Defining the Videogameby Veli-Matti Karhulahti
Skepticus: One more thing, Grasshopper!
S: Could you summarize our dialogue in 350 words?
G: I’m sorry, Skepticus, but I don’t think I understand. Why would you want to do something like that?
S: Well, I just recalled that the article requires an abstract of 350 words, and I know you are good with small talk.
G: Oh my. You must be aware that cutting the dialogue in 350 words misses our whole point, which was not to provide a definition for the videogame, but to participate in the process of defining it.
S: I am certainly aware of that, but I cannot break the rules. Every article must have an abstract.
G: Well, ok then. How about saying that you suggest performance evaluation as the aspect that distinguishes videogames from games?
S: I think they want a bit more.
G: Then just add that you employ the rhetoric of Socratic dialogue, and that you also make some defending notes for using it as an instrument for academic communication.
S: Are you sure about the latter part? We did not make too many “defending notes” on that topic, to be honest.
G: I guess the article itself functions as the “defending note” here, provided the reader finds it productive. And that’s a gaming journal, right? I’m sure they see the importance of exploring the ongoing ludification of culture in the scholarly field as well.
S: I will think about that. I might instead mention the part where we discuss computational artifactuality as the element that enables performance evaluation, or perhaps the problematization of “winning” and “losing” in videogames.
G: You can work that out; just remember not to overlook it. The abstract is, after all, the most read section of every article.
artifact, definition, evaluation, gamification, ludification, play, rhetoric, performance, Socratic dialogue
In philosophy the question “Why do we really use that word, that proposition?” constantly leads to valuable results (Wittgenstein, 1922, 6.211)
“You look much like your forefather,” said Skepticus. There was no answer. “Only a bit heavier and less agile,” Skepticus added to himself as he continued to size up Grasshopper who was slouched in a comfy chair, fingers dancing on a device that seemed to affect the screen on which his eyes were locked. Perhaps the visit had been a mistake. Then the sky turned grey and a thunderstorm took over. Lights went out. Curse words echoed through the house. Thus, after a few passing moments, Skepticus found himself in candlelight, talking to young Grasshopper.
S: Playing seems to run in the blood of you grasshoppers.
G: Aren’t you the same Skepticus who thirty-five years ago agreed with my forefather that playing is inherent to all living beings?
S: We did draw that conclusion, indeed (Suits, 1978). My point, however, was not to state the obvious, but to observe how your kind might perhaps be inclined to play more than usual.
G: Or perhaps you were, as they say, rhetorical?
S: Not at all. My visit here has in fact a rather serious purpose.
S: As serious as videogames get. The thing is, I recently found out that there exists an academic journal dedicated to computer games, and I have an excellent concept for a paper.
G: I’m listening.
S: You see; it appears to me that the scholars around that ludic field continuously pursue a definition for what we call a “game” (e.g. Parlett, 1999; Costikyan, 2002; Salen & Zimmermann, 2003; Juul, 2005; Malaby 2007). Even the theory your forefather and I formed long ago is still under vigorous debate (Innis, 2001; Bäck, 2008; Morgan, 2008; Ryall, 2013). Yet I cannot evade the feeling that this discussion requires a new approach.
G: Do you mean that people should stop crafting definitions?
S: Certainly not! What I mean is that perhaps the time has come to turn our definitional focus towards another concept. I am going to define the videogame.
G: Oh, but isn’t defining things, if you may, a waste of time? I can’t really see the benefits.
S: While I agree that fighting over a definition—a rather multifaceted term in itself (Gupta 2014)—can easily turn into an unproductive dispute, it often results in valuable scientific insights concerning the identity of the defined phenomenon in relation to other phenomena.
G: Let me get this straight. Instead of defining the game, you’re going to define the videogame, which you think will show how things we call videogames can be identified better in relation to other cultural phenomena?
S: In fact, I was thinking about a definition that would identify videogames only in relation to other ludic phenomena, especially those we call games. But my theory has not gone through proper testing yet, and this is where I need your professional succor.
G: Under these environmental conditions [Grasshopper glances miserably at his powerless console] I see no reason to leave you aidless in case you truly consider my knowledge a potential provider of assist. However, it seems to me that you have a somewhat lengthy dialogue in mind. Couldn’t you just pose me the key questions and assemble the thoughts by yourself, like all proper scientists do?
