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What Defines a Game: Meaning Vs. Action
by Josh Bycer on 01/22/13 02:05:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Defining a video game has always been a touchy subject, and the rise of games focusing on storytelling first has only made it more complicated. Leading me to ask: Can you define a video game? 

Reprinted from my site: Game-Wisdom

Recently, I played two very different adventure games: To The Moon and The Walking Dead episode 5. Both titles are completely different from each other in terms of story and design except for one area. They are both built around the player being an observer with limited game play; another commonly used name for these types of titles is "art games."

While I enjoyed both titles for the stories they represent, however I feel torn as someone who studies game design. Classifying both titles as "games", they would be rip apart in any examination that focuses on gameplay. And because of that, for today's post I'm going to take the role of the contrarian and ask: should interactive stories be called games?

art games

Pointing and Clicking Around:

For this post I'm going to avoid any plot related spoilers about either game. But I will be talking about examples of gameplay for each. The only plot points I will mention are the basic ones that are mention in the game's description.

Both the gameplay of To The Moon and The Walking Dead are about the basic mechanic of adventure titles: hunting for interactive areas. In To The Moon, the player controls a duo of doctors whose job is to enter the mind of terminally ill patients and alter their memories to fulfill their last request.

The gameplay involves walking around each memory looking for memory links that can be used to access the next earlier memory. There is basic puzzle solving in the form of figuring out how to unscramble a picture and two special segments that I won't talk about for spoiler reasons.

In The Walking Dead, the player's time is mainly spent deciding what dialogue options to pick from which in turn affect the story in subtle ways. There are puzzles here and there requiring the player to look around in the general area for items needed to progress. QTEs are mainly used for combat sections and dangerous situations.

And that's it, neither title is very long and it's very hard to get hopelessly stuck at either. Now, if I were to walk up to you on the street and tell you about either game using the gameplay descriptions, how many of you would actually play these games, or even classify them as a game?

The Game of Trying to Define a Game:

One of the definitions of a game according to Encarta that fits with a video game is: An activity that resembles a game, e.g. one that involves intense interest and competitiveness and is carried out by its own specific and often unspoken rules.

Building off of that, video games are also defined by a series of rules and game systems. Most importantly, one of the basic elements of a game is that there has to be a win and a lost state.

Art Games
To The Moon uses a retro look and feel to help tell a deep story-line. Even without voices the game delves and talks about mature content.

In both The Walking Dead and To The Moon, there are no real lost states. With the former, death simply resets the game to before the QTE allowing the player to try again infinitely.

And in the latter, there is never a point where the player is in any danger of failure.

Now these two games aren't the only ones who don't have this condition. Titles that are considered "art games", such as The Path from Tale of Tales also don't satisfy the win/lose state of a game.

These types of games share one major element: the player is an observer to the events. Instead of directly influencing the outcome of the game, they are mainly taken on a ride in favor of telling a story. Unlike a game like Amnesia where even though the player can't fail the game, they are still tested by puzzle and stealth sections.

“The word [game] is used for so many different activities that it is not worth insisting on any proposed definition. All in all, it is a slippery lexicological customer, with many friends and relations in a variety of fields."

- David Parlett, The Oxford History of Board Games.

One of the reasons why titles where the mechanics are downplayed and scrutinized is that these types of games are fairly new to the industry. The industry was built on games about action and gameplay, both due to wanting to attract people to play and due to the limitations of the hardware.

The idea of playing what could be considered a “virtual sightseeing tour" doesn't still well with a lot of gamers.

With all that said, I would not classify either title as a game using the basic definition. But when we talk about games, there is more to judge a game than just the gameplay. And there are as plenty of different types of games as there are movie genres and books.

While To The Moon and The Walking Dead may not deliver on amazing gameplay, they both feature great story lines. And I will admit that that there are only three times where I cried playing a video game, and these two games are #2 and 3 on that list.

art games
Journey's unique visual and sound design helped to create an experience beyond just the general gameplay of exploring the world.

Are we doing these titles a disservice by calling them games? Or is it more of a disservice to label them "interactive stories?" I don't completely know the answer, and looking around online, there isn't a straight answer.

It is very difficult to find a conclusive definition of a game, much less a video game. According to Merriam Webster- a video game is an electronic game played by means of images on a video screen and often emphasizing fast action, and a game is: an  activity engaged in for diversion or amusement. Neither of which actually assist us with a true definition of a game.

If push came to shove, I would define a video game as: software designed to let a user experience a unique scenario with its own set of governing rules and systems, and to experience meaningful game design. But I don't know how well that would be received by people. Some even argue that we shouldn't even begin to define a game.

But if we were to define game design, that becomes easier. In the book, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, they offered the following basic definition:

“Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant from which meaning emerges."

If we extended this to art games or interactive stories, these titles don't have any meaningful gameplay, but do elicit meaning in the stories they are trying to tell. What makes a good game designer is not just thinking about how the gameplay would work, but how the game would look, sound, and play as well.

As there are more elements to a video game then just playing it, but are these significant enough to label something a video game?

What do you think? Is defining what is or is not a game a fool's errand? And is there any meaning in a title where the player's interaction has none?

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Ardney Carter
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"And is there any meaning in a title where the player's interaction has none?"
I'm guessing you're not here classifying player actions with 'meaning' as exclusively those which affect the ultimate outcome of a narrative since by that defintion a great number of games wouldn't have meaningful player interactions. Not all games have narratives at all, let alone branching possibilites for their outcomes

But if that isn't what you mean then the only alternative (that I'm seeing, granted) is that player interaction with meaning consists of actions which will advance the game at all and in that case it seems that the 2 games you use as examples fit the bill very well. Progress does not take place if a player doesn't solve the puzzles or successfully complete the QTE.

