The etymology of game comes from Old English, gamen, meaning pleasure or amusement, stemming from Proto-German, gamann, meaning pleasure/participation/people together. From Mesopotamia to the International Space Station, people have been playing games throughout time. Playing games comes as naturally to us as telling jokes or making art; arguably if two people lived entirely isolated from the rest of society they would come up with the concept of playing a game by themselves. People like games.
But what about computer games (or the more anachronistic ‘video game’)? For some this has never moved on from Pong or Space Invaders – partly due to not having played games, partly due to anytime a game is shown on TV or film it still uses 8-bit sound effects. But for most, a game could be defined as something you play on a console, phone or PC with a goal such as completing a puzzle or finishing a level. Different genres of games have different sets of rules, but whether it’s Zelda or Candy Crush, most people understand the concept of a game.
This definition gets a little hazy where the conditions for winning are nebulous, even non-existent. People will be quick to point out that such and such isn’t a game, but digital art, walking simulators, interactive films, convergent entertainment and so on. There have been similar discussions around if something is or isn’t art – the intention of the person who made something defines it rather than the audience. If a person says what they have made is a game, it is a game.
A game is an abstract system that one plays within. The concept of play requires some interaction between the player and the system, though this can be very minimal. A lot of games have a system of rules that involve a condition for winning and a progression from beginning to end, the games often involve competition or conflict between the player and others. Some people like these games, some people don’t, either way is good as there’s room for a wider definition of games.
Games such as those exhibited at the Leftfield collection at EGX are a good example of the potential for games, moreso as cultural objects than business products. Dream Daddy or Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier are games that are heavily based around narrative, though the non-linearity of the games offers a good opportunity for play. Games along these lines sometimes come up against resistance due to them not following the usual structure of gaming ‘loops’, but it is beneficial for the whole industry to have games like these exist – games could be considered as developing more similarly to evolutionary biology than technological development.
Throughout the history of art – games, music, fashion – a cycle repeats of those that wanting to conserve the tradition and those that experiment with the medium. Conservation is valuable, without it we would have lost skills like violin making or works by Shakespeare, Van Gogh and so on – but to sacrifice innovation at the altar of tradition harms the thing that is trying to be protected. To experiment is to innovate; everything should be deconstructed, reconsidered, transformed. The society in which we live in is a constant struggle between preservation and innovation; of language, ideas, belief. The fluidity of the new will always overcome the rigidity of the old, the proof being that you are reading an article about computer games rather than being a serf for a feudal lord (probably).
As the range of developers become more diverse, the range of games made will also become more diverse. Sites like itch have a lot of different examples, and game jams always produce something interesting. There is so much potential in the infinite configurations of code that it should be celebrated; we are Homo Ludens, a species that like games. By opening up the definition of what a game is, much more is possible.
Some may find this definition a little loose – ‘Can a sandwich be a game? Can a tree be a game?’ – but anything can be a game if you decide it to be. Can you make a sandwich in less than ten seconds? How high can you climb a tree? Can you walk through this crowd quickly? What if you use your feet as hands for the next hour? It is the element of play that makes the game. Playing can entertain, but also educate, challenge, bring about empathy, create an atmosphere of reflection. As gaming becomes more prevalent to society, the definition of what a game is should be questioned – if all games were about winning all the time, what effect would that have on the people who play them?