With casual and “self-help” games making up a large percentage of the digital entertainment market today, gamers and game journalists sometimes question whether certain titles are games at all. Can we really consider, for example, Brain Age to be in the same category as Super Mario Bros? To answer this question, one must answer another question first: what makes a video game a video game?
For something to be a video game, it must match three requirements. First, it must be digital. The computer is a playing field that can be restructured and reprogrammed into an infinite amount of configurations and the ways the player can interact with the environment are, again, potentially infinite. That interaction is the second of the three requirements, for if the player couldn’t interact with the software, then it would be dead weight on the computer – hard drive space that cannot be used or manipulated. However, interactivity isn’t a quality unique to video games. Perhaps the most important aspect of what makes a video game a video game is this: it must compel the player to master its mechanics.
I know that this is still a broad definition, and could still encompass many computer programs that aren’t intended to be games. However, a program like Microsoft Word wouldn’t be considered a game because it doesn’t compel the user to master its mechanics – the user brings their own motivation to Word and uses it as a tool. The player of a video game must be playing the game for the sake of doing so. Any other motivations behind the player’s interaction turn the game into a utility.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's end-game scoreboard
Keep in mind though, that in art, one must separate the creator’s intention from the piece and look at it objectively. If Microsoft Word compels somebody to master its features without that person wanting to use it for something else beforehand, who am I to say that Word isn’t a game to that person? It may very well be. On the other hand, a student may use a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to prove that they can get a higher score than their friends to gain social acceptance. In this instance, the game turns into a tool, even though the creators meant for it to be a game. However, we can question the game’s usefulness as a tool and the tool’s usefulness as a game, and perhaps they are better at their creator-intended roles.
Is Half-Life 2's crowbar better as a tool or a weapon?
While a weapon can be used as a tool and vice versa, the same is true less often for software. The digital plane allows for an infinite degree of customization. Environments that we could previously only imagine come to life in the realm of the computer, allowing video games to explore areas that can’t be found (or found easily) outdoors.
The original Metroid didn't offer much motive or direction, yet players were enticed by the ability to explore and find new weapons and areas
Exploration of the game’s features is central to the nature of the video game. A game cannot be a game unless somebody is interacting with it – or else it’s just a piece of plastic, or megabytes taking up a hard drive. Interactivity (defined in my RTF textbook as communication that uses feedback to modify a message as it is presented) makes a game breathe and come to life. The way interactivity is presented makes the game what it is and defines our experience with the game.
Game mechanics are methods of interacting with games. Often, smaller games have one mechanic, as is the case with one-button jumper Canabalt. In larger, big-budget titles like GTA IV, multiple mechanics are combined as parts of the whole. Often, game mechanics stand out as purchasing points for games – Half-Life 2’s gravity gun, Red Faction: Guerilla’s realistically destructible buildings, or even Mass Effect’s branching story lines, which are based on the player’s narrative choices. The Sims combined mechanics of house-building and NPC management to huge success.
As in The Sims, video games do not have to have rigidly defined goals, or any goals at all. Game-defined goals are traditionally used to get players to use the game’s mechanics, as is the case in Space Invaders, Mario, or any game that presents an objective to reach. A few games offer no more reason to use the mechanics provided other than the fulfillment that comes out of doing so. When a person is using the presented mechanics for the sake of doing so, they are then playing the game.
According to Wikipedia, in Flower "it is impossible for the player to lose a level or even lose any progress. The game features no enemies, hit points, or time limits."
Game design is the art of arranging game mechanics in a way that compels the player to use them. We may judge a game based on its ability to make us care about our interactions with it – a bad game is one that inspires apathy or ignorance towards its mechanics. Whether the game presents cut-scenes, an immersive game world, a slide show or some expositional text does not matter, as long as the player wants to play the game. Narrative explanation for game mechanics isn’t even necessary, as a game like Super Mario Bros. can be played without the player knowing anything about the story. Alone, the game mechanics are still engaging.
Even as games get more complex and story-oriented, the focus will still be on gameplay. The question people should be asking about narrative-heavy games is “does the story compel me to play?” After all, narrative is just another way to get the player to use the game’s mechanics.
In Mass Effect, narrative interaction was the most important mechanic
Fancy graphics are a good way to get people to buy a game today, just like they were a good way to get people to go see Avatar. But whether or not a game – or that movie – will stand the test of time depends on the substance that lies beneath the glitter. Good design, incorporating digital elements of interactivity, is what will immortalize a game.
Will the future remember Super Mario Bros, Brain Age or both as games then? One could argue that both will be. Brain Age, which says that it will keep your mind fresh, might be considered a tool, but the promise that your mind will keep fresh is presented within the game itself, which makes that promise a motivation for the player to use the mechanics. Simply, the game compels the player to play the game, and that’s all anybody asked from a video game anyway.