"Video Game" is a Bad Name for the Medium (Also Inside: RPGs)

There are a lot of entertainment media out there in the world today. Books, music, film, comics, you name it--if we've got technology to make it a communication medium, we've made it into one. As technology grows and changes, we'll create new ways of entertaining and enlightening ourselves, because that's what we've always done. It's in our nature, and right now, video gaming is one of the newest major communication mediums out there.

Somewhere, right now, one of the seven billion human beings who call Earth their home has just said "is this just a game to you?"

Or, maybe not.

Maybe they said "hey, it's just a game," or "I won't play your games," or "quit the games and start taking things seriously!"

Somewhere else, someone's having an argument about video games, and they're being shot down because "it's just a game. Stop taking things so seriously."

Do you see where I'm going with this?

There's a debate raging over on NeoGAF about this very topic (it should be noted that I'll be doing some liberal copying and pasting of my posts in that thread). Should gameplay be the defining element of the medium? "Well," some argue, "the medium is called video games, so... duh?" What if that's wrong? The other day, I wrote an article on STALKER to illustrate a point: games aren't necessarily games. If we assume that games must be about gameplay, we immediately limit our potential toolset of possible medium types.

Let's play a little game: try to define "video game" without using either word in the name as a definition. My own instinct is to say that video games are an interactive, computer-driven experience. That's about it. I almost included the word entertainment in there, but the military already has simulations, a subcategory of video games that are designed for training purpose, and we've also got educational games, not to mention flight simulators for pilot training, and stuff like that.

We call those Serious Games, which kinda misses the point, because they're not really games at all. Then, of course, you've got STALKER.

STALKER isn't fun.

I mean, I derive some satisfaction from playing it--indeed, I derive great satisfaction from playing it--but I don't... it's not fun. It is intense. It requires my attention and demands as much respect as it affords me, which is a great deal. Can a game not be fun?

Randy Smith is one of the greatest game developers of all time. The games he's worked on have influenced everything from Half-Life 2 to Assassin's Creed. Pick a major franchise released this generation, and chances, while not necessarily guaranteed, are fairly high that a game Randy Smith worked on influenced that game. He argues, in this Gamasutra article, that games don't necessarily need to be fun.

If a game is not fun, though... is it still a game?

I talk, quite frequently, about RPGs. It bothers me that people insist on naming practically everything under the sun an RPG. Except, like, when they don't. I've had people tell me that you need some form of progression system for a game to be an RPG--but they're unwilling to call God of War an RPG. I've had people tell me that the game needs to have a great story--but plenty of games have that! I've had people tell me a lot of things (including one guy who was adamant that RPGs needed a party and a bestiary), and many of them have been wrong.

Role-playing games are, at their core, games about role-play (not "playing a role," like an actor would, but improvising one--the core philosophy behind role-play). That's it. It's a freeing idea, but also a clarifying one.

Without silly limitations like stat systems and whatnot, you can create more interesting games. Perhaps you want to create a game that takes place at a party. Maybe it's an isometric game, or maybe it's in first person. The only goal you have in mind is that the player become whoever they want at the party, with the express goal of stealing an item. You can facilitate this in a lot of ways. It doesn't need to be an isometric, turn-based, party-driven game, but it certainly can be if you want to. Or, if you're not into thieving, maybe you'd like to build a game around a player role-playing as a teenager during his or her summer vacation, and instead of XP or anything like that, you build time units into everything, and those time units are a currency the player expends to perform various actions until the summer ends, and that's how the player role-plays.

As it stands, due to a mistake on the part of someone at Enix, a lot of people have a lot of very disparate ideas on what an RPG should be, even though the meaning is right there in the name. That's why games as disparate and unrelated as Diablo II, The Witcher, and Pokemon are all considered RPGs, even though The Witcher is the only true RPG I listed, because it's the only one that facilitates role-play.

Names, you see, are short-hand for ideas. That's why we have them. That's the entire point of having a language. When I say "RPG," you should immediately understand that I'm speaking about a specific type of game--one relating to role-play. Because of the aforementioned error, when I say "RPG," you might assume I mean a game like Chrono Cross, when I really mean a game like Planescape: Torment. Or, when I say "action RPG," and am referring to a game that's a cross between an action game like Devil May Cry and an RPG like Deus Ex (similar to the way that "action-adventure" is a hybrid of action and adventure games), you might assume I mean a game like Diablo II.

And so it is with games.

I think if we refer to the medium as "video games," we immediately inject a lot of intellectual baggage that comes with the idea of a "game," and, at the same time, we limit ourselves to things that are expressly entertainment forms. We get the idea that gameplay is key, and that everything else should fall by the wayside.

At its worst, you actually have people telling others that they shouldn't play video games, because the medium's all about gameplay, not story or anything else. In fact, it's this remark that lets people get away with bad storytelling in games so frequently--indeed, this idea might actually be responsible for terrible narratives in video games, since stories are inherently selfish and must be given priority whenever they are included in anything.

But I'm getting off track.

What if I want to make a... thing. I want to tell a story, but I want to use the unique strengths of the medium we call the video game--that is, interactivity--and tell a story that way. Most people would be aghast at the thought of a video game with little focus on gameplay, but... Gameplay isn't necessarily important. Sometimes, maybe the gameplay isn't the be-all, end-all goal of the medium. It's a part--a defining element--but that's a bit like being shocked at the idea of a film that uses its cinematics to tell a story, rather than be all about the moving pictures, or a novel that tells a story, rather than be entirely about the words. Games can be a medium--a means to an end, and not an end of their own.

Words are powerful. They exist to express ideas, and maybe, just maybe, by calling our virtualized electronic experiences "games," we've given them a connotation that they really shouldn't have. Maybe we've put ourselves in a box we don't need to be in. Maybe "video games," are really just a subset or an element of something a lot larger.

Video games, I think, need a new name. They can be more than just games to be played. They can be serious, enlightening us every bit as much as good novels or films. They can train us. They can allow us to explore new worlds. They can heal us. They can change us. They can make us better.

They don't have to just be games. They can be any kind of virtual experience we want them to be.