The word “game” is starting to get outdated. It doesn’t fit us any more, to the point where it is holding us back.
When people started calling them games, that’s what they were. Simple sets of action-reaction rules and mechanics. You’d take your action and the system would apply the rules and respond. There were defined goals and boundaries. Pong, Galaga, Space Invaders – All resembled board games and pinball more than novels or films.
We’ve moved on. Games aren’t packages of action-reaction rules any more. Often there is no defined goal, or at least not one as clearly defined as before. Success is no longer measured in abstract points.
Doesn’t it seem strange we’re still using the same word to describe the Hungry Hungry Hippos, and Fallout 3?
Modern games are virtual worlds. Packaged experiences. Artifical realities, pre-designed and tuned to produce meaningful, interesting experiences, which we can enter and experience at will. It’s like stepping into someone else’s life at the start of the most important day of their lives. Sometimes the limitations of the universe railroad it towards a single predetermined outcome. Other times, it can go one of many ways, or never ends at all.
If we had a word for games that combined the connotations of a “novel”, “film”, “story”, and “interactive”, we’d be free of a lot of wrong connotations among mainstream culture as well. I don’t like lugging around the cultural legacy of Space Invaders whenever I try to explain to laypeople exactly what I’ve chosen to spend my life creating. We create interesting lives you can step into at will, not games. None of this is to say there is anything wrong with true games. They’re just not the same thing as Fallout 3 or Pathologic or Fahrenheit or even Flight Simulator.
So what should we call them?
“Role Playing Games” might make sense, but it has acquired an association with collection-based gameplay and numerical character growth.
“Adventure Game” seems to have developed a connection to puzzle solving and third-person control.
“Interactive Fiction” implies a text interface.
“Interactive Movie” implies the use of full motion video and long noninteractive scenes.
We need something totally new. Alistair Reynolds called packaged experiences “experientials” in his Revelation Space series. Or, we could use Greek roots – Mnemograph would be a “written memory”, for example. But that’s kind of a mouthful.
It’s tricky to find new words for something. I’m not going to try to coin one today, but I’m hoping one will appear soon. And perhaps one of you can think of a name that doesn’t sound goofy.
Edit: This post was crossposted on my Gamasutra blog and has many more comments, in case you’re interested in reading more views on this subject.
Edit Again: Michael Samyn has a better-written post on this topic already up. And he wrote it two years ago.