What is a game?
Hot topic, to be sure. “Not a game” is one of the most common criticisms, for example, of Gone Home on Steam. The qualifier of is/is not a ‘game’ really matters to some people. Other people, such as independent gamedevs Anna Anthropy and Zoë Quinn have previously scoffed at the question themselves; especially as it has been applied to their respective titles, dys4ia and Depression Quest. And they have a point, to some degree. If it’s an interactive experience, it’s a game. Right?
There are two sides to this coin.
Whilst discussing the role of ‘lives’ in games, it has been implied on this blog that it is gamification that makes the game. When considering interactive narratives such as Gone Home, the question of whether it is a ‘game’ or not seems a relic of a classification too broad to reasonably describe it. ‘Interactive fiction’ exists as a genre, the modernisation of what used to be known as ‘text adventures’, the electronic equivalent of choose-your-own-adventure books. Also known as ‘game’ books. Full circle. It seems the precedent for classifying interactive toys as ‘games’ runs some way back.
So why not call all of these things ‘games’ and let the matter lie?
I am not in marketing, nor can I ever be able to claim to know “what people want”, but I am actually very sure that it’s in a target demographic’s best interests to know what they’re buying; or buying into. And although the game/not-game dichotomy often reeks of elitist snobbery and entitlement, the fact that can’t be ignored is that a large demographic craves the kind of elements they’re used to expecting under the label ‘game’; and something named as such that doesn’t deliver these expected things may be ultimately disappointing – leading to a customer who may feel hoodwinked and cheated, and certainly won’t be returning for more.
These people demand from games the select elements of gamification (specifications often known only to themselves) under the umbrella of ‘gameplay’, and when those things aren’t delivered they tend to get upset.
Therefore, I propose, simply ‘ungame’.
Quantic Dream’s David Cage notably insisted after its release that Heavy Rain was not a game. Also shying away from the term ‘interactive movie’, Cage would insist that the title was more a story whose flow was controlled by player interactions. The thing looked very like a lot of games, but its creators insisted it was not. Does being a game or not being a game alter in any way the inherent value of a product? Surely it is a title’s content, above all, that is the measure of quality rather than the adherence to the legitimacy of the claim to being a ‘game’?
Hence, ‘ungame’. My own TW: Trigger Warning is in fact an ungame. That it heavily relies on video game vocabulary and a user’s possible familiarity with it to unwind its narrative does not make it an actual video game, but it is most definitely reminiscent of one. Gamification is at a minimum; there is no way to ‘lose’ the game (as failure actually progresses the player through the ‘script’) and scoring is rendered totally irrelevant and useless when it ‘reverses’ to a minus figure at -13 lives. I love games, but I think this thing that I made that isn’t a game isn’t any better or worse than any other actual games I have made. The label isn’t a qualitiative one, see. It’s a descriptive one.
And when I describe TW as an ‘ungame’, this is communicating effectively to you, my theoretical audience, that it does not contain gamification. You will not ‘beat’ the game, there is no ‘high score’ and no ‘win’ condition. Nor will you ‘lose’. You will merely experience an interactive ‘script’ of events that unwind a narrative as you are present via the proxy of a virtual avatar.
Needless to say, I’m not in Quinn and Anthropy’s camp with this one personally. I respect that they don’t want to validate/invalidate their work, but I argue that validation is moot in this case. They are both doing good and important work and nobody can deny that. But to deliver something under a monicker that infers components that are not actually included seems a disservice to one’s potential audience.
Why not make ungames and be proud of it?