What’s That ‘Video Game’ Thingy Again?
João Paralta Camilo
www.thelegendofjohnny.com, Lisboa, Portugal
This article is centered in defining what Video Games are. But in order to define Video Games, one has to define the broader concept of Game.
Over the years, several authors gave their view on both definitions. On this article I try, without being too exhaustive, to introduce some of those definitions, from reputed game designers, and scholars. Based on such definitions, I formulate my own. I felt the need to make this research with the creation of my website centered on Video Games, mostly to clearly state what will be its subject.
According to my definition, a Video Game is a type of game running on an electronic device, or being assisted by it, being played on a video screen. A Game is an activity with its own game world for players to interact; trying to achieve an objective, feeling entertained in the process. I also state that the main reason for a game to exist is to entertain, and that Video Games should use the resources they have to add something to the experience of traditional games, trying to achieve a “more fun” experience.
My definition is not the “final”, “absolute” definition on the subject. I do believe that it is hard to achieve such. It is, however, an explanation of what I think a game is, for I do believe that in order to talk about something you have to, if not exactly knowing what it is, at least spend the time trying to know.
Keywords: Game, Video Game, entertainment, fun, electronic device, video screen
In one of my first ever Philosophy classes, the teacher asked the class: “Are you happy?”. We all answered “Yes”. He then proceeded asking one of my colleagues: “So, if you are happy, what is Happiness after all?”. It was the first time I really understood that we should always try to learn not only about the things we don’t know, but also about the things “we think we know”. It was also the first time I realized that we should not use concepts freely, and that no harm comes from explaining what our understanding about such concepts is, before using them.
With the creation of my website 1, dedicated to video games, I felt the need to define to myself the concept “Video Game”. The problem arising from this decision is that even ignoring the “Video” part, the “Game” definition is far from linear. In fact, games have been around for long, and several definitions have been given, some more consensual than others.
One of the greatest problems about defining a game is related with the multiplicity of the activities we call “Games”. Even without clearly knowing how to define a game, we can (without much doubt in our minds) state that Chess, Hearts, Dungeons and Dragons, God of War and Sonic the Hedgehog are all games, despite the great differences between them. So, they must have some similar aspects that make them qualify as “Games”. This means that in order to define what a Video Game is we must define what a Game is.
In this article I will introduce different definitions of “Game” given by several authors. I will also introduce several definitions of what a “Video Game” is. I’ll finish this article introducing my definition for both “Games” and “Video Games”. This definition will serve as a guide to what will be talked in my website.
2. WHAT CANST THOU SAY A GAME IS?
Games have been around for long , or at least activities which are considered games. But what makes games like Grand Theft Auto 2, Tetris 3 and The Sims 4 to be considered games? And are they the same as Magic the Gathering 5 and Puerto Rico 6? The fact is that, albeit different, there are similarities between such examples which make them all qualify as ‘Games’.
Several definitions for the word ‘Game’ have been given through years. In this section we will introduce some of those definitions, indicating some problems which may arise, especially when we use them to consider some ‘border cases’ which may or may not be considered as games. I do not wish to be exhaustive introducing such definitions (nor is this the goal of this article), but to give a general overview of the thoughts of some reputed game designers and scholars on the subject.
2.1 Games need a pretend reality?
Ernest Adams  defined a game as a play activity where participants are subject to some sort of rules, and have at least one arbitrary, non trivial goal. This activity should be conducted in the context of a pretend reality.
It matters to define briefly what each of these concepts is for the author:
- Play: participatory form of entertainment. This means that when playing, you have the power to choose what you do, and how you do it. This makes playing different from other forms of entertainment, like watching a movie, or reading a book.
- Pretending: the ability to create a reality apart from the real world. Pretending creates an imaginary world, where rules, goals and actions have different meanings and significance than outside such reality. A game occurs inside this pretended reality.
- Goal: the reason why a game is played. Contrarily to other authors who require a game’s outcome to be quantifiable, in Adam’s definition a goal does not need to be quantifiable, nor achievable for that matter. A goal simply needs to exist, and the player must act to achieve such goal. Adams also states that a goal is defined by rules, is arbitrary, and must be nontrivial.
