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Games are Hard
by Neils Clark on 01/29/14 08:30:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.

 

(This is an exerpt from In Play, hence all the mentions of "book." It also appeared a couple weeks ago on my personal blog, as most of the book is scheduled to do over the next year)

 

A lot of folks dislike the word “game,” some for good reason. For one, it doesn’t sound all that serious. Which turns off the people who might occasionally want to cover Real Shit. In that vein, “game” is still something a lot of us associate with childhood. Board games, card games, tea parties. Seeing them as strictly for kids makes things tricky for any designer considering (gasp) mature themes – for instance solving a gruesome murder, understanding the disappearance of a gay teen, or dealing with the sexy interludes in a healthy romance – a game developer might be worrying more about frantic armies of parents than just telling the damn story.

Outside judgment is not a good reason to change a thing.

Past fear of righteous retribution, the real question is whether “game” describes The Thing. Whether it’s useful. Which ultimately comes down to what we mean when we use it. Popular definitions for game vary from the merrily esoteric, such as Sid Meier’s “a series of interesting choices,” to the drawn-out, for instance Jane McGonigal’s four bullet-point list of goals, rules, feedback, and voluntary participation (and accompanying research for each).

Two of my favorite descriptions of The Thing don’t use the word game. Ian Bogost offers the term “Procedural Rhetoric,” which is brilliant, and deserves us spending roughly twenty pages. I won’t, sorry and you’re welcome. The cliff notes version is, “using systems well.” From automated telephone systems, “press 0 to speak to an operator,” to the system behind Solitaire or SimCity or Constitutional Democracy. Those are all processes (hence procedural). By rhetoric he means the Western Classical tradition of using words well. He’s interested in how we take a game system, and use that to say something that matters. Which I like; therefore I am a fan of the admittedly heavy term “Procedural Rhetoric.” Bogost’s book Persuasive Games is roughly as light as Noah’s Ark at capacity, but it’s still the very best book yet written on the philosophy of using systems well.

Another good rephrasing of “game” might be James Portnow’s “Interactive Experiences.” The webshow he writes, Extra Credits, argued that trying to define games was wrong, and typically only done by assholes trying to announce that games they don’t like aren’t really games. “Interactive Experience,” lets us know that “the interactor has some choice,” without giving ammunition to said assholes. I like that approach. If you like it too, hopefully you won’t mind that I’m still sort of itching for a good way to refer to The Thing, this muddy concept of game.

Anna Anthropy published what’s probably my favorite definition – “a game is an experience created by rules” – though I’m fairly biased. It’s close to one I’ve used for about six years. Games, I think, are systems designed to be experienced. Phrase it however you like. There’s the automated telephone system part (or procedural, if you like), then the part where someone designs it (usually with some audience in mind), then we experience it.

This book is, by and large, about that last bit.

Where exact definitions are concerned, it’s like the Extra Credits team meant, in their episode What is a Game? And Scott McCloud wrote, in his Understanding Comics, “The best definition for comics will, I think, be the most expansive.” McCloud also wrote that every generation has the right (and probably the obligation) to revisit those definitions anyway. Best not to get attached.

As for whether we call them games, interactive art, or anything else, I take another page from the history of comics. At some point they started calling themselves, “graphic novels,” maybe trying to borrow credulity from literature. They’re still just funny books with pictures in them. Some are mature, some are intentionally made for kids. Both can be cool. The timid still enjoy questioning their artistic integrity, moral value, and inherent coolness. If it’s just about having a word that we use to, like, convey the general idea?

I’m fine with games.


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Comments


Darren Tomlyn
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The problem we have with understanding what we use the word game to represent, is the lack of recognition and understanding of the greater context in which is has to, and must, exist.

I've talked to Raph Koster about this before, which is why I didn't bother replying to his last post, but he has similar problems to everyone else - a lack of consistent perception, which which to base any understanding upon, of what we use the word game to represent, however it's described.

This greater context is EXACTLY what language exists to provide and use, to help us understand such information, (and what the information is of), in the first place!

