Some people argue that every kind of interactive software experience should be called a 'game'. For some, it's a statement of inclusiveness as a way to explain why games are brilliant. For others, it's about being part of a marketing story about games, for visibility. Mostly it's about pushing boundaries and escaping limits, but the thing is: All eventually fall victim to equivocitis.
Like Douglas Adams's joke about Man proving that black equals white (only to be killed at the next zebra crossing), equivocitis is the disease of bending definitions and words to connect the unconnected or gather the un-gatherable. It’s using equivocation to prove a point, inferring single-case exceptions to bridge ideas and ‘prove’ to the reader that the thing you believe might be real is actually so.
We need to inoculate ourselves against this plague because it’s the main reason why the debate over games, their status as an art and their future goes nowhere.
The symptoms of equivocitis follow a semi-regular pattern. Often the disease starts small, such as with a blog post that generates a few lively comments and is cross-posted onto Gamasutra for wider viewing. A series of sub-threads emerges from the comments, and then more agitated readers declare that the poster is either deeply wrong or living in a fantasy world.
Further investigation reveals that perhaps two or three colonies within the group are debating in parallel. As their debates start to cross one another, accusations of limited thinking or flaky logic begin to fly. Inevitably the debate about games ends up with someone saying ‘Well I define X differently, and in my world this makes total sense’, and quickly deteriorates into echo chamber arguments and no-true-Scotsman defences.
It is only a matter of time before commenters start to try to prove their point through the misappropriation and contortion of language itself. Winning the debate becomes more about winning the words. ‘Storytelling’ comes to mean everything but the actual telling of a story. ‘Mechanic’ comes to mean any one of a dozen senses of function or the intent of functional parts of software. ‘Game’ comes to mean, well, anything and everything.
Like our own version of Godwin's Law, it is only a question of when the debate will descend into pure theology, about angels and pinheads. All eventually return to their corners once the disease has run its course. Until next time.
So we end up in the place that Dan Pinchbeck expressed recently in a GDC micro-talk of saying ‘games are brilliant’, but also asking that we stop talking about certain parts of them because those conversations and redundant nonsense? Quite literally, games are awesome but we cannot say why. Which in turn means we cannot explain why to outsiders. We cannot effectively teach. We cannot figure out what games are, what works and what does not. We cannot find our own legitimacy.
Equivocitis has three effects:
First, it prevents certain kinds of interactive art from finding their own way by always being attached to games. In another talk at GDC, Pinchbeck spoke passionately about trying to expand the idea of ‘game’ through his work (Dear Esther), about the play of ideas between agency and a lack of same, and of using semi-automated alongside dialogue to vary the details of the story.
I think I understand why, but this equivocation of games (by way of ‘interactive experience’) has the opposite effect to the one intended. Rather than shifting the ‘game’ needle, the creative constants of games (such as fun) are cited and many a commenter in places like Reddit fault the lack of gameplay. Brand associations are bi-directional, so failing to adopt a new label or brand limits the critical environment to making value judgements based on the very thing that the work is not supposed to be.
Dear Esther is no more a game than walking through the serial killers exhibit of Madame Tussaud’s is a game, but I don’t mean that to sound flippant or derogatory. Instead I mean it to sound important, to highlight how they are both a kind of tableau of experience mediated by audience movement (like promenade theatre) and special. Labelling it and similar works as games may leverage an existing market to take notice, but ultimately the association is not productive. Similarly, labelling as ‘notgames’ is just another way of affiliating with games.
Second, equivocitis opens the door to agendas. 'Games are brilliant' is not enough to swat aside misconceptions and sometimes deliberate misinformation. Zynga, for example, loves to tell the story that its games are actually about enabling social connections and that is why they are successful. This at a time when the cost of acquisition on Facebook is rising to $2 and the kinds of games present on the platform are moving toward Bingo.