- Rules: definitions and instructions that the players agree upon during the game, establishing the object of the game and the meanings of events and activities in the game’s pretended reality. They allow the players to know what actions are permitted in the game, and to evaluate a course of actions to achieve the goal.
This definition is focused on the activity of the player, not in the rules like Game Theory  definitions. This allows a bigger freedom when defining and designing games. It also does not limits the scope of games to simply entertainment, considering games for studying or learning as ‘Games’ nonetheless. It also eliminates ‘fun’ from the definition. The author states that although a good game is fun, a game may or may not be.
One aspect of this definition (although not originally introduced by Adams)  which I would like to sign is the concept of ‘Pretending’. The way I see it, a player should be able to understand that a game has a reality upon itself, abstracting from the outer reality while playing. The creation of such reality is partly responsibility of the game designer, but also partly responsibility of the player. This may bring a tier of subjectivity to the game, but also allows a “player-dependant”, “designer-independent” reality construction, which creates different experiences according to who’s playing.
2.2 Games need measurable outcome?
A somehow related definition to that of Adams is Salen’s and Zimmerman’s . The two make a comparison between 8 definitions for ‘Game’ held by 8 authors. Based on such comparison, they defined game as ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’.
The authors then explain this definition, describing its primary ideas. This way, a system is composed by objects, attributes, internal relationships and environment, which are different according to how a game is framed as a system (formal, experiential and cultural).
A system, which may be open or closed, according to whether it has an exchange of some kind with the environment or not, works as a framework for a game where participants (players) interact to experience the play of the game. While playing, although the game occurs in real world, the players are in an ‘artificial’ reality, with distinctive rules providing structure which defines what the players can do in the game. Games must have some sort of conflict, a ‘contest of powers’ which originates ultimately a quantifiable outcome, with players reaching (or failing to reach) some goal.
This definition is not too different from that of Ernest Adams. It does, however, include the need for a game to have a quantifiable outcome. This is indeed real for most games. However, if we consider, for instance, virtual life games, such as The Sims, we are not able to find any “designer-defined” measurable outcomes. Many argue virtual life games are not games, and this definition seems to affirm that too. However, I consider that the measurability of an outcome is not necessary for a game to be a game. Games do need different outcomes, changing according to how they are played, but may be things as abstract as ‘getting married’ or ‘create a race of super ants’.
2.3 Games need to be isolated from real world?
Tracy Fullerton  defines a game as a formal system, that is, the interrelated formal elements which define a game’s structure and meaning. This is a closed system, meaning that what you do in a game has no consequences in the real world.
According to Fullerton, games are also defined by the existence of conflict, structured by formal and dramatic elements, which challenge players to achieve their objectives by following rules, and procedures that make it difficult to do so.
The last trait in defining a game, according to this model, is the existence of uncertainty in games, which is resolved in unequal outcomes. This means that while playing a game, there is the possibility of producing a winner or winners, or at least ‘achieve’ or ‘solve’ something. Accomplishing something, however, should not be trivial, allowing separating different players, which are not all the same.
Analyzing this definition, I must say I do not agree with the notion of a game being a closed system. I do believe a game is set in its own pretend reality, but that reality may have an outcome in real life. Think of real-money poker, for instance. Or Russian roulette.
2.4 Games need ambiguity?
Keith Burgun, on His Gamasutra’s article , defined a game as “a system of rules in which agents compete by making ambiguous decisions.” Burgun argues that the existence of meaningful, ambiguous decisions is what distinguishes a game from other interactive systems. A hierarchy of interactive systems, as he explains it, may be seen on image 1.
Besides being meaningful (meaning they have repercussions in the game, origin new challenges and define the final outcome of the game), the decisions also need to be ambiguous. Differently to what happens in puzzles, where there is decision-making, of course, the decisions in the game should not have direct, simple, “good or bad” outcomes. This makes games more interesting, giving the player an uncertainty about whether or not his choices are the correct ones. This also opens the possibility to improve, even with good outcomes.
