What is a Game? A Rebuttal and Homage to Extra Credits

Why we SHOULD be asking ourselves, "What is a game"?

Why we SHOULD be asking ourselves, "What is a game"?

This is an edited transcript of the above video.

With all the faff of Christmas preparation, colds, birthdays, and miscellaneous shenanigans, I’ve only now had the chance to sit down and record this article that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. 

I’ve always been a big fan of Extra Credits. They offer really insightful food for thought about the video games industry, and do a great job of astutely deconstructing many of the things we overlook or take for granted in gaming. 

However, in a video they release about a month ago, for the first time I found myself disagreeing with them! The video in question is “What is a game?” James Portnow and Daniel Floyd pick through this very relevant question, especially given the success of titles like The Stanley Parable and Kentucky Route Zero that sit a little uncomfortably among what we’ve come to consider as what we class as a video/computer game. 

Extra Credits’ “What is a Game”: the video in contention.

Their general conclusions is that we shouldn’t be asking this question, because by doing so, we end up narrowing the definition that meaningful games like The Stanley Parable and Kentucky Route Zero will end up being thrown out with the bath-water. 

But, I disagree. I think this is a salient question that we should be discussing. Why? Because doing so can expand the definition of a game meaning, that games like The Stanley Parable and Kentucky Route Zero can be welcomed lovingly into the fold. By examining the criteria that we’ve traditionally used to define video games, we reassess why this definition is restrictive, and therefore can reconfigure these paradigms to be more inclusive of the trailblazing that developers, especially indie ones, are doing in pushing these boundaries. If we don’t ask these questions, then the definition will never change. 

So what can we do? Do we continue to discuss this ad infinitum, or actually take some action? How about changing what we call them? I completely agree with Portnow and Floyd that we really need a new term to describe what games are. I personally prefer one of my own, “interactive electronic entertainment”, but to be honest, it’s not that catchy. 

But “video game” is a label that’s not going to disappear anytime soon. The industry has now become such a huge and lucrative entity that this term is pretty much cemented because it’s a long-established one. As it stands, it provides an easily recognisable classification that creates an expectation for customers regarding the core of the contents, etc, etc. Yes, whilst it is somewhat restrictive, to be honest, it’s probably a bit broader than what we think it is in its current state. The last thing we want to do is create a new genre that’s going to sit outside of “video games” making it harder for more innovative developers to get their work out there, because they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to class the game as, and I think it’s just a bit superfluous. “Video games” is a term that we really just have to work with, not against, and that means loosening it up a little, albeit from the inside. So whilst a new term is sorely needed, it’s not going to help. 

That’s not to say Portnow and Floyd are at all wrong. I don’t doubt that their experience of discussing “what is a game” has been hijacked by bored and boring people trying to create a supposedly impenetrable proximity of base-comfort in order to outcast anything that’s new or different: that is harmful to the industry. But saying that we shouldn’t discuss the question is not the answer. What Portnow and Floyd have highlighted is that we absolutely need to be very mindful of how we approach it. 

We really should, and need, to be having this discussion to broaden what we generally think of as a ‘video game.’ This discussion, however, shouldn’t be hard or dismaying; it should be vibrant and exciting. This is an incredibly dynamic and defining generation for gaming, with Silicon Valley really giving Hollywood a run for its money, and with innovators like Davey Wreden and Cardboard Computer challenging how we view the medium in ways that no one would have thought of to do about a decade ago–why shouldn’t it? 

By all means, if you feel like defending the requirement for a more rigid definition of what a video game is, then do so. But try and open your mind, or even play some of the games that cause contention. And ask whether it’s so bad if the “video game” is a label that should be allowed to hang off it, albeit loosely. 

Just enjoy whatever games you receive this holiday season, whether it’s “video game”, “interactive electrion entertainment”, or, “other”. Just be thankful you didn’t just get sprouts (no one likes sprouts).

Extra Credits official YouTube channel can be found at: www.youtube.com/user/ExtraCreditz.

Original artwork by the author.

About the author


Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*