As I ponder this question, (“What is a video game?“) my mind can’t help but go back and pose it to a teenage me. Me, around 1989, with Atari histories, Nintendo fancies, and PC realities. The conversation goes something like this.
2015: So, me from 1989, what is a video game?
1989: (thinks…stares contently) Any game that’s played on a screen.
2015: Alright, good start. Does it matter if you’re playing on your Nintendo or the computer?
1989: I guess not, though I tend to call games I play on the computer “computer games,” but I guess they’re the same. All played electronically.
2015: Okay. (pauses) So what about that typing tutor program your Mom bought. Is that a video game?
1989: Uh…no… (sneers)
2015: But it’s like a game, isn’t it? You play it to reach certain goals and you are rewarded for reaching them, right?
1989: Well, yeah…but…but it’s not, like…fun.
2015: Ah, kind of like those math and science “games” they make you “play” in school? Those aren’t fun, right?
1989: Yeah. Video games should be fun.
2015: But…when you think about it, aren’t those games kinda of fun in a way? Each offers you the chance of winning…well, winning in the sense of learning and improvement.
1989: Maybe…but they are still, like…work.
2015: True. But you also have to work at getting through a level in Super Mario 3. You have to learn what to do in order to beat the level, and sometimes doing so takes time and effort. That’s work, isn’t it.
1989: Okay…sure. (thinks) But people make me play those stupid math and typing games. Nobody makes me play video games. I play them because I want to.
2015: Ah, now there’s something! So you’re saying that a “video game” is something you play on your own time. A leisure activity, like watching a movie or reading a book. Something you do because it’s both pleasurable and passes the time?
2015: Um…like you said, video games are fun activities played on a screen.
1989: Oh, okay. Sure. But…it’s not like they’re fun all the time. Sometimes they’re pretty frustrating. Even Super Mario 3…even though it’s totally cute!
2015: So video games are cute?
1989: Uh, no. I mean, yeah, some of them are cute. But not all of them.
2015: Well okay. Let’s see if we can sum things up. You’ve defined “video games” as fun and sometimes cute leisure activities played on a screen…electronically. Sound about right?
1989: What? No! I mean…yeah but…
2015: But what?
1989: Okay, look, stupid future me, A video game is just that, a “video” “game”– a game that’s made up of moving images that are transmitted electronically on a screen…
2015: Yes. Go on…
1989: And most of the time, in a video game, you have a goal to reach and you get points for reaching that goal.
2015: Well, we went over that alrea—
1989: Gaa! Just let me finish! (stares hard, talks slowly) But sometimes, there is no goal…well, like, no final goal. Like in Space Invaders. You can play that game for forever it seems, and all that happens is the invaders move faster and faster until it’s impossible for you to advance.
2015: Interesting. So with some games, there is no end. And in some of those cases, the “end” comes when you reach the limits of your ability.
1989: Yeah. But, I guess you can always get better…if you want to.
2015: (thoughtful) So video games, and in essence the act of gaming, is about bettering oneself?
1989: Sometimes. But not always. Like I said, sometime I play because I just want to play.
2015: Well sure. We all need to escape from the boring tasks of everyday life. And video games allow us to do that. To become someone else for awhile.
1989: Now you’re sounding weird! I don’t want to be Mario!
2015: No, no…that’s not what I mean. Goodness, (exasperated) this is a lot harder than I expected.
1989: What do you mean?
2015: Well, for some reason I thought it would be easier to define a video game with a 1989 mindset because games and gaming…well…seemed so much simpler then. But that’s not really the case at all.
1989: You callin’ me simple?
2015: Holy cow, you stup—urgh, no! But look, you can’t even fathom what video games are to become.
1989: (more sneering) And what do they become?
2015: They become…ubiquitous. And integrated. And popular. They become…a lifestyle.
1989: Is that right? Well guess what 2015, they’re pretty popular now! One of our neighbors just got a brand new Sega Genesis! It’s really cool. Though I still like the NES because it has Super Mario games, and our old Atari is still kicking, and I have a bunch of computer games…
2015: That’s all well and good, (sigh) but it still doesn’t answer the question: “what is a video game?”
1989: Did you ever stop and think that maybe there is no definition for them? That question is like asking “what is a movie?” or “what is a book?” It’s easy enough to call them what they are literally – a story told with moving images on a screen, a story printed onto paper and bound. But…wait… (ponders)
1989: What if that’s it? What if video games are just another way of storytelling…and gaming is simply the act of accessing those stories?
2015: (brightens) Yeah…yeah! Now you’re talking! Oh…but…no. What about those typing and math games? Not much storytelling going on there.
1989: Are you kidding?! (excited) My math teacher could go on and on about the story of math – how it has built and destroyed societies. How it contributes to our everyday lives in ways large and small! And as for typing…well, that’s the story of language, by association. It…all of it…math games, science games, typing games, history games…all tell the story of us, of people, of humanity! And video games that we play for fun – the cute ones, the gory ones, the fast ones, the slow ones – they all tell stories. Even Space Invaders, right? You have to save the world from alien invaders. It’s basic, but a story nonetheless.
2015: Wow, 1989…that’s some grandiose thinking, but you’re definitely onto something. Y’know, you might just have a future with these video games? (smiles)
1989: Hmmm, I don’t know about that…
2015: You do remember who you’re talking do, don’t you? Look…never mind. I think we might have come up with something of an answer. Question: “what is a video game?” Answer: “A video game is an avenue for telling and accessing a story.” Does that sound about right?
1989: Yeah, I like it. But…it’s probably one definition. Only one of many, as there are lots of people who play video games. It’s our definition, for the moment anyway. It could change.
2015: Oh sure, but change is just part of being human. If video games reflect our humanity, and by extension, our abilities, then change is natural, if, at times, unwanted or unexpected.
1989: Um, okay. Yeah. So you’re saying that video games are going to change in the future?
2015: Well…at the risk of incurring a further paradoxical state than we’re already in now, let’s just say…yes. Big time.
1989: That’s cool. …how?
2015: Paradox, remember? You’re going to like what’s to come, ’nuff said.