The name of the game

Eurogamer recently completed their round-up of the top 50 games of the year, as voted for by their writers. As usual for EG it’s a fairly eclectic mixture crossing all platforms and genres, with some titles so distinct as to seem from different disciplines entirely, raising the inevitable question of “what is a game?” EG and resident Rock, Paper Shotgun grouch John Walker asked this rather directly in his comment nestled innocently in the Guitar Hero World Tour commentary:

“Okay, here’s my plan. We subdivide gaming. Proper games go over here. And plastic toy karaoke games go over there. On that fire.”

This is a problem I suspect the industry is going to have to address at some point in the next few years. It is becoming increasingly broad, stretching the single definition of ‘computer game’ to breaking point. Can so many disparate products and ideas really co-exist happily under a single umbrella term? Surely at some point the single moniker will have to be abandoned in favour of more specific terms to avoid confusing potential customers? After all, your average SingStar party-goer is unlikely to be interested in Fallout 3, and are Wii Fitness fanatics really going to progress to Grand Theft Auto? With the Wii’s breakthrough success into the mainstream of non-gamers, it’d be interesting to see some analsyis of whether it’s acting as a ‘gateway’ to the ‘harder’ temptations of non-party/gimmick games.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t have diversity. Let’s take a look at books, which is an old and hugely varied medium. You’ve got prose fiction, poetry, non-fiction history, biographies, instructional stuff…and so it goes on. The interface is always the same though: words on a page. You turn the page, read the words, then go to the next page. Crucially, all these different sub-categories don’t try and pretend to be the same thing, particularly when approached by the critical press. Prose fiction is reviewed and addressed separately from cook books. The gaming press is currently struggling to cover everything that appears on a console or computer that isn’t a word processor or spreadsheet, which often leads to nonsensical appraisals within the same publication. How can Fallout 3 be better than Guitar Hero World Tour? They’re entirely incomparable experiences on every level. You don’t see Delia Smith’s latest being compared directly to Neil Gaiman’s work, because it doesn’t make any sense.

What about movies, which are more often the comparison point for the games industry? You’ve got feature films and documentaries, each with a variety of wildly different  genres and styles. Crucially, though, the interface always remains the same – moving pictures on a screen which are watched in a largely passive fashion. While the emotional content may differ, the core experience of going to the cinema, or pressing play on your DVD player, is always the same.

Games are entirely different. There are cute puzzlers like World of Goo; the new fad of motion feedback ‘games’ on the Wii, which are more lifestyle choices than entertainment; the pure arcade fun of Geometry Wars and Audiosurf; the party fun of SingStar and Rock Band; the Hollywood narratives of Call of Duty and Gears of War; the cerebral strategies of Total War; the social experiments of World of Warcraft and Eve Online. All require the learning of new interfaces, whether it’s the unique Wii systems, plastic pseudo-guitars or simply a new combination of keyboard or gamepad buttons. Is it really appropriate to describe all of these as ‘games’, implying that they share similar audiences and asking journalists to show an appreciation for them all?

Even before the advent of epic party games and fitness software, there was a notable separation between arcade and narrative gaming. The former seemed more akin to traditional Connect 4-style board games, while the latter aspired more towards film and literature. They both happened to use a computer to function, but beyond that there was little linkage. Defining such broad elements under a single banner risks to allow only a superficial understanding of each, with an unwise shoehorning of audiences into unfamiliar territory, which traditionally leads to conflicts of interests and wholesale rejection of entire genres by easily rankled gamers.

I have nothing against the likes of Rock Band and Guitar Hero World Tour. They’re great fun at a party. I just don’t want them to dilute magazines and websites which could otherwise be focusing on more interesting areas of game development. Which brings me back to wondering how Guitar Hero World Tour can be in the same top 10 as GTA IV, World of Goo and LittleBigPlanet. It just doesn’t make sense.

Edit: Kieron Gillen talks about this subject in a spiffy manner over at Eurogamer, nestled within his review of The Pathhttp://www.eurogamer.net/articles/the-path-review

Comments
2 Responses to “The name of the game”
  1. HybridHalo says:

    I’m in agreement on this one, though mostly because GHWT is a really poor game – a shambolic attempt by activision to simulate where Harmonix went when they sold the GH name and created Rock Band.

    The difference between the two – one of the games being crafted by band members and real life musicians and the other being generated by a vast corporation without enough soul is excruciatingly obvious when the two games are compared.

    Though, I do think what they do is important. Very few games allow 4 people to connect via a medium separate to gaming. The world has always had a fondness for music based games if you look back on it.

    -Matt

  2. Simon Jones says:

    “Though, I do think what they do is important. Very few games allow 4 people to connect via a medium separate to gaming. The world has always had a fondness for music based games if you look back on it.”

    Absolutely. And that’s the key thing, really. I’d say Guitar Hero et al has more in common with musical games from down the ages than with non-party games. The fact that Guitar Hero requires a computer/console to operate is a technical categorisation; it shouldn’t define the entire medium.

    You can project lots of different things through a projector. You don’t call them all movies. Lots of things can be printed onto paper, but you don’t call them all novels. Etc.

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