The ‘Not A Game’ Argument Is A Sad Way To Look At Games

Saying a game isn’t actually a “game” has become the quick and easy way to deride games we don’t like or understand. It’s easy to boil down the key concepts of a game and make them sound bad.

Terms like “walking simulator” have become the norm, used as a point of ridicule. It’s an incredibly narrow minded way to look at games. What if I looked at some classics in the same way?

Music: Chris Zabriskie


  • Yeah but nah. To me at least, a game is more or less something that has a series of rules and constraints that you have to operate within to either win or lose. Maybe not the best definition, I feel like I’ve had better ones in the past but that’s what I’ve got at the moment and it’ll do. If you don’t have that then it’s not a game, it’s just interactive software. That’s why a walking simulator can be not a game. I haven’t played Gone Home or any of these other “non-games” yet, but from what I understand it’s more like going through an interactive novel or movie. You don’t do anything to play it, so much as guide yourself to the next piece of story? Or something along those lines anyway. To me that is exactly why they’re not a game.

    But of course just because it’s not a game doesn’t mean it’s doesn’t serve a purpose. If you are thirsty and someone hands you a glass of sea water, it’s “not a drink”. Even if it is a cup of liquid. It won’t quench your thirst, you mightn’t even be able to drink it. You could still use it to wash the sand off your hands though.

    • The problem with a definition like that is, what about one of the most popular games of this generation, Minecraft? There was no end state, either death or not death. I agree with what you are saying but this is like defining what art is, no matter what rule is defined it will be proven flawed.

      • Except it does have an end state – called The End where you fight the Dragon 😛

        But again a game doesn’t need an end state. Just look at endless runners. You can’t beat them, just last longer than you did last time. You still have a system of rules and mechanics to play with. While a story-driven walking simulator has an end once you reach the end of the story, doesn’t it?

        • So Gone Home has set rules of interaction, a story, ways for the player to change the sequence of events through said interactions and can end. Is challenge what makes a game?

          • Like I said, I haven’t played Gone Home so I can’t specifically talk about it, I can only guess based on what I’ve heard. If there is some kind of game to it then yes it can be a game 😛

            Challenge, maybe? But then challenge is relative, and does it at some point become so easy that there is no challenge? And then if you set a game to be so easy that it poses no challenge, does it cease to be a game? That doesn’t sound right.

          • Exactly. I think defining what a game is with clear rules is an exercise in frustration. Ask any artist to define art and they’ll punch you.

          • Just because we can’t do it precisely doesn’t mean we can’t do it at all. There’s a reason there are a whole bunch of rules to, say, the English language but then a whole load of exceptions to go along with them.

          • Animal Crossing and Nintendogs are definitely games, but they don’t have a win state.

            Games are like pornography. I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

          • You did:
            To me at least, a game is more or less something that has a series of rules and constraints that you have to operate within to either win or lose.

            I’m not getting on your case. I’m just pointing out that pretty much no matter what definition you give, there will be a game that doesn’t fit.

            Like I said. I can’t say what a game is, but I know it when I see it.

          • @pokedad Well, yeah. Logical or. It can have a win state you’re trying to achieve or it can have a lose state that you’re trying to avoid, or it can have both 😛

      • I think I recall Will Wright saying that technically, games like SimCity and The Sims are toys, not games, because there’s no winning objective.

    • So do classic adventure games like Monkey Island count as games then?

      As for Gone Home, it is unlikely that you will experience all the narrative in your initial play through. There are a number of parts that can be skipped over unless you actively search out everything in the house. There are also a few very simple puzzles in the game (some combination locks where you need to search out the code, some bits that are effectively fetch quests, etc), so there is a modest level of challenge there.

      I think the issue Leo is pointing at here is that some people decide they don’t like a game, and then justify it by claiming that it wasn’t actually a game after all. The fact that there are indie games that don’t have wide appeal isn’t a bad thing though, and no one is harmed by such games being released on the Wii U.

