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GiA: What is a Game?

9 January 2008

What is a game?

Today's discussion, and the readings attached to it, all discussed the question of what actually creates a game. This is almost always the first discussion classes which revolve around media criticism seem to tackle, and it is always a very, very frustrating one. It was made slightly more frustrating (and lecture-styled, rather than discussion) by the fact that the bookstore ran out of the required book, so I could only do about half of the reading. The readings I missed were lectured on, and I took notes on them, but I won't really be able to give any response until I've read the primary text itself.

The teacher posed a question which was never really answered – he asked it in the middle of a discussion of the function (or necessity) of rules in a game - “Why do we need to define what a game is?” The readings all had different interpretations of what a game was, some of which were shifted because of cultural and technological changes over time, and every one had definitions which had different elements but ultimately felt inadequate. And, in truth, they were. So why did we pore over all this reading, especially considering that to define what a game is, specifically and completely, is practically impossible, as a game is a somewhat abstract concept?
To me, it seems to be a larger version of the argument of genre. In music, for example, it seems to be almost counterintuitive to classify music into genres; if music is unique in some way, then to classify it into genres is to eliminate that uniqueness and render the idea of that music as existing as something new void. But really, that's not the function of classifying a song or a band into a certain genre. Instead, classifying music into genre, or something into a game, creates a hierarchy of traits; it tells us what seems to be the most important traits, and this gives us clues as to how to interact with something. We classify, for example, role-playing games with strong narrative structures as video games rather than novels because the key element is still the specific way in which the observer interacts with the game (a topic which I will go into later in this entry). This enables criticism; if you have a set of criteria for a game, then you can rate that criteria. But a definition is also exclusionary, it tells us what is not included in the definition. So, when we look at something we have defined as a game, when we see things that are not necessarily within the definition, here we can see what is new, and revolutionary. Basically, we create a definition of “a game” so that we can see how the concept of a game expands. This also gives us a definition of what a game is not, which is oftentimes and easier definition to work with.

Most of the readings actually weren't that concerned with strictly video games; a number of them were written long before the advent of video games, and even computers. Crawford's “What Is a Game?” addresses video games in the midst of analyzing what makes other kinds of games unique amongst themselves (children's games, gambling, etc.), and Juul's “Video Games and the Classic Game Model,” chooses to analyze in what ways video games fit into the idea of games, but the most intriguing reading was Galloway's “Gamic Action in Four Moments.”
Galloway analyzes how games differ from other forms of media, and why this is important. His idea is, basically, that what separates video games from, say, photography or movies, is that video games are action; that is to say, rather than watching or looking at, one plays a game. He decides there are four kinds of action. First, he says, it can be broken up into diegetic and nondiegetic, terms borrowed from other forms of media criticism. Diegetic, he explains, is that which is within the game's narration, whereas nondiegetic is that which exists outside. An example: in World of Warcraft, the characters are diegetic, but their names appearing above them, and the HUD, are both undiegetic. He then says that these two actions (despite my explanations, we are still talking about actions) can be divided into whether they are performed by the machine or the player. For examples (this time of action), he gives us these: Non-diegetic, machine: Power-up, game over, network lag; Non-diegetic, human: configuring, pausing; Diegetic, human: move, fire; Diegetic, machine: ambience act (think about how Link scratches himself as if he's bored when you haven't done anything for a while in the more modern Zelda games).
What is most interesting about this to me is how games are working in certain ways to expand beyond this, to defy expectations. Galloway smartly points to the Psycho Mantis battle in Metal Gear Solid to illustrate how they are not mutually exclusive, and there are many more examples in the Metal Gear Solid series. He also cites the Metroid Prime series (and Assassin's Creed also does this) for taking what is normally the nondiegetic, the HUD, and making it diegetic.

By the end of the class, we obviously didn't have a complete definition of what a game was, but as I said earlier, that was never really the point – it was a jump-off to analyze what makes games unique in our world, and further, what makes video games unique from not only other games, but other forms of media from which it borrows.

Reading for today:
Galloway, “Gamic Action in Four Moments”
Juul, “Video Games and the Classic Game Model.”
Crawford, “What Is a Game?”
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About russiaisHEREone of us since 11:27 PM on 03.14.2007