There has been a lot of talk about the definition of the word Game. Ralph Koster’s open letter to Leigh Alexander, Tadhg Kelly’s attempt to say that formalists are not the enemy or a lovely piece I stumbled onto on tumblr who points something important out. There isn’t a binary between formalists and indie/zinesters.
I find this interesting as my position is both being an “Capital I” Indie but also somewhat of a formalist. Straight off, let me say that my policy about ‘what is game’ is close to peoples policy toward gender pronouns: I’ll call you what you want me to call you (within reason. Don’t call a potato a game please… unless we’re playing hot potato). By saying your work is a game I will approach it like a game and look at it in that context, even if it doesn’t strike me as particularly “gamey” or gamelike. I’m very sympathetic toward the formalist position, though. I love talking about systems. I love defining new ideas. Politics aside, arguing about what games are can be fun and interesting, even if I don’t think the answer is terribly important.
I 100% believe Raph when he says he’s not trying to be dismissive when he calls something interactive fiction (though some people are certainly being assholes). Something “not being a game” really doesn’t change it’s value… in theory at least. Interactive fiction has a lot of kinship with games anyways and would frequently be relevant. I think the fear of exclusion is almost misdirecting from what I think might be the real problem.
I think the problem is that it ignores cultural identity. The “Zinesters” are making what they think of as games. Saying they’re something else does not exclude them (they still get to go to all the cool parties, and talk with all the cool kids!) but it is profoundly disrespectful. That is how they use the term and formalists wield no authority in that space. Also, why are we so married to the word ‘game’ anyways? It’s a term deeply rooted in culture at this point — why not let it be used to talk about a wide range of experiences? We need a word for that ANYWAYS. Nothing is being wasted or squandered. We can come up with other words for things if we REAAAALLY have to.
Remember, this also isn’t a binary. I love talking about systematic stuff. Frame data, minor tweaks to recovery, little things that produce profound changes. But I also like stuff like world ecology, storytelling and lore and other fluff. I love internal consistency not just in mechanics but in the world. My interests aren’t as personal or even as interesting as the stuff a lot of people are doing in TWINE, but it’s far from game systems. Like what was said on Mammon-Machine’s tumblr — systems are for anyone who want to play with them and the reverse is true.
“But how can we talk about games if we don’t understand what they are!”
This is a common line and I think it’s kinda bogus. How I make games and talk about games is NOT affected by whether or not Proteus is a “game”. If we’re concerning ourselves with systematic interactions, we’re going to think along those terms. If we’re thinking about personal expression through symbolism, we will think in those terms. Some people design to find elegance and simplicity. Some people see system as only mechanical interaction and some see the entire game world as a system. There are many valid definitions with different repercussions that can be used to achieve different ends. We can’t be bound to one complete definition. In a sense, this is why genre discussions are so good, as each supplies a different framework with different goals. We need to be flexible and adjustable.
As designers, we need to stop chasing definitions for games. There is a definition for every human that exists. Everything from interactive fiction to tetris has a lot of shared parts that we can talk about. We can talk about how to use those parts to achieve different goals. We can do a lot of things without a formal, consistent definition. Art has been doing it for years. It’s annoying, and not terribly but we can deal with it, because the needs of culture are more important than our minor inconveniences. Because that is all this is for us — a minor inconvenience. It doesn’t matter that much. The things that are on the fringe of your interest should not be interfering with the things you want to talk about. Getting distracted by those things and trying to make them fit into your world view is more “OCD”ish behavior than any sort of design. Let it go. You’ll be a better designer for it AND you’ll piss less smart, talented people off.
Besides, any theories that hinge on a precise definition of game are too frail to survive or trust.