The whole reason we have problems, is that the functionality and identity of language, and how it must be used to help us recognise and understand such information, does not currently exist.

I've written this up for my blog, but have emailed it to Neil Mercer, (at Cambridge University, UK), for his opinion, first... (Have yet to receive any reply.)

Neils Clark
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I mean, one of the biggest reasons non-gamers just see us "staring at screens" is that they haven't met strange and wonderful people inside, and they haven't seen grand landscapes (I really love video example stuff like Andy Kelly's otherplaces for that - http://www.otherplaces.co.uk/).

But getting EVERYONE's context is hard. I wound up presenting the sort of stuff above alongside my own weird stories, and maybe that's okay. The folks who seek to understand games seem to have a high tolerance for the informal, if it gets the job done. If it gets the point across.

Sam Stephens
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I think it is important to understand that regardless if we decide games to be the specific experiences of Sid Meier and Jane McGonigal or if we take the "anything goes" approach of Extra Credits and Anna Anthropy, we will be saying something very definitive about how they work. Either somethings are going to be excluded or other concepts will be diluted to the point meaninglessness.

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem we have with what we use game (or any other representation for this piece of information) to mean, is that it's not specific enough - it's too general - so the latter is exactly what is already happening, and the former is what needs to happen, especially when we already have other words to describe what we need - (puzzle/art/competition and even work and play/toy and tool).

But this cannot happen, if we only ever try and understand what a game is completely in isolation from any/everything else, since it cannot and does not exist in such a manner - which is what language is supposed to help with, and is why ignoring/denying it is helping to not only cause the problems we have, but also make them worse, rather than solve them.

Sam Stephens
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Oh I agree, I was just saying that satisfying everyone is impossible so we should try to use the tools we have as effectively as possible

Neils Clark
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What do you think about, "systems designed to be experienced"?

There's a difference, between *anything goes* and a definition which values inclusivity. I think that inclusivity keeps our focus on the possibility space, and keeps us moving in the novel directions that make for the best kind of fun.

Sam Stephens
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"There's a difference, between *anything goes* and a definition which values inclusivity."

I'm not sure how a definition can be all inclusive. If we value creating a lexicon, then our words should be as meaningful, practical, and specific as they can be. Some of the people you mention in your article have an extremely broad and imprecise idea of what games are (and are also the most vocal about anyone trying to say anything definitive) as their perspective is concerned more with politics than discussions of game design.

Nick Harris
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"systems designed to be experienced"?

What, like a light switch?

Luis Guimaraes
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What about "Stuff"?

On a more serious note, I'd just call it Entertainment Software because that's what it is.

Neils Clark
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I'm thinking more like a procedural system underlying the thing.

With a conscious design process.

That creates human experience got through some form of media.

You could design a system into poetry, you could design it into cinema, you could design it into 2-D art. But it's that conscious application of a system to one of our brands of media experience.

Neils Clark
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Though, you know, light switch is an interesting example. Even though it seems intended as a snarky snipe. =P

Take any haunted house, that gets to be large enough. Some bloody clown might actually be sitting in the back, with their finger on the light switch, in order to heighten that particular experience. They might use strobes, or other timed lighting, but that experience is still designed, and it's still valuable.

At that level of design, I think we'd be foolish not to include it.

I've met some well-known game designers who hit as many haunted houses as they can, come Halloween. It's not an experience to dismiss, though it may not qualify in everyone's murky internal map for what they like to see in a game. The thought which a designer gives is evident in works like Dear Esther or dys4ia.

And by "systems design to be experienced" it's why they're games.

If you have any more delicious counter-examples, I'd be happy to hear 'em. =P

Darren Tomlyn
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And calling a chair any sizeable item made out of wood is inclusive aswell, but worthless. This is the problem with what we call a game - it's become used to describe a combination of elements that are too general to be of any real use, and we're struggling because we don't understand what type of thing a game is, and therefore what we need to be describing in the first place - which is why our understanding is being puzzled all over the place, based on our subjective application and use, which is what language exists to counter.