Analyzing this definition, the fact is that it is clear that the possibility for the player to make choices clearly exists in a game. However, the need for meaningful, ambiguous decisions to define “a game” is a new, fresh way of looking at it, but excludes too much “puzzles” and “contests” that, according to the author taxonomy are not games. That is clearly hard to accept. It may be seen as one way to achieve more complex, more intense games which are more fun to play, but does not work as a differential of what a game is, or isn’t.
2.5 Games need friends and fun?
Board Game Designer Keith Meyers , defines informally a game as “a means of getting people together for social connectivity.” More formally, he identifies a game as an activity defined by the existence of ‘contest’, which implies there is always at least one winner. In order for a winner to exist, there must be a way to determine, usually through scoring, who wins.
Meyers also identifies the existence of rules, without which it is not possible to create the order and structure necessary to determine the winner.
Finally, the author also identifies the need for enjoyment (which he uses as a synonym for fun), implying that a non-enjoyable game is not a game, for players will not want to play it.
The informal definition is clearly biased towards board games. The fact is that there is no need for social interaction when playing a game (how many games you know with only one player?).
Related to this, and now looking at the more formal definition of games, it also means that the ‘contest’ Meyer’s speaks only makes sense if we understand it as the strive to reach a goal, using the actions allowed by the rules.
Finally, there is much to say about the notion of ‘fun’ in a game, and that is not the intent of this article. I may, however, say that although I do believe it should be the aim of a game designer to create a ‘fun’ game, it is my opinion a game does not need to be ‘fun’ to be a game.
2.6 Why can’t I think of a question to this sub-section’s title?
Scott Rogers  makes a more simplistic approach when defining a game. He defines a videogame as an activity requiring at least one player, with rules and a victory condition. He also states that there is the need for a game to have an objective, which should be summed up quickly and clearly.
This is a quite straight-to-the-point definition, yet a quite complex one, including a lot of what others definitions introduced here state. What is included here is the need for the game to have an objective which is easily recognizable. This is kind of limitative. In fact, if we think of most games (even the more complex ones), we can easily define a simple objective. But for games like virtual-life games like The Sims, building games like Sim City 7, or some simulators without the existence of a defined objective, this part of the definition kind of falls. Also, if we think of serious games like Darfur is Dying 8, we may consider the game objective as giving the player a higher level of conscience. Also, for ‘art games’ like Shadow of the Colossus 9 or Alien Garden 10, it is usually not easy to understand the game’s objective.
3. Video Games you say? Exquisite paraphernalia!
Researching the definition of video games according to different authors showed that it tends to be more unanimous than the definition of games. Nevertheless, there are different perspectives about what a video game is. I will try to give some of these perspectives on this article.
Scott Rogers  simply defines a video game as a game played on a video screen. Notice that he does not make any distinction between ‘what’ screen the game is played upon, nor between games “played” on a device or simply “facilitated” by the device.
Also with this “device-independent” definition, Ernest Adams  considers a video game as a type of game mediated by a computer, independently of the device where the computer is installed. This definition, simply by not defining the type of ‘computers’ where video games may exist, makes them span devices as small as a keychain device, like Tamagotchi, or as big as a theme park. The existence of a computer in gaming allows players to play computer mediated games differently from traditional games, for computers may handle functions which in ‘traditional’ games are handled by players, namely:
Hiding the rules – the non-existent written rules, implemented by the machine, allow the player to be more immersed, for he no longer has to worry about the game as “a game”. However, when the players don’t know the rules, they don’t know how to optimize their choices, having to learn by playing, which may be frustrating in some “trial-and-error” implementations.
Setting the pace – video games may define the pace of the game, with the game designer deciding on how should the game be played. In conventional games, this decision is ultimately responsibility of the players.
Presenting a Game World – with conventional board games, the game world was built mainly on the players’ imagination. With computer games, excluding the early text-based adventures, it is possible to create game worlds that seem as real as the fictional worlds in television or film.
Creating Artificial Intelligence – initially, AI in videogames aimed simply at creating artificial opponents for traditional games, allowing multiplayer with only one human player. AI nowadays is of a much broader use, being used by developers to allow the software to define strategies, pathfinding, natural language parsing and generation, pattern recognition and simulated people and creatures.
