Over the holidays, I picked up a copy of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. It’s a comic about comics as a medium, and the concepts and vocabulary (abstraction, closure, transitions, etc.) that define it. McCloud avoids using specific artists, styles, genres or themes as a template, focusing instead on a critical universal examination of the artform. As someone who recently rediscovered comics, it’s been a truly fascinating read. The book also interests me because I can relate many of his ideas to another nascent medium that is of particular interest to me: video games.
In the first chapter of Understanding Comics, McCloud asks “what is comics1?” He begins with Will Eisner’s definition “sequential art”, which he considers too broad (for instance, animations are sequential art) and gradually refines to: “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”
This, of course, made me wonder: “what are video games?” What qualities define video games as a medium, and could be used to distinguish non-video games. We could begin by examining video games as a compound word, where a game is generally defined as:
Activity engaged in for diversion or amusement
- Merriam Webster Dictionary
Note that this definition already implies a purpose, entertainment. This quality is true of the large majority of games, but does it truly define the medium? We’ve seem games such as The Passage and Execution whose function is less amusement and closer to the purpose defined by McCloud for comics: “intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” “Video game” therefore works poorly as a compound word.
This raises many questions: is “game” then a legacy term? Have video games outgrown “games” in the same way comics have outgrown “comedy” (via Latin, from the Greek komikos)? Would the term “interactive art” be more appropriate? Note that “art”, however, implies a value judgement and therefore cannot define the medium. While these are interesting considerations, they don’t answer the question of “what are video games?”
Next, we can examine what definitions already exist for video games. Merriam Webster defines a “video game” as:
An electronic game played by means of images on a video screen and often emphasizing fast action.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who let out a frustrated groan at the “emphasizing fast action” bit. However, there is some value that can be gleaned from this definition. I think defining video games as being “played by means of images on a video screen” is valid, and helps to distinguish video games from card games, board games and sports.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American English defines them as:
A game in which the player controls moving pictures on a television screen by pressing buttons or moving a short handle.
While pragmatic and largely accurate, this strikes me as a particularly narrow definition. For instance, specifying a “television screen” excludes both PC and handheld games. Must the player input controls by a button or “short handle”2? What about Wii Fit, which is played entirely with the balance board?
Finally, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary includes the following definition:
Any of various games played using a microcomputer with a keyboard and often joysticks to manipulate changes or respond to the action or questions on the screen.
Ignoring the bit about keyboards and joysticks, this definition introduces an intriguing point about microcomputers. Video games are software, but do they have to be? It’s certainly possible to display images on a video screen without a processor.
However, what distinguishes video games from film is not a “short handle” or “fast action” but interactivity. The player “responds to the action” and the game changes what is displayed on screen accordingly. The quality of interactivity necessitates a computer processor, therefore video games must be software3.
While it lacks the succinctness of McCloud’s comics definition, I would propose the following definition for “video games”:
Software which displays images on a video screen, interacts with a player or players and is intended to provide challenge and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.
Note what this definition excludes: a board game isn’t played on a video screen, a screen saver isn’t interactive and an Excel spreadsheet isn’t intended to produce an aesthetic response. Wii Fit, The Passage and Final Fantasy meet the criteria, and it’s likely that future games will as well4.
However, you don’t have to take my word for it! I invite you to please challenge my definition and come up with your own. How would you define video games?
1 This isn’t a typo, McCloud defines the entire medium as “comics” singular.
2 …or a long handle for that matter!
3 Occasionally only hardware, I suppose.
4 Until video screens become obsolete?