Video Game Elitism

What’s the deal with people who play video games fighting and arguing over what makes a “real” game or not?

I’ve seen this argument play out most recently with regard to the game No Man’s Sky. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a game in which you are encouraged to survive and explore, hopping from planet to planet on your little spaceship. Planets and life forms on those planets are all procedurally generated, a bit like Spore. You’re encouraged to document these life forms, as well, and rewarded for doing so. Ultimately, this is a game about exploration and performing various activities to support that exploration.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I haven’t yet played it, but will likely do so soon and have certainly been following it since its inception.

In the discussions I have seen, however, the question always comes up as to whether this is “really” a game. Well, is it? I don’t think arguments that it’s not make any sense, but perhaps this is a question of definitions. More broadly, what makes something a game in the first place? Let’s broaden from just video games–what makes a game?

  • It must have one or more players. There is no game without a player!
  • There must be rules to navigate. These rules can be simple or complex.
  • There must be at least one goal to accomplish. Some games allow players to informally set their own goals, which I consider just as valid.

By these metrics, is No Man’s Sky a game? Unquestionably. Indeed, I’ve seen this argument leveled at interactive stories, as well, like Gone HomeGone Home describes itself as a “story exploration game,” which is entirely accurate. It’s definitely a game, too. It has one player. The rules are simple: explore the house to collect and examine various items using the available interface. There is a goal: the story has a defined ending, which can only be reached once the player has uncovered certain items and experienced the correct parts of the story.

This still leaves the question of where “it’s not a real game” arguments come from. For the moment, I’ll assume those arguments are made in good faith, rather than representing a form of elitism (though I think that, in many cases, they do). Where I think this breakdown in understanding occurs is when someone believes a video game (in particular) must also include mechanics and game systems. These terms are often nebulously defined, but I’ll give it a shot:

  • Game mechanics define the ways in which the player interacts with the game world, via a user interface. Every game has these.
  • Game systems represent the state of the game, which may change as it is played. Game mechanics interact with game systems.

“It’s not a real game” proponents seem to have a high threshold for how complex game mechanics and game systems must be in order for a game to quality as a “real” one. For instance, if the game does not bestow upon the player any statistical values–health points, strength values, and so on–it may be dismissed as a non-game. This also goes for games which lack numeric scores and which may not have predefined victory conditions. But these are, in my view, definitely games.

I will take it a step further and examine video games as an art form. Video games are distinct from other art forms because they permit interactivity. Reading books, watching movies, listening to music, and viewing sculptures and paintings are all relatively passive activities. The artist has produced an artwork, and the individual experiences that artwork. The artwork’s messages and implications flow into the individual, but the individual has no influence on the artwork. A sculpture does not change. A song doesn’t sound different each time it’s played. The words on a page stay the same no matter how many times you read them.

This is not to say that those fixed artforms have set, unchangeable meanings, either–each interpretation of an artwork is individual and thus unique, but all are also subjective. So don’t take this as a dismissal of the power of non-interactive artworks.

But video games are distinctly different. Games which generate their worlds procedurally, like No Man’s SkyMinecraft, and others offer a unique experience to each player. While game rules may dictate some of a player’s actions–for instance, if your character is hungry and needs food, you will have to seek that out before doing anything else–there’s a strong emphasis on exploring, setting your own goals, and directing your own actions. This is considered a key feature of so-called open world games, as well. A player is presented with a large, possibly dynamic world, one populated with characters, items, and systems which the player can interact with and use at their discretion. A player could pick some distant point on the world map and go there, experiencing the game in ways the designers could not have predicted.

In fact, open world games damage “it’s not a game” arguments even more fatally. Open world games, like the Elder Scrolls series, often have thin or weak storylines. Their main appeal is in self-directed exploration. This makes the existence of a narrative and even victory conditions almost perfunctory. They exist, but they aren’t the point of the game. Instead, players are meant to explore the world on their own terms and develop their own narratives and goals. Such games also have robust modding communities, which change how the game works, sometimes radically. Difficulty can be increased, reduced, or even eliminated. Games can be altered such that they present no challenge at all, instead offering an exploration sandbox–what are often derisively called “walking simulators.”

Would a game thus modified no longer be a game?

Ultimately, I do think these arguments stem from an elitist viewpoint. There’s a category of gamers who look down on games which aren’t complex enough, which aren’t difficult enough, which don’t contain certain mechanics and rulesets that the gamer desires. “This sort of game is not for me” is translated as “this isn’t a real game.” Indeed, that’s exactly the theme which emerged from the No Man’s Sky discussions I’ve seen. Those who enjoy it enjoy it immensely. There is no question in their minds as to whether this is a game. Some others have determined that, while it may be a fine game, it simply isn’t for them. But there’s always this cadre of gamers who insist on presenting their opinions as facts. They say “this isn’t a real game” to avoid admitting that they simply don’t like it, or that it’s not the type of game they’d prefer.

But it’s fine not to like things! Plenty of games aren’t for me. I’ve never played a Call of Duty game, for instance, and I have no interest in doing so. Does that mean they aren’t real games? It would be absurd to claim that.

Now go away, I’m off to play Rodina.

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About the Author

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Video Game Elitism

by James time to read: 5 min
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