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On: What is a Game

How does one define our fair medium? The term "video game" gets thrown around quite a lot, yet for many, it is a flawed name. As a word, "game" fails to capture the essence of the interactive narrative, its definition limited to "an activity for pleasure." And our medium is so much more diverse than a single phrase.

The first experiences that come to mind are the digital ones played on consoles, PC's, and mobile devices. A couple decades ago, they used to be commonly played on arcade machines as well, but sadly they seem to be fading from the world. One might assume these would be called "computer games" or "digital games" due to their hardware, but while these terms certainly exists, they are not the most prevalent. With all of these experiences, the audience perceives their interaction through a video display device of some kind. For many people who have never played a game, this perception is really all they have to base their knowledge off of. At the time of our medium's infancy when its existence was first gaining recognition, this type of person represented those in power: from parent consumers, to news anchors, advertisers, and corporate suits, they were the Labelers of Things. I want to cover the effects of general misconceptions of the medium in my next piece, so I won't go into much detail here, but it does make sense that such people chose the term "video game." Hell, when the US Supreme Court reviewed footage of violent games as evidence in the Brown v EMA case, the Justices kept referring to them as "violent videos." Wrong medium entirely!


On the other side of the field, we have our non-digital games. Within this group we have a vast range of categories, such as board games, card games, tabletop RPG's, and more. The ways we interact with each of them vary dramatically, but in the end they are collectively agreed upon as "analog games." So there are both digital and analog games, I suppose that should be enough, right?

Well, not exactly. Here we get to the heart of the issue: there are more and more experiences every day that seemingly defy traditional expectations of what a game is. We have Visual Novels, typically narratives of text and static images, driven forward by player input and the occasional choice; we have titles like Dragon's Lair and Heavy Rain, which have been likened to cutscenes peppered with quick-time-events; and we have whatever the hell Telltale's The Walking Dead is. As a ludologist I hesitate to refer to these as games, but I really have no better name for them. "Interactive Narrative," perhaps?


Why does this matter? Is this recent development of these so-called inter-narratives significant anymore for our Medium of Games? Is there anything we can learn from each other? I argue positive to both.


I give you a historical example: film and television. At the fundamental level, we have a medium that can be summed up as moving images accompanied with sound. In the beginning these two branches were very different. One was a strip of film projected in theaters, one was a signal broadcast over the airwaves. One was a lengthier self-contained experience paid for with an admission fee, and one was a serialized form of experience interspersed with ads. Over time, however, the lines between the two blurred as they learned from one another. Films began to see serialization with sequels, even movie franchises. Television began airing longer movies on their stations. Today, they are nigh indistinguishable as we watch on our computers, streaming from the internet. Shows, movies, and web videos are all sub-mediums of a larger whole, and so is it too with interactive-game-narrative-things. I believe that, in time, we will be able to harness the knowledge and design from all of these areas to create experiences we cannot even imagine yet.

I'd like to thank everyone who has been following On: Games so far; you guys have been great and your feedback is what makes this worth writing! At this point I aim on getting an article out here twice a week. So tell me what you think: how do you refer to the medium? Do you think we'll see more experience hybridization in the future? I'd love to know!

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