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.