What Zynga is actually doing is equivocating on ‘social’ because it sounds nicer than admitting that most of its players are acquired through an aggressive marketing strategy, play because the games are effectively free, play them essentially as single player games except when they are forced to connect to others, and that most of the ‘social’ activity in the games is little more than obligation-driven advertising. ‘Our games are based on player spam’ is a much less future-forward story than ‘Our games connect players’.
There are many such agendas surrounding games, both professionally and in an academic context, and they are built on similar equivocations. The extremes of all of the four lenses of game making tend to display them, such as: gambling providers equivocating on the meaning of ‘skill’ to get around certain laws, experimental game makers equivocating on ‘gameplay’ to include the kind of play normally seen in toys, gamification makers equivocating on ‘mechanics’ to mean point rewards and so on. Arguably this is sometimes a good thing, but like all sales processes it often leads to disappointment for those who got caught up in its possibilities.
The third and final effect of equivocitis is that it prevents a literacy of game making from forming. Many jobbing developers conclude from reading various sources (including this one) that it’s all piffle, theory for eggheads with nothing better to do with their day. Literacy of craft tends to remain purely about technical aspects rather than the abstract, and so game makers young and old tend to make the same design mistakes and fail to learn lessons over and over.
This is perhaps the most serious aspect of why equivocitis is a problem. Strangled innovation, drumhead obsessions with using failed techniques, nihilist logic and so on all creep in because there’s just no way useful way to communicate what’s wrong. Makers get trapped in sub-cultures of fans who view their work more as affirmation than entertainment, or they end up on the purely metricised sides of the industry that only responds to and can only make decisions based on numbers.
The middle ground, where the real changes happen, is compromised.
On the question of what is a game, this is what the Primer has to say:
A game is a simplified, fair, fascinating, empowering and enclosed world whose purpose is to provide structured play through moderated yet unscripted actions and learnable dynamics, with the goal of winning through victory or achievement.
For the more particular there is plenty to disagree with in that statement. Yet it makes some reasonable sense. It does not include every kind of possible play, but also has room for manoeuvre without falling into equivocation. If you take many videogames, board games, card games, sports, roleplaying games and look at them with this statement in mind, it becomes clear that many of them are in fact games. And some of them are something else.
Crucially, this kind of statement about what games are or are not is non-judgemental. Similarly, Raph Koster’s definition:
Playing a game is the act of solving statistically varied challenge situations presented by an opponent who may or may not be algorithmic within a framework that is a defined systemic model.
This is also non-judgemental.
Neither says ‘games are brilliant, everything else sucks’. It's too easy to interpret a value judgement into declaring what games are, and this is an interpretation to which the indie and academic communities are particularly prone. They seem to see all such statements as the pronouncements of stern-faced exclusionists looking down on their experiments and casting them aside with a mechanical laugh.
Those of us who use ‘games’ to describe a category of play are doing no such thing. It's more like we’re describing the difference between poets and playwrights. They are all writers on the same dreadful typewriters (to quote Ginsberg) but they are writing different kinds of work. There are some aspects to what they do that is shared, but some different. And that's ok. The everything-is-a-game crowd are like poets insisting that plays are all poems too, and can't we all agree that poems are brilliant?
We can, but that's not really the point.
Combatting equivocitis is a significant part of why I stared the Primer. Not to establish an ultimate dictionary of games (if you want one of those, try Dan Carreker’s), but rather a common ground understanding to which those outside the echo chambers can refer. To be able to say ‘this is this and that is that, and so maybe that means therefore’ with reasonable clarity without reverting to ‘my this is not your this, and my that is like your that but with more this’.
At GDC many people asked me why didn’t I sell the Primer as a $50 book rather than create a freely available resource on the web. And the reason is that if it’s free and easily accessible then everyone can use it. It can expand, change, be revised and updated.
I may sell an ebook version of it soon, but that’s just for greater convenience for those who might like a copy on their Kindles or iPads. The Primer’s content will always remain free on this site because stamping out equivocitis is too important.