Your Handy-Dandy Field Guide to “X IS NOT A GAME”

People love to talk about what is a game and what isn’t! With this HANDY-DANDY FIELD GUIDE (TM), understanding what those insistent people mean can be up to one infinity times easier!

It can also be up to two infinity times harder, if you disagree with me or are easily confused. But hey! That’s your brain, not mine, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

1) ”You and I: let’s argue, please.”

For some people, the word ‘game’ has acquired a numinal halo of strange and powerful magic. This is because the word ‘gamer’ is so meaningful and important to them! Often suffering from an inability to separate themselves from the things they love, these people will attempt to attack your identity or self-image by insinuating that you are not a Real Gamer. They may do this by suggesting that the games you like are bad, or are somehow not Real Games.

The easiest way to deal with this species of X Is Not A Game is to demonstrate your inability to care about their opinion, or your indifference towards your gamer status. Once aware that you simply do not care about being a Real Gamer, their claws will  be pulled, and they will slink sullenly away into the shadows of the nearest troll-den.

2) “I know a lot about game design!”

For some people, having a specific and well-rehearsed opinion about what games ‘are’ is part of an ongoing quest to become a game designer or a games critic. Most of the time, these people are not and will never be game designers, but harbor as their deepest wish a desire to become one.

These people are not always aggressive or hostile: sometimes, they simply want an intelligent discussion about games, but cannot find the words to initiate one properly. Other times, they are simply semantics whores. Occasionally, they are sad and angry academics (usually, the kind of strict ludologist who has written a paper about Whist, or stabbed a games copywriter in public). Sometimes, however, they actually believe that there are restrictive rules about what can be a digital game and what cannot be. These people will probably lecture you for hours. Feign overt boredom and escape by pretending to go to the bathroom.

If subject is a real game designer, do not engage.

3) “I am uncomfortable with things I do not understand!”

Some people will play art games for half a minute, back away from the computer, announce “this is not a game,” and leave the room. For whatever reason, these people are profoundly unnerved by experiences they feel doubtful of their mastery over. They may also feel that their identity as a “gamer” is threatened by mere contact with digital experiences that fall outside their comfort zone. By declaring something to not be a “Real Game,” they can distance it from themselves and handily push from their mind whatever it is that has discomforted them.

Do not worry about this one. If you can play and learn from the game which unnerves them, you have already won.

4) “I think game X is total shit.”

These people have a strong, well-defined taste in games, and they are fiercely defensive of it. Their taste in games is always highly conventional. They are bringing up the X Is Not A Game argument because they wish to knock X, or knock its developers, or insinuate that its developers have done a bad job, or that their work is not worth any attention. They use the argument dismissively, as if no further thought is necessary once one has realized the sub-par gaminess of X. They also use the argument with hyperbole, saying things like “Flower is not a game, it’s a screensaver!” with the assumption that you will laugh.

Appropriate reactions include: short, horrified snorts of laughter, silence, and if you are strong and patient like ox, “What do you think was so wrong about X?”

5) “The game we were just talking about does not have many ludic elements in it, does it?”

Some people say “X is not a game” when they really mean to say “let’s have an interesting discussion about the different elements which make this game so unique.” This specimen of X Is Not a Game should be ignored– passed over as if it were never spoken– lest you alarm your interlocutor, back them into a corner, and force them to support an argument they may not actually believe. These people know what the word ‘ludic’ means; they will agree that the digital experiences made in the “games industry” are not always ludic in nature; they can tell you what a “loop” is, in the context of game design; they may find Minecraft’s bravely persistent “&e0” a chuckle-worthy commentary on games in general. They are nice people. Don’t beat them up.

In an age when ‘what digital games are’ is changing so rapidly that none of us can truly claim to be keeping up, having a proscriptive opinion about what games “are” demonstrates that you are very silly indeed. The games industry has been producing relatively-nonludic digital entertainment experiences for at least twenty years– but we still call them all ‘games.’ We’ve got nothing else to call them that doesn’t make us sound like poncy morons.

Since we’re stuck with the vocabulary, we’re going to have to work harder to keep our brains as limber and accepting as they’re going to need to be. And they’re going to need to be super limber, guys, and waaaaay accepting. Way, way accepting.

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25 Comments

  1. Nice, I know people in camps 1, 2 and 4. I have found myself in camp 3 after I played Nobby Nobby boy and spent my time just going ‘Why?’.

    That said I didn’t so much bash it as feel very confused as to why I was supposed to like it so ended up walking away going ‘but where’s the game?’ (imagine this with the comic book nerd voice from The Simpsons and it at least sounds funny).

    Fortunately I came to the dawning realisation that it just wasn’t for me. Much like GTA, Enslaved and any other number of games that simply just didn’t captivate me; or even other art forms I love me some Kubrick but am baffled by Bay.

    Reply
  2. lauramichet

     /  September 29, 2011

    Yeah, I’ve been in 3 myself a few times.

    Some people go “oh man, we need a NEW NAME for these non-ludic experiences, yup yup,” but I sometimes wonder if embracing the similarities between ludic and nonludic games and viewing them both as part of a greater spectrum of digital experiences can be more productive than griping about a lack of overarching objectives, score systems, or reward schemes.

