As a developer of experimental games, it can occur that someone states that your game is not really a game. Instead, it’s a toy or an interactive *something*. While this may come from a good heart, this is probably not true and you know it. There is a reason why you’re calling yourself a game developer and not a toy developer.
It can be hard to defend yourself against such a statement. The what-is-a-game discussion derails easily due to differing or vague definitions. In this post I will describe a strategy to counter an attempt to exclude your game from the class of games.
Level the Ground
The person who is making the claim that your game is not a game (from here on called the accuser) will probably have a strict definition of the term game. The first thing to do is to establish a ground truth. The ground truth in this case is: If everyone calls something a game, then it must be a game. (Note that “everyone” is not to be taken literally, it is meant as the majority of people.) This is inherently correct because of the way natural language works. Natural language is based on the common agreement of the meaning of words.
Take as example the word cool. It used to have the strict definition of being cold. However, through mass use it gained the additional meaning of something that is “fashionably attractive”. This shows that the common use of a word determines its meaning. A definition can be formulated to capture this meaning (although this is not necessary).
Using the ground truth we can verify for popular games that they are indeed games. We’ll look at game websites and game development awards to find confirmation that they are really games. If a game is featured by several of these websites (and treated like a game), we can be sure that the majority of people also see it as a game.
Build Towards Your Game
Chances are that the game in question (your game) has not received enough public attention yet to be able to use the above approach. Instead of directly proving that your game is generally seen as a game, we’re going to use the act of deduction. Pick a popular game which is very similar to yours. We can verify that it’s truly a game. But if your game would not be a game, then the “gameness” would have been lost in the differences between your game and the popular game.
To complete the argument, we first ask the accuser in which exact difference(s) the “gameness” was lost. For each suggested property, we’ll have to find a counter example – a popular game which does contain that property. For example, if the disputed property is challenge we can present the following counter examples (generally accepted games which do not feature challenge): Proteus, FarmVille and even RPG’s which largely rely on grinding. And for the property goals we can refer to Minecraft or The Sims.
If the game you used as counter argument is suddenly also not a game, it is easy to verify that it’s truly a game using the method described above. Also, make sure that there is a clear definition of the property being discussed. Anything can be seen as (for example) challenging depending on your perspective. So if the accuser argues that your counter example does contain challenge, you can take a perspective which includes your game as well: the mere act of walking in a game is already challenging for a lot of non-gamers.
The accuser might still be unable to accept that your game is really a game. The reason is that his definition of a game simply does not adhere to the common usage of the word game. You could say that either his definition of the word game is wrong, or that the category of games he’s trying to define should have a more specific name than just “game”.
I hope that this strategy does not only help you to prevent the exclusion from the class of games, but also that it strengthens your confidence that you are making real games.