What Is A Game?

Not sure what's wrong with this...
Not sure what’s wrong with this…

I was recently reading an interesting article about the amount of harassment from the internet game developers face on a daily basis.  It was a good read.  A reminder about the utter savagery some people face when exposing themselves (or in some cases, forcefully dragged out into) the anonymous hordes of the internet.  I haven’t had a lot of interaction with developers myself online, but what little I have had has been nothing but courteous and helpful. Heck, even Xbox Live support (Not a developer, I know) always went out of their way on Twitter during my numerous rants about how Xbox Live refused my credit card (The problem has been fixed.  Turns out the solution was: Switch banks).  I have spoken to Ghostcrawler at least once with some questions about Pet Battles, and he actually answered them.

And while the way we treatment game developers who wish to have an open dialogue with their players is a very important topic, that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about.  Actually, what I wanted to say came from a comment to one of those articles.  Among the comments of support and comments of “Well if they don’t wanna be harassed they should stop making ****y games.” there was one comment that really stood out to me.  It posed an idea that I think is at the heart of the divide of much of the gamer community.  Not an issue of hardcore or casual. Or console versus PC.  But an issue of mentality over what a game actually is.

The comment was (and you’ll have to pardon me for paraphrasing, I wasn’t able to find it again): “What developers don’t understand is that it’s about working to become better, overcoming difficult obstacles, crushing the competition, and proving you’re the best. If you don’t have that, you are not a real game.”

Not a real game?  Interesting.  Because that description can probably only apply to maybe a handful of the “games” in my collection.  And they are surely not the ones I play regularly.  But I bet you’ve seen something similar to one of those requirements in the forums of nearly every game you’ve played.  I know I have.   So let’s take a look at these a bit closer.

Become Better: This is pretty much the most universal concept.  You become better by doing over and over.  From jumping over pits in Super Mario Bros., to grinding levels in MMOs.  Honestly, I think a lot of people overlook how universal this is in gaming.  I see that a lot in WoW, when people talk about how “easy” the game has become.  That for a lot of people just starting there isn’t much to point them along the right road, which skills to use and when, or how to build a decent rotation.  Of course, folks respond with crap like “That’s what the internet is for”.  Look, I didn’t have to go to the internet to figure out how to jump over pits in Super Mario, why is that such an easy solution for MMOs?  /sigh.  I don’t know.  But we were all noobs once, right?  But now we’re all bad ass.  So we had to have become better.

Overcoming Difficult Obstacles: If the last requirement was the most universal, this one is probably the most subjective.  What constitutes difficult?  If one person struggles with beating a boss on easy mode, but eventually kills it, is that less overcoming difficulty than someone who beats it on the hard mode?   This is probably the most common thing I see in MMO discussions and it’s one that I doubt that will ever be solved mostly because it’s so subjective.  Of course, as we’ll see, the application of the later requirements tends to create conflict when applied to the subjective one.  Like if you can overcome the hard mode, and the other person has a hard time overcoming the easy mode, you are clearly a better gamer than them.  I don’t really agree with that.  But that’s probably the reason I personally steer away from games that thrive on competition.

Crushing the Competition:  And hear the lamentatiooooons of da wooooooomeeeeeen! Yea, no.  This is one of those concepts that seems to be derived from old school board games and probably more likely sports.  But it DOESN’T apply to as many games as it does apply.  Arkham Horror for instance is a cooperative board game where players work together to defeat the game itself.  And there’s lots of board games like that.  Or how about single player games?  What is the competition to crush?  The NPCs?  The Bosses?  Wouldn’t that fall under the ‘Overcoming Difficulty’ portion of things?  If this is a REQUIREMENT of gaming, then there’s a lot of Non-Games out there that people enjoy.  Or are you gonna tell me that Skyrim isn’t a REAL game?  Really?  Now you’re just being stubborn.

Proving You’re The Best: This one kind of walks hand in hand with the crushing the competition, except that it really can be done on some single player games.  After all, there’s a world wide competition for speed runners for games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker.  And while yes, you technically can “crush the competition” with that too, the game is not designed around that.  It IS designed with the ability to prove you’re the best (or at least the fastest).  This is where I personally think the main split between gamers actually lies.  Do you play to prove your the best to others, or do you play just to play the game (I’d say ‘have fun’ but if proving you’re the best is fun, then well, both options would be ‘have fun’.  After all, there is something fun about punching your initials into the high score…  spot…  my god, I just realized how old I am…)

So are these THE requirements for a game to be a game?  No more than Chuck E Cheese’s being the only place where a kid is allowed to be a kid (Except in Alaska.  It’s actually a law there.  Sorry Alaska Kids.)  I can see why some people would put emphasis on these aspects of gaming.   They are all great ways and reasons to enjoy a game.  But I don’t think they are the only reasons, nor do I think it’s fair to say these are the criteria developers should be judged on in the Court of Internet Popular Opinion.  We all like different things.  I’d be perfectly fine with a game that you can’t lose, don’t have anything to overcome, but told a kick ass interactive story.  Sadly for me, things like Japanese Visual Novels was never a concept that caught on in the United States, so for the most part my selection there is parsed down to hentai options.  And while I love a good story as much as the next person, I’m not playing through a 20+ hour game to look at pixel porn.

That’s what Mass Effect is for. HEEEEEY-OOOOOOOO! (Just kidding. I loved the ME Trilogy.)

So what about you?  What do you think the requirements of a game to be a “Real game” is?  Graphics?  Narrative?  Online play?  A Blue Fairy, a cricket and a giant whale?  You tell me.  I’d love to hear some other thoughts on the subject.

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