Last week, I argued that video games are not a medium that is taken ’seriously’ by wider society and the press at large. I also said that it is the word ‘game’ that is the single biggest thorn in the side of those people that want to make an argument towards video games being a serious medium. If it’s simply a case of language being a barrier to an art form being accepted as something more than a childish diversion, what words should we be using to describe electronic entertainment?
Well to know what we should call it, we need to know why we shouldn’t be calling it a ‘game’ and what type of game should come under the wing of this new title. So if you will, first mull over the word ‘game’ in your head for a moment. Go on, this article will still be here when you’re done.
Good. In the theatre of the mind, what image does the word ‘game’ conjure when you take it out of it’s digital setting? Children playing? A board game? The school yard? A deck of cards? Now if I were to say ‘film’ to you, what do you imagine? For example, think of any film at all. Was it Godfather, Pulp Fiction, or a myriad of other works that have been entered into the stable of pop culture and discussed at length on an academic level? In its very use, the word game is synonymous with play, but I would argue that a lot of games are not ‘played’ anymore, but experienced.
I don’t think it can be said that a title like Manhunt, is being ‘played’ by a user. If we study what the word ‘play’ means, i.e. ‘To occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation’, the act of brutally murdering hundreds of people, doesn’t quite fit into that trope. Likewise, the term ‘Game’ is defined as ‘An activity providing entertainment or amusement; a pastime’. Again this doesn’t seem to cover it at all, if you are deriving amusement from murder, you probably have a bit of a problem.
Some games are ‘games’ for sure, that is that their sole purpose is to entertain. Any engagement on a higher level artistically is purely down to individual users as, en masse, they are played for recreation and enjoyment. Games like Guitar Hero for example have art assets, they are visually exciting, they can even be entirely focused on a particular art form (in this case, music), but I don’t think anyone would try and say GH5 is an art game or anything other than ‘just’ a game.
Another category of title is that of ’simulation’. Flight Simulator X does not exactly fall into the category of game (its not designed to be enjoyable) nor is it trying to engage on an artistic level, it is an exact replication of a real life activity, and users interact with it as a form of edutainment. You engage with FS X not for a thrill ride, but to experience what it might be like to fly a Boeing 747 on an 8 hour trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
The type of game that we need a new word for is titles such as Flower, Shadow Of The Colossus, Fahrenheit and the aforementioned Manhunt. Games wherby there are structures and mechanics in place to progress a narrative, there are obstacles to overcome and maybe even an ending to be seen, but wherby your interaction with the product creates a meaningful connection between yourself and an avatar of some description.
So to distinguish these titles, quite rightfully, from others in the broad medium of gaming, a new word or phrase is needed that widely covers a specific set of titles and experiences, after all, when Roger Ebert is talking about a powerful new film, he discusses it as a piece of ‘cinema’ and not as a ‘flick’. Shakespeare once wrote that ‘a Rose / by any other name would smell as sweet’ but no matter how accurate the bard often was about the world around us, giving someone a bunch of Cock Posies, somehow isn’t quite as romantic.
Interactive Fiction? Digital Theatre? Electronic Experiences? Are these names that do justice to the art, or do they over sell it like the Interactive Movies of the early nineties? It’s not my place to say. Perhaps as we progress in the next few years of criticism and creation, we’ll think of something to call these ‘games’. Perhaps we won’t. Perhaps we’re happy to refer to all electronic entertainment as games and not be tied down by compartmentalising the art, as so many other forms have become obsessed with. Perhaps we’re happy to simply play and not concern ourselves with if a title is a modernist or a postmodernist piece.
Time, as always, will tell.