The other day I had a conversation on Twitter with Adam Williamson about why I use the term ‘videogames’. You, the reader, have probably noticed that every so often someone suggests that we should use another word. The idea is that the word fails to adequately reflect a changing medium and needs to be replaced by one that can handle the job. Academics frequently use ‘digital games’’; Williamson has half-jokingly coined the term ‘digic’; I once preferred ‘computer game’ because it sounded more mature. Others have adopted ‘ractive’ from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, to the clear detriment of humanity (or at least the English-speaking parts). But I use 'videogames', and here's why.
For a start, maybe no neologism is necessary. We have not stopped calling novels ‘novels’ because they are no longer new. It’s implausible, I think, to suggest that the substance of the term ‘causes’ any problems in the sense of distorting our view of the object, simply because it is so well-worn a word as to be divorced from its origin. The novel by any other name would be as dead, if you like. All ‘novel’ does as opposed to ‘longread’ or ‘printory’ is give middlebrow critics in national newspapers something to noodle about when they need to play for wordcount. I’m sure that French and German papers have no shortage of articles that muse: “of course, the word ‘roman’ originally comes from ‘romance’…” In short, while the word ‘novel’ contains a treasure trove of history, that treasure is buried, concealed, and generally ignored; it only re-emerges when we ask for it.
But for me to argue this would be somewhat dishonest, because there are concrete reasons why I like the term ‘videogame’ beyond it merely being the one we’re lumped with for better or worse. Unlike the year-old teabag of ‘novel’, it’s still fresh enough to have flavour when you sniff it. Most clearly, it reeks of juvenility.
Good. Accepting ‘videogame’ with our whole hearts precludes being ashamed of our medium. It is populist and demotic, familiar to everyone. It accepts – neither defends nor apologises for but accepts – the history of the medium so far. It sounds like a word by 8-year-olds for 8-year-olds. And as critics we must banish the idea that only those po-faced seriousness are worth our time. We should make a virtue of trashiness, embrace the garish, valorise the vulgar, fuck the haters. Clearly, videogames are about instructing computers to hallucinate vast mazes of desire which channel the human will to knowledge through strange and beautiful paths where Princess Petit a will always have another crystalline castle to get lost in – but, equally clearly, they are also about travelling through time and capturing monkeys in a big net.
Moreover, ‘videogame’ reminds us that videogames are distinct from sports or board games – and that the ‘video’ part is crucial. As trendy and analytically useful as it is to place videogames in context of other games throughout history, there are three big reasons to stress their differences.
- Firstly, videogames are automated. A computer moves the pieces, a computer rolls the dice, and a computer enforces the rules, which makes a huge psychological and epistemological difference. Put simply, a videogame is an Other whose computer-generated rules assume an autonomous reality independent of the player. Indeed, videogames (correct me if I’m wrong) are unique in that they do not allow the player access to their actual rules. In other game rules are explicitly known by players, articulated in a common language, and provided by rule book as a condition of play. Videogame rules are articulated in conlangs designed for machine interpretation and hidden to everyone except specialists. As in spacetime, their existence must be induced by observation.
- Secondly, videogames are complicated. The automation described above allows them to enact far more complicated than any other kind of game (bar perhaps the physics which are built into physical sports). There is a limit to the complexity of rules that a book, board or P&P system can incorporate, but computer power raises this limit by orders of magnitude, giving rise to entirely different kinds of game: minute simulations of physical processes, emergent playgrounds, autonomous AI characters. Arguably, in comparison to board games, this has actually led to lazy design. But the difference remains – a quantitative one big enough to actually become qualitative.
- Thirdly, videogames are visual (except when they’re not). As I said, most of their rules are accessed through representational media, and at the moment that’s mostly the same equipment and the same methods as film and TV. This means that art direction, animation, camerawork, colour, acting and so on are all at least relevant to the player’s experience (and condition her experience of the rules). Videogames are thus a hybrid form, and the relationship of videogames to traditional games is very broadly analogous to that of cinema or theatre: the former subsumes the methods of the latter while excluding some of its other parts.
Those who compare videogames with Chess and Go are right to do so, but – just as a matter of correlation – tend to ignore how many videogames, and how few games of any other kind, are single player. Chess isn’t much different when it’s on a computer, but Braid and Half-Life would be very different if they weren’t.
