Thinking: What is a video game?

When doing these “thinking”-posts, it’s usually about a thought that just arrived in my head and which I have to print down quickly. This one has gnawed on my head for awhile – education kind of does that to you. For those finding this via Google, this won’t be a definition rather than an exploration. This piece will cover what the game, in itself, is, and sometimes touch what the medium is, but I don’t intend to cover what play is or what gaming is.

A video game, as far as I’ve been thinking, is in a position in the middle of a Venn-diagram of four areas: Games, Culture, Technology and Business. I’ll explain them in that order, even though they all affect each another.

A video game is a game

I’m not intending to define a game, and I find that the writing I’ve made in this section almost completely overlaps Schell definition of a video game as “a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude” (p. 37), so I’ll simply go with that. But, for those who think this sounds far-fetched or haven’t read the reasoning leading to that definition, I’ll talk a bit of what makes up the game part of a video game.

A video game is a game, in that it has a goal, obstacles in the way to that goal, actions to take to overcome those obstacles and rules to regulate which actions are allowed or even possible.

Some may wish to question the goal. “A game like World of Warcraft has no goal”. Although partly correct – the game of World of Warcraft cannot be “won” (which begs the question if it’s really a game, or perhaps a “virtual world”) – it is build of many parts, each a game. Every instance has a goal (defeat a certain boss), every quest has a goal (complete the quest objectives) and every battleground has a goal (“reach 2000 resources before the other team does”). Most other games are more clear with their goals, however. The goal of Bioshock and similiar linear games is “get from A to B”, always pointing you towards B; the goal of Starcraft and other competitive games is to defeat the other team, gain x kills first or similar. Basically, the goal is the winning condition.

Obstacles are what must be solved to reach the winning condition. Although many think about actual things when hearing “obstacles”, in single player games they are puzzles or hostile AI:s. In multi-player games they are usually other players with a goal in conflict with yours. In MMO:s, they’re often called Player versus Environment and Player versus Player, which describes it very accurately.

Actions are what’s usually most attributed to games. This is the interaction of the game, whether they be moves (jumping, crouching, wall-running etc), weapons (shooting, stabbing etc) or abilities (force push, fireball etc). It’s everything the player can do, and most of the input of a game is to quickly and easily allow these actions (some input are for adjusting the settings or rules of a game, which are mostly in the options menu).

Lasly, the rules are what is not allowed or not even possible. The distinction is usually that “not allowed” is for analogue games where everything is possible unless told not while “not possible” is for digital games where there’s nothing unless something is made. But that’s just the surface of it. There have been many thinkers about which kinds of rules there are, but I’m going for the grouping that Sanny Syberfelt, a teacher of mine, presented the other day: Core Rules which define the game, Balance rules which balance the game, Convenience rules which speeds up the proper play of the game and Thematic Rules which enforces the game world.

When someone say “It’s just a game”, they usually emphasise this part to the exclusion of the other three. Although the statement is somewhat true – a game is a game – it’s not just a game, as we will come to see.

A video game is a cultural artefact

Surrounding the game in a video game is the dressing, which is moving pictures and sound interacting with the player’s actions, something that’s covered very well in Raph Coster’s A Theory of Fun. However, as Sherry Turkle In her book Life on the Screen argues, we’ve entered a post-modern era, which amongst other things mean we look at items at a face value. This seems to lead some people to the expectation that games should behave as movies, as they have seemingly familiar faces. It’s pictures, sounds, perhaps there’s a protagonist and a story – the only difference would be the player is controlling the protagonist. Although all this is correct, only reading games and movies at face value is a dangerous thing, and one factor why games converted to movies or vice versa rarely plays out well.

As video games have become part of the western culture, a single video game becomes a cultural artefact. This may sound trivial, but it has serious implications for a video game. Like spider man says, “with great power comes great responsibility”. As video games gain cultural power, a video game needs to reflect and become aware of its cultural responsibility, like which messages it sends. When it fails to do so, moral panic usually erupts – Death Race and Mortal Combat being the early ones, the Hot Coffee-panic and Mass Effect sex-scene being later ones. Of course, as video game’s cultural power has grown faster than it’s acceptance within culture, the cultural power should be taken with some restraint unless it wants to stir controversy.

When someone asks “are video games art?”, it’s usually a contemplation of how refined of cultural artefacts games has become and how far the intellectual thinking around games has come. And although both parts are getting there, there’s still a way to go. The games themselves still has room to refine it’s story-telling and character-building and critical thinking around games needs to be encouraged so it can settle and grow.

