Don’t Call it A Game


I wrote the following in the comment section of Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition latest episode (Note: Updated with Full Video Below):



I have to disagree with Jim (Note: It’s Mr. Jim Sterling, he and I don’t know each other from Adam, Eve or Alduin so let us dispense with the disrespectful familiarity, shall we?) here. Yes, calling something, “Not a video game,” as a pejorative does not one any service, but any game has to, at the very least appeal to the Illusion of Control, and not simply to the Illusion of Participation. Visual novels, text adventures and the like are based on the Illusion of Participation, that is, that the would be player gets to press a button once in awhile to enhance the experience somehow. They are not video games, and you know what, they don’t have to be.

Let me repeat that, they don’t have to be!

They can be something different, virtual installations, interactive novels, interactive fiction, what have you. And once freed from the burden of trying to be “gamey” in someway, they can flourish, just like poetry and prose are part of literature but are clearly different forms of expression.

Yes, I agree with Mr. Sterling on the fact that one should not say, “that’s not a video game,” when we mean to say, “that is something I don’t like.” However, I find his definition of what is a game too broad to be useful. Video games are not merely electronic devices with a modicum of interactivity.  Video games demand the players attention. One does not interact with a video game, one engages with and within the experience created by it. This is what I call the Illusion of Control. Said illusion is predicated on the sense of player agency, that is how much control the player appears to have over the space/events in a given game. The greater the sense of agency the stronger the illusion. Sandbox games like Minecraft maximize player agency.  Player characters are placed in a procedurally generated world with a series of tools and allowed to shape the environment as they see fit. What the player does, when he does it is limited only by the tools available and his imagination. Most games constrain the player agency in a variety of ways including but not limited to, linear paths, the use of cutscenes, quick time events, scripted sequences and other limits in game play. Each of these mechanics take away the player’s agency and minimize the illusion of control.

But what happens when you slide the agency slider to the other side of the spectrum? What happens when a game stop demanding your attention and it just welcomes it? It is no longer a game. It may be interactive but without the Illusion of Control you are left with the Illusion of Participation. Take for example the Mission: Space ride in Epcot Center:

Before boarding the simulators, each rider is assigned an on-board role (navigator, pilot, commander or engineer) and given two tasks to perform during the mission (pressing a specific button when told). For example, one of the commander’s buttons initiates the rocket’s first-stage separation, and the other activates manual flight control. The spacecraft’s on-board self-automated pilot will perform each task if the rider does not respond to his or her prompt from Mission Control or if there is no one to perform the task. Also featured are various labeled buttons and switches which the rider may play with but do nothing; they are only there to add to the realism aspect of the ride. (Emphasis added)

Ride goers participate but at no point does the ride stop if anyone fails to press the button. I’m sure there a few ride operators who would love to stop the ride, haul the offender out of the cabin and scream that they should press the F#@!-ing button. Putting aside the dreams of deranged carny operators, the ride uses the Illusion of Participation to enhance the experience. Other products like Dear Ester and anything made by David Cage appear to rely on the same illusion to engage their audience. And there lies the problem for video game critics as illustrated by this installment of Zero Punctuation. Time and time again a certain type of developer creates something using game development tools like D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die only to remember half way through the development cycle that the product will be marketed as a video game and decides to stick some game play elements in order to qualify. The  game play elements feel out of place like an obligatory arcade sequence in an object game (Space Quest and their ilk) or the obligatory stealth sequence in an action game. It is as if the title of video game hangs like chain around their necks, dragging them back into the fold kicking and screaming.

But who is doing the pulling?

Members of the video game industry including critics like Mr. Sterling. He admits that to call these products “Not a video game” puts them beyond his reach. Yet different is not better or worse, just different. They don’t have to be games and just because they are not games doesn’t mean that can not be analyzed. The irony is that Mr. Sterling summons the spirit of the late Roger Ebert to criticize those who would carelessly throw around the label of “Not a game” when in fact he finds himself in the same role as Ebert. Ebert, the movie critic, lacked the language to describe games the way he described movies. The vocabulary of passive visual media does not fit in the realm of interactive media. Mr. Sterling, the video game reviewer, lacks the vocabulary to describe these forms of interactive fiction. That is neither a failure of the late Roger Ebert or of Jim Sterling. Everyone is struggling with the same problem. The solution is not to slap the label of “Bad Game” on works that are pushing beyond the boundaries. Instead, we should judge them on their own merits and allow them to flourish.



4 comments on “Don’t Call it A Game

  1. “But who is doing the pulling?

    Members of the video game industry including critics like Mr. Sterling.”