      • Classic adventure games are puzzles, puzzles are a type of game 😛

        I don’t doubt there’d be people out there using the “not a game” label to try and decry something they don’t like. It’s exactly the same as the whole hardcore/casual thing all over again, calling a game “kiddy”, etc. Though just because it it can be used that way doesn’t mean it isn’t also a valid argument at times.

  • I think this video completely fails to understand what people mean when they say something is not a game. Pong, PacMan, and Mario all feature an element that non-games like Gone Home, or The Stanley Parable, or Citizen Kane are missing. They all have some element of challenge. A lot of point and click adventure games don’t have fail states, but they have puzzles to solve and challenges to overcome.

    For a lot of people, this feeling of overcoming challenges is an integral part of what makes a game a game. It’s also a big part of what makes games enjoyable. You can make something that’s not a game that people enjoy and get value out of, of course.

    I think the core of the hatred for non-game interactive experiences like these isn’t because they aren’t games, but rather because they tend to be simultaneously ham-fisted and extremely pretentious. Not all of them are, but it is a running theme in recent years.

    There’s a lot of frustration among most of the gamers I talk to about the way the gaming press tends to put these non-games on pedestals, especially when we have such a dearth of games with genuinely well-thought out, well-balanced, fun gameplay, and when the quality of the art, writing, etc. in them is so rarely actually any good.

    But I did sort of like Dear Esther. Beautiful environments, mysterious storyline, well-delivered and reasonably well written script. It still wasn’t a game though.

    Saying that calling something a non-game is just a way for people to dismiss games they don’t like is a gross over simplification of a more complicated issue. People say Gone Home isn’t a game because it’s missing an integral part of what defines a game. People don’t like Gone Home because they either A: Don’t like non-game interactive experiences (which is fine. Some people just don’t really like movies, either) or B: They’re okay with non-games, but found Gone Home itself to be… well… pretty bad (there are probably also a lot of actual games they don’t like!).

    • “Challenge” is something that’s also in the eye of the beholder.
      To take the Stanley Parable as an example (and to a lesser extent Gone Home) you could argue there is no challenge or obstacle to overcome, but I see it as a personal challenge to explore all the story directions. To find something new I hadn’t seen before. So for me there is a challenge, and therefore by that definition it is a game. At least for me.

      So where do you draw the line? Do you even draw a line at all?

    • I see your paradox and raise you a mindfuck with “Everything I say is a lie”. It’s a ‘Schrodinger’ statement in that it is in a perpetual superstate. :p

  • This seems to just be here to complain because people don’t like what you like.

    The argument of ‘non-games’ often has nothing to do with if it’s any good or not, for example I love The Stanley Parable but don’t really consider it a game. It comes down to the classification of video games in general, I personally classify them as a digital interactive medium, built for (some form of) entertainment, with programed rules including some form of pass/fail state.

    Walking Simulator usually comes from things like Dear Esther, where there is no interation at all passed ‘walk forward.’ That’s not a game, there’s no interactivity there, you’re just moving forward like turning the pages in a book. That’s not to say it isn’t art or that it isn’t good, I just don’t consider it a game.

    Comparing that to something like Pacman or Pong is just stupid trolling, they obviously have mechanics and interaction.

    • “where there is no interation at all passed ‘walk forward.'”

      Just much like so many damn Pyros in Team Fortress 2……. 😛

      In all seriousness, I agree with games being, as you say, a digital interactive medium (I like the phrase “interactive entertainment”), but I think that putting rules on what you can and cannot call a game is detrimental to gaming. Dear Esther and Gone Home may be low-interactivity experiences, but saying they aren’t games because they don’t follow the rules is akin to saying that films like Pulp Fiction, Run Lola Run, Forrest Gump or Memento are not films because they don’t follow the traditional 3-act structure. I don’t want film makers to think they have to be a slave to the 3-act structure, and I don’t want developers to think they have to stick to a defined set of rules to make a game.

  • It would have perhaps been more informative if I didn’t need to go look up things about Gone Home to make a fair comparison.

  • IMO
    Pong, game.
    Pacman, game.
    Super Mario brothers, game.
    Gone home, not a game.

    However according to the definition of a game (an activity that one engages in for amusement), all those things are games, including things like writing this comment, watching a movie video, having a cup of tea.

