Editor’s Note: Carl Linnaeus was an 18th Century scientist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy, the classification of organisms.
One of the issues in the modern critical community for video games that mystifies me the most is a resistance to looking into further evaluating the definition for just what a “video game” is. Some voice concerns over worries that improving our vocabulary will work solely towards exclusionary ends; they fear the power to call something “not a game” belittles creators and robs them of their merit like pulling at the ends of a slipknot. Some propose that a more refined set of terms to classify and categorize will stifle creative spirits and the coverage they would accrue. They are certainly real fears, but they’re clung to with almost superstitious fervor in their desire to not confront the question.
Though there are a number of proposed starting points for re-evaluated systems of classification, objections to specific terms often spin the discussion into endless quibbling over details. Rather than go into any kind of digression about actually trying to establish where those boundary lines should lie, here you will find only an argument for the general re-evaluation of terms.
We have no problem with classification of subdivisions of things we already consider “video games” based on their mechanical structures. We often classify games into “genres” the same way we do with movies and books, slotting them into superficial-but-helpful categorizations based on similarities and setting. We have subsets for describing modes of movement, modes of competition and/or objective, constructs pertaining to the passing of time, and even language for the default camera perspective. Already these genres come with baggage about expected features and generalized assumptions about their gameplay, but hybridized and divergent styles are generally welcomed as innovation at best, and novel diversion at worst. The space between and outside these classifications is still intact. There are certainly trade-offs how far inside or outside one operates from this already accepted means of subdivision, but overall most works that can successfully engage the player(s) will find a receptive audience.
That engagement is what has traditionally defined a “game” whether digital or physical. This usually involved conditions of demarcated success or failure against either an existing system or an active opponent, often in some quantifiable fashion. Plenty of simple games are capable of eschewing digital interfaces, and sometimes don’t even involve audio or visual stimuli, which would make the key uniting principles of games their systems for interaction. What these rulesets and conditions do is create a space for the participants to test their abilities, and in a way create their own experiences and narrative through the events they directly caused to happen. The power of the players to triumph or fail based on their talents, and often go on to measure their prowess and others, make for the heft of the experience. Tales are often told in personal bests, leaderboard rankings, end-of-game scores, win-loss statistics and other numeric records of performance, with perceptions of challenge or complexity serving to heighten those participant-generated dramas.
Works that find their “game-ness” at question generally rub against this admittedly essentialist history. Sometimes the means of achieving “success” is simple to the point of being a set perfunctory or even unavoidable triggers. Sometimes there is no lose state or measure of explicitly quantified performance. Sometimes the elements of presentation are leaned on so heavily and aggressively that the intended result is to stop participants from continuing. Sometimes the entertainment value is primarily situated in passive narrative exposition, couched in somewhat superficial interaction. The ever-widening umbrella of what constitutes a “game” has reached some of its outer limits and is growing to consume related but willfully distinct realms of creativity, like interactive fiction. Not that fluidity and hybridization between mediums should be frowned upon in any way either, but that would seem a sign that something might be amiss.
There are numerous objections on the grounds that attempting to gerrymander the boundaries of “game-ness” are a kind of political attempt to devalue anything that would sit outside the new guideline. This is a wholly valid concern, because admittedly there are proponents of this school of thought who harbor that hidden objective. But that doesn’t by any means necessitate an agenda based on sociological prejudice, nor is it necessarily predicated on dislike of presentation details like narrative content or visual presentation. While those red flags of personal prejudice should be vigilantly monitored at all costs, it would be foolish to forfeit the potential interpretive benefits a more refined taxonomy might yield because of the mere possibility of critical re-assessment.