To some authors, the concept of video game is not as broader, like Becker and Parker  who define a video game as a game using a display and an electronic device allowing the game to be played. When the device used is a computer, the video game is also a computer game. Another distinction the authors make is between computer games and computer mediated games: computer games are those where a computer’s computational power is used to create image and sound, and enforce rules to create a game, whilst computer-mediated games are games where the computer handles the boring parts (like scoring or shuffling in a card’s game, for instance), and providing an adversary if needed. Although giving a more restrict definition for “video games”, the authors say that nowadays, a video game is a game that uses a television as a display, which includes game consoles.
Mark Wolf  also makes a distinction between video games, electronic games and computer games, whereas the first does not require a microprocessor whilst the other two do not require any visual.
According to this, the author explains how initially the term “video” was associated with the use of an analog signal in a cathode ray tube to produce raster base imagery. He also explained that as new devices (and new visualization technologies) appeared, the term “video game” became more conceptual, representing the type of game which is displayed in some sort of “video” screen. At the same time, the term “computer game” is (according to the author) more accurate, representing a game which is controlled by (depending on) a microprocessor.
Mixing both “video game” and “computer game” definitions, and introducing some “non”-computer games, but “computer-aided” instead, the author defines videogames as games which are controlled by a microprocessor, interactive, and which action occurs on a screen of sorts.
On His “The Art of Videogames” ’ book , Gant Tavinor considers a video game as a form of entertainment, using some sort of visual display. Besides the display, a video game should provide entertainment using rule and objective gameplay, interactive fiction, or both.
The need for a visual display of information, excludes electronic games played in some other media (like a board), where the electronic part is used simply as an aid. At the same time, Gant defends that the visual display needs not to be pictorial, considering text-based games as videogames nonetheless.
Gant also states that videogames must provide entertainment, and the form that entertainment is provided, is introduced to distinguish video games from other media: entertainment separates games from other artifacts using the same media but with other purposes, like virtual museums, for example.
Also important in Gant’s definition, is the fact that for this author, a video game may provide entertainment using only rule and objective gameplay, in games like Tetris or Pacman 11, only interactive fiction, in games like Colossal Cave Adventure 12 and others interactive narratives, world-exploring and world-building fictions or simulations or both of this aspects, like Grand Theft Auto, or Portal 13. The fact is that this disjunctive definition, albeit making the definition vaguer, also makes it more encompassing, including different ‘types’ of video games.
Also introducing the disjunction with narrative, Esposito  defines a video game as game, played on an audiovisual apparatus, which can be based on a story. This definition includes video games as a sub-set of games, having their characteristics. This definition also encapsulates the notion that games are played, meaning the person playing the game is acting according to a set of limitations and rules, outside the real world. Also, the author states that a game may or may not have a story associated. Besides all what’s stated, what really separates videogames from other games is the fact that they are played on an audiovisual apparatus, defined by Esposito as an electronic system with computing capabilities, and input and output devices. The author does not make any distinction between different types of electronic devices, like computers, consoles or cell phones, for instance, saying that a game is a video game as long as there is some electronic device dealing with automation and complexity to create a richer game world, keeping the game pace, and allowing interactivity, which defines gameplay.
As we can see, there are differences in the definitions we introduced. There is, however, at least something all authors agree: a video game is a game. This means that it shares the same traits that define a game. A video game must also be played in some electronic device which, according to the definition used, may have different functions and may be separated in different types.
4. “I Want to Play a Game!”
If it was Billy from the Saw series 14 telling you this, you would probably have about a minute to escape some trap before dying. And what would be wrong with that? Clearly, Billy does not know what a “Game” is. Well Billy, you uneducated psycho puppet, just for you, my definition of “Game”.
