What is in a Game?

What do The Stanley Parable and Olympic figure skating have in common?

If you’re a human being living on planet Earth, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve spent at least some fraction of time watching, discussing or actively avoiding the Winter Olympics over the past few weeks. I, personally, am saddened by the poor play of the U.S. curling team and have watched far more figure skating than I care to admit. While watching the festivities with various people I found myself entertaining the same question from almost all of them: “Is event X a sport?” To me a sport is an athletic competition in which an individual or team has the ability to directly influence all competing entities. Basically, I think a sport requires some form of offense and defense. If we go back to the Olympics analogy, hockey is widely accepted as a sport and it fits my definition perfectly. Hockey is a competition where both teams have the ability to hinder the other, as well as advance themselves. Another, more debatable example would be curling. Curling is athletic – it may not be the most physically demanding activity but it requires coordination and dexterity, and it’s a back-and-forth game where each side vies for position in the house. That’s a sport in my book. On the other hand this leaves out a lot of competitions that many people categorize as sports. For example, figure skating is an extremely difficult and athletic talent that I could never do in a million years, but unless the Olympic Committee starts allowing the other skaters on the ice to body check each other while doing triple axels, I don’t consider it a sport. The spread of what is a sport varies wildly from person to person and it makes the debate a very interesting one.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “GT I don’t care about sports, why is this on your website about video games?” I think the sport/not sport debate is very closely related to a debate that has been popping up more and more lately and that is the game/not a game debate. If you look at threads on any gaming forum about Dear Esther or Gone Home you will undoubtedly see someone exclaiming, “This isn’t a game!”…and I actually agree with them. By no means do I agree with the pompous arrogance that usually accompanies such posts, but I do not consider Dear Esther or Gone Home video games. To me a game has adversaries, a game has challenges, a game has objectives and goals. In this sense, video games and sports are closely paralleled. Interactive narratives that lack a failure state or objective just do not fulfill my definition of a game. This is why I think Telltale adventures are games while Dear Esther is not. The Walking Dead series has consequences; the AI is trying to defeat you. This push back against the player is what sets games apart from other media and it is not present in something like Dear Esther.

The real issue is that the “not a game” label is not necessarily a bad thing. Playing through Gone Home was an amazing experience that I suggest everyone should try for themselves. I laughed more during The Stanley Parable than I do while watching most major comedies on TV or in theatres. Just because something is not a “game” does not mean it is not worthwhile, important or meaningful; much like how figure skating, while not a sport in my opinion, is still incredibly impressive. The single most amazing physical feat in my opinion is running a marathon. How human beings can average four minute miles for twenty-six miles is beyond my comprehension. Despite that fact, I still do not consider the marathon a sport. I think part of the controversy behind the not a game tag is the idea that not being a game somehow diminishes the work, when in reality labeling something “not a game” is no more of a slight than calling a game a first-person shooter or action-adventure.

I will concede the fact that the “not a game” label has gained a very negative connotation, so I prefer to label these experiences “interactive narratives.” I think “interactive narrative” sounds much less aggressive and could help differentiate proper labeling from forum trolling, which is what this whole debate really boils down to. This all may seem like mental gymnastics just to generate a label for something, but in reality people love labels! Whether it’s music genres or award show categories, people love lists and classification. Top 10s are always some of the most talked about articles and people love those Facebook quizzes that tell you what archetype you would be in universe X or Y. People like being able to put things in neat little boxes which is the whole essence of the Steam Tag initiative and why I think it was so popular. There is a hipster mentality that you can’t classify things in one word or sentence, that everything is too deep and complex, and while this is true in the abstract there is nothing wrong with discussing it. I love having the sport/not sport discussion with people because everyone has a different opinion. When getting to know someone new, so often the topic of music comes up in conversation. Having a set group of genres, while not necessarily 100% accurate, does give a baseline of understanding. If I say I like alternative rock you may not know if I like the Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam, but at least you get a general idea of what I like and if you we have a connection to further discuss. Interactive narratives are not new, but their recent explosion in prevalence and quality has earned classification into their own genre in my eyes. Whether they are games or not may not be important, but it is a fun debate to have with your buddies over a drink.

So, are interactive narratives video games? We’re all friends here, so what do you think?

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