S: It is indeed true that the dialogue I had in mind is not one of the most common scientific practices these days. Nevertheless, when it comes to a topic like ours, which is more dialectic than argumentative by nature, I am convinced of the advantages that our dialogue will add to it. With reference to Jukka Mikkonen’s (2013) detailed research on the issue, this should not be a problem as long as we pay special attention to the thoughts we express and to the words we employ.
G: As you like, then. For starters, I’m more than happy to tell you that the undertaking has already raised two inspiring concerns.
Videogames, Digital Games, Electronic Games and Computer Games
G: Didn’t you mention the focus of the journal was on “computer games?”
S: You could say that.
G: But you were about the submit a definition of the “videogame?”
G: I’m sure you see my point.
S: The point certainly deserves an inquiry. The things we call videogames have no doubt also been referred to as “digital games,” “electronic games” and “computer games” (see Perron & Wolf, 2009, pp. 6–8). Despite the somewhat varying connotations of each, I am nevertheless fairly positive they all refer to the same thing.
G: But you must also be aware that the term you have chosen, “videogame,” does have a prefix that unquestionably implies a visual component.
S: The absurdity of that implication is actually the very reason I chose “videogame” over its equal alternatives. My simple assumption is that there is no noteworthy difference in usage between “videogame,” “digital game,” “electronic game” and “computer game.” As a specialist of a sort, would you agree?
G: I admit I haven’t noticed any major differences in the meanings attached to each, even thought “videogame” could be claimed to imply one.
S: So we agree that, in colloquial usage, “videogame” does not differ from its alternatives (but see Crawford, 1991; 1996; 2003). Now, obviously, scientists cannot follow nominal statements alone; hence let us take a brief analytical look at the concept. I will begin with the most evident concern: if we granted the prefix “video” a determining function, what would then be the group of objects in focus?
G: In that instance, the focus would be on ludic objects that offer visual output, providing the “output” is somehow computerized.
S: Please correct me in case I have misinterpreted your thoughts. If one means to talk about a “digital,” “electronic” or “computer” game that offers visual output, one should use the term “videogame,” which is thus only one brand of the three aforementioned class terms?
S: But if this “digital,” electronic” or “computer” game does not offer visual output, one must refer to it merely as a “digital,” electronic” or “computer” game?
G: In that case I’d say we’re talking about an “audiogame.”
S: Could you specify a bit?”
G: These non-visual ludic objects I’m referring to are a relatively aged phenomenon. It wasn’t later than 1974 when Atari released the first commercial “audiogame,” Touch Me, which featured an auditory component that enabled playing it by relying solely on its audio output. The next major audiogame was perhaps a version of the text-based Colossal Cave Adventure (1977, Crowther & Woods), as MacInTalk (1984, Apple) speech synthesis software removed its requisite of reading text. Henceforth, several “digital,” “electronic” or “computer” games have been designed that lack visual output in total. While they may provide visual and other output too, we tend to call them “audiogames” as long as they are fully playable by reliance on their audio output alone.
S: Thank you. Let us then bring back what you said earlier about “videogames.” In your words, the “videogame” differs from “digital,” “electronic” and “computer” games by necessarily offering visual output.
G: I begin to see where this is going. There seems to be a contradiction between the two premises. In order to maintain logic, if the “audiogame” is defined by it being fully playable by reliance on sole audio output, the “videogame” ought to be defined by it being fully playable by reliance on sole visual output. And as I come to think of it, with this reasoning we should also distinguish “haptigames” that are fully playable by reliance on sole haptic output (see Nordvall 2013), and so on.
S: Or alternatively, if we allow all ludic objects with visual output be called “videogames,” so should we allow all ludic objects with any audio output be called “audiogames;” all ludic objects with any haptic output be called “haptigames;” and so on. Which logic would you prefer us to follow?
G: There seems to be no logic in the ways in which people attach meanings to words and their prefixes.
S: I believe we have come to an agreement that “videogame” is as good word as any for all those digital electronic computer game things we are interested in, with or without aural, visual, or haptic components. Just as talking about “moving pictures,” or “movies,” or “films” is fitting even though aural components have been part of those experiences from the time of their birth.
G: Approved. Let’s keep playing videogames, for now.
S: I guess it is the time for your second doubt concerning my upcoming definition.
