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Video Games as Games

A brief survey of ontological attitudes towards video games

Richard Marzo, Blogger

October 27, 2014

7 Min Read

Ontology is the classical branch of philosophy that studies the nature of things: their being, what they are. Philosophers have basically turned the act of “defining” into an entire field of study. Dictionaries, or the people around you, are typically good enough to get working definitions of a word. So children or people learning a new language rely upon definitions to construct internal meaning from a word. At the point of fluency however, dictionary definition is no longer enough; one turns to the philosophical activity of ontology for deeper meaning.


As with (almost) all philosophy, it is important from the outset to establish practical goals, so as not to become a theoretical discussion for theory’s sake. My point in doing this is to seek a greater understanding of video games, which will in turn hopefully enhance my experiences with them.


There are three ontologies I am going to focus on, chosen because they seem to be the ones most in circulation on the internet. My focus is also on the internet itself, because I firmly believe that is where most of the public thinking about video games is happening. Other than this, I will not be talking much more about the internet, but I just wanted to make it clear which background I am working from.


The three ontologies are: “Games as Art”, “Games as Entertainment”, and “Video Games as Games”.


Games as Art

This is by far the most popular conception of video games among prominent writers and devs, as well as many...players of video games. I get the sense that even casual players, the kind who never read about games apart from the titlepage on some digital storefront, will acknowledge that video games are a new artform, specific to the modern age. It may take some prodding, but you and I can convince the average person of this within a few sentences.


The basic idea, though it has been controversial at times, is actually pretty straightforward. Painting, sculpture, music, movies, and games are all artforms, and should be treated as such by society. There is really no need to expand on the idea further than that, as everyone here has almost certainly read the longform variants of this idea.


I’ll admit, I have never completely agreed with this ontology. But I can totally tolerate it, because it has generated copious amounts of intellectual discussion around games. Here is my take on the idea:


It is empirically verifiable that any sufficiently large development team will have bonafide artists among its team members. A fair approximation is ⅓ of the team. Many of these artists will have classical training in the fine arts. What they create, for any given game, are works of art. But the game itself has a different ontological status.


The intention behind desiring to classify games as art is understandable, one which I actually agree with. Games deserve the same cultural currency as any artform, but they need not stand on the same ontological foundations to do so. On to the next ontology (see what I did there? Lame, I know)


Games as Entertainment

In this classification, games are placed alongside music, books, and movies. This ontology is closely related to the “Games as Art” version, and the two ideologies tend to get along well. Generally speaking Arts are often grouped with Entertainment, a tradition that goes back to the newspapers of yesteryear, but which is still alive and well in the modern cyberage.


The distinction between art and entertainment need not be emphasized too much. They are often grouped together for good reasons, and whether or not one is a proper subset of the other is not all that important. Painting is rarely considered entertainment, but books are usually considered art. Some forms of entertainment have very little to do with art, and that’s fine. It only matters here because games do in fact have a lot to do with art, as in roughly ⅓ of devs being artists and games containing increasingly significant amounts of artwork.


Video Games as Games

To this point I have freely used the word “games” to refer to “video games”, a common enough practice in many contexts. Henceforth I will be more rigorous: when I say “games” I mean games in the general, analog/digital/whatever; when I say “video games” I will include, for completeness, things like interactive fiction, interactive art installations, etc. I use “video games” as a matter of personal preference, but I’m okay with “computer games”, “digital games”, or even “videogames” (with no space). Just establishing terms here, not trying to start a debate about etymology or anything like that.


So this is where I think video games truly belong - alongside other games, of course! There is nothing revolutionary here, I did not invent the idea. So athletic games, board games, card games, role-playing games, and video games. This ontology makes much more sense to me. There is a common line of thinking that puts films and video games together, being similar in much the same way that art is similar to entertainment. Which is fine. For me, the thing that most closely resembles video games is/are role-playing games. Using pencil & paper, or going full on LARP style, role-players participate in their rpgs in a manner very similar to how video game players participate in video games. Next closest would be trading card games, which are more like rpgs than card games. I’ll stop there, because a strict hierarchy of games is not my goal. Just that games is where video games are most at home ontologically.


It is good to be flexible in the structures that we create to help us live in and understand the world. This is an important aspect of freedom. Freely moving from one ontology to any other, without necessarily sacrificing progress made by fervently adhering to one view of video games, can only increase the scope of what is possible with video games. But they are games. The fact that the word “games” is common shorthand for “video games” is a good thing! Video games are really evolving. I’m just happy to be part of the scene. Even with all the infighting :)


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