Can you remember the first video game you played that stretched the definition of the term? I can, it was in 2009 the first time I played Flower. I remember trying to describe it to my peers, “It’s like a video game, but you can only control the wind and move a flower petal. There’s no challenge! You just float. I don’t know, man. It was weird.” For the first time, I didn’t have the proper vocabulary to describe something I had played, and wasn’t sure if it was a video game or not. All I knew was that it felt different, and the term video game has felt nebulous ever since.
An increased amount of intellectual discussion, and actual criticism, has increased within the gaming community, as of late. Sociopolitical issues such as homophobia, trans-phobia, misogyny, sexism and violence have been discussed with a fervor not quite present in other media. Developers are even using video games to explore these issues through game-play. However, a smaller contingency of the gaming community disagrees with thought-provoking discussions, or implementation of mechanics that explore these issues, and makes the moot point, “they’re just video games,” frequently. Their use of the term video game is dismissive, and I can only infer that they believe video games are incapable of more than entertaining, which is incorrect (more on that later). The problem isn’t with the term video game, but the connotation of the term and how it is used colloquially. That small contingency’s definition of video game hasn’t evolved, along with Merriam-Websters’, and therein lies the problem.
Google defines play as, “engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.” The problem with this definition is the preconceived notion that you can only play for enjoyment. Conversely, when I read, it is for various reasons: entertainment, enjoyment and to gain an understanding of information. Similarly, reading doesn’t have to be enjoyable. I would argue that play can be used to achieve the same levels of understanding, the same as reading. Playing video games definitely isn’t always enjoyable. In fact, there is nothing in the Grand Theft Auto V torture scene that makes me feel one iota of joy, but I did understand its viewpoint on torture. Video games have changed the common meaning of play to resemble read more closely, but a double standard still exists. Isn’t play a verb, just the same as read? Why can’t the word play and read share the same characteristics? Why can’t playing encompass more than enjoyment? These are the things my mind tirelessly wonders. The only explanation that I can ascertain is that the medium is young, and I am currently watching it grow, along with the vocabulary used to describe it.
Papers, Please and Super Mario 3D Land exist in the video game medium, but are polar opposites on the spectrum of said medium. Both are played, but they were created with different intentions, and the way they use play diverges. Super Mario 3D Land uses play to entertain and challenge its players, and is effectively a video game in the most basic sense of the term. On the other hand, Papers, Please uses play to entertain and challenge, but also to punctuate its position on a communist bureaucracy hoping an understanding is achieved. Papers, Please stretches the term video game outside of it’s designated box. Bear with me as I use a books to video games comparison; in the same way that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone entertains through being read, Super Mario 3D Land does through play, and in the same way that George Orwell’s 1984 explores totalitarianism through being read, Papers, Please does through being played. Everything in that comparison takes advantage of the medium from which they were created, and succeeds in their goals. Yet, 1984 is literary genius, and Papers, Please is just a video game.
Pretentiously, I can proclaim the medium has out grown the current connotations of the term video game. The colloquial use no longer adequately defines the infinitude of video games currently available to gamers (an even more nebulous word), and what those games aim to express. Separating the medium from the term video game would be unfeasible, and interactive art sounds idiotic. Logically, the only solution is a semantic change of the word play subsequently evolving the term video game in the process.
Semantics. No one ever wants to argue semantics. I, however, believe that, for the benefit of the medium, semantics have to be argued. The current definition of video game is frigid and brittle. It needs to be malleable, and ever transforming. Semantic change is the evolution of word use. There are several different kinds of semantic change, but the one relevant to play, and video games is broadening semantic change. Play has to evolve and broaden into meaning more than engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. The definition must mature to include play for knowledge and understanding, especially, in the context of video games. Then, and only then, can the connotation and definition of video game truly evolve.
How does this semantic change happen? In order for video game’s and play’s definitions to evolve. The speech community (gaming community) must set vocabulary guidelines for in which video game, and play are defined. Once those guidelines are set, and practiced within the speech community, the hope is that tertiary groups adopt the guidelines as well. Video games, everything from Grand Theft Auto V to Gone Home, must push boundaries. The definitions of video game and play have to be stretched to encompass more than what the general population currently defines them as. Video games must explore the same thematic elements that other media do through play, and often. The community must never shy away from using the term video game and the word play; use them liberally. An effort also has to be made not to fracture the medium. Even video games that don’t make proper use of the medium must be apart of the conversation. Suggesting that Heavy Rain is an interactive movie (seriously, stop with the interactive movie stuff, it sounds real dumb), instead of a video game muddles the definition further.
I have become increasingly more comfortable with my passion for video games. There’s a certain legitimacy felt from seeing the medium change before your eyes, and contributing to it as it grows. I yearn for a day where I can describe the intricacies of Papers, Please without someone responding, “it’s just a video game,” after I’m done. Myself along with my video game taste have changed so much since Flower was released four years, seven months, and twenty-nine days ago, and so has the medium as a whole. Yet for the first time in a long time, the term video game feels less nebulous.