G: It’s nothing complex, really. I was just worried whether you’re aware of one previous videogame definition that I find relatively solid.
S: Do you mean the one put forth by Mark Wolf (2002) or that by Nicolas Esposito (2005)?
G: No, but the one by Grant Tavinor (2008). It went something like this:
X is a videogame if it is an artefact in a digital visual medium, is intended primarily as an object of entertainment, and is intended to provide such entertainment through the employment of one or both of the following modes of engagement: rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.
S: To be honest, I was not aware of this Tavinor fellow. However, I do not think we should spend too much time on his definition for it obviously falls far from our discussion in several respects.
G: Yes, we already decided to reject the visual condition. But I like his idea of the object being intended to entertain through rule-bound gameplay or interactive fiction.
S: I share your fondness in part, but his use of the term “interactive fiction” disturbs me to great extent. Those two words have been used to refer to a specific text-based story genre for more than three decades now (Montfort, 2003). Still, the idea of separating videogames with significant story potential from videogames with no significant story potential is definitely worth noticing, as those elements have been distinguished in ludic theory repeatedly at least since Johan Huizinga’s (1950) ritualistic discussion and Roger Caillois’ (1961) description of “mimicry.” Nonetheless, I cannot unfortunately accept that intentional condition, for all intentions, save our own, are speculation more or less. Feel free to call me a “metaphysical deconstructionist” (Dutton, 1987), but when I come to think of it, I am not that sure if we can be certain of the intrinsic nature of our own intentions either (see Dickie & Wilson, 1995).
G: Put that way, in this context it does feel unproductive to define objects according to the intentions their producers may have had. So let’s get on with your definition, which I’ve started to have great expectations of.
Videogames Evaluate Performance
S: Videogames evaluate performance.
S: That is it.
G: That’s it?
S: That is it.
G: That’s no definition.
S: I confess it may need some development.
G: It certainly does. Are you saying that I, as a ludic phenomenon, become a videogame when I start evaluating your performance?
S: Your sarcasm makes for a decent beginning. When we define videogames, we are naturally talking about digital objects.
G: Well, it wouldn’t be too difficult for me to find a philosopher of science to show you that even the majority of “computers could be interpreted either in digital or in analogue terms” (Moor, 1978, p. 218). But as long as we acknowledge Alan Turing’s (1950) oft-forgotten wisdom that “everything really moves continuously” (p. 439), that is, all objects are ontically speaking analog ones, I’m ready to accept your “digitality” as a practical solution (see Cubitt 2006).
S: We will certainly keep that stipulation in mind. Now, next we assume that digital objects compel their users to perform.
G: I wouldn’t be so sure about that either. Last night I watched a certain digital “film-object” that more likely made me sleep.
S: Are you implying that some digital objects do not compel their users to perform, but rather provide the option to do so?
G: Actually, I was thinking about the fact that you don’t have to perform when watching videos, films, and other potentially digital recording unless sitting down and keeping your eyes open don’t count as such.
S: An acceptable concern; so let it be examined. Allow me to employ an indirect approach. Your example suggests that you do make a distinction between films that make you sleep and films that excite you, am I right?
G: There’s a definite difference between the two.
S: And how would you describe that difference?
G: In practice, lingering drama doesn’t interest me, whereas suspense and action flicks rarely finish with disappointment.
S: Perhaps you have noticed a similar incident when playing videogames? Do you find fast paced action shooters more entertaining than slow paced puzzle adventures?
G: Somewhat true, but how that relates to the performance requirements of digital objects?
S: What I am saying is that performance can hardly be limited to physical and psychomotor activities, but must be sought in cognitive activities as well.l.
G: If I’m getting this right, your suggestion is to consider mental activities like puzzle solving and story construction as comparable performative procedures to physical and psychomotor activities.
S: Do you have a problem with that?
G: I don’t see why we couldn’t take it as a premise.
S: Good. So the modes of performance compelled by digital objects may be physical, psychomotor, cognitive, or as it usually is, a mix of those three (see Carroll, 1993). Let us then investigate the counter argument that some digital objects do not compel performance but rather provide the option to do so.
G: For me it seems hard to think of a digital object that has literally compelled me to perform, be that physical, cognitive, or something in-between. Accepting a challenge is always a voluntary act.
