A New Word for Game

The word “game” is starting to get outdated.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?

No, not the same thing

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.

11 thoughts on “A New Word for Game

  1. Alexx Kay

    Good luck with that. Attempts to prescribe language rarely get traction.

    Mediums get stuck with inappropriate names all the time, and usually manage to work past it. The “novel” is no longer remotely new, nor are “comics” necessarily funny.

    Now, my “comics” example sort of works against my point, as the replacement term “graphic novel” *has* gotten some traction. Of course, even that isn’t always accurate, as I have lots of non-fiction “graphic novels”…

  2. Tynan Sylvester Post author

    “Attempts to prescribe language rarely get traction.”

    Completely true, hence my simply sitting around complaining about it instead of actually trying to coin a word.

    Good example with graphic novels. That’s really close to what I wish we had.

  3. Andrew

    Um, but we describe D&D as a game, which has sweeping vistas, interaction and randomised elements…

    There is a whole spectrum of “games” just like there is a whole spectrum of “books” or “films”. Ours are video-based, thus videogames, and while it might not be as “gamey” as Hungry Hippo, the elements of competition, interaction and change are all just as present. Narrative can be layered just as much on top of a board game as anything else, it just typically isn’t easily done – thus the D&D way of having one controlling world master, with others playing in his world.

    I don’t think it is a bad term, to be honest. A game doesn’t have to be competitive, doesn’t have to have win conditions, etc. etc.

    In any case, the meaning changes, so it is still just as worth using it as it was to describe Gladiator fights in Ancient Rome. Would you say Hungry Hippo shouldn’t be named a game because it doesn’t include chopping off peoples heads? :)

  4. Tynan Sylvester Post author

    “A game doesn’t have to be competitive, doesn’t have to have win conditions, etc. etc.”

    Of course. It’s just a word, so it only has meaning that we give to it.

    The problem with it is that these sorts of meanings have been given to the word “game” and are still sticking with it very strongly. This influences people who make games, and public perception of games, in negative and creativity-killing ways.

    It’s like if we had no word for written material besides “scripture”. It might be hard to write a novel in such an environment, or even think about the novel. It would certainly be hard to explain what you’re doing to others, when everyone assumes that the only thing that writing is for is to write down religious stories.

  5. Andrew

    Ahh, you think the definition is limiting, the more common usages.

    You won’t get any kind of change until something is more popular. The fact is, Fallout 3 has a great many “game elements”, by any definition of it, and in fact is more “game like” then Hugry Hippos, hehe.

    It’s a widely used term – from gambling, to board games, to videogames, to sports…

    In any case, yes, it can be a problem. “Serious games” is a rediculous notion since they are not games most of the time, just interactive devices for teaching (where most don’t have anything but a linear set of actions to perform, or are perhaps simulation based).

    I’ve no good suggestions either way. I am happy to wait until it is more popular and just hope people push the definition (or notion) of a “videogame” further then thinking they need to have a number to score by.

  6. JP

    One question is whether it’s more effort, moving linguistic mountains if you will, to change the public perception of “game” versus build up mindshare for a completely new term from zero.

    I tend to think the former is a more productive path, but I may also be biased – I love games, I’ve never had a problem calling them games, and I’d rather convince the world (starting with ourselves!) they can be more than what they currently are.

    I also definitely think that early names tend to stick, as Alexx cites with “comics”, and I dread the prospect of any conversation where I have to start by backpedaling and saying to someone “Oh no no, I don’t make games, I make…”

  7. ichifish

    Alexx’s comment about the inability to prescribe meaning is right on. That said, rushing out and coining a new phrase isn’t going to change anyone’s mind; the zeitgeist determines the meanings of words. At one point “the novel” was a low form of writing, and photography wasn’t considered an art form. And we’re seeing games and game design gain reputability quite rapidly: Programming and design are already decent, respected fields (especially if you’re in the “major leagues”) and terms like “gamer” don’t carry the same negative connotations as they once did.

    In twenty years – maybe ten- we’ll all be reminiscing about the “good ol’ days,” when making games was an edgy thing, risky thing to do and we’ll be bitching about all these kids who don’t know how hard it was “back in the day.”

    Live while it lasts.

  8. Pingback: Renaming video games - I propose “vidcon” | videolamer.com

  9. swid

    Some of us already are reminscing about the “good ol’ days” when making games was an edgy thing. ;)

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