Nick Harris
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There is a lot of Fine Art that I have had to grudgingly accept as Art. That doesn't mean that I have to like it. The tired old debate "Ah, but is it Art?" doesn't interest me as I have moved on to asking "Yes, but is it any good?". In discussions about the scope of the definition of the term 'Game', I grow similarly tired of the philosophical debate. I know what I like and what I don't like. I'm bored with board games and would struggle to play Scrabble or stress over Chess. Dungeons and Dragons used to interest me before computers and consoles came along to handle that interminable dice rolling. I don't watch any Sport, or feel the urge to run my legs off participating in a competition as I have no intellectual stake in the abstract ranking being decided, motivation to improve my personal best, or a loyalty to support one arbitrary and fluctuating collection of individuals over another as they constitute "my team".

I hate puzzles, largely because I am rubbish at them, often because solving some just means that you have come to think in the same way as its devious designer - something I regard as a troublingly submissive act. I would like to solve puzzles of real value to me in my own life that I have stumbled into myself whether it be comprehending some necessary research, or balancing one of my own designs, or solving a problem with its implementation. I'm not even interested in participating in patronising, or passive-agressive, manipulative inter-personal relationships and see through the dynamics with the aid of Transactional Psychology and a general reticence to never have any personal stake in anything that I can't entirely resolve unaided, for fear of my need being used against me or even as a "quid pro quo" debt.

So, forgive me if I wish to ignore Tetris and say that I would prefer it if we could drop the overly broad term 'Game' and adopt 'Adventure' in its place to cover the increasingly dominant subset of genres to which this applies and the gradual convergence of Multiplayer Histories and Cooperative Campaigns, Non-linear Narratives and Cinematic Role Play as all being stories which share an unusual and exciting escapist experience. These adventures almost do not need to be "Interactive" as I can image a future form of adaptive drama which tracks your attention and heart rate to change the path along which the plot takes without you having to push any immersion breaking buttons.

Seth Strong
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I think what a game is relies specifically on understanding that all games exist for entertainment. Like movies, entertainment isn't always happy. But it's always entertainment dollars and entertainment time. That's close to the necessary minimum idea of a game.

Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately, you'd be wrong in this - games have always been played (taken part in) for work (productive reasons), for training and selection purposes especially, regardless of any entertainment value. Just because they can be subjectively APPLIED in such a manner, does not influence their definition.

Pedro Fonseca
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Part of the problem might be lack of a non directly descriptive word for this "thing", such as it happens with the word "movie", which comes from "motion picture" and now can't really mean anything but a movie.

Another part of the problem is how diverse the "things" are, greatly muddling the definition of what "is and isn't" a game and, regardless of opinion on the issue (even that the issue is the issue itself), it can be raised the question "are they really all the same thing?".

I also like James' definition, but thinking about it again, are Stanley Parable and God of War really the same thing? Is it really just a matter of genre? Can we really bunch them together in an attempt, conscious or not, to hint that those who enjoy one might enjoy the other?

Honestly, I'd say yes, but I can completely see the opposition's case and wouldn't really be able to counter-argument it.

Luis Guimaraes
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Parkinson's Law Of Triviality.

Defining what a game is is very simple: a game is anything that can be gamed.

What is problematic is not the definition, but three other things. First, the interchangeable use of 'game as short for Video-Game, which is not the same. Some Video-Games don't have games in them and some games are not Video-Games. Some are just digital toys, some are movies that consider Video-Games crappy and easier to compete against than in the movies league (just watch us!). Games are just one genre of Entertainment Software (Video-Games).

Just stop saying 'game and this part of the problem will go away. Or we can call everything "stuff", can't be more inclusive than that. I opt for proper categorization.

The second problem is people that believe words carry any power of recognition or acceptance, and want things to be labelled in certain ways not for what they describe, bu for what they believe the word to be a badge of worth , honor, validation or approval. Really, "game" is just a word with a purpose of describing things, people. Get over it.