    Using Minecraft as an example: once a conversation gets to a point where the other guy starts telling me things like “well, Minecraft is not a game”, I wonder whether they’re saying it because they really want to make a point about game design, or because they just want to communicate some other statement about Minecraft that they’re too unwilling or too embarrassed to say more plainly (“I am uncomfortable with games that make demands upon my creativity!” “I enjoy games with stories!” “I need a more-rigid objective scheme in order to enjoy myself fully!”). Like you said, it becomes a matter of taste. Dragging me into an argument about Minecraft’s gaminess has never led to the other person actually making a productive point about game structures, since Minecraft contains too many little mini-games or game loops to make an effective target for the “X is not a game” argument. It’s more valuable to look at games like Minecraft (and Glitch, too) as “an interesting kind of game which appeals to some nontraditional tastes” than “technically not a game, hurr hurr”

    Reply
  3. I feel like airplane safety-esque illustrations should accompany this whole thing.

    I’ve no doubt had conversations like this, but I try to separate “I don’t like it” from “it sucks”, though it’s hard when the conversation goes “I’m totes glad you agree broseph, too bad the stuff you like sucks which is why I don’t like it.”

    Reply
  4. @ Beam – Bro, totes agree with that.

    Incidentally I might kill myself if I use the word ‘totes’ ever again. I am not Home with the Downies and I never will be.

    I am seeing some pretty hilarious images of how those images would be compiled.

    @ Laura – the only way I could imagine arguing this point with any seriousness is to look at Minecraft more as a enjoyment tool or ‘Toy’ if you will. At that point all they are arguing is that they don’t have what it takes to enjoy the Toy, politely put (for my sake) they don’t like it, rudely it means they lack the imagination to engage with it and require structure to tell them how to.

    I don’t mean that to sound mean because I am definitely among those who are baffled by Minecraft and so I feel bad that i don’t know how to enjoy it, but I would never attack it because it doesn’t fall into the parameters of what I like about games.

    It pains me to mention it, and it is a much more conventional game, have you ever tried any of the Way of the Samurai series?

    Reply
    • Yahoo ruetlss…While browsing Yahoo I found this page in the ruetlss and I didn’t think it fit…

      Reply
  5. badgercommander

     /  October 4, 2011

    You know you doing something right when you get angry comments.

    Reply
  6. Oh hey, it’s a clone of IcyCalm expressing his in-your-face provocative individuality through borrowed hate speech. Way to make friends and influence people, Sam.

    Reply
  7. lauramichet

     /  October 4, 2011

    Ha ha.

    We’re not tolerating slurs in our comments.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

     /  October 4, 2011

    I totally take people way more seriously when they attack someone with a homophobic neologism right off the bat.

    Reply
    • Sam

       /  October 4, 2011

      I guess you’re totally not pretty shallow, then.

      Reply
      • Hmmm, okay, so I’m genittg a lot of responses to this thing from people who seem to think that my major point here was about elitism. It’s not. It’s about people who have proscriptive opinions about the definition of “digital games”. I think I did a pretty effective job identifying that– I mean, it’s stated directly in the first few sentences of the article. I, personally, blame the way this article was presented in Critical Distance, where it was specifically framed as an article about elitism.Again, this is not what I was trying to talk about. I’m being pretty darn elitist here myself, particularly when it comes to point #3 above. Elitism is fine in many contexts. It has loads of uses. Similarly, people with proscriptive opinions about what games “are” are often elitist, but they’re also often aiming for a lowbrow populist appeal, too.This is not an article about elitism. This is an article about people who stifle discussion and try to blockade the acceptance of unusual games by limiting the terms of the argument with a restrictive definition of “game”.

    • In-gamw nick: 37icHow old are you?: 16How long have you been playing mnifcraet?: Since early alphaWhat do you like doing when playing?: Exploring, building rl stuff and going out at night time to fight creepers.What’s the worls you know when playing online?: Nerfing and people throwing lots of eggs to slow down the server..

      Reply
  9. lauramichet

     /  October 4, 2011

    Additionally I have not played Way of the Samurai.

    Reply
  10. Dear Laura,

    Play Way of the Samurai.

    Regards,
    Sid

    Reply
  11. Lee Kelly

     /  October 6, 2011

    You obviously just don’t know what a game is!

    Neither do I.

    Reply
  12. lauramichet

     /  October 6, 2011

    Hmmm, okay, so I’m getting a lot of responses to this thing from people who seem to think that my major point here was about elitism. It’s not. It’s about people who have proscriptive opinions about the definition of “digital games”. I think I did a pretty effective job identifying that– I mean, it’s stated directly in the first few sentences of the article. I, personally, blame the way this article was presented in Critical Distance, where it was specifically framed as an article about elitism.

    Again, this is not what I was trying to talk about. I’m being pretty darn elitist here myself, particularly when it comes to point #3 above. Elitism is fine in many contexts. It has loads of uses. Similarly, people with proscriptive opinions about what games “are” are often elitist, but they’re also often aiming for a lowbrow populist appeal, too.

    This is not an article about elitism. This is an article about people who stifle discussion and try to blockade the acceptance of unusual games by limiting the terms of the argument with a restrictive definition of “game”.

    Reply
  13. Today I learned that the definition of “ludic” is more limited than I had thought previously! Interesting. In any event, I’m all for supporting as many different types of game experiences as possible, including those which lack overarching goals and structure.

    (This post also led me to the realization that replacing Minecraft’s building mechanics with the jumping from Jumping Flash would create a game that I would play endlessly, forever)

    Reply
  14. Omg. Great style. Just how did you will be making certain it had sufficient place and also didn’t collapse?

    Reply
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