Help! My game is not a game

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.

Finish Him

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.

5 thoughts on “Help! My game is not a game

  1. I think that your definition of a game is not a definition at all. The statement “If everyone calls something a game, then it must be a game.” is in my opinion not relevant. When people call something a game there is something going on in your ‘software’ that makes them label it as a game. That labeling is reasoned by the agreement people made: the definition of the word.

    It’s absolutely futile to argue about whether something is or is not a game if you don’t share the same definition of a game. It’s like arguing about whether the distance from a to b is really x when the firsts persons definition of distance is in kilometers while the others is in miles. Its a pointless discussion unless you agree on what distance really is. Stating that distance is defined by what everyone (or really most people) agrees on is another discussion all together (depends on where you are, etc etc). However if both persons would just agree on the same definition of distance the argument would be easier to solve because now they share a more defined definition of distance.

    I don’t agree with your deductive reasoning. When there is no clear definition of what a game actually is people tend to label more and more stuff as games. I think that according to your definition I can actually label every action of human life as a game. Lets take eating, I think we both agree that eating is not really a game. However it has challenge (not eating poisonous stuff, don’t do it to much, don’t crumble to much, don’t do it to fast) and a clear goal (eating until you no longer require more and your stamina is refilled). Both the challenges and the goal are aspects you’ll probably find in games. Does that make eating a game?

    You say that if the ‘accuser’ still doesn’t believe that your game is a game, either his definitions defers from the common usage of the word or he actually refers to something else with the word game which is rather a deeper definition than simply a game. (Note, that these things are basically the same thing, the ‘accuser’s definition is wrong) Again I think this is a bad argument. Although most people agree on what is and which things are or aren’t a game it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody really has the same exact definition of a game and therefor also agrees on your exact definition. You basically say that everybody agrees with you while this isn’t necessarily the case. Its like you going to a rally where you are protesting for something where there are also 15 million other people that are protesting for the same thing but for a different reason and also with a different solution to the problem. You are the person that is going to explain to the government that what they are doing sucks for a certain reason and you say: “You see everybody hates it so we should just implement my solution.” Everybody is of course protesting for the same thing but that doesn’t mean they agree on how to solve it. The reason you are protesting can still suck although you have many others that support your cause.

    In conclusion, if you really want to argue about whether your games are truly games (they are in my opinion) you should first come to an agreement on a much clearer definition of what a game really is.

    That’s it for now! Later!

    • [I added a paragraph to the post to support the ground truth with the example of the word cool.]

      You’re missing the point entirely. I’m not defining the word game at all. Actually, I don’t think it can be defined to suit all our uses for it. This was already stated by Wittgenstein in 1957. His point was that although we cannot define what a game is, we’re still able to use the word. Thus, it is not necessary to have formulated a definition to use the word game.

      That’s exactly what’s wrong with all proposed definitions of the word game, they can not describe all our uses concisely. The common solution is to just exclude a group of games to make the definition fit. But that violates the premise of a definition that it must concisely describe the meaning.

  2. But what if for example the developer of the Sims calls the Sims a toy ?
    due to the lack of a proper ruleset/ win condition .

    If the accuser would accuse your win-state-less ‘game’ a toy, he would be right

    • If the developer calls it a toy, that doesn’t make it a toy according to the ground truth. It is required that the public shares the developer’s opinion. (For the record: I think the Sims is both a toy and a game, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

      Something else to consider is the zeitgeist. When the sims was released, the concept of a videogame without a win condition was new to most people. I think fewer people saw the Sims as a real game back then. But this type of game has become more prevalent and the public has grown to see it as a game.

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