The Cost of Saying That a Given Game Is Not a Game

Richard Terrell recently argued at legnth that Proteus is a “cool digital musical experience” rather than a game as such. While I have tremendous respect for Terrell’s overall project—he’s “nobly wrestling with the limits of language,” as Michael Abbot once put it—I still can’t shake the feeling that he sometimes applies his considerable efforts to the wrong questions. Because in this case, the right question is, what do we actually gain by deciding that Proteus is not a game?

Proposing a narrower definition of games means making one of three statements:

    1. When I say game in the following piece, I mean x.
    2. Whenever I say game, I mean x.
    3. Game means x.

That first one is a valid, practical, and frequently necessary gesture. The second is potentially limiting, but also potentially liberating; if you can stop sweating the vocabulary, then you can move on to new, exciting, probably unmapped territory.

The idea of defining games once and for all, however, is completely unworkable.

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Please understand, I’m coming at this as a former art history major. For about four years, I had the what is art? discussion more often than I had hot meals. And while it’s important to know how various critics and practitioners have defined art (just as it’s important to know that Sid Meier defines a game as “a series of interesting choices”), it’s a costly mistake to fully embrace any one definition or definitively drink any one theorist’s Kool-Aid. There’s always a cost, and that cost is never worth the benefit, even if there is a benefit, which there usually isn’t.

Say you decide that art has to exist primarily as art. It can’t be utilitarian, so a table isn’t art, even if it’s well made, expressive, and beautiful. Art for art’s sake, this idea is sometimes called.

The problem with this definition (or one problem with it) is that it manufactures a crisis of classification, wherein African art, for example, isn’t art at all—and not only because you’re dealing with so many tables and water jugs and textiles. More importantly than that: when viewed in the cultural context of animist traditions, medicine societies, and ancestor worship, representative sculptures can also be construed as functional objects. They’re at least considered ceremonial, and often considered magical. So their purposes are metaphysical, yes, but also utilitarian. Meaning they don’t count as art.

Oh, but it’s O.K. that African art isn’t really art. That doesn’t diminish it. It does mean, of course, that African art is worse than European art at being art. But it doesn’t follow that European art or European culture is better. Just that it’s more advanced and artful and—

See the problem?

You could argue that something isn’t art, or isn’t a game (or isn’t music, or isn’t literature) for an infinity of reasons. But whatever you’re trying to do, and regardless of whether you succeed at doing it, you’re also explicitly excluding those works that push hardest against the boundaries of a given medium. You’re leveling things off.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is an argument with a target, and that it naturally tends to target those who are least in need of being taken down a peg: it naturally and automatically targets marginal voices. That means denying someone a place at the table, and denying their work a place on the syllabus. Saying that’s not a game means putting forth a bold and dickish hypothesis about whose work is worth discussing and whose work isn’t.

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And to what end? What’s the point? Well, the point is clear, specific language. Using a word, knowing what it means, and knowing that your audience knows what it means, too. It’s not hard to see why this goal is so appealing to Terrell, who is after all writing a freakin’ glossary.

But here’s the thing: when we use words with increasing frequency and breadth, it becomes increasingly foolish to try and pin those words down to singular, canonical definitions. In past posts, Richard Terrell has gone into great detail about his working definitions of games and gameplay, but when defining the word game in his glossary, he simply quotes Jesper Juul’s Half-Real and moves on. By contrast, Juul’s own “Dictionary of Video Game Theory”—in a gesture akin to the entry about the word is in the Oxford English Dictionary—provides eight separate and sometimes conflicting definitions of game. (Nine if you count Wittgenstein’s notion “that what we call games have nothing in common.”)

Which is the right approach. We should be cataloging and exploring, but not resolving. Because resolving the word game into a single definition, even if it weren’t completely impossible and a little dangerous, would still be thoroughly pointless. If we did somehow manage to agree on some unified definition under which Proteus is not a game, we would still want to talk about how it relates to games. So we would most likely need a broader term that could encompass all of the games and non-game gameoids we wanted to discuss, wouldn’t we? So hey, maybe that bigger, looser word could be something like, I don’t know, game.

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It’s insufficient and unconvincing to declare, without qualification, that specific language is good and that unspecific language is bad. Games and art are open-ended concepts, so it’s not a linguistic crisis to describe them in open-ended terms. It’s acceptable, and maybe even preferable, to describe nebulous things nebulously. We do it all the time.

To use the squishiest possible example, love is an inescapably inexact concept. When you say “I love you,” to someone, your words are a contract currently being written. You are building an understanding, but always a provisional and contextually specific one. Other people say those same words and mean completely different things, and you know that, and knowing that diminishes the meaning and importance of your own words in precisely zero ways.

A word can be maddeningly vague in isolation, yet clear and powerful in context, is my point.

It’s fine and even necessary to use broad terms in narrow ways. But when you insist that your newly narrowed definition is the definition—when your goal is to pin the word game down to a single, universally applicable meaning, for example—then, nobly wrestling with the limits of language becomes tilting at windmills. It’s noble, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s productive.

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