The question does arise of what we would call a game for the blind or a power plant simulator which was ‘played’ with a full-scale fake control room. The same machinery of simulation and process are involved in these examples, but the screen is absent. That is to say that points 1 and 2 still apply, but that point 3 only sort of does, in that the medium of access conditions the experience of play. To be clear, I really don’t care about establishing a precise definition of videogame and sorting every object in the universe into one box or another. My concern is that advocating the term ‘videogame’ is exclusionary if there are a bunch of games which the term doesn’t fit. As it is, non-visual videogames produced specifically for consumption for the blind are remarkable mainly for their rarity. If they get common enough to establish their own genre (and I hope they do), I doubt anyone would object to ‘audiogames’.
So that’s the video part sorted. But I should pause at least briefly to justify the component of ‘game’. Earlier this year, Raph Koster wrote about the then-latest evolution of the great neo-ludology vs space-narratology debate: ‘x is not a game’. There are a good number of critics – Keith Burgun, for instance, or Tadhg Kelly (see also here) – who argue that ‘game’ has a specific definition not fulfilled by some things we call ‘videogames’. Their definitions very much resembles what critic Jesper Juul, in his book Half-Real, calls the classic game model. Juul goes through various definitions, from Johan Huizinga to Chris Crawford, and tries to synthesise a definition which retains everything they have in common.
But, he says, “the classic game model is no longer all there is to games”; it’s “a snapshot of a specific way of creating 'games', a model that can be traced historically for thousands of years.” Identifying this model as existing within the wider category of things called 'games' is far less presumptuous than trying to take possession of everything signified by that word. In vernacular speech, ‘game’ is used promiscuously to describe everything from Tetris to children’s’ make-believe, and even metaphorically to make distinctions of importance (“it’s all just a game to you!”). Other people aren't necessary either; we call it a game when only step on certain paving stones or play keepie-ups or Solitaire. So unless we really are talking about the classic game model, a definition based on Wittgenstein’s famous family resemblance is more appropriate. If you want to describe a stringent and careful and specific category, use a stringent and careful and specific term. ‘Game’ is not that term.
One thing is left to clear up. The actual topic of my conversation with Williamson was on the issue of whether to use ‘videogame’ or ‘video game’. While this is a seemingly unimportant matter of style, I think the answer is clear. Videogame is faster. It’s cooler. It pops, pops, POPS. It’s also more futuristic, in a deeply kitsch way; if you were writing an 80s sci-fi novel and had the choice to write either ‘cyber thing’ or ‘cyberthing’, which would you choose? I rest my case.
Actually, I don’t, because the difference of a space may actually be quite important. In academia, it makes sense to say ‘digital games’ when you need to clarify exactly what you mean and what you don’t. It’s a term intended to be as neutral as possible – or rather, as deliberate, in the sense that it tries to exclude any accidental or irrelevant connotations. Digital games are ‘games’ which are ‘digital’, and as long as you can define those component parts you can define a digital game. This all makes sense. Academia depends on a process of distinguishing, dividing, sifting, clarifying; its whole method is based on divorcing yourself from reality and common sense because it recognises that both of those terms are deceptive. It requires a kind of strategic Platonism whereby you employ abstract categories ‘above’ the conventional ones we see and touch because they better explain an unconventional truth.
(In fact, the the term seems plenty problematic: is a sports game creatively adapted to computer more ‘digital’ than a board game merely implemented on computer (the distinction is again Juul’s), and if so, which is digital enough for the definition? Does the definition really ‘mean’ to include games like Bop It, which mediates computer power through trad object play? It’s very possible these ambiguities have been resolved and I don’t know about it)
‘Videogame’, by contrast, does not even try to be neutral. And while I’ve already indicated that I like what it connotes, there’s something important about its very failure. It’s messy. It sticks two words clumsily together to reflect a hybrid, amalgamated, sticky field. It represents the form in all the different ways it has to: a cultural artefact as well as a commercial category, a type of memory as well as a type of software. That is to say it indicates an object with substance and specific characteristics, but ones which, because it fails, tetragrammatonically are what they are, and which, as long as it gestures towards an evolving field, will be as hard to control as language itself. It is a word whose paradoxical specificity opens possibilities.
What are those contradictory characteristics? They are of childish and childlike things which had in them the seed of all maturity and which mean old things to older people. They are of trashy, vulgar and profound truths, idle diversions of the highest importance, of recreation that isn’t fun, of contests you can’t win and losses which are really victories (not to mention of having your cake and eating it). They are of futures which have existed and futures which might exist and futures which will never exist, and of a futuristic medium named after a dead movie tape format whose jarring anachronism inexorably madeleines to mind the galaxy of lurid colours and the Conwayesque dance of memory and code remembered and forgotten by Rob Beschizza’s Nomen Ludi – which is, of course, a pun on the title of an Umberto Eco novel about language in history, and Latin, of course, for ‘the name of the game(s)’.