What Makes a Game a “Game”?

While browsing through some free indie titles for the PC today, I stumbled across a little game that intrigued me. Why? Because the gameplay is wonderfully simplistic and bare bones. There’s no camera controls, no CG animation, no shooting, no weapons, no inventory. Hell, there aren’t even any sounds. All you do is look at a picture, read the text beneath it, and click on one of the options to continue the story.

It’s called Rat Chaos, and it’s a tiny game not unlike a choose-your-own-adventure book. From the jumbled and odd writing, you discover you’re a captain on a space station full of rats with multiple choices and consequences before you. Will you return to your quarters for your chicken dinner? Will you construct a pink box? Will you unleash rat chaos?

Half the time, I found myself not even sure of what was going on, but still totally engrossed in it. I would click along, finish the story branch, then start over again to see what happened with the other options, eventually exhausting all the avenues the game had. I laughed. I snorted. I gave my screen more than one puzzled look. And I loved every second of it. It’s nothing if not a fascinating little game.

But by today’s standards, would others consider it a game? Where is the online multiplayer? Is there loot? Where are the cell shaded graphics?

It led me to wonder this…what exactly makes a game a “game”? What sort of qualifications must one meet for their work to be considered a game?

Another great example of a fantastic gaming experience that barely meets the conventions of other titles in the industry is the PC exclusive Dear Esther, a visual tour de force that charges you with exploring an island and discovering its secrets while being treated to well written prose that exposes the history of the place and details the story in an eery and saddening way. There are no creatures, no NPCs, no weapons, and not even any items to pick up. It’s just you and this island, and a sense of isolation that leaves you both hollow and motivated. What is there to find here? What secrets are there to uncover?

It’s somewhat similar to the popular adventure series Myst; however, there are no puzzles or interactions with the world other than merely experiencing and existing within it. And that’s the beauty of it; graphically, the game is amazing, with well-realized and designed environments detailed enough to feel alive. It’s a game that doesn’t just treat you to how good it looks; it forces you to appreciate and take notice of the world around you. It’s simple, and it’s breathtaking.

But is it a game, if it doesn’t engage you any further than allowing you to move throughout an environment?

Obviously, this is an entirely subjective and opinion-based question. But it’s an interesting one nonetheless. What makes a game a “game”? What must a product meet in order to be considered playable?

My thought: what makes a game different from other types of visual media is that it is based on its interaction with the game’s world and universe, no matter how simplistic that might be. That interaction could be anywhere from moving through frantic, fast-paced levels in a shooter as you blast enemies and run to the next source of cover to reading a strange section of text and clicking on your response to it. Either way, it comes down to my decision of how to interact with what’s been given to me.

We should remember, of course, that games are still relatively young, compared to other sources of entertainment that have existed long before games came to be. As gaming evolves and changes, so too will the climate surrounding it and the questions we ask. But at the end of the day, if it’s the product of a developer’s vision that allows me to pull myself from this mundane world and interact firsthand with something entirely different that allows me to bend the rules of reality and escape into another universe, that’s what makes it a game.