    I find this statement really weird honestly. Its not Jim Sterling and other game reviewers that gave something like D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die the title game. It gave itself that title when it decided to sell itself on game websites on a game console as a game. It is not Jim or any of the video game reviewers fault or problem that people feel pressured to use tired and unfitting game mechanics in their games. That is the Developers decision and actually works to highlight the problem Jim was talking about. Why can’t a game not have interaction? Why do people like D4’s designers feel their game required these ill fitting mechanics. The fact is that we have seen a lot of success from Indy developers who have shirked the traditions the big publishers rigidly stick to. We are not going to improve a medium by setting up rigid guidelines that you have to follow because that is just an arbitrary limit on our imagination. What do we gain from this? Do we gain something from viewing things like D4, Mountain, or Dear Esther as not a game? Sure you can argue that it makes the word ‘game’ useless but what are you trying to use it for exactly? If all you want is for it to describe what you feel are games as games what is the point of this? Even if we did accept your definition of ‘game’ there would still be sub categories so why limit the overarching title? We can just create new sub divisions of games such as “Non interactive Games” vs “Interactive Games”.

    On the point of Yahtzee and others should be reviewing something on its own merits like D4. What about Yahtzee’s review was not reviewing D4 on it’s merits? When you get down to it what is a game reviewers job? It is to tell the masses if they enjoyed a thing. A movie critique tells you if they liked the movie, the food critique tells us if they liked the dish, and the video game reviewer tells us if they liked the game. Now to convince us they of course list reasons but I am not sure why a review by Yahtzee stating that he was bored with D4 is a problem. This just seems to reflect another issue Jim brought up which was people using the statement “its not a game so you can’t judge it the same”. We go to Yahtzee and Jim to hear their opinions and help us form our own. You can argue that people like Yahtzee or Jim need to develop new standards but that seems awfully arrogant. The fact is there is art out there that people do not understand or appreciate. There are amazing works that people hate. That does not mean those peoples opinions are wrong because that is what they are opinions. You can tell Yahtzee he should have reviewed D4 from an artsy perspective and not as a game but I do not think that would of left Yahtzee any less bored with it.


    • I never said they were wrong, just inaccurate. Why is it that these “games” for a lack of a better term always come up short? And why insist on calling something by a title that doesn’t fit? To call them what they are does not diminish them or games. It says nothing about their quality, good or bad. This is simply an attempt at accuracy. As for being artsy, well I do believe that video games are art and that is part of how they should be treated. Like I said, Ebert found it hard to describe video games as art not because video games are not art but because he was a movie critic. And while I used Jim Sterling and Yahtzee as examples, I meant that we all need to expand our language.

      Plus, I never believed they would stop doing what they doing simply because I argued differently. This is a discussion not an order.


  2. “Why is it that these “games” for a lack of a better term always come up short? And why insist on calling something by a title that doesn’t fit?”

    Well the simplest answer is that the creators gave it to their product. They put it on steam and sold it on Xbox Live which are both used for selling games. They labeled it as a game themselves. It is kinda stupid at that point to start saying ‘wait its a lie this isn’t a game judge me different’. You do not want your product labeled as a game? Don’t put it forth as a game. This seems like the equivalent of someone putting a plate down with something on it and calling it food. After you take a bite of it and spit it out and turn to yell at them they then throw up their hands and say ‘well it was never meant to be judged as food’. You want a separate category? That is fine but figure out what that category is and make sure you sell it as that. Otherwise what you have done is lie and false advertising which is much worse than merely making something that is bad.

    The fault does not lie with anyone but the creators who decided to limit themselves with a smaller definition of ‘game’. The creators are the ones who assumed they needed these ill fitting elements. The creators are the ones who did not want to make a ‘game’. The creators are the ones who decided to ignore all of this and go ahead to make something they hated and sell it as a ‘game’.

    This of course is beside the point because you still have not really said why having a more limited idea of what the word ‘game’ means has positive effects. Personally I would point to the creators we are talking about as a pretty good example of some of the harms a limited idea of what ‘game’ means can have. Why limit our definitions since it leads to forcing people to make things they personally do not want to. The world is large and there is an audience for just about every type of experience. I do not see why we need to limit ourselves by forcefully including stupid and bad mechanics we do not want in our own product.


    • I think the reason why they are marketed as games is because of tradition and because right now there is no separate market for them. As for the benefits of the definition, first the allow these products to be analyze on their own merits. Second it tells the consumer exactly what they are buying and third it frees the creators.And I believe that freeing these products from the label of games will free them to be whatever they want to be and not the broken hybrids they are right now just so they can be sold as games.


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