Why the debate around "real" video games misses the point

Video games. A term that once meant something very specific is now the topic of much debate and contention. Depending on which generation you're from or how you interpret the cultural significance of the video game industry, you probably have more than a few thoughts on what constitutes a “video game.”

For any discussion, sometimes the best place to start is from a place of mutual agreement.

The Devil’s in the Details

Arcade games like PAC-MAN and Space Invaders are obviously video games, right? They’re simple, they have a clear goal, there is a competitive element (both in terms of high scores and in terms of combatting the AI opponents,) and they provide entertainment. That seems pretty cut and dry.

Adventuring forward in time, games on the NES, Genesis, SNES, and so on all classify as games pretty much universally. Some games that came out skirt the line a bit, as they may provide heavy narratives while gameplay takes a backseat to storytelling, but they’re still in the form of electronic entertainment, thus we can safely classify them as video games.

Once you start getting into the realm of some PC games, like the adventure game genre and simulation experiences, that’s when things start to get blurry.

Now jump to the modern era of video games, where you have an entire genre that people derogatorily refer to as “walking simulators,” and you can see where the difficulty with definitions comes from.

Games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and dozens of others all fit the designation of “walking simulator” because they’re primarily built to be as immersive as possible and, naturally, involve a lot of walking. Instead of relying on moments of intense action or intricate gameplay systems, you’ll instead spend most of your time exploring and doing little else. Thus, they’re called walking simulators.

Expanding Interpretation

All across the Internet, on forums, Reddit threads, and comment sections, people throw around the term “walking simulator” as if that suddenly means something isn’t worth playing. If a game doesn’t let you fight something or do something that fits a traditional definition of "fun" then it isn’t really a video game.

That line of thinking is both close-minded and shortsighted. We’ve reached a point in the industry at which the concept of what defines a video game has outgrown the literal definition.

The root of the issue at hand is that I fear the game industry has outgrown the connotation associated with the child-like noun “game.” That word, “game,” is intrinsically associated with childhood fun and a carefree spirit. While that could serve as an adequate bucket to fit most classic video games, and even many modern ones, it is no longer sufficient in many cases.

As a gamer, I’m not limited simply to the customary interpretation of a video game. Granted, many of the games I play still follow that interpretation - I recently finished Uncharted 4 and am playing DOOM right now, both of which are easily interpreted as modern video games. But I’ve also played games like Fragments of Him, which are only a handful of hours long and offer very little in the way of interaction, but I’d still call them video games.

Does it Really Matter?

When I sit down at my PC, plug in my home console, power on my handheld device or smartphone, and, now in 2016, place a virtual reality headset on my face, I can play one of several different types of games. Sometimes I play something that gets me excited with lots of action, intensity, and tons of fun. Other times I play something that tells a deeply engaging story that might even make me laugh, cry, or smile. And other times still, I may play something that terrifies me and chills me to the core.

Regardless of what you personally like to play or enjoy the most, the fact of the matter is that, in most cases, it doesn’t really matter what is regarded a video game by one person or another.

Everyone has his or her own opinions, but at the end of the day what it means to be a video game is different depending on who you ask.

As the game industry continues to mature, evolve, and become more and more prevalent in the mainstream world, it’s important that we focus on the things that matter the most. The media is all too happy to criticize any overly violent games or highlight explicit content to the public, which feeds the culture of negativity surrounding our favorite hobby.

Anytime I get the chance to talk to someone about video games that may not be as familiar with the industry as I am, I take that opportunity to shed light on some of the lesser-known corners of the market. They’ve heard about Pokémon GO, but have they thought about how it gets people up, moving, and socializing?

Chances are, someone you know has heard of Call of Duty, but have they heard about other shooting games that tell powerful stories about the cruel realities of war, or seen hyper-realistic military experiences used to help train actual soldiers?

Games are so much more than what they used to be, and as far as I can tell we’re doing the medium as a whole a disservice by getting tripped up on what the term “video game” means instead of focusing on what they mean to us.

Instead of debating about the semantics and rhetoric surrounding this brave, bold, and interactive medium, let’s talk about the stuff that actually matters: the content of the experiences themselves.