You and I aren’t part of the majority (in the video game community)

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?

4 thoughts on “You and I aren’t part of the majority (in the video game community)

  1. There is no need for the fight though. Let games be games and go off and let non-games develop and grow without constantly trying to force gamers to call you by a word that isn’t descriptive of what you actually are.

    You are not being harmed by not getting to use the word game anymore than a poem is harmed by not being a novel. This bizzare insistence on co-opting an exiting and well established concept is the worst kind of conceptual colonialism. Just stop and go make your art and I’ll go make my games that have mechanics and gameplay.

    And OF COURSE nongames will outnumber games. That’s the number one characteristic of a good definition, that it is precise and excludes all that is not that thing.

    • It’d be interesting for all of video game community to agree on a definition of what a game is or even what exactly play might be. Of course, I know that will never happen as well. For as long as we are poking at what might be possible, we will forever be pushing the boundary of what is included in the definition of a game, which even though I’m uncomfortable with it sometimes, I still think is important.

      Going for an even more strict formalism approach, “video games” might not actually be “games”. There are definitions from the 1940s and 1950s that would exclude them. Going back even more, definitions from the 1600s don’t take into account games that would come about in the 1800s. As technology and social values have changed, so too have what we consider “games”; definitions change, often frequently, and sometimes for the better.

      There was intense debate when the genre we now think of as the novel was first introduced (circa 1740-1748). The thought was that not only wasn’t it “worthy” (i.e. not a work of art), but that it would ruin Literature forever. It makes the Great Comic-Book Scare of the 1950s in America look pretty tame in comparison. Novels didn’t come to exist as a form we might recognize until a few decades later. Even now, many people are still arguing in Literature departments around the world about if “novels” are actually a separate genre, even with the rise of purely digital works.

      The far worse “conceptual colonialism” is declaring that something isn’t another thing. Couching it as “bizarre” further alienates people. So is insisting that anyone is co-opting a term that has changed — and continues to do so. It’s not well-established. Words change meanings frequently. It’s what makes them useful as linguistic constructs.

      Mechanics and gameplay? Those are incredibly hard terms to define too. What exact is a mechanic? Is something done by a player? If so, does that exclude actions done by code? If one computer plays another in a game of chess, are they both using the mechanics of chess? Consider a rule-based approach to this.

      Are mechanics those actions allowed by the system but not strictly discounted by the rules of a simulation? Even that is a fine line. If I use an exploit towards my own gain in a video game, is that an allowed mechanic? The definition I just established would seem to allow it, yet many would say that my actions weren’t in the “spirit” of the rule. Of course, that’s a subjective and humanistic response too. With no emotional center to judge such actions, some code could easily execute those algorithms without a problem.

      Trying to define what exactly “gameplay” is is even harder. We don’t have a solid basis for what might be a “game” or what “play” is. Are children who imagine they are princesses or are battling with swords “playing”? Can animals “play” with each other? There have been many books on the subject, most of which have been written in the last two decades. There are no easy answers to this.

  2. The only people who believe the definition of games is in flux and not well established over thousands of years of game making are the people demanding that it be changed so they can be called game makers instead of artists. It’s a bizzare inferiority complex that looks down on art and hold games and game makers in unnatural esteem.

    • I would partially agree with your smaller point that developing a cult of the author can be dangerous sometimes. However, we could do far worse as a community than to allow individuals to rise who have distinctive styles and voices. It’s something we don’t see as much now and would be quite healthy for the medium to have.

      Thousands of years? That’s rather hyperbolic. Equating how the creator of Go thought to someone like Warren Spector doesn’t quite work. The concept of what a game could be to each of them is very different. Try to imagine a world without chess or even Go. What might a “game” look to them? Never mind even video games, board games themselves would have no meaning.

      I’d also argue that I’m one of the “people who believe the definition of games is in flux” yet make both more traditional games as well as those based on things like Twine and even some non-interactive projects. And my stuff is pretty tame in comparison to those making much more creative and personal expressions like Porpentine.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “[looking] down on art,” as that assumes all games are art, and that isn’t agreed upon by most people currently. As I wrote, I worry that the formula for creating meaningful games might be tied up with making personal ones. I’m not personally comfortable with that as I fear it might dismiss other games. (Of course, I could be wrong about that. It wouldn’t be the first time.)

      However, I will easily grant that it moves games closer to being what is traditionally thought of as art more than anything else. If art is supposed to elicit an aesthetic response, personal stories seem to do that more than other types of games. I’m not even sure if that matters anyway.

      Those making the most exciting projects don’t care if their projects are “art” or even “games” right now — maybe we shouldn’t either. After all, scholars have a way of organizing things later anyway. History is forever in flux. It could very well be that some things thought games now come to be called something else or that the word itself is no longer used in the future.

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