Editor's note: Forget whether games are art, Dennis wants to know whether games are, well, games. How do we define the practice of manipulating digital avatars in virtual worlds? What criteria do we use? Dennis suggests that conditions of victory and defeat ultimately define "game," though, I'm not so sure I agree. But can this conversation equip us with the terminology to finally discuss games as art? -Rob


Sleep Is DeathA recent article on Crispy Gamer discussed the inadequacies of the word "game." In the comments section of this article, readers provide evidence of this deficiency in the fact that gamers use the word to describe Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death — "game" doesn't sufficiently describe Rohrer's work.

"Game" is necessarily vague because it stands for a broad swath of human experiences. The fact that we follow up the sentence "I am playing a game" with the question "what kind of game?" is no failure on behalf of the word. Unless someone specifically refers to this meta view when he uses the word, he uses it improperly. It requires modifiers to have any meaning outside of this one — like "board," "card," "dice," "video," "altered reality," etc. The language is clear, and adequate, if used properly.

In their book "Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals," Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen suggest that Sim City may not be a game because it lacks a victory condition. I think this is very reasonable and defensible argument. One of the things we see when we look at a game are victory conditions, — positive or negative, temporary or permanent — which are a result of player interaction.

 

A simple game tends to have very defined, permanent victory conditions. Either you clear the deck in solitaire or you don't, and then the game is over and it's time to play another round. One of us puts the other in checkmate or we agree to call it a draw, and then the game is over and it's time to set the pieces up again.

More complex games can have either partial or temporary conditions related to victory. In World of Warcraft, an attempted raid that wipes out the entire party is a temporary condition of loss. We attempted a goal, and we failed it in epic fashion — thank you, Leeroy. That we can immediately dust ourselves off and get back up to try again is irrelevant in terms of briefly suffering a loss — a cost associated with failure. In this case, it is the hours spent organizing the raid and then carrying it out without achieving the desired end. We lost time.

Sometimes the victory conditions may be more vague but still present. Sid Meier's Pirates! has a temporary fail state wherein the player loses his ship and money but can gain them back over time. The setback is real and avoidable if one does not fail at certain challenges.

Farmville has a competition between players in regards to who has the biggest and best farm, which facilitates winners and losers and means that victory conditions exist. They may be constantly in flux, but they are still present.

Passage

Passage contains no victory conditions of any sort. The scoring mechanic is a metaphor for life's endeavors — some of which may bear fruit but many of which will not. No matter what we do, the game ends in five minutes with our death; therefore, what may look like a victory condition is not because it is predetermined. We die in Super Mario Bros. as well, but we have some control over it. Our goal is not to die, hence that is a temporary victory condition.

I personally think that calling Passage a game is doing it a disservice. It is not played, but experienced. It is not a game, but a work of digital art. And I think it is brilliant. More on why, precisely, in a moment.


Game|Life posted an article about Rohrer's Sleep is Death, which mostly takes the form of a conversation between John Mix Meyer and Gus Mastrapa. The article describes this work alternately as "an indie game" or "a multiplayer-storytelling game." To quote from the article:

One person takes the role of “controller,” who steers the story and creates the assets the story will use. The other person, known as the “player,” can either go along with the story the controller has set up or try to subvert it to their own intentions. The controller and the player take turns performing their actions, with each having a 30-second time limit per turn.

This, also, is not a game. There is no goal other than to interact with digital art and tell a story. Would we consider two people taking a piece of paper, marking it out into squares, and treating each square as a cell in a cartoon, drawing the pictures communally to tell a story, a "game"? I certainly would not. I would call it "telling a story."

Mastrapa suggests that the mechanic of players taking turns transforms Sleep is Death into a "game." Perhaps if the time limits behind those turns eventually led to one player being cast out of the experience then it might be fairly considered a "game mechanic." Either do your part to contribute in a meaningful way to the story in 30 seconds before your partner's turn rolls around, or get kicked out of the experience. That sounds like a victory condition — but this isn't how the software works.

View Shannon Galvin's contribution on the Sleep is Death website. Galvin was a concept artist and 3D modeler for Maxis, and he developed his own set of resources for Rohrer's new software. When you view Shannon's work, you are viewing a slide show of a digital story being told — not footage of a game being played.

