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A Short and Simple Definition of What a Videogame Is

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Introduction Why should we define the term videogame? Because we have reasons to study videogames. What are these reasons? James Newman gives us an answer: "the size of the videogames industry; the popularity of videogames; videogames as an example of human-computer interaction." Indeed, videogames belong to of our culture. But surprisingly, it is rare to come across concise definitions of the word videogame. Then, it is necessary to work on it. I am not claiming that nobody defined properly the notion of videogame before. For example, Eric Zimmerman has issued notable publications about it. I am mentioning that we need a short and simple definition. The goal of this essay is to propose such a definition. I also outline how to understand its terms by using existing definitions. And I finally discuss the videogame heritage and how it helps us to say what a videogame is. Definition Here is a possible definition: A videogame is a game which we play thanks to an audiovisual apparatus and that can be based on a story. This definition is short and simple, and I would like to demonstrate that it really defines the term videogame. I will show that this definition is based on well-known thoughts about game, play, interactivity, and narrative are. In other words, this definition is nothing but an articulation of existing definitions. The articulation is possible and easy because I do not directly speak about interactivity and narrative. Game Needless to say that a videogame is a game. It is obvious but we have to clearly remember this. Before being a cultural form, an art form, a narrative form, and more, videogames are games: "However, even if it sounds obvious, videogames are, before anything else, games." (Frasca). So, what is a game? We have had games for a very long time, but the definitions are not numerous. Nevertheless, some of them are applied to videogames with adeptness. Roger Caillois, inspired by Johan Huizinga, provides elements to define what a game is: a fictional, unpredictable, and unproductive activity with rules, with time and space limits, and without obligation. He also presents an approach for classifying games. He especially identifies two orientations. He calls it paida and ludus. We can understand it as freedom and constraints. Gonzalo Frasca says it "describes the difference between play and game." Effectively, some games without quantifiable outcome can be considered as toy-games (two famous examples: Sim City and The Sims). I use Zimmerman's words (quantifiable outcome), so it is time to discuss his definition of what is a game: "A game is a voluntary interactive activity, in which one or more players follow rules that constrain their behavior, enacting an artificial conflict that ends in a quantifiable outcome." This definition, which is not far from Avedon and Sutton-Smith's, is a very accurate definition of what a game is. Thus, it does not include toy-games and puzzle-games. Is there a quantifiable outcome in toy-games? Is there always an artificial conflict in puzzles-games? My answer is: a videogame can be a puzzle-game, a toy-game, or any kind of game that can be handled by an audiovisual apparatus. Chris Crawford calls this wide range of games interactive entertainments or playthings. Play To introduce what playing a videogame is, I will quote Zimmerman again: "Play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure. Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of a system." Zimmerman also defines three categories: game play, ludic activities, being playful. Given these categories, the famous Huizinga definition is related to the first category: "Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is 'different' from 'ordinary life'." We can also try to list the pleasures of playing. The Le Diberder brothers have their answer: competition, accomplishment, system mastering, narrative enjoyment, and audiovisual experience. Moreover, we can think of other aspects beyond system mastering and that game designers know very well: discovering hidden elements and cheating. Audiovisual Apparatus The audiovisual apparatus I am talking about is an electronic system with computing capabilities, input devices, and output devices. It can be an arcade videogame, a videogame console, a handheld console, a computer, a PDA, a phone, etc. It means that we have human-computer interactions and that videogames can be seen as user interfaces. Then, we can talk about interactivity. As Jasper Juul notices, this is a major difference between videogames and their "nonelectronic precursors": "The main difference between the computer game and its nonelectronic precursors is that computer games add automation and complexity - they can uphold and calculate game rules on their own, thereby allowing for richer game worlds; this also lets them keep pace." Interactivity is the heart of the Rouse definition of the term gameplay: "A game's gameplay is the degree and nature of the interactivity that the game includes." Story A videogame can be based on a story. In most cases, it is, but sometimes not. Tetris, for example, is an abstract challenge that does not need a story. They are many ways to insert narrative elements in a videogame: back-stories, cut-scenes, discussions, etc. Then, academics wonder if we can study and design videogames like literature and film. Some answers are very clear: "The first and most important thing to know about games is that they center on PLAY. Unlike literature and film, which center on STORY, in games, everything revolves around play and the player experience. Game designers are much less interested in telling a story than in creating a compelling framework for play." (Pearce). "The hidden structure behind these, and most, computer games is not narrative - or that silly and abused term, "interactivity" - but simulation. (Aarseth 2004) Hence, videogames are often seen as simulations: "Narrative is based on semiotic representation, while videogames also rely on simulation, understood as the modelling of a dynamic system through another system." (Frasca 2004). We know that a videogame can be based on a story. But is a videogame always a simulation? Answering is not easy when we consider abstract games like Qix and Tetris. But the answer, following Frasca, could be that these games are simulations of systems that their designers have imagined. It would mean that a videogame would always be a virtual game because we do not manipulate the game elements in the real world. Videogame Heritage By looking back to the past, as Chris Crawford does, we can see how the videogame heritage can help us to know what a videogame is. One way of doing that is to identify, as John Sellers does, milestones. For example, Ms. Pac-Man was the "first game to star a female character." This raises interesting questions about genre differences and videogames. We can also look at the history of videogames. Our starting point could be the first commercial game (Computer Space, 1971, the arcade version of Spacewar, 1962) and we could identify the four following periods: - 1971-1978: first years, pioneers' success, - 1979-1983: golden age, genre development, - 1984-1993: less technological limits, strong ideas, - 1994-now: CD-ROM, 3D, PlayStation, PC, big productions, normalization, online games. From the pioneers' success, we learn what an arcade videogame is (for example Pong). From the golden age, we learn how diversified the videogames can be (sports, adventure, fighting, etc.). From the years between 1984 and 1993, we learn that strong ideas make the difference. I have to give some details about what I call strong ideas. I will do it trough famous examples: new powerful ideas (Tetris), deep gameplays (Bubble Bobble, Shinobi), genre crossings (The Legend of Zelda), innovative narrative elements (fights in Battle Chess), complex system simulations (Sim City), multiplayer fun (Bomberman, Super Mario Kart), leading unintelligent animals (Lemmings), simple and strong ideas (Pang). Finally, from recent big productions, we learn about the future of videogames: bigger and bigger, more and more online, and less and less diversity. About this last point, the Le Diberder brothers say: "Wargames, games of skill, racing games, and even fighting games and shoot'em up games will be simple levels in simulators that will combine them." But small devices represent a great opportunity for retro gaming. Weak hardware needs strong ideas and old games contain strong ideas. Conclusion We have seen that I articulate existing definitions into one short and simple definition of the term videogame. We have also seen that this definition could easily be completed, for example with what the videogame heritage teaches us. And to conclude, I would like to add that knowing what is a videogame is obviously very useful to know what a good videogame is. A good videogame is a good game. We have a lot fun while playing a good videogame. We forget the audiovisual apparatus (transparency, immersion) while playing a good videogame to take advantage of a deep gameplay. And we enjoy the story of a good videogame based on a story. By going deeper in this direction, we get criteria for good games. Then, we can verify these criteria regarding the videogame heritage. * This abstract: about 1500 words * Full paper: 2835 words and about 30 references * Note: this work is part the Inspiration project (
Contact: Nicolas Esposito, University of Technology of Compiegne, computer science,
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