Analyzing the definitions introduced in section 2, we can say that there is some common ground between them, and also some differences. The definition I will introduce is not intended to be completely original nor the “absolute” definition of what a game is. It is simply the way I found to distinguish a game from other activities, trying to include “all the stuff” I consider to be a game. With this thought in mind, I will next point out the defining and indispensable characteristics of an activity which qualifies it as a game:
- Play – Like in Ernest Adams’ definition, I do believe that a game is only a game if it is meant to be played. This means that one or more humans (players) should act on it, having the power to, according to their decisions, change what’s happening. Also, a game should not only allow players’ actions, but create a playful interaction, creating an entertaining experience. I do believe that this need for “entertaining” is one of the factors which easily distinguish a game from other types of activities. For instance, an online interactive evaluation test feels very different from a trivia game to interact with, although they both can be simply described as a series of questions and answers.
- Game World – The “where” and “how” of the game. The game has an associated reality where it takes place. This may or may not have effects on the outside reality (may be open or closed, like stated on Salen’s and Zimmerman’s definition). The game world includes the game rules, which define which actions the player may execute, and what the effects of those actions are. The game world, which complexity changes according to the game, sets the limits of what the player can do, what the player should do, where he can do it, with who or what the player interacts and the results of those interactions. The Game World as I define it may also be concrete, sometimes even simulating the real world – like in GTA Vice City 15 – or abstract – like in Columns 16. Also, may be completely defined by the “media” in which the game is being played, or partially created by the player, as a creative, imaginative process, like in many board games.
- Objectives – The objectives, as I see them, are simply what motivate the players’ actions. They can be explicit, like in Bomberman 17 or Street Fighter 18, or may be chosen by the player. For instance, in a game like The Sims, there really aren’t any clearly defined objectives. However, when playing the game, the player may set the objective to get the biggest house possible, then a wife and kids, then a group of friends, and so on. Also – and this The Sims’ example shows that – a goal may not be constant throughout the entire game. The existence of objectives is somewhat related with conflict: the player usually faces some type of resistance from the game or other players when trying to achieve an objective. Also, objectives may have different outcomes, sometimes in a scale of different levels, allowing the differentiation between different players with different skills. This also allows the possibility for a player to improve an already positive outcome. I also do believe we can speak of primary and secondary objectives. For instance while playing Pokémon 19, you have the objective to become the best trainer in the world, while having the objective to get all Pokémon. The player decides the order on which he obtains these objectives. At the same time, the player may set himself the objective to get a team of LV 100 Pikachus 20, or having only water Pokémons. When an objective is “designed” into the game, not being part of the player’s mental process, it may or not be mandatory (like optional side-quests in most RPGs). The fact is that the way I see objectives in games, their existence gives the player a motivation, by trying to achieve the objectives, dealing with conflict and understanding the rules, but at the same time may give a feeling of freedom, by allowing the player to try different strategies, choose the order of such objectives, deciding on which to aim at, and ultimately define their own objectives.
With the introduced elements in mind, I will finally give my definition of game:
“A Game is an activity which has a Game World for at least one player to interact with. The game world defines the environment where the game takes place, the rules of game, and the player’s possible actions and their outcomes. The game should have a set of objectives, which may be defined by the rules, or created by the player while interacting with the game. It is the existence of objectives and the players’ strive to achieve them, surpassing the obstacles, what motivates a player to play the game. While playing a game, the player must feel entertained, and that should be the ultimate motivation for a game: entertain who plays it.”
The only thing this resumed definition introduces when compared to what was previously stated by me is the entertainment as the motivation for a game. I do believe that while a game may be more than simply an entertaining experience (it may teach something to the player, or even wake its conscience to some World’s problem, among other things), it should nevertheless entertain. Without being entertained, the player will not play for long. So back to the beginning, when Saw’s Billy says “I want to play a game”, what he should say is “I want you to interact with some sort of device, respecting simple rules, and trying to achieve the objective of leaving this room in one piece”. There is no entertainment value in losing one limb or your life. So, take that, Billy! It’s one thing to be a psychopath, but I will not let you misuse concepts!
5. “This is my idea of fun | Playing video games”
After a mandatory introduction of my definition of Game, It is time to finally get to what motivated the writing of this article: a definition of what a Video Game is.
So, “What’s that Video Game Thingy Again?”.
In a simple definition, I must say that like others, so do I think a Video Game is simply a game played on a video screen. Any screen. This means that a game being played on your TV screen, your computer screen, your Playstation Portable, your Cell Phone or your Tablet is a videogame.
