Definitions can be weapons. Their sharp edges divide one group from another. This from that. We use them to construct a reality that conforms to a majority consensus of a meaning for concepts.
That is what is being forgotten, I feel, in this latest round of the discussion of “what games are”. We forget that we aren’t the majority. For as much as we might argue passionately about inclusion and exclusion within our group, about if Twine games and personal journeys should or shouldn’t be included, we forget that we are a small — very small — part of a larger consumer base.
When Leigh Alexander worries that the discussion over labels is distracting from people playing some games, she’s right. (I’d even go farther by classifying those actions as purely rhetorical. By attempting to make something a “not”, it’s an othering tactic by trying to take power and thus agency away from something.) Of course, I also agree with Raph Koster and his worry that we might have decided that “‘saying something personal’ is what makes [games] worthwhile art” as that dismisses some projects and games too. Even Corvus Elrod, who I often look to for how to be a better game designer, adds that any definition should be centered on play.
However, again, we forget that we aren’t the majority. (Well, maybe Corvus, Raph, and Leigh are, but I’m not, that’s for sure.)
All it took for me to remember this was some time in a classroom recently during a discussion of video games. Several students admitted that they “don’t play video games.” One student even said she “had never played a video game.” And even among those who played video games on any regular basis, it was those on Facebook or MMOs like World of Warcraft. Being someone who tries, when I can, to keep up with the indie space and even makes my own games sometimes, I suddenly realized I was not only a part of a minority within the room, I was part of an even smaller minority within the video game community than I had ever realized.
It reminded me of another time when, in an audience of 300+ other students, I admitted I read Kotaku. After clarifying that it was a “gaming blog,” only a handful of people in the room responded that they had even heard of it. The journalism professor, whose question was “Who regularly reads a popular blog?”, followed my answer with “Do you have a job?” (At the time, I had two part-time jobs while being a part-time student.)
The video game community is small compared to the larger consumer base who buys entertainment technology. Smaller still is the community who writes about or even makes games. Taking just the attendance of GDC, which is itself positioned as a meeting of the important people in the industry, that’s 23,000 people. Assuming only 1 in 7 people within the greater industry were there, that’s still only 161,000 people. Even bumping that up to 1 in 11 people, that’s still only just over 250,000 people. (In contrast, my guess at the number of active people reading and writing within the English video game blogosphere is less than 10,000. That’s not counting people posting on forums.)
Definitions are sites of conflict. And as such, they also victimize. It’s important to question them, to move to improve them. However, you and I are not the majority and, as such, we are going to have fight harder and longer if we want to change things. We might even be weighted down in the discussion of “what games are” by trying to mold definitions, but I don’t see that stopping people from making new things — designed interactions, stories and even games.
At some point soon, the sheer volume of what some consider “not games” will outweigh “games”. I’m interested in seeing what happens then. Will the cutting go the other way? Will those artifacts now considered “games” be moved to another category to make room? Will the definition of what a “game” is be abandoned or expanded?