S: Literally speaking, your point is valid. But if we understand digital objects as cultural products that provide their users with modern ways of restoring, transmitting, and processing information, we cannot leave unnoticed the renewed demands they set for configuring and interpreting that information – as Walter Benjamin (1968) observed long before the Digital Revolution. What I meant by claiming that digital objects compel their users to perform was rather that configuring and interpreting the information they conceal entails executing some sort of performance; which naturally applies to analog objects too. This leads us to hardware and software objects.
G: I think I lost you somewhere around executing Benjamin.
S: I try to elaborate. Software objects are condensed numeric data that require computational hardware objects, i.e. computers, to become operational. An MP3 song is a software object; an MP3 player through which the song is played is a hardware object. Let me next make use of Ian Bogost’s (2007) simple but adequate definition of these computational hardware objects, computers, as devices that “run processes … calculations and rule-based manipulation” (p. ix).
G: Got it.
S: If the videogame is to be considered one of these objects, which category would you think it fits better in, hardware or software?
G: Although it’s hard to ignore the fact that the arcade Space Invaders (1978, Taito) in the nearby museum could be considered a combination of the two – I think some people refer to those as “firmware” – I must go for software (cf. Bogost & Montfort, 2009).
S: An excellent choice. Even though certain hardware objects are designed to run only a specific videogame, the videogame itself still appears to be best seen as software.
G: Digital electronic computer software, that is.
S: Now, how do the demands of computer software differ from those of other cultural objects?
G: By interactivity, of course.
S: Perhaps you have a specific type of interactivity in mind? The term has been widely contested for decades.
G: I’m not sure what you mean, but you certainly know what I mean.
S: I might know what you mean, but for the sake of clarity I suggest we discard the convoluted term and look for another way to explain the difference. How about we just say that operating computer software demands extranoematic performance, that is, effort outside the confines of human thought?
G: Do you mean to say that computer software is essentially “ergodic,” in Espen Aarseth’s terminology?
S: That I do not mean, even though Aarseth (1997) does use the word “extranoematic” to specify his definition of “nonergodic” works as those “with no [significant] extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader” (pp. 1–2). I have always interpreted that phrase as an unfortunate slip from him since the extranoematic seems to have nothing to do with the fundamental coining of ergodic works as objects that require nontrivial effort to be traversed (see Karhulahti 2015a). As we have already discussed, many types of effort exist, and I am sure that Aarseth did not mean to limit his theory to only those that provide the extranoematic kind – unlike me when I previously proposed that operating computer software demands performance outside the confines of human thought.
G: You’re suggesting that no computer software can be operated by mere thought? I think neuroscientific research has several counter examples for that (e.g. Nijholt, Plass-Oude Bos, and Reuderink, 2009).
S: A point well taken. When it comes to configuration and interpretation, there seems to be nothing general that would distinguish videogames, as computerized digital software, from other cultural objects.
G: Forgive me, but I cannot avoid asking why do you insist on talking about videogames as “digital” and “software” in the first place? I understand the usefulness of those concepts in daily and sometimes even theoretical contexts, but it seems that the present discussion could benefit from using less ambiguous terms.
S: Such as?
G: Such as artifact.
S: An interesting pick. Did you come up with that by yourself?
G: Not really. I stole it from one post-ludologist, Olli Leino (2010). Speaking of which, I think he’s got a few more things to say about your definition.
S: I look forward to those things, for the notion of videogames as artifacts might well be better than the conceptions of “digital” and “software” objects.
G: But what about those demands? It seems to me that your conclusion was to state that there’s no difference between the demands of videogame artifacts and other ludic objects? Does this mean we’re going to have to abandon your definition?
S: Quite the contrary. Confirming that the demands of videogames are not unique only supports our premise that the distinctiveness of the videogame cannot be explained by its properties alone. What is decisive is the way in which fulfilling those demands gets evaluated.
G: Your thinking reminds me of one videogame developer, Gonzalo Frasca. He had this theory of games as activities in which the player’s “performance is quantified.”
S: I do know his fascinating work. You apparently refer to his dissertation (2007) in which he additionally remarks that, in games, player performance is also “assigned a value” (p. 73). I must confess my definition owes a great deal to this notion.
G: But in your definition – videogames evaluate (the player’s) performance – the compulsory process of evaluation implies that the player’s performance isn’t only valued or evaluated, but it’s evaluated by the videogame.
