(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.