So then what is the great difference between these and other more traditional games? Is it the lack of a gameover screen? Surely that can't be the case unless you also what to extend your hesitancy about gameness (gameship?) to titles like Bit.Trip Runner or Super Meatboy(iirc) which also immediately reset their conditions upon player failure.

"Is defining what is or is not a game a fool's errand?"

Luis Guimaraes
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"Should interactive stories be called games?"

Depends on what one considers a "game" and an "interactive story" to be. Which breaks down three other personal assumptions: what "interactive" means, and what "story" means, as either a "tale" or as a "history".

Depending on what is considered to be "interactive" and what's considered to be a "game", as in if illusion of interactivity is considered interactivity, will tell if an "interactive tale" is a game. But in most cases, and "interactive history" can be considered to be a "game".

By my definition, illusion of interactivity is not interactivity, and a tale has not gone beyond pseudo-interactive in the video(computer ruled)-game to this date. Also by my definition, a game is anything that can be gamed, and what can't be gamed is not a game.

By those two definitions (of "interactivity" and "game"):

- faux-interactive tales are not games.
- interactive histories are games.

And from there different personal opinion can be laid upon the definitions, such as "non-interactive tales are better than faux-interactive tales".

Luis Guimaraes
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(Meanwhile in a parallel universe)

Irrelevant of what games are and what games aren't, and considering everything to be games and drawing not lines on what percentage of interactivity is considered minimum relevant interactivity, there's a chance this whole subject falls into one of "invisible walls" instead.

"Are invisible walls good game design?" is a good starting point to find about what motivates the three sides of the discussion (yes / no / who cares).

Many would agree Simon Says is a game, as long as there are at least 3 players in it. And many, while not akin of the "us versus them" design mentality, would agree it roots to a simple premise that the designer is also a player of the game, of which many would not completely oppose to.

What's the core mechanic Simon Says is built upon? I would lean in the direction of saying it's all about Invisible Walls.

Walls don't necessarily mean physical walls, but boundaries. Invisible Walls is simple an specific commonly found example of a more abstract (of serious levels of abstraction) mechanic (regardless of it's considered quality as a mechanic, still a mechanic) better expressed as Artificial Barriers.

All games have Obstacles, which can be overcome somehow (by direct approach, brute force, exploitation, or contrivance), and all games have Barriers, which can't, or are not intended to, be surmountable.

The existence of Obstacles and Barriers are not problematic in and of themselves. Artificial Obstacles, then, are in order of magnitude perceived by many players are inherently bad or "cheap" in comparison to more consistent ones. Comparing the natures of Obstacles to the nature of Barriers, the perceived negative effect of Artificial Barriers are leveraged into worse ground than Artificial Obstacles are.

What of a game in which you must chose between A and B, while C, D, E and F would all be better options and the player knows it? What is it that prevents the player from going for a simpler, smarter, more beneficial in short and long term, win-win solution, when there's no real explanation for the need to do the worst possible decision, appart from untamable need of the tale to go in the direction Simon Says it has to?

Here's the answer: Invisible Walls.

Now back to the article's title: Meaning vs. Action, which one is better to describe what doing what Simon Says is?

Many would agree Simon Says is a game, as long as there are at least 3 players in it.

Axel Cholewa
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Hey Josh,

I think Wikipedia offers some "advice":

1) "A video game is an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device." (

2) "A game is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool." (

3) "Play is [...] a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment". (

Moreover, "[the] National Institute for Play describes seven play types", and among them is:

"Narrative (or storytelling), the play of learning and language that develops intellect, such as a parent reading aloud to a child, or a child retelling the story in his or her own words."

Therefore even reading interactive story books is playing, and those books are obviously structured. Therefore they are games.

As a consequence both of your examples clearly are video games.

Luis Guimaraes
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Toys, Instruments, DVDs/CDs/VHS, Characters/Roles/Performances, Pranks/Jokes, Games...

All those things can be "played" in English. Just a case of occasional shortage of words to describe different things. Happens in all languages.

The 3rd Wikipedia article talks about the Toy-associated forms of play. The 1st link has many good definitions in it, specially Chris Crawford's known ones: "If no goals are associated with a plaything, it is a toy."

But it's far simpler to talk about when you have separate words that describe the specific meanings without overlapping inside the subject in question. And similarly, once you know them it's hard to ignore the differences.

Translations (better to say "synonyms") on the right column:

I hope it helps to look at it from a different POV. And I hope the comment made sense (35 hours awake...).

Altug Isigan
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What defines a game: In first line, meaningful action. No need for a versus there.

Joseph Eichelberger
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I think with a topic like this, you won't be able to create a golden rule or standard. Instead, we're must take one game at a time, within their own context.

Something certainly can be said with the new focus on completing a rich, climatic story, especially in today's market. But more the player gets to do/play, the better I think. Sacrificing on play to make a more interesting story is a crucial decision in the game-making process, and should never be made lightly.

Bart Stewart
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I like "rules-based interactive entertainment." There are still edge cases, but it covers most things that most people (gamers and non-gamers) would call a game without encompassing things that most people wouldn't consider a game.

By that definition, interactive narrative play where the story's possibilities are experienced by following rules is pretty clearly a game. Something similar is true for simulation-rich games as well, I think.

What impels people to insist so strongly that certain kinds of things aren't legitimately games?

Luis Guimaraes
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Knowing where you are helps planning the path to where you want to get. Specially true in non-euclidean space, which is pretty much where art is.

I can only speak for myself tho.