S: A precise observation. That is also what distinguishes our discussion from Frasca: we are not talking about games but videogames. In other words, while Frasca hits the nail on the head by noticing that in all games performance gets valued, for a game to be able to evaluate it must run a process; and to be able to run an evaluative process the game must be computer-based, i.e., a computational artifact.
G: It seems that your model pairs quite nicely with Leino (2010) who I mentioned. He notices that, unlike in games, in videogames evaluation is done by the
artefact which has the ability to change its material properties as a consequence of my actions, possibly rendering it impossible for me to continue playing. (p. 128)
S: This Leino must be a brilliant scholar. It seems that our concepts match perfectly.
G: I wouldn’t say “perfectly,” as I sense there’s a notable difference between his evaluation that “enforces a particular context of use onto those who desire to play” (p. 130) and your “evaluation of performance.” As for both models, nevertheless, I must note that being able to evaluate or compute doesn’t equal to being an artifact. For instance, a game of football has these extremely commonplace non-artifact evaluators called “referees.”
S: A biological organism is indeed capable of executing an evaluative process (and being an artifact: Siipi 2003). Yet there is one caveat in your observation, namely that you are confusing game systems with game components, the latter of which do not define the system but merely operate in it.
G: I think I’m not the only one who’s confusing things here.
S: A call for clarification, I presume. Football, as played in the mundane world, may or may not include computational evaluating components, electronic or organic, but the game itself, in a material sense, never executes any evaluative calculations. It is not an artifactual system that evaluates, but an immaterial system in which evaluation takes place. A football videogame, say, Nintendo World Cup (1990, Nintendo), is not an immaterial system but an artifactual one that itself evaluates. And this, it is my thesis, is something that makes videogames, as computational artifacts, a very different genre to games.
G: I could point out that there are also some non-computerized mechanical artifacts, like pinball machines, that can likewise be considered evaluating their players. But as I remind myself of Turing’s analog principle, there seems to be no reason to abandon your argument yet. In fact, I remember another similar thesis mentioned in a dissertation that was defended not long ago by a scholar named Sara Iversen (2010):
the only radically novel about computer games in comparison with analogue games are their ever increasing ability to handle vast amounts of information extremely quickly and the machine’s position as referee as well as definer and executer of mechanisms. (p. 33)
S: I wonder how you end up reading all that stuff. In any case, she does indeed seem to support my view of the videogame’s artifactual peculiarity. Nonetheless, because all those peculiarities imply one and the same thing—certain anthropomorphic behavior of a manmade object—a simpler way to describe the “radically novel,” in my opinion, is to consider the videogame as an evaluating ludic artifact. As new media ontologist Matthew Kirschenbaum (2008) notes, “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of … immaterial behavior” (pp. 135).
G: You might actually have something there. But I do have a couple of strikes left your theory must withstand before earning my genuine acceptance.
What Is Evaluation, Anyway?
G: Maybe it’s just me, but what does it mean to evaluate performance? Games like football are simple examples as they keep score, but if we move to role-playing videogames, for instance, things get more complicated. Many role-playing videogames fall into this “sandbox” category, allowing players do more or less whatever they want. How can a videogame evaluate the player if it doesn’t know what she or he’s pursuing?
S: There is wisdom in your words. Numerous things people call videogames lack preset winning and losing conditions, exempli gratia SimCity (1989, Maxis). These make interesting cases, as the player’s performance seems to be under evaluation but not according to any specific criteria. Thereby I determine evaluation as judging according to criteria set by the evaluator.
G: You sound like Leino (2010) again. He says that the videogame “evaluates, in relation to a pre-defined criteria, the choices the player has made and decides on opening-up or delimiting the player’s possibilities to choose” (p. 127).
S: How nice.
G: If you’d read Leino’s work, you’d also know that these “evaluation criteria” of videogames are a concept far from simple. I’m afraid I thus have to ask you to clarify once more, for I sense you’re not settling with those printed on the retail box or stated in the introduction (cf. Juul, 2007).
S: So what other possible criteria are there, then?
G: Well, let’s take those role-playing videogames that you mentioned. I usually end up doing numerous crazy things—chasing “personal rewards” in Alison Gazzard’s (2013) terminology—instead of following the so-called storyline that would eventually lead me to win the videogame. But as I experiment with different death scenes and collect virtual items that are of personal interest to me, I’m undeniably successful according to some criteria, right?
