Wikipedia says, “An electronic game that involves interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor.”
Urban Dictionary says, “The only thing that’s fun anymore.”
Alec Kubas-Meyer says, “The most important medium—art form(?)—of the 21st Century.”
Let’s unpack these.
What Is a Video Game?
In literal terms, a video game is even broader than what Wikipedia says. For the most part, sure, this is more or less accurate: Video games are electronic things with which you interact on a screen. But there are games that follow video game rules and use video game peripherals but do not use screens. These complicate the definition, but they serve to make a crucial larger point: Video games as a medium have become enormously broad over the forty-or-so years since the Atari 2600 released. (Note: The 2600 was not technically the first video game console; it was the first to make a serious splash.)
Video games now include everything from virtual toys to hyper-cinematic blockbuster action experiences to slow-paced walking simulators. Oftentimes, you play with a handheld controller, with button presses translating to onscreen actions. With the rise of touchscreens, some of those buttons became virtual; others eschewed virtual buttons in favor of swipes and other gestures. Some games track your hands in 3D space; others don’t require your hands at all.
Some game worlds you see through the eyes of the protagonist; some from over their shoulder. Sometimes, you watch from the side as they move to the right. Sometimes, you are an omniscient being controlling things from above.
Games can look like real life, or they can look like abstract paintings. They can tell the most beautiful story you’ve ever seen, or they can be completely devoid of a narrative.
Sometimes your characters have predefined personalities; they speak. Sometimes they’re silent, blank slates. Maybe you’ll never see their face. Sometimes you can spend hours manipulating sliders to affect every single aspect of how a character looks so you can make one that is truly your own.
Sometimes (okay, oftentimes), your character is holding a gun. Maybe the gun shoots bullets, or paint, or soundwaves, or interdimensional portals. Sometimes, your character holds a sword or an axe. Sometimes, games are very violent. But, despite their reputation, that’s not all that games are.
Sometimes, you’re solving puzzles. Or jumping from platform to platform, collecting coins or rings or whatever equivalent currency the developer saw fit to add. Sometimes, you’re playing a sport or driