A response to “Fanboy Flamewars is not a game”

A fellow student in my class replied to my post, “Fanboy Flamewars is not a game“, and I have responded:

I think that you need to understand that we are all taking a Computer Games and Simulation Class. You are required to make games. If you are told that what you are making is not a game and you stop listening to them then you obviously have not read the first lessons of this class. Be an advocate for the player, if you do want to listen to the player and continue doing what you are going to do anyways then that does not make you a team player or a very good video game designer. You maybe making something wonderful but in this class we are making “games” no matter what you want to call it this class calls it a game. That is why we are here to make games.

I get what you’re saying here, and it is a good point to make. Of course we want to be able to function in teams effectively. Of course we want our players to have great experiences with the things we build.

I’ll clarify what I said earlier by saying that I said that I don’t really find the question “what is a game” interesting. This is because I already know what a game is, and I don’t find a whole lot of mystery or controversy to draw my interest in the question as a philosopher. To me, it’s just not one of those fundamental, unanswerable questions like “determinism vs. free will” or “what is good” that will always be interesting to debate.

I think it’s fine to draw up lists of formal elements that we have found in games, and think about how these elements may be combined and modified to create novel games. That’s a good thing to do, in this class or otherwise. That said, I do think that it’s important to recognize that we need not constrain ourselves by the terms and definitions that we come up with. Language is a tool that humans develop in order to do useful things. But often we are too clever for ourselves, and trap ourselves with language and the things that we construct out of language.

Having a Theory of Games is useful, and it is especially interesting if you’ve never really thought about the nature of games before. If you’re trapped in language and don’t realize it, asking these questions can help you see beyond your horizons and grow as a person. Me, personally? Not so much, but to someone who might be taking this class, it quite possibly is.

My advice, then, should be seen as a caution: once you’ve come up with a Theory of Games that you think is very good, don’t get too attached to it. Philosophers often talk about different “camps” and talk about who they are in terms of who’s philosophy they’ve read and who they agree with, and so on. Humans seem to want to do this, but I think it just gets in the way of getting anywhere or resolving conflicts that separate us into different “camps”.

Imagine for a moment that we had this Theory of Game, which contained a mistake. To make a concrete example that we can all see clearly, let’s say that the error is that according to our broken theory, all games must have a scoring system. Now we’re forced to consider whether Super Mario Bros. 2 is a game or not. Clearly, nearly everyone would call SMB2 a game, without hesitation. And it’s often on many people’s lists of favorite games of all time. But SMB2 does not have a scorekeeping feature. If we’re trapped in the point of view that our flawed theory of games provides us, we will waste a lot of time arguing about why SMB2 isn’t “really” a game, because after all we all agree that all games must have scorekeeping.

To give another example: You can get into similar debates over whether hang gliding, cheerleading, auto racing, figure skating and other similar activities are “really” sports or whether they’re something else. If I told you “My favorite sports were baseball and sky diving” and you replied, “Hang on, sky diving isn’t a sport!” it wouldn’t take away from the fact that sky diving exists, that I enjoy sky diving, and that sky diving is a legitimate… “activity” of some kind.

To better illustrate the absurdity of arguing about theory, I might get further away from sports in talking about other things I like to do, and start saying nonsense like “painting is a sport” or “singing is a sport” and we can all see that they’re clearly not “sports” as we commonly understand and use the term. Now, it might be useful to have a well-considered Theory of Sports which we can use to precisely understand WHY painting isn’t a sport… but I don’t see much point in it, because in reality, there’s about 0% chance of me ever having to debate the matter seriously with anyone — we all know that painting and singing aren’t sports.

The fact that it’s undisputed that singing isn’t a sport doesn’t stop people from having karaoke contests, but we still don’t think of them as a type of sport. But if we did for some reason consider a karaoke contest to be a sport, it wouldn’t be of much consequence, either.

And there’s possibly a chance that some day someone might invent a new sport that incorporates painting in some way. I don’t want to stifle that guy.

To put it another way, does it bother any comic book fans that most comic books aren’t about comedy? Why get hung up on the term? Some people wanted to take comic books more seriously as an art form, so they started calling them “Graphic Novels”. But a lot of comics *aren’t* novels! Most of them are serials. Who cares what you call them or what the labels mean, just read them and enjoy them if you want to.

What you can take away from all this is: Beware the False Theory. If you’re taking a theory seriously and *using* it, always be suspicious or skeptical that it might have some flaw that you haven’t considered. Or, another way to put it, don’t worry too much about theories, and just do. Let the philosophers argue about what games are, or whether what you’re building is a game or not. Don’t let that deter you from exploring your ideas and doing what you want to do and what you enjoy.

In conclusion, I say that the term “video game” is merely an accident of history. It’s a good term, and I like it, but I’m not a slave to it. The first video game was called a video game, and the term stuck. But it might well have been called a “video toy” or a “video sport” or “video interactive” or something else. For that matter, the term “video” is accidental, as well. We could have computer games that do not incorporate video — text adventures are a notable example of this. These are worthy computer games, and if you substitute the monitor on which the text is displayed with a text-to-speech engine, the game is fully without a video component. We should not ignore or discount text adventures simply because they are not “video” games. And we should not ignore or discount “video somethings” that aren’t strictly according to definition “games”.

Updated: 2014-Aug-12 — 8:23 pm

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