel around with a stick becomes a game when the player defines rules for winning and losing.

This might seem overly subjective - if I'm spinning a bottlecap around on a table, and then decide that I "win" if it spins in place for five seconds, have I made a game? Abstractly, I have to say - yes you have. Whether other players will agree to the legitimacy of your game or not is another matter, but as long as there is play governed by rules there is a game.

Unfortunately Huizinga was writing in the 1930s, and so never was allowed to have an opinion on whatever a videogame is. So what is a videogame? On the face of it the term doesn't actually seem to mean anything at all - a game on video? Does this imply that a tape of a football game is a videogame?

Sort of - but the tape has to allow for interaction on the part of the viewer, at which point the viewer becomes a player, having agency within the so-called virtual reality displayed on a screen. For videogames this virtual reality itself becomes the magic circle, the sacred space for play - and the more engaged with the virtual reality, we say the more immersed the player.

A videogame then is not its technology - a videogame is not so much a cooperative effort between technology and game, but a new place to play them. We've moved from our existing reality to constructing new ones in which to play games - but I'll argue here that we can't confuse what facilitates our virtual reality wherein games can happen with what games are.

What's important in both games and videogames is what is encased in the vernacular "gameplay". This is a term that videogames have created, and which is defined in different dictionaries unhelpfully as something like "what you do when you play a videogame".

Well, what you do in a videogame isn't so different than what you do when you play hockey or checkers - clearly, you are very literally playing within the bounds of that game. More than "whatever you do when you play a videogame", I would argue that gameplay as a term defines "the play which constitutes any game".

For practical purposes this is what we ask about whenever we say "Yeah, that sounds interesting...but what do you actually do?" after being confronted with a new videogame. The gameplay is what you actually do.

This can distill whatever constitutes game from the "video" of videogames. With the recent resurgence of excitement over peripherals like "virtual reality goggles", this allows us to strip away this added emergence from our talk about gameplay. Yes, the peripheral may add some extra sensory experience which lends more credence to our virtual realities, but they have no added effects on the "what you do" aspect of videogames. However there may be a difference with haptic - or touch - devices; tangible objects or even motion sensing which alters the player's input into the play space.

So, what does that let us do? Importantly, it lets us examine videogames not as just software but as games. Too often videogames fall prey to a focus on "immersion" or a pretense to the production of whatever we might call "fun" or "enjoyment". Apart from the psychological task of figuring out what is enjoyable about throwing a basketball, making Mario jump, or even crafting a level for Mario to jump in, I think it's much more useful to examine what the gameplay is and what can be done with it.

This is more or less what some developers do when they try to define a videogame in the concept phase with a sentence. The tiny space of a single sentence forces you to throw out anything within the concept that is not the doing of something. We can't sum up Mario by describing his clothes or what his world looks like or sounds like. We have to say something like "A character runs and jumps on and across platforms, while jumping on or attacking enemies, and collecting things".

We can then isolate certain elements and elaborate. Mario jumps - he jumps on things, and over them. Mario faces enemies, which he engages similarly to the environment. Mario collects things.

This is reductionist - strip away the graphical appeal and the soundtrack in Mario and you're left with a game nobody wants to play, no matter how well-defined and constructed the gameplay. The point of this exercise is not to actually strip these things away, though - but rather to be able to focus on them as a developer and identify what it is you are trying to make better and, more importantly, what your game even is. Nobody wants to hang out with a skeletal system - most people would like their friends to have meat on their bones, and a personality as well - but the skeletal system is what defines those surrounding things.

What is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare then? Ostensibly, it's about tough guys with guns who run very fast and shoot lots of things in a Tom Clancy-esque environment of global terrorism and rock music. But we know that's not really what it is - that's certainly what it looks like, but that's not the game we play.

If we compare Call of Duty II which is set in the second World War and Modern Warfare we see not only a change in scenery but a change in gameplay.

Call of Duty II is, relative to its modern counterpart, slower and more methodical - more about looking both ways before crossing the street, lest you be hit by a passing bullet fired from a pile of rubble in an aging digital rendering of the French countryside. You still have some of the same tools: shooting, running, crouching, aiming down the sights of your gun - but the way it all hangs together and the way it is tuned fundamentally constructs a different gameplay.

Such that if we put two players in a room, each playing one of the aforementioned games, we would observe differences in play style which not only relate to how different people like to play, but to how they react to the gameplay model which the game sets up with its rules.

This suggests that it is misleading to call games, even games without clear goals, "entertainment" or "media" or occupying some mystical new space between games, film, and Tron. Rather, videogames are a skeletal system of gameplay resting underneath the virtual reality meat which computers have provided us with.

You might still ask, reasonably, "OK, but who cares?" - and my response is to say that game developers should. There is a want to think of videogames as software products - a lot like Excel, only "fun". This might be all you need to sell a videogame, but it doesn't help you define what you are making, and continue to define it when you are halfway through making it, and you don't visually recognize what it is any longer. The virtual reality which constitutes the magic circle of videogames might provide new and emergent ways to create gameplay, but the means can't be equated with the ends. Otherwise we start to lose sight of what exactly it is that we're making when we construct videogames.

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