    We need a new word to describe our definition of games.


    something that has a series of rules and constraints that you have to operate within in order to achieve a score, a win condition or to avoid a lose condition

    • Have do you define “win condition”? For me, unravelling the narrative of Gone Home is a “win”. How do you “win” Minecraft?

      The definition of game is nebulous, subjective and constantly evolving. It seems silly to try and ring-fence it with a single sentence.

      • He didn’t say that a win condition was necessary:
        achieve a score, a win condition or to avoid a lose conditionThere are three options there. You could have any one, two or three of those. But not none. In Minecraft, you have both a lose condition and a score. But these days you could also count slaying the dragon as the win condition.

        And don’t suppose you’d care to explain the downvote at all?

        • He, like a lot of people, implicitly uses the phrase “not a game” as an insult. Implying that just because a game doesn’t have XP or levels it is inherently worthless.

          His attitude that games are merely instruments of amusement is indicative of the kind of thinking that is holding back the industry. From my view, the best games in history provided very little in the way of amusement, but did something unique with an interactive medium. It’s no accident that of his list of games, it’s the last I would consider to be the best.

          • He? As in Sgt. Munter? I don’t see how he was doing any of that. I haven’t clicked on the video again to watch it and check but I’m pretty sure that “instrument of amusement” definition he referred to is what was used in there. Which was why he revised it with the later definition.

          • Excuse me? How was what I said even implied as an insult? I wouldn’t class the walking dead as a game yet I absolutely loved that (#kennydidnothingwrong), you disagree with my opinion and immediately take it as an insult, and it’s that kind of attuide that is holding back the industry.

            EDIT: woops double post can’t find delete button

          • Excuse me? How was what I said even implied as an insult? I wouldn’t class the walking dead as a game yet I absolutely loved that (#kennydidnothingwrong). You disagree with my opinion and immediately take it as an insult, and it’s that kind of attuide that is holding back the industry, not differing opinions but being offended by every little thing you don’t like.

  • Is “not a game” that bad a thing?
    Sure, Gone Home isn’t a game. But it’s an interactive media that tells a story with atmosphere or some such. What’s the big deal?

  • To me, what we class as “Non-games” are to normal games what documentaries are to movies. Both are visual entertainment, and people can enjoy both, but the concepts and execution of each are different enough that you cannot call a documentary a movie and vice versa. I really don’t understand why people are so passionate about classifying something that isn’t a game as a game. They are allowed to have their own identity.

    • Maybe we need a higher level term for interactive software used for amusement played on computer/console. Because then we can have game + non-game (or better word) under that banner. There’s a problem that “game” is the word used for the higher level concept. Kind of like there’s fiction and non-fiction books, with book being the connecting word.

  • The colloquial definition for what is a game is basically some kind of interactive form of entertainment sold in a “game store” or on steam or something. This is a common thing that happens with names. People calling all vacuum cleaners “hoovers” for example.

    Academically though the definition of a game is more complex and detailed. If you want to learn about what a game is and how it differentiates itself from other media you should look up these academics who have done much work on the subject: Jesper Juul, Espen Aarseth, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. There are other categories that a lot of the things we call games would more accurately fit in, hypertext (navigational narrative) and cybertext (narrative machine) for example.

    At the end of the day though I think the reason people get so upset about this is because there is this feeling among gamers that games are the best type of media and therefore they don’t like the idea that something they love isn’t considered a game. While I haven’t played Gone Home from what I gather it’s more hypertext than game. That’s okay though, why does it have to be a game to be something that we should enjoy or value?

  • Anyone ever play that Maze game in the old Encarta software? Yeah, Gone Home is like that – a interactive walk through a nostalgia filled 90’s environment. There’s barely a game, or challenge available. I would classify it a game in the least sense.

    • played that during lunch at the library in high school, but no, gone home is not a game, the same way that farmville is not a game.