S: Yes, but those criteria are set by you, not the evaluator. When you stop performing according to the videogame’s criteria, you neglect its evaluation. This, nevertheless, does not prevent the videogame from evaluating you. By setting your own criteria you merely allow an external agent, yourself, to additionally evaluate the performance that is already under the videogame’s evaluation. As Frasca (2007, pp. 64–65) remarks, it is not impossible (as it happened with skateboarding) that the unwinnable-unloseable SimCity could evolve into a “game” in the future. For this to happen, it would simply have to be appropriated by an organized community that determined standardized, manifest winning conditions for players to pursue. But even in this hypothetical case SimCity does not count as a “videogame,” as it would merely be part of an extra-artifactual game system, overgame (Karhulahti 2015b), that has a separate communal organ for evaluation. As long as the artifact itself does not set evaluation criteria, be they triumph or survival, it cannot be evaluative, and thus cannot be a videogame. These unwinnable and unloseable “paidia games” (Frasca, 1997), or to use the more proliferated term, “software toys” (Costikyan, 2002; Wardrip-Fruin, 2005), are better seen as computerized playgrounds.
G: You must admit these software toys do nevertheless encourage the player to pursue some particular conditions over others?
S: That I willingly admit; however, if we want to draw a line between (video) games and (software) toys, predetermined wins and losses do appear to be the factor with highest segregation potential.
G: But how can you decide whether a videogame has a predetermined winning condition? It’s a common claim that games communicate their winning conditions (Järvinen, 2007; Juul, 2010), yet what actually counts as communication is strongly questionable. For instance, we often hear people talking about things like avatar level-ups as predetermined criteria of success. How do role-playing videogames assert that leveling-up means to win? Why doesn’t population growth count as winning evaluated by SimCity? When does an attainable state change become a win or loss evaluated by the videogame?
S: Let me try to answer the question by inverting Frasca’s (2003) view on videogame morals. While Frasca argues that a game defines its morals by what is good and bad in terms of its winning and losing conditions, I say that a videogame defines its wins and losses by what is good and bad in terms of its morals. Drawing on Miguel Sicart’s (2009) computer game ethics, by videogame morals I refer to a videogame’s responsibility to provide its player with a functional set of efficient actions. Hence, if the videogame lacks indisputable winning conditions, losing conditions, or scoring systems, its wins are defined as attainable state changes that provide the player with new actions or new spaces (places) for old actions.
G: You’re not gonna like this, but Leino (2010) has—
S: Oh, come on.
G: —already said something that’s not essentially different from yours:
success [in videogames] refers to a choice which, while not necessarily opening up any new possibilities to choose, does not contribute to delimiting the degree of freedom either. Thus, a successful choice is what ensures that the player remains as a player at least until a new choice is to be evaluated (p. 151)
G: These successful choices, he adds, are guided by a “gameplay condition” that manifests “in the form of resistance put forth by the game artefact toward my projects” (152). What he calls “resistance” here, it seems to me, correlates pretty much with your expanding performance.
S: It appears that this Leino has already thought of everything I have to say. Perhaps it would be better to turn this dialogue into a monologue in which you cite Leino?
G: Come on. I think you still make a point. Let me once more return to SimCity that lacks those indisputable winning conditions, losing conditions, and scoring systems. While it could be said that SimCity “resists” population growth and infrastructure advancements, thus making them wins that are evaluated by the artifact, it also resists many other projects like population and infrastructure loss, which we certainly don’t consider SimCity’s winning criteria. Through your model we could analyze the criteria of SimCity in videogame terms, as here population growth and new infrastructure enable “new actions or new spaces for old actions”—whereas population and infrastructure loss brings the player back to an old state. Just the same, there’s a counter-example that I think will undermine both your and Leino’s theorizations.
S: Go on. Kick the dead horse.
G: Consider the recent Heavy Rain (2010, Quantic Dream), which has several different endings. No one of these endings I consider preferable to the others, which also concerns the ones that are attained by failing in key challenges, meaning that failure doesn’t necessarily result in “game over” but may merely lead to a different story arc. This implies that both successes and failures can sometimes be equally pursuable, which in turn makes difficult to consider Heavy Rain having evaluation criteria of its own. One could say, of course, that the “successful” or “winning” story arcs have been designed to be more pursuable than the “failed” or “losing” ones, but that would mean guessing the intentions of the producer again, something we already rejected for this topic.