I must admit that when the kitchen scene suddenly transforms into an alien environment, the sense of being in an old-school adventure game is palpable, but similar form does not mean equivalency. What we witness is the manipulation of a set of programmed "rules" to tell a tale. Sleep is Death is more appropriately compared to Second Life in this sense, which is decidedly not a game either.

Sleep Is Death

It would be easy to go with Mastrapa's allusion to Dungeons and Dragons, if we consider the controller in Sleep is Death the "dungeon master" and the second player the "player character," but no mechanics operate under the hood in Shannon's story. We have no virtual die roll to determine whether the the player picks up the knife from the kitchen table or whether the rock successfully rolls into place to block the cave entrance. Role-playing games are more than just story, whether we refer to the tabletop or video incarnations of the genre.

A more appropriate metaphor would be Legos or Erector sets. We "play with" Legos to construct an object, but we do not "play" Legos. We do not win or lose at Legos, we simply interact with them to whatever end we feel is appropriate. We can "play with" the programming and assets of Sleep is Death to create a story, but we do not "play" it in any recognizable sense of the word.

Due to Rohrer's work, I have to look back at Sim City and revisit the question begged by Zimmerman and Salen. Is it a game? I find it difficult to dismiss Sim City because I do feel there are temporary conditions of victory when one builds a large and vibrant city…but is this really winning?

The "goal" of the game is to simulate city planning. Technically, one accomplishes that goal regardless of whether the city succeeds or fails…and a player may voluntarily destroy his own city by unleashing natural disasters. If we argue that a large and vibrant city is a victory condition, then is destroying that city a failure condition, even if it is at the will of the player?

Sim City 2000

Professor Janet H. Murray, Ph.D., of the Georgia Institute of Technology, says that if we dismiss Sim City as a game that many of the same arguments also would apply to The Sims, and:

If you're going to exclude one of the most popular games of all time…then it's because "game" is too narrow a word. And I think that we'll start to think about games the same way we think about movies — as a sort of meta-category where there are a lot of different categories. I think there are things that are emerging that are new forms, and it challenges the boundaries of what we're used to thinking of as games.

Note the circuitous logic that Murray employs. Because we popularly consider The Sims a game, it must be a game? When we categorize things, we do so by placing each item into a definition which most describes that object. If we have an object that does not fit prior existing categorizations, then and only then do we make a new one.

She later says:

I think these are just all new artifacts in the world, and we have more artifacts than we have categories.

We do have a category to describe what The Sims and Sim City are: simulation. Why doesn't that word work for us? It is because we package and advertise these two pieces of software as games? Is this, then, a true description or merely a convenience used by marketers and publishers because the average user lacks the sophistication to consider otherwise?


I said earlier that I thought Passage was brilliant. I feel the same way about Sleep is Death because it too transcends the notion of "video games." They force us to rethink how we use that term and even to look back at other titles which may have been inappropriately labeled.

The genius of Rohrer's work is that it takes the notion that anything with interactivity and digital graphics is automatically a "game" and dumps that idea straight on its head. The fact that Rohrer himself identifies Sleep is Death as a game is irrelevant; if Rohrer is poised to question the current terminology, he doesn't need deliberate intentions.

Even the best artists often fail to see the repercussions and ramifications of their work in advance, and in their own times they are limited to the current discourse that surrounds them. The theorists that follow their work take on the task of redefining the terminology and vocabulary to fit a new paradigm that truly revolutionary pieces shape whether they intend to or not.

Braid

The debate as to whether video games are art takes place because these sorts of conversations about the nature of the medium don't take place among gamers. Art has a critical language to employ in its analysis and discussion. We won't ever truly justify games as art until that critical language takes place in our own debates.

If interactivity is comprehension, then we need gamers who are also conversant in art to have this conversation. Right now, we have ivory-tower academics making these decisions for us, and they're not truly part of our culture, but observers from afar.

Rohrer's work gives us an opportunity to have that discussion — even if Passage and Sleep is Death aren't games. Discussing them may open the way to defining what a video game is, though, because having that conversation places us solidly on the path to constructing that critical language and thinking about what a game might be if it were art.

To wit: the day a piece of software that cannot be recognized as anything other than a video game makes us think deeply about our actual, human lives — and not just the virtual ones presented to us — the way Passage makes us think past digital representation itself (and therefore — in my mind — justifies Passage as art) will be the day that video games transcend their current definition and truly become art.