And possibly the worst, people ashamed of society for liking Video-Games trying to change the meaning of "game" (which isn't even the same thing to begin with) to fix their inferiority complex issues.

I made a Video-Game that's barely a game this GGJ, and I'm pretty fine with that. It's a Video-Game but it's not a game, so what? It's not a badge of value, not a trophy of worth. It's like saying if some food is sweet or salty or bitter or spicy. It doesn't really matter, it doesn't make anything objectively better or worse (and definitely not "invalid"), at all. But if you're a cook chef, you should know it inside out. It's the very basics.

How can we dream of mastering something if we struggle with the basics? How can we reach a golden era in our lifetimes if we keep wasting time on trivialities? Or are we so desperate to be living it that we're more willing to pretend it's happening than making it happen?

Sam Stephens
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"The second problem is people that believe words carry any power of recognition or acceptance, and want things to be labelled in certain ways not for what they describe, bu for what they believe the word to be a badge of worth , honor, validation or approval. Really, "game" is just a word with a purpose of describing things, people. Get over it."

Right. This is the issue both sides of the debate tend to have. The word game is not some property or political battleground that has to be gained or won. It is just a word used to describe a single thing or a consistent set of properties. It is what we mean, the ideas we are trying to communicate, that is important. And this is where I think the divide lies. The two sides are trying to have discussions about two different experiences. It is difficult to be on the same page when your aren't talking about the same thing with the same meaning.

Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately, understanding the type of concept that game belongs to, is a large part of the problems we have - and thing and property are not it.

This is exactly what language exists for, and is why a lack of understanding this is part of not understanding language itself.

Theresa Catalano
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Isn't the definition of "game" pretty clear cut? You can look it up in the dictionary or wikipedia... it's pretty well agreed upon. A game is an activity structured by rules, engaged in for fun. There is some type of challenge and some type of goal.

Video games often meet this definition. Often, but not always. Some "video games" are more just about providing virtual experiences, or tours through virtual worlds. Or maybe just interactive stories. Are those products "games"? Not really.

For some games, it makes sense to call them "games." For others, "interactive experiences" is probably a better choice. Also, "interactive experiences" is a broader and more inclusive term that will also encompass games.

Games are a subset of interactive experiences. Some interactive experiences are more game-like than others, some aren't games at all, but all are interactive experiences. I think that's the best way to say it.

Darren Tomlyn
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Unfortunately, the current definitions of game are not fully consistent or fit for purpose, based on what games represent in relation to everything else, as part of an overall language (such as English) - because we don't fully understand langauge well enough to know what such relationships are, and how and why they truly matter.

Theresa Catalano
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I don't think the answer is twisting the definition of "game" to make all interactive experiences fit. I think the answer is just accepting that not all interactive experiences are "games" in the classical sense. Just switching to "interactive experience" as a term we use for video games is a neat and tidy answer that solves everything.

There's just no good reason to stubbornly hold onto that word "game."

Orion Burcham
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I agree. For me, "interactive entertainment" usually does the trick (and I don't say that without thought).

I've personally not found the definition to come up often, among gamers, developers, or non-developers. It's a fun subject for thought, but it can become a time waster. :)

Darren Tomlyn
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The problem with that approach is that you then ignore any differences that matter, which is why we (normally) use different words to represent such different things - (game/art/puzzle/competition etc.).

Analogy: Just calling chairs 'things we use' because you can't understand what a chair is, (especially because you have no idea of what furniture is or means), isn't going to help you design and build better chairs at all...

Theresa Catalano
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But to borrow your analogy, calling tables "chairs" simply because you don't have a good word for tables is only going to confuse the matter. They're both furniture, and they both need separate labels to indicate the differences.

In the same way, we need a different label for interactive experiences that are played on a screen but aren't really games. Since we lack that, interactive experiences isn't a bad placeholder. At least it's plain to everyone what that means, and it's less confusing than trying to twist the word "games" to mean something it doesn't mean.

Darren Tomlyn
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No we don't!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The words game, art, puzzle, competition, work or play/toy or tool in general are ALL we need - we're just not using them consistently, because we don't fully understand what they are (especially in relation to each other) and/or how and why they're applicable in the first place!

