Opinionated: What’s in a name?

There is a certain class of people who like to question whether video games have any worth beyond “entertainment”. (Ironically, these are often the same people who insist games have the capacity to turn children into cunning mass murderers, which has to be worth something.)

The trouble is one of terminology. When I tell people I write about video games, there is usually one of two reactions: “Oh, cool,” or just, “Oh.” The latter is often accompanied by a look that is the psychic equivalent of a pat on the head.

The term “game” is tricky. Some games, like hopscotch, are certainly games: their central kink is, to be a little over-simple, the systematic provision of pleasure, though I’d argue that hopscotch could only ever be pleasurable under the sort of circumstances my editor would censor were I to mention them. [Gross. 😛 – Ed.]

Other games are, well, not really games. They may be gamified – in the same way that parts of reality are gamified – but calling them games is in the same league as calling a high-order work of animation a “cartoon”.

Used carelessly, the word “game” belittles real masterpieces and cages them away from people who would fall into a foaming fit of ecstasy over them if it weren’t for the fact that they “don’t play games”. More than that the classification, I’d bet, pressures many developers to over-gamify titles that don’t need it.

This issue has already been tackled in word-based worlds; what were once “text adventures” have become interactive fiction (IF). Though many works of IF are still adventure games, a good many are something else: they’re fine stories deserving the same celebration as good works of traditional, non-interactive fiction. If you haven’t already, you should totally play experience Photopia, Howling Dogs and Alabaster, just to begin with.

In a sense almost all video games are pieces of interactive fiction. Most are pulp, designed to be consumed like candy from a railgun (Diablo, I choose you). Some are considered pieces that provide a glorious array of choices through a labyrinth of complex themes (Planescape: Torment). Others are vignettes, gone as fast and bittersweetly as their pixels appear (Small Worlds). And there are some that can only be considered as the interactive equivalent of literature (To the Moon). Then there’s… Kingdom of Loathing.

Video games offer us a way to experience things in a unique way. There isn’t much interesting about a yellow dot, but make that yellow dot move in concert with a few button presses and you’ve forged an immediate connection. Probably not a very deep and passionate connection, mind you, but a connection nonetheless. It’s because of that connection that we get to slip under the skin of a thousand dreams.

Don’t get me wrong: I love games – games that are just games, I mean. But seriously, isn’t it time we figured out a new way of capturing all the shades of this thing that we love?