In the wake of claims on game blogs and Twitter that works like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia aren’t “really” games, I’ve been thinking lately about contested definitions of the word “game”, and about what it means to say that something doesn’t “count” as a game — that is, to label it a “non-game”.
The claim that something “isn’t a game” is, on its face, a neutral — if not objective — statement. The person making the claim usually has a fairly precise definition of what constitutes a game, whether that includes well-defined objectives and win/loss conditions, player decision-making, or any of a number of criteria that have been developed to distinguish games from not-games. These writers present their definitions as useful frameworks for talking about and understanding games.
I do think these frameworks are “useful”, but I their utility is political rather than interpretive. The label “non-game” (the true meaning of language like “interactive story,” “electronic art,” etc.) legitimates not taking certain game-like works seriously. Game critics are ostensibly interested in games. If a game critic deems something a non-game, it means that it doesn’t merit their attention. After all, we have critics of art and literature already, and the game critic might claim that such works more appropriately fall under their domains.
This is the intended effect of restrictive models that define certain works out of consideration as games. But deploying the label also says a lot about the person doing the labeling. When a critic calls something a non-game, they expose their assumptions about what a game is or should do.
For those of us who grew up with games, our understandings of games have been informed by the games we’ve encountered and experienced. Because games culture has historically been dominated by a very narrow segment of the population (straight white men), this means that in most cases, we’ve formed our understandings of what games are from a very narrow range of all possible authors and stories. The closer a game is to our past experiences of games, the more likely we are to recognize it as such. Conversely, games that fall considerably outside of our experiences in some way may not “feel” as much like games.
So there are two processes at work in the creation of the “non-game” label: first, definitions and understandings of games are informed by experiences, which are informed by the historical straight white maleness of game culture. This leads people to expect certain things out of games, whether they can recognize these expectations or not. Second, definitions are built on these experiences, reproducing expectations of what a game should be. When we consider that for many of us, the games we experienced growing up were produced almost exclusively by the powerful, it becomes clear that formalizing our experiences into definitions only serves to define marginalized authors out of game creation, unless they stick closely to the familiar and avoid putting themselves into their games at all.
So the label “non-game”, far from a neutral classification or harmless matter of definition, is a political weapon that repels nontraditional authors from membership in the community of game makers. It consigns those who wish to bring underrepresented experiences and identities into games to the limbo of “electronic art”. And ultimately, it works against the growth of games as a medium, by reinscribing what has been true of games in the past as what must be, always and everywhere.