S: If I remember correct, the auteur behind Heavy Rain, David Cage, actually refers to his work as an “interactive drama” instead of as a “videogame.” That particular anomaly notwithstanding, I am actually starting to consent that there are no “indisputable” criteria according to which videogames evaluate; no absolute wins, losses, or scoring systems. By this I do not mean that the videogame does not evaluate the player, but that the videogame evaluates all player performance, equally.
G: Do you imply that all winning and losing in videogames depend on which of the countless potential criteria I, as a player, choose the videogame to evaluate?
S: Almost, but not quite. I would say that, due to those countless potential criteria, you can never win or lose (in) a videogame, but you can always think you won or lost—and when that happens, it is the videogame artifact that you consider as the evaluating judge.
G: So if I feel that I’m winning in SimCity, that’s a videogame because those wins are evaluated by it?
S: Be my guest.
G: But if I feel that I’m winning as I play with a toy car, that’s no videogame because those wins aren’t evaluated by it?
G: It’s starting to make sense. Still, I’ve got one criticism that should prove of a real challenge.
Are All Performance-Evaluating Artifacts Videogames?
G: While performance evaluation may distinguish the videogame from games, doesn’t it also permit some non-videogame artifacts to be entitled videogames?
S: That is an unfair question! My definition was to define the videogame only in relation to games, not in relation to other artifacts.
G: Apologies. Yet for hypothetical reasons, could you try to come up with an answer? I’ve got a feeling it might reveal an aspect or two that supports your definition.
S: This time, for old time’s sake. The foremost question that needs to be answered is then: if the evaluation of player performance is the factor that makes an artifact a videogame, are there artifacts that evaluate their users’ performance but which we do not wish to call videogames?
G: Excellent. Now please let me use my example that I’ve been saving for this moment. There are these cars, you see, with software that measure gas consumption and reward the driver with “trophies” if she or he manages to traverse standard routes with low consumption rates. In my view, this artifact isn’t a videogame despite its performance-evaluating nature.
S: Sounds like a gamified artifact.
S: You must know this recent gamification phenomenon of using “game design elements in non-game contexts,” as Deterding, Dixon, Khaled, and Nacke (2011) have it.
G: So how do you separate a videogame from an artifact that merely employs the defining element of the videogame, performance evaluation?
S: As suspected, we certainly find ourselves in a quandary here. If I were to apply the definition as you suggested, I would have to assert that those cars (or their software) do seem to fall into the category of videogames.
G: You were right; we should’ve just kept comparing videogames to games.
S: On the other hand, your detour functions as a fine reminder of the importance of discourse-specific interrogation; an aspect that is commonly disregarded by “terminal Wittgensteinians” with “severe definition phobia” (Suits 1977, 117). In the same way as we should not consider all videogames as simple ludic artifacts merely because they have previously been labeled games, neither should we consider gas consumption evaluators and the alike as simple non-ludic artifacts because they have not previously been labeled games. As John Dewey (1920) observed a year before the publication of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:
Concrete things have ways of acting, as many ways of acting as they have points of interaction with other things … Cherry trees will be differently grouped by woodworkers, orchardists, artists, scientists, and merry-makers. To the execution of different purposes different ways of acting and reacting on the part of trees are important. Each classification may be equally sound when the difference of ends is borne in mind. (p. 88)
G: If my interpretation is correct, you mean to say that games and videogames need not be games alone?
S: Exactly. A person who fits in the definition of “woman” may also fit in the definitions of “mother,” “sister,” “criminal,” “politician,” and “Buddhist.” While the ad hoc hierarchy of these varying definitions depends on the observer, there is no denying that some end up being more often used than some others. Borrowing one more example from Frasca (2007), one of the main reasons “we call Chess a game [is that] there are not many other possible uses for it” (p. 62). Many things fit in many definitions at one time, and a conflict materializes only when two applied definitions contradict. You really cannot play cricket and football at the same time, to use Mary Midgley’s (1974, p. 250) case in point. More detailed investigations of that philosophical issue must be left for a longer dialogue, nonetheless.
G: It’s getting late, indeed. And I didn’t even notice the electricity is back. [Putting out the candle.] But before returning to my more sensible activities, I’d like to hear you phrase the final definition.
S: Have you not paid attention? We have been defining the videogame for like twenty pages by now.