But a video game is more than a screen. By my definition, a video game is also characterized by the existence of some sort of electronic device which controls the game. This may be a computer, a console, or any other electronic device, like a watch. Also, I do believe a video game is a video game independently of the fact “all” the game is happening on the screen or not. This means I do not make any distinction between games running on a device and being displayed on a screen, and games being played outside the screen and where the electronic device simply mediates the game. Note that according to this definition, a game like Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea 21 is clearly not a videogame, because despite being “run” in a computer, lacks the visual part of the definition. In fact, I’m not sure how to classify this game. Audio-only? Computer game? “Sensorial Game”? Simply a ‘Game’? I don’t know, but clearly Deep Sea is not a Video Game.
So, bringing these ideas together, I define a video game as follows:
“A Video Game is a type of Game with the particularity of having some sort of electronic device allowing it to be played, or at least assisting the gameplay. This electronic device should output the game to a screen.”
Being a “Video Game” a “Game” nonetheless, it is only logical that there is some way the electronic device controlling the game may be used to implement some of the functions which are usually responsibility of the player. This way, it may have the responsibility to define a Game World, setting the environment, the rules and player’s actions and outcomes, and the players’ objectives. Also, the existence of an electronic device allows the existence of Artificial Intelligence in a game, allowing for instance, electronically-controlled players, allies and foes, and even the autonomous creation of content (levels, dialogues, etc.).
Although not necessarily, since a Video Game may simply be a direct port from another game in another media, without adding much more than rule handling and eventually autonomous players, the fact is that the media of Video Games allows “more” than, for instance, board games, mostly in what is shown to the player of the game world (which in board games is mostly mentally-built). It is not strange that since their appearing video games have become more and more complex, usually in the graphics, the music, and other multimedia features. However, I do believe that the existence of an electronic device, controlling them, and video display showing them, should bring more to gamming than simply luxurious graphics. The resources that video games have when compared to other games in other media, should be used to potentiate the entertainment, and not simply to dazzle the players’ eyes. Videogames are supposed to be fun. A lot of them are, others not so much.
Defining a non-trivial concept is never easy. This is valid for the concepts of Game and Video Game. And since Video Games are a subset of Games, one cannot be defined without defining the other.
S/peveral authors have given their definitions of these concepts along the years without any of them being the correct, broadly accepted one. In this article I tried to show some opinions on this subject, trying to get to my own definitions for both Games and Video Games.
The way I see it, a Game is an activity with its own game world for players to interact with, trying to achieve an objective, feeling entertained in the process. I also explained the reasons why I believe a Game should, above all things, be an entertaining activity.
A Video Game is a type of game played on, or assisted by, an electronic device, which outputs the game to a screen of sorts. Video Games’ creators should use the resources at their disposition to create experiences which are funnier, or at least different from those of traditional games. Sometimes, we only see Video Games with amazing multimedia content, but with a weak game idea, not being fun for those who play them. Games are supposed to be fun!
The need to have a video display for a game to be a video game opens some doubts in some border-cases. I already talked about my inability to define a game like Deep Sea, but now I would like to present an hypothetical problem: imagine you have an electronic device working as a game master for a board RPG (ignore how hard it would be to implement successfully such a system). By my definition, if the game master “speaks” to the player by a speaker, this would not be a video game. If the game master displays his words on a screen, this would be a videogame. My definition is far from satisfactory in this case.
One way to solve the “Game Master’s border-case” would be to extract the “mediated” games from my definition (like some authors). But then it would be hard to clearly distinguish these cases (and potentially harder as new forms of interaction appear, and more extended reality games are created). For instance, a board game where when a player gets to some positions, must play a corresponding level in a home console… is this a Video Game or a Game?
The fact is that, ultimately, it is a matter of choice on which definition to follow. In my case, I felt the need to define what a Video Game is in order to use such definition as a guiding line of what my webpage should be about. In this article I was able to get to a definition which satisfies me. As future work, it is possible to make other articles dealing with some border-line cases, when defining Games and Video Games.
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