How Games Don’t Know What They Are and Why This is a Good Thing

Games have something of an identity crisis going on. I can’t count how many design discussions I’ve seen where the subject is what games are supposed to be. Are games art? Are games a storytelling medium? Should games be all about the mechanics? Should games be all about creating a gameworld? Are games mature enough? Should games be a cinematic experience? Should games be linear? Does Game X represent everything that’s wrong with gaming today? Is there anything wrong with gaming today? Would the ultimate expression of games as an art-form look more like Civilization, Super Mario World or Journey?

When you get down to it, don’t quite know what they are yet, or what they are capable of.

I believe this is a good thing.

It’s something that we should keep going for as long as we can. Games are a medium that, in a few decades, has contained entries all the way from Tetris to Spec Ops: The Line, from from Sim City to Hotline Miami. You can talk about elements which are absolutely integral to some types of games (such as gamefeel in action games) which are entirety irrelevant in other types of games (gamefeel in turn based tactics games). And I don’t think games have even reached their full potential in terms of the wide range of experiences which they can create. The minute we define exactly what it is that a game “should be”, we cut ourselves off from whole areas of exploration.

What we should think about is what games CAN be. Games can be abstract challenges created by interacting mechanics, they can be interactive stories, they can be experiences defined by flow and gamefeel, they can be worlds that you can explore. The same basic mechanics can be turned into hundreds of unique games though tweaking of the gamefeel, and through content design, meanwhile there’s a of of potential for entirely novel experiences that haven’t been made into games.

Games can be free from some of the constraints of other narrative media.  Think of how many movies have depicted a war from the point of view of an entire army, without focusing on a particular main character. Now how many games have had you playing as an entire army.

There are probably people reading that who thought “This is something I love about games, being able to control groups of people rather than just playing as one person.”  Meanwhile, there are others thinking “You know what would be great?  A strategy game where you do play as a specific person, who commands an entire battlefield, but also goes through character development.”  Both of these opinions are right.

Beware of anyone who tells you what a game SHOULD be. Games are young and they don’t know what they are yet. And because of this, they can be just about anything.

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One Response to How Games Don’t Know What They Are and Why This is a Good Thing

  1. Iggy says:

    I believe the biggest element of what makes a game is Interaction. There are of course many different ways we can interact with a system, and that’s where it goes in all kinds of directions. It’s good to keep in mind what a game is at its core when thinking of the experience you’re after. Good post :) Love the title.

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