Redefining Video Games

Redefining Video Games

Matthew Gallant recently posted on Defining Video Games over at the Quixotic Engineer.

For the record, here’s the definition of video games that he proposed:

Software which displays images on a video screen, interacts with a player or players, and is intended to provide challenge and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.

I replied that the inclusion of provide challenge was both redundant and prejudicial to a particular type of video game and could easily be removed. Providing challenge is simply a form of producing an aesthetic response, after all. I also argued against the use of images on a video screen as that would exclude games such as Dark Room Sex Game and In the Pit, an auditory Xbox 360 Community game suggested by Travis in the comments. Here’s the counter definition I proposed in the comments of Matthew’s post:

Software that interacts with a player or players and is intended to produce an aesthetic response in the audience.

Matthew countered that the “video screen” portion of the definition was important as it helped make a distinction between video games and electronic toys like the Pleo.


Meanwhile, floating across this conversation (via Twitter) is the idea that game itself is a legacy word that doesn’t apply as some video games aren’t actually games–like Electroplankton. Matthew seems to indicate that the root definition of game dictates the inclusion of challenge, but that video games have grown beyond this restriction.

I found that I couldn’t disagree more. And that’s when it hit me–before we can even begin to define video game, we need to define game. As a refresher, here are my definitions for story and play, with a placeholder definition for community. It is upon these three definitions that all subsequent definitions will be built.

Story is the shared exploration of a relationship over time.

Play is the self-guided exploration of possibility within a bounded space.

Community is a group of people that hold interests or experiences in common.

Building upon this base, the term “game” becomes very easy to define. I propose the following:

Game is a set of rules and/or conditions, established by a community, which serve as a bounded space for play.

Notice a complete lack of reference to winning, challenge, competition, education, fun, and entertainment. This is a building block definition and in order to serve our needs in the long term, it must be free of such extraneous assumptions. Should we want/need to, this definition can serve as the seed for more restrictive definitions for board games, sport games, religious games, video games, etc.

I want to take a moment to address the idea that game rules and conditions are established by a community. We like to take a pretty authoritative stance in regards to intellectual property in the west and this, I believe, has unnecessarily complicated (and restricted) our approach to video games–both as audience, critic, and designer.

Board games such as Monopoly are perfect examples of how a game, designed by a single person, long since dead, is subject to the buy-in of a community. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game of Monopoly where house rules hadn’t been established. Typically, in the case of Monopoly, the house rules are designed to make the game shorter. Regardless, house rules for board games exist to make the gameplay more compatible with the expectations of the people playing.

This is representative of two communities. The first, most obvious community is the group of people gathered in the physical location to play the game. The second is the large community that includes the players and the game’s designer. The permission to make alterations to the rules is inherent in the medium of the board game. Unlike requesting permission to perform Waiting for Godot, the players are not subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of Parker Brothers, and it’s highly unlikely that Darrow, when alive, would have stopped by to ensure you were following his rules to the letter.

But what about video games? Wouldn’t my contention that the rules are agreed upon by a community utterly fail to apply to video games? After all, video games are software and unless the game is open source, and the player a coder, the rules are immutable, right? Nope, that’s wrong. Sort of.

Video game designers often include the ability to alter the rule sets of their games, albeit marginally. Difficulty sliders are perhaps the clearest example of this, but I’d argue that graphics settings in PC games would also qualify as altering the conditions of the video game experience. Platform choice is another major factor in agreeing upon the conditions of the video game. Will you play with keyboard and mouse or kick back on the couch with a friend?

Then there’s the matter of personal taste and experience. If you consider that continuing play is a form of agreement, we tend to express our disapproval of a video game’s rule set by discontinuing play. Some of us then blog about it and influence the purchasing decisions of our community. Or, as has also happened, after continued discussion, we return to the game with a fresh perspective and find that the issues we were having were entirely our own and the new approach leads to a completely new play experience. This is a form of community agreement, and, again, there are two layers of community involved in the process.

Sandbox games, or even any video game that meaningfully incorporates a physics engine to handle more than ragdoll death animations, clearly allow the audience some measure of flexibility in their approach to the game. In other words, these games try and afford the audience with as much control over the conditions of play as they can.

This may all sound terribly abstract and stretched thin, but consider that developers release patches that correct gameplay issues based on audience feedback. Consider that developers release sequels that often incorporate features and improvements suggested by the audience. Consider the existence of mods that alter core gameplay based upon community needs. Consider privately run game servers with rules that can be voted on by the players. Consider that Valve is watching every single thing you do while playing their games and using that data to influence their future design.

More and more, our technology is allowing us to turn the process of game design into a direct communication between author and audience. The author feedback loop is still on the slow side, but game engines like Sauerbraten, in which environments can be edited in real time, hold the potential to change that.

I’m sure I have a lot more clarifying to do, though – so I put it to you: How would you define the concept of a “video game?”

About Corvus Elrod
Corvus Elrod is a Semionaut and Narrative Designer. He is the co-founder of Zakelro Story Studio and designer of The HoneyComb Engine, an open and extensible RPG framework. He contracts for a variety of clients from major game studios to indie developers and artists.


  1. the fact that competition and fun were not mentioned in the referenced defining video games article is crazy, otherwise by their definition a video game could be a GIF slide show

  2. @ Awesomeguy

    Why do competition and fun need to be mentioned when talking about video games? I do not care for competitive gaming and most of the time I do not play games for fun.

    Anyway I agree that the definition of video game needs to change. I play video games so that I can get involved in a deep story and feel like a character in a larger plot.

  3. I don’t feel I can adequately express my various concerns with these definitions right now, or even the potential issues with the overall activity of making definitions. I do think it’s important, however, to at least reference the whole Wittgensteinian position when these discussions come up – namely that concepts like “game” (and “language”) simply cannot be defined.

    Nor do we particularly need to define them. Rather, the definitions and refutations and counter-definitions serve as a sort of “play” which can be stimulating, enjoyable, and even intellectually productive.

    But when the dust settles, it’s my suspicion that “games” and “video games” and “digital games” and many other concepts will remain undefined.

Leave a Reply