Defining the Term “Video Game”

What does it mean for something to be a video game?

I’ve recently gotten the opportunity to play several indie titles that I otherwise might have never picked up, thanks to Humble Bundle. Many of these titles try to do things a bit differently to set them apart from the sea of modern AAA titles we consume so readily every year. One such game is Dear Esther.

I’ve touched on the topic of video game narratives before, first with my blog about the fantastic indie title To the Moon, then in my discussion about the age-old gameplay vs. story debate. But never before had I encountered such a title as Dear Esther, one that is devoid of any gameplay whatsoever.

Actually, saying that Dear Esther has no gameplay would be false, though it’s probably as close as you can get to a gameplay-less game. The only action the player makes is the protagonist’s movements. There is no interactivity with the game world to speak of, neither is there an overarching plot or crisis the player must overcome. All you do really is walk around and enjoy the scenery.

So you’d understand why Dear Esther has stirred much debate amongst the gaming community as to how one would define a “video game.” We use that term a lot, yet it is difficult to give it a precise definition for fear of accidentally excluding something out. But is Dear Esther a video game?

Even I struggle to come up with a solid conclusion to that question. In many ways, Dear Esther has no point. The graphics are nice, and the narration is somewhat interesting, but when gameplay involves solely walking around with no goal in mind, what difference is there between playing Dear Esther and browsing Google Maps?

Does a game have to provide some sort of interaction between the game and the game world? The only form of “interaction” in Dear Esther is character movement, but even then it raises questions as to whether or not that even counts. Does a game have to provide some sort of goal that the player must strive to accomplish? Dear Esther has no goal; instead its narration provides a muddled but somewhat interesting backstory. Does a game have to provide some sort of feeling of progression to the player? Dear Esther certainly does little to invoke such a feeling, as there really is not clear direction as to what the player should be doing.

It’s a complicated debate, you see. Some will say that character movement is enough “gameplay” for something to be called a game. Others will state that the game’s lack of some sort of crisis excludes it from our medium. And so the discussion continues.

But perhaps the better question is: does this debate even matter? What’s the point of proving whether or not Dear Esther is a game? What do we as gamers or they as the game’s developers get from this? Why does it matter that we put an arbitrary label on something like Dear Esther? Is a product automatically better if we call it a “video game?”

“Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies,” says the game’s official website. A story, told using gaming technologies. Take that for what you will.

How would you define the term “video game”? Are games like Dear Esther a part of our medium? Speak your thoughts in the comments below!


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