February 6, 2004

“This is not a game”

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:11 am

“This is not a game” is what some hypertext fiction authors began to say of their work in the late 1980s. As Stuart Moulthrop notes in our interview at The Iowa Review Web, they said this to differentiate themselves from the work coming out of the interactive fiction community, and the comparison wasn’t meant to be neutral.

“This is not a game” is a slogan of alternate reality gaming. As Jane McGonigal tells us in her “‘This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play” (pdf, html) gameness is denied in these experiences that are made up of elements found on far-flung web servers, on voicemail systems, and even on bathroom walls. For the Cloudmakers — formed to solve the mysteries of The Beast, the promotional game for the movie A.I. — this denial may have been a vital ingredient in the belief of some players that their group was also suited to solving the mysteries of the September 11th attacks.

“This is not a game” is also what some people say when confronted by The Sims, which others view as one of the most popular games of all time. It’s not a game because it doesn’t fit with some game definitions. (Is there, for example, a “winning state” toward which players of The Sims are progressing?) Rather, it’s a resource-allocation simulation focused on architecture, interior decorating, and suburban life.

“This is not a game” has been said of projects like Facade by those who would prefer these projects be called interactive drama, or cyberdrama, or… For some of these folks, The Sims might not be a game because it’s a novel generating machine, rather than because it’s a resource allocation simulation. Yet, at the same time, Facade is in the running for a major game award.

I think I’m coming to the conclusion that I don’t really care what is a game and what isn’t. I’m interested in things that are playable — as are all the works I’ve discussed here. That’s why Pat and I included things like Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv’s Text Rain in First Person. That’s why my interests also include “instrumental texts” and “textual instruments” (pdf, html w/o images).

5 Responses to ““This is not a game””

  1. andrew Says:

    Or, if you must go with some definition of “what is a game”, go with a model that is flexible and gradated. For example, of the current crop, I find Jesper Juul’s method of classifying “borderline games” the most expressive (found here, scroll down to “the game diagram”).

    But generally speaking, Noah, I agree with you; a broader term like playable is more inclusive, and still usefully descriptive. To get more specific, when desired, one could add similarly general qualifiers, such as “goal-oriented”, “with a winnable state”, “network-distributed”, “high/low local/global agency”.

    In other words, describe an interactive experience using more abstract characteristics, using several words, instead of relying on a single term with baggage, such as “game”. It’s more cumbersome, but less fence-put-upping, I think.

  2. michael Says:

    Your use of the word “playable” reminds me of a talk at Level Up last November on videogame art. In VideogameArt: Remixing, Reworking and Other Interventions, Grethe Mitchell and Andy Clarke made the distinction between game art and playable art, where game art explicitly riffs in some way on game culture, perhaps using recognizable game imagery, or commenting on game interaction approaches or game culture. Game art can be interactive, like Body Condon’s Adam Killer, or non-interactive like Jon Haddock’s Screen Shots. Playable art is interactive art that may make use of game-like interaction approaches, but isn’t necessarily commenting on games, such as the Toshio Iwai’s installation work. For the purposes of their paper, they exclude playable art and commercial videogames from the discussion of game art:

    This is a clear parallel between our exclusion of playable art and our exclusion of commercial videogames. In the same way that playable art can, for the most part, be understood solely within the context of art history and contemporary art practice, so commercial videogames can be understood solely within the context of videogame history and contemporary practice in videogame production.

    However, you can imagine appropriating the term playable art to additionally include games and interactive works that comment on games.

    Noah, is “playable” here a synonym for “interactive” (causing regress into the “what’s interactivity?” question). Perhaps it’s useful to separate interactivity and the player experience evoked by interactivity, and try to locate “playable” as a specific kind (or configuration) of player experience?

    It seems like the heart of “this is not a game” is an appeal to interactive experiences with the kind of serious content (complex themes, rich emotion, etc.) not typically found in games. What happens to this distinction as games (hopefully) begin tackling such content?

    Perhaps “this is not a game” is making a distinction between commercial games and non-commercial/experimental games, the same distinction that exists in commercial/popular art vs. fine/high art.

  3. noah Says:

    Andrew, it’s certainly true that there are more nuanced definitions of games — but I’d hate to see the concept of game become overly diluted in our discussions. Sometimes saying “this is not a game” probably makes sense. And yet I want to include some of those “not game” things in my area of interest.

    I think I’m looking for a way to express the fact that I’m interested in Tetris and Text Rain, Facade and The Sims, Victory Garden and Ad Verbum. Michael, yes, in Mitchell and Clarke’s terms I guess this encompasses “playable art” and “commercial videogames” — but I suspect having those as two categories creates a pernicious division. (One that, for example, folks like Gonzalo Frasca and Eric Zimmerman seem to be dedicated to confounding.)

    Maybe “playable” could be seen as synonymous with “interactive” by some — but it does seem at least marginally narrower and less open to radically differing interpretations of its meaning. I haven’t thought about this enough to offer a definition of what I mean, however. If a piece of media isn’t actually interactive (in Michael’s sense) but the person having the experience thinks it is, can it still be playable? I admit I’m less interested in such questions than I might be.

    Of course, “game” — not playable — is the word that’s in the First Person subtitle. And, since writing this post, I’ve been thinking about another word that’s in the subtitle (which also frequents the pages of GTxA): “story.”

    Clearly, “story” also isn’t a good category for what I’m interested in or what’s included the FP project. The text in Text Rain is a poem, after all. The text in Bill Seaman’s World Generator is individual words or phrases. And yet “text” isn’t the right word either — when Will Wright talks about “story recognition” he’s not talking about text (or, at least not that kind of text). Is “literary” perhaps the word I’m after? (Humanists, help me out here.)

    Following Andrew’s sensible suggestion of using more than one word, I find myself with a phrase that I think has a nice ring to it, potentially: “playable literary” experiences.

  4. ian Says:

    As some of you already know well, I too am not very interested in what is a game and what isn’t. So recently I’ve been insisting on a broad understanding of games in talks and lectures. Inevitably, this position invokes audience questions from other fields, which bring a much needed humanist perspective to games.

    Noah — Lately, I’ve gone back to using the word “artifact.” I like talking about games — or talking about talking about games — in an historical, cultural, human-productive, archaeological, etc. context. This understanding also skirts around all the ludological and poststructural baggage of terms like “game” and “text” — and it accomodates story, art, play, history, and other culturally “functional” activities. So, lately I’ve been talking about games as “discursive cultural artifacts.” Not sure if it’s helpful or not. No matter, I think we all needn’t feel so nervous about using the terms that make sense to us. It’ll all come out in the wash.

    On another note, if I remember right Jane McGonigal was using the “this is not a game” riff to expose the slippage between the game world and the real world (clearly a subject of great interest to me), specifically denying that immersive games lead to escapist behavior. I’m pretty sure we’re not talking about this issue anymore in this thread, which is fine, but I thought it was worth noting.

    Finally, there is a particularly, well, interesting comment thread on what is a game on WCG right now, one which highlights my personal frustration with this process. I’ll trackback this entry later and create a new post about it.

  5. Matt Says:

    Game/Not-game == Sport/Art ?

    The distinctions and debates seem similar (e.g. “is figure skating a legitimate Sport?”).

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