      • Gone Home is definitely a game. I adored my 3 hour run of the story, and it felt like a game to me. ‘My’ discoveries led to more and more knowledge. Each and every snippet of information was found using game-y mechanics, and though the story, setting and narrative weren’t the typical game-fare, I absolutely cannot see how Gone Home ISN’T a game. Solve clues, follow leads = reward.

        • you’re the sort of person that will spend $100+ in a stupid ‘phone’ game without batting an eyelid, I didnt say gone home wasnt a game, im just comparing it to literature, its a game the same way War and Peace and new idea are both books

          • What a pointlessly aggressive response. If you were making some point about your own definition of what a “real” game is, then you should have made it clear in your first comment.

            It’s also worth noting that your ad hominem against @akumajobelmont not only seems like a wild stab in the dark, it demonstrates the angry tribalism that infects many gamers today. That is why definitions are so important to them. It is about EXCLUDING. It is about maintaining the status quo, and not allowing the scope of gaming to encompass more – be it the not-games or some “stupid phone game” or whatever.

          • Okaaaaay, whatever you reckon, mate. You totally know me and my gaming habits from one comment I made on a game I happen to like. The irony of the situation is that your comment says a lot about you and your close-mindedness.

  • If Snakes and Ladders, which is entirely driven by chance with no actual player agency; and, on the other hand SimCity, with vague goals that you never really “win”, both qualify as games, then the bar is set very low indeed and I see no reason why anything wanting to call itself a game should not be regarded as such.

    It’s certainly a more interesting game than, for example, Sacred 3.

    • I want to call myself a doctor but I’m pretty sure I can’t be regarded as such unless I’m actually qualified.

      • @gregorvorbarra made the argument that if x & y are included in the broad church of “games” then so should these “non-games”. Your argument only works if our society allows the term “doctor” to be used for teacher, physio, medical doctor, dentist, vet, librarian etc. All professions, but we have a societal definition of “doctor” that includes some but not all – it’s a different situation that doesn’t exactly work.

        • And his argument only works if we assume that something not being winnable can’t be a game, thereby making games with no win state somehow an anomaly or exception to the rule. Except they aren’t, as has been discussed elsewhere on this page.

          And our society does allow the term “doctor” to be used for people of different professions. That’s why halfway through year 12 we stopped referring to our homeroom teacher as Mr and started calling him Dr, since he’d earnt his doctorate. Well, that and because we thought it was funny.

          • My basic point is that the idea of “game” is at this point so ill-defined that any given exception you choose will have corresponding counterexamples.

            The OED calls a game “An activity that one engages in for amusement.” That’s an extraordinarily broad definition (and most dictionaries include something similar) and says nothing about win conditions or even goals. Arguably, the definition would apply to watching a movie. (Like Beyond: Two Souls… forget I said that.)

            The definition of “doctor” is much tighter.

            Interestingly enough, the OED definition implies that eSports players, if they’re not actually enjoying what they doing, may not actually be playing a game.

  • To be sure, Gone Home is an interactive media. I just don’t know what GENRE of game it falls under.

    Also all of the games, Pong, Pac Man, and Mario Bros. They all have their own genre with their own point system. Again, I don’t know what genre Gone Home is, or if it even has a point system, or even a point.

  • To me, if you can have movies and books for entertainment, information, and art – you can have games for the same thing. I think it gets confusing because that’s not the traditional definition of “game” as a word, but I think video games moved past that definition when they started putting stories in and making it an experience you immerse yourself in.

    Maybe we should use interactive media or some other term when we describe games, to differentiate.

  • Basing an definition of whether or not something is a game by saying it has to have a ‘win state’ is flawed from word go, IMHO. I play Skyrim, it has a storyline and a risk of death, so it has an overall win state/lose state. Since I purposely don’t play it to complete the overall storyline, and since I don’t die, by that definition, it’s not a game and I’m not playing anything. Therefore, Skyrim is a real experience and I am the one true Dragonborn…

  • Where would you draw the line between game and non-game?
    Take Portal 2. Remove the “boss fights”. Is it still a game?
    Take away the portal gun and dumb down the puzzles so they don’t require it. Is it still a game? (keep in mind I’m not asking if it would be fun)
    How far removed is that from Gone Home?

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