The objective of calling a variety of things by the same term is to unite, but couldn’t it be possible that the span of individual works has widened to where no universally applicable center can hold all its diverse and disparate creations? Shouldn’t the drive to seek similarities and unifying compositional elements also necessitate a counterbalancing search for attributions of difference to identify and celebrate what make individual “games” unique? This is the purpose of proposing a new terminology: to discuss these works and perhaps come to a better understanding of them, on terms better fit to their construction. Still, even suggesting such a system for strictly clinical and academic purposes, while keeping “games” as the broader and more inclusive cultural signifier, is frowned upon heavily in the name of protecting would-be outliers.
The adjustments of perception that came to allow for these works’ acceptance as “games” in an ever-growing “big-tent” idealism serve as the other side of the same coin here, and as such were similarly politicized in nature. There is apparently something particularly inviting and attractive about the “game” label which encourages creators of interactive digital work to seek it, even when its use is potentially questionable. Familiarity through superficial similarities, common creators, tangential associations via social ties, and even distribution methods are all part of that miasma of perception around where something is or should be on a kind of hypothetical “game-ness” gradient. What’s confusing is that the contents of this now-desirable label were long considered as ephemeral, trivial and easily dismissed, and for most of society this is still true… so what’s changed?
As “games” begin to make major overtures at maturity and refinement and profundity, one may be inclined to grow suspicious. As the borders of their sphere of influence grows, a pessimism comes into view that’s worth exploring for its root cause. Are these “non-games” or “un-games” or “quasi-games” a side door to more established/respected/glamorous/lucrative artistic endeavors, wading through “traditional games media” as some kind of backwater shortcut or framing device? Are “games” so direly in need of being matured and validated as pastimes through the lenses of “respected” media that those works with greatest critical clout are often weighted massively against the strengths “games” long held as a medium in their own right?
“Is [X] a ‘game’?” tends to be found in the same murky waters as “Is this game ‘art’?” because both ultimately aim to ask the same thing: “Does this matter, and if so, why?” The question is fundamentally philosophical, and so no single correct answer exists. But then why such a massive push by both creative and critical elements to create a unified, formless front? And if it necessitates obfuscating core issues of mechanics and stifling dialogues that could potentially help clarify our understanding of the current state of “games” then is it truly in the best interest of its practitioners? Low-interactivity works have been given pet names ranging from “beautiful tunnels” to “asset tours”, and that unwillingness to fully trust the dynamic give-and-take communion between players and creators will always shadow such creations with doubts.
Most of the rhetoric I’ve seen against this kind of “divisive” or “dismissive” re-evaluation eventually trends into social parallels: LGBT/QUILTBAG rights, “civil unions” versus marriage, second-class citizenship, “separate but equal” doctrine and other issues of grave human injustice past and present. But for all our ethnocultural divisions, we have 99.9 percent of our DNA that genetically and biologically (mechanically) unites us. I don’t feel that they are apt parallels to draw, not out of trivialization of social issues, but because it sells short the diversity of games and the means they use to reach us. Think instead of the splendor of Tree of Life: domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. We are still free to debate and question at the edges of where “life” begins and what it is, changing the system as we see fit and our understanding grows, but we can work on that comprehension within a system of classification that is sufficiently strong to both compare and contrast, illuminating all the while.
It would be foolish to think that any first attempt at a “Tree of Games” would be so harmonious right off the bat, but it would be a step in the right direction. Making sure to never associate analysis of form with judgment of content would be a pivotal part of the process, and there’s a great deal of legitimate fear that this would be where such an endeavor would fall into bickering and ostracism. That said, people with any sort of vested interest in works that would be put “at risk” of not being taken seriously are intelligent enough to navigate those waters; there should be no trouble putting faith in the kind of people who already practice serious dialogue, and who would be the primary practitioners of this kind of new classification. It also doesn’t seem prudent to worry about adverse effects in the worlds of coverage and publicity; nearly all places that deal with “games” also cover related stories so long they are pertinent to games at large; if marginally tangential relations from movie licenses to spoof videos all find their way into news feeds, anything interactive and creative would almost assuredly still find a home.
In any case, it’d be better than stand stock still, faced with splendorous creations but at a loss for words.