G: Yes, but I don’t recall you providing a clear-cut definition.
S: Why not, then. This could be a proper place for a recap. Firstly, videogames evaluate the player’s performance.
G: Things that evaluate performance.
S: Secondly, videogames are artifacts.
G: Artifacts that evaluate performance.
S: Nothing more and nothing less. Would you say this contributes to the discussion of how the things we call videogames are different from other ludic phenomena, and especially from those we call games?
G: While I do believe that our scrutiny has observed a couple of significant differences between all those things, perhaps a more important outcome is the verification that even the most critical differences are, in the end, rather marginal.
S: Glad to hear it.
G: One last thing.
G: Was your intention really to submit this thesis in dialogue form, just like that Bernard Suits documented the discussion between you and my forefather? I’m not sure if it’d be a good idea.
S: Do you want your name to be changed in the text?
G: I was rather thinking about how academia will respond to that kind of formatting.
S: But Socratic dialogue has been employed in academic deliberation at least from Plato to our times! This concerns especially the legal scholars whose texts commonly contain exercises that can be worked through Socratically (Jackson, 2007). Furthermore, we must not forget Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Rand, to mention a successful few, whose literary fiction serves primarily the function of presenting their scholarly views. In short, it is my belief that the dialogue form, as a written discourse (which should not be directly equated with literary fiction), does have several rhetorical strengths that have hitherto been overlooked by scholars simply because of their categorical preconceptions of academic standards (for discussion see Nelson, 1949; Seeskin, 1987; Carroll, 1992; Mikkonen, 2013; for examples see Fuller & Jenkins, 1995; Berger, 2009; Rockwell & Kee, 2011; Sakellariadis, 2012; cf. Areeda, 1996). While it must be stressed that the efficiency of this dialogue rhetoric depends highly on the subject matter, one must not neglect its use when there is a call for it, in game and videogame research in particular.
G: I fully concur. Every scientific publication should be seen more like a stand-alone thought-stimulator than an argument from an individual person; however, I can’t see how Socratic dialogue and literary fiction would have any particular relation to game and videogame research.
S: They relate to game and videogame research in particular because both of those forms, when academically employed, become part of the continuously evolving cultural ludification, which functions here as an umbrella term for all the emerging types of gamification and playful amendment (cf. Raessens, 2006). “Work,” “leisure,” “education,” and “entertainment” are more and more difficult to separate in today’s society (compare Huizinga, 1950; Ehrmann, 1968; Stevens, 1978; Taylor, 2006; Kirkpatrick, 2013), and with that fact in mind, we should also be ready to consider the possible effects that the phenomenon has on our own work environment. If Socratic dialogue and literary fiction are forms of cultural ludification in the academic domain, the discussion of their application must be pioneered by game and videogame researchers.
G: You make it sound like scholars might soon persuade each other via videogames.
S: Persuasive videogames! I am afraid we will have to wait a few more decades before those gain academic approval.
S: Let me see. I first submitted this article to the FDG Conference in late 2012. It got rejected in January 2013. A couple of months after that I submitted it to the journal Games & Culture. The peer-review process took fifteen months, and the article got rejected one day before June 2014. Four days later, it was the turn of this journal, Game Studies. While I do not yet know the final day of publication, it is probably out by now as you are reading this. In the meantime, the article was also presented in Philosophy of Computer Games Conference ’13, which produced major conceptual updates due to the fruitful discussions that are still accessible in the web.
G: What was that supposed to mean? Are you criticizing the academic processes of publication?
S: Of course not! Or, well, I honestly do not know. It is certainly sometimes painful to wait years simply to get your thing out, but there is plenty of good in it too. I am, for instance, in great debt for all those (more than ten) anonymous peer-reviewers who sacrificed their valuable time to make this dialogue worthwhile.
G: G: Hmm… Now that you say it, this conversation does look somewhat different from the one we originally had three or four years ago.
S: I confess; I had to edit some of your lines too. But there were these other people as well —Pippin Barr, Jukka Mikkonen, Christopher Nguyen, and Jonas Linderoth—who saw that you did not always make sense. So I would say that you look much smarter now, which is a good thing, right?
G: You made me look smarter? Ha!
S: You still do not get it. This science stuff, it is not about you or me, individuals. It is a process in which individuals participate. And we should both be glad to have been part of that.
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