When someone compares games to movies, however, or secretly wish to be a movie-maker, s/he is perhaps focusing on this part to the exclusion of the other three.

A video game is technology

A video game is usually digital (I’ve never seen an analogue video game), which means it’s build by code. Which means it inherits some of the problems software engineering has, like bugs, but because video games need to render (draw) 30-60 frames (pictures) every second to even be playable, problems such as frame-rate drops and latency also trouble video games. It’s not just software, however – Hardware, such as computer processing power and memory space, also put restraints on what can be made with a game.

It also introduces the field of human-computer interaction to the midst, or the question of “usability”. Donald Norman speaks in The Design of Everyday Things a lot about “The gulf of execution” and “The gulf about evaluation”. Basically, when we do something, we first set up a goal, we estimate what actions to take, we do, we read the feedback and evaluate if we reached the goal. In other words, problem-solve. However, in the other end of the spectrum, there’s a computer, which will take a value, compare it to other values in a logical fashion and then calculate what numbers to chance or what to draw at which co-ordinates. Which means the “actions to take” and “take a value” must overlap as well as “what to draw at each co-ordinates” and “read the feedback”.

Which is where the physical interface comes in as an important aspect of a game. Before it was only about a game pad or a keyboard with a mouse, but lately technology has reached a point where it become “consumer friendly” (read: it can be made at a price at which the average Joe can afford to buy it), which first showed with the Nintendo Wii Remote and today also with the Sony Playstation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect. Technology such as Microsoft’s Surface is also on the horizon. As the physical interface limits what is natural for a player to do, this means new kinds of games can appear that were impossible before.

The hard-ware also encompasses output, such as monitors and speakers, which set the rules for what feedback can be given. With rumble, the kinetic sense in the players hand got available to convey messages, such as Silent Hill conveying the player’s health through the frequency of the vibration. With 5.1 surround sound available, games were able to announce the direction of an attacker in a first person game, and with stereoscopic 3d on the horizon, old messages could be displayed in new, unknown ways.

As gamers get used to the current standards, and competitors want to out-perform one another, this has lead to some kind of hardware race, where video games has become some sort of spear-head in improving computers’ performance. This is another, although indirect, aspect of video games cultural impact.

A video game is a product

Nothing exists in a vacuum, and a video game is no exception. A video game takes people and time to make, and these people need to live during that time. This costs money, something the end product has to compensate for and even make a profit. The bigger the team and longer the project, the more money is in circulation. And the more money there is in circulation, the more dependant on its environment the game has to be.

Depending on perspective, this is either the most known or least known aspect of what a game is. If you visit a business site like Gamasutra, or Develop, it’s usually quite clear. After a few years at the University of Skövde, I’ve also gained such a perspective, which permeate everything I see happening in there. In a gamer’s eyes, however, this seems to be the least known leg of what a game is. Many decisions seem to be made out of evil rather then by survival, and an event like E3 kicks adrenaline and hope into the blood of the gamer instead of a cold, calculating business perspective. The gaming press seem to have a dual relationship with this knowledge. On the one hand, they review games like end-products and like they were consumer-guides for cameras rather than culture and join the hype train on major titles. On the other hand, they can complain over the lack of innovation and suggest a lack of imagination among the developer circles, seemingly unaware that innovation is a risk, and risk-taking can mean a lot of people loosing their jobs, which would be a major hit at life.

So, to regain the perspective on the individual game, no game is made in a vacuum, and every game is designed to appeal to someone at its given time of release. This even counts for “indie-games”, which although they tend to be more exploitative than big-budget titles are reactions on what the big-budget guys do, and as such are a product of their environment.


A video game is a cross-breed of different things, each in balance with another.

  • A video game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude
  • A video game is a cultural artefact with great cultural power, but also great cultural responsibility
  • A video game is software build upon the cutting edge of hardware
  • A video game is a product of its environment

And although I didn’t set out to define a video game, I could do so: A video game is software-based playful problem-solving dressed in video and audio affecting as well as affected by culture.

This allows me to reflect a bit upon some of my perceived problems within the games culture. But I’ll save that for another post.

One Response to Thinking: What is a video game?

  1. Pingback: Thinking: What is a video game? « Johannes Smidelöv on Game Design | World of Warcraft Pictures

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