The (Too) Many Meanings of Our Favorite Word
We throw around a pretty loaded word all the time when we talk about this medium of flowing lights and compressed polygons. We use the term easily, uncaringly, without even realizing what a terrible misstep we make with every use. The indeterminate fog that is this word has become something we cannot truly perceive as anything other than the whole, the entirety which we describe with this monosyllabic assignation.
Have you guessed the word? Well, allow me to fill you in, just in case.
The word is: game.
We usually slap a "video" in front of it for the particular variety that we of the PC or consoles enjoy, as if dressing it up in some feeble costume is going to make us believe that it's something different. But no. The word remains, insidious in its indeterminacy, lurking quietly, amorphous.
Why do I dislike this word so much? Well, because as I have said, it's vague. It has too many meanings. "Game" means a session of that sport which we call baseball. "Game" also means Texas Hold'em Poker. "Game" means Monopoly, and Dungeons and Dragons. It means tag in the sun, and it means the animals that hunters shoot at in the woods.
I think that a term which covers so much ground approaches uselessness. Any given word is only as useful as how clear it is, how much it actually refers to something, and in general facilitates easier, quicker, and better communication. True, we attempt to refine "game," eliminate some of those excess meanings with the "video" descriptor. But even so, the "video" borderline only tells us about technology and general rules of the medium, with screens and sound effects and graphical engines. The game part is the part that's genuinely important, and that's the also the part that defies easy definition.
The issue has become clearer for me recently, as I've begun plowing through a number of independent games, which very much stretch and strain the word far beyond its limits. Not in a bad way, of course, but in an exploratory way, a pleasantly probing way, like that nice old proctologist with the shock of white hair and a smile full of teeth.
Most recently, I found myself ripping through VVVVVV on a bus, and contemplating how it compared to some of the other games I'd played bits 'n' pieces of recently. Battlefield: Bad Company 2, for instance, or Dragon Age: Origins, or Parcheesi. And in realizing that all of these things technically fall under the penumbra of the word "game," I realized also that perhaps this is a limiting factor to our discussion of games, our understanding of games, and the level to which games can be absorbed or thought about by non-gamers.
Other forms of media have tremendous variation, absolutely. Books and movies alone show the vast variance of creative capabilities in these forms of expression, with the Lord of the Rings trilogy operating in the same medium as The Sun Also Rises, which is then in turn in the same medium as Malcolm Gladwell's impressive works. The word "movie" lays claim to Manos: The Hands of Fate (although, just barely), just as much as it covers The Graduate, or Star Wars.
And yet, when I think of games, I cannot help but feel that the gap between Bejeweled and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is fundamentally greater than anything experienced in any medium, because for most other mediums, there is some form of constancy, some general set of unbreakable rules. Movies? Yeah, they all have a series of visual imagines, often combined with sound, which the viewer observes using those two senses, and contemplates both during and after the movie. Books? Words on a page. They can be in any language, and it’s even conceivable to find a book that shifts languages, though I can't think of any, and that seems needlessly complex. But despite the infinite variations of words that can be put together in books, the bottom line is their form remains similar, inherently. 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. Characters. Plot. Setting. These things may be obscured, but they're there.
Unless you're talking about poetry. God help you if you're talking about poetry.
But with a game... the constants are just so much less meaningful than the constants of movies or books. Yes, all video games have video components and sound components, but the very means and nature of interacting with video games can differ between each and every one. A video game requires the player to put some of him or herself into the game in a way that movies or books don't, but the mold into which the player pours that piece of his or her soul can differ in tremendous ways. You don't play Bad Company 2 the same way you play Wii Tennis. Or at least, I hope you don't. The two games, while having similarities, are just vastly different, because the aspect that makes them truly games instead of simply movies, the interactivity, takes such tremendously different forms.
We use other terms to help define the games we talk about as well, but even so, it seems that the term game has gone past the point of no return. What do I mean when I say game? Do I mean something in which there are winners, and losers? Do I mean something in which I simply interact with the program, in order to have an entertaining experience? What does it mean, now that we have come to realize the vast, undiscovered countries (to borrow from Star Trek) that lay on the outskirts of the feebly lit areas we meekly deem "game country"?
I believe that some sort of change in parlance, or at least in our understanding of the vocabulary, is called for. I don't know exactly how this needs to happen, or what terms should be used instead...but I know that I feel strangely dirty, talking about The Path and WarioWare with the same clumsy term. There has to be a better way, amidst the seas of semantics. Let us ply these waves, in search of our elusive prey, such that we might better come to understand the medium which we love so dearly.