Do NOT mistake the use of a computer for defining the activity/behaviour it is used to enable! Activities are very rarely defined as and by any such objects, even if they can affect their application, and therefore add an additional label if necessary (e.g. computer game).

For example: Minecraft is mainly used as a toy - although there is some competitive element, the main way in which is is used is to nullify such elements and then use it as a virtual set of building blocks instead, e.g. a 'virtual' toy, that happens to use a computer - if you wish to call such an activity a computer toy, then so be it, but it would be nothing more than that when used in such a manner.

Just because we can use computers for art, games, puzzles, competitions, work and play, does NOT mean any of these words are DEFINED as and by the use of a computer!

Adding extra labels for TYPES of such activities/behaviour that are only truly applicable when using computers is FINE, (hence first-person-shooter's etc..), but these are about the application of such activities, not their definition.

If you do not understand why trying to define the use of a computer as an activity all by itself - not just independently of any other, but as affecting all others - is to then deny the very existence of games, puzzles, competitions and even work and play in general, then you are not knowledgeable enough of the English language to have any meaningful input into this matter.

(The computer isn't about being a chair, in this case - the computer is the wood, being used to enable a chair (game) to exist - then tables are puzzles, beds are competitions, and work and play are still applicable in their original form.)

Theresa Catalano
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I think you're misunderstanding me. The definition of game has nothing to do with the use of a computer. It's the same acrossed all media: An activity with a goal structured by rules, played for recreation.

Some computer games fit that definition more than others. Minecraft is a good example of a game which doesn't fit too well. As you say, "toy" is a better label than game. I agree with that.

Darren Tomlyn
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That definition still isn't consistent, because games have always been played (taken part in) for work (productive reasons) - not just play (non-productive reasons).

Unfortunately, our current understanding of work and play is inconsistent, which is helping to cause many problems - especially when it comes to economics, (just think of all the problems we have had with that, recently, and still do...) - and is fairly recent, in itself.

One of the reasons for this is that people are no longer recognising and understanding play as being the opposite of work, which is causing massive effects on our understanding of both. This is also having an inconsistent effect on people's understanding of games - which, as I said, have always been played for work, irrespective of whether or not they are enjoyable, since that is not what work or play truly represent - (enjoyment is WHY we play, not WHAT play is, which is why we can still enjoy our work, without it being play - but, as I said, that isn't recognised and understood.)

And since we don't fully recognise and understand what games are, we don't understand how they've always existed in such a manner - for work - (let alone how they are used in such a manner, currently - such as training for the police/military etc..).

Also, don't mistake goals for competition itself, which is what matters - goals, in themselves, can be subjective, and therefore can have no part in game's definition - they are part of competing, but don't actually have to exist in order for competition to happen, which is what matters.

Your problem is similar to everyone else's - not understanding what a game must be, by how it is related to everything else, which is where language matters, and is why our current lack of a full and consistent understanding of language itself, is helping to cause so many problems...

Theresa Catalano
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"Unfortunately, our current understanding of work and play is inconsistent, which is helping to cause many problems"

I want to highlight this sentence, because this is a key flaw in your thinking. Words are something we all choose how to define. It's not something you need to research in order to have an "understanding." If you want to find out the consensus on what a word means, check the dictionary.

Now, sometimes the way people use words can evolve over time to mean something else. That might be something that calls for research. But it's not like there's a true meaning for a word that we're seeking to understand. Rather, if you think the definition of a word needs to change, the impetus is on you to make your case and explain why.

I don't think there's any controversy over the meaning of the words "work" , "play," or "game." I think there's a pretty well established consensus on what these words mean, and how they are used. I don't think there's any good reason to change the definition of these words.

Darren Tomlyn
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As I said - your understanding of the English language itself, is incomplete - and this is not only your problem, but also for those who studied the language to create such dictionaries in the first place...

The only reason we have problems with work and play, is that people have forgotten the basic information they represent to begin with - as basic things that happen - and as such they have since become confused for how they are applied, which affects their use in a manner consistent with such an application, but unfortunately, we've since forgotten what they're an application of, and are therefore now trying to define them in isolation, instead, which is inconsistent with how the language functions.

Trying to say that language is inherently subjective is to do nothing more than deny its very existence! The whole purpose of language is to COUNTER such subjectivity in order to enable more consistent communication. The rules of language are the main element that allows this to happen, and to therefore IGNORE such rules (because we do not fully understand them!) when it comes to the study, description and teaching of the information a language is used to represent/communicate, is to create such problems, like those we have here - (that also arn't even being fully recognised and understood, because of our lack of understanding of language itself, in the first place).

Language naturally has rules governing the information that belongs to it - not just in isolation, but also in relation to each other - and the lack of our full recognition and understanding of this is causing probably no-end of problems... If such rules were individually subjective, language would not exist - and trying to say that they can be, as I said, is to therefore deny its very existence.

By not recognising that work and play have always been recognised and understood to represent a very firm dichotomy (similar to light/dark, left/right etc.) - until very recently - our understanding of both is now problematic, and for information as important as what these words represent, it is a MASSIVE loss in our understanding of (human) behaviour, involving a description and understanding of the basis of our very existence and civilization - and is helping to cause some very real, tangible, problems...

In other words - the problems we're dealing with here, really do matter - and games are merely a symptom of far greater problems.

Theresa Catalano
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Language IS inherently subjective, that's just a fact. The more you talk the less sense you make. Let's just agree to disagree and call this a day.

Darren Tomlyn
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There is a massive difference between being individually subjective, and collectively subjective - to the point where we only usually use it for the former.

Language is collectively subjective, and so using subjective to describe it in such a manner isn't really suitable, as it doesn't describe how and why it truly functions, and is therefore obviously confusing for people such as yourself.

Christian Philippe Guay
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You guys sure like to complicate things. Games are virtual realities, the microcosm of this whole virtual reality in which we live in right now (macrocosm). No matter how small or simple the game is, it still is just another small virtual experience that can help us (or not) to progress as conscious beings.

That said, I strongly invite you all to listen to nuclear physicist Thomas Campbell's "My Big TOE" and strangely enough, his theory that we live in a virtual reality does fit almost perfectly with ancient teachings found in Yoga, Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism, ancient Egyptian Mystery schools, Jewish Kabbhalah, etc.

http://youtu.be/fT8LaMrn_MM

But in ancient times, they used wors such as Maya, illusion to describe what we would now describe as a virtual reality.

Still, the bottom line is, when we didn't have video games before, we were stuck to life itself, books, films and our imagination. Now video games became so powerful that they pretty much are the ultimate way to experience a lot of things in a shorter amount of time and are limited only by their designers. (or the big companies that only want to make money with casual gamers, but that's another subject, right?).

And the more we understand how games work, the more we'll understand how life works, because both at their core follow the same principles.

Theresa Catalano
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That kind of seems like a twisted view of reality. But it reminds me of a very cool thing in Persona 3. One of the social links is named Maya, and she is someone you never see but play with in a virtual world! Clever way to use the word Maya.

Orion Burcham
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"Interactive entertainment" usually works for me.

I haven't thought of a situation in which someone's interacting with their entertainment, when I wouldn't say they're playing a game. But if it's not entertaining, or not interactive, I have a hard time calling it a game...at least so far.

James Margaris
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Is a toaster oven even an oven? Or a toaster?

Vexing questions!

Sam Stephens
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hmmm (strokes beard)

Jason Withrow
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While I do agree with Portnow's conclusions I never liked the choice of name. The current name is short, the names of the other media are short, people just aren't going to transition to a mouthful. Film. Movies. Radio. Book. Play. Drama. Game. "Television" was swallowed into TV, it's like three syllables is our tolerance level. It's not just a problem of mass appeal. I do it to myself, just looking at these debates, going "this new name sounds awful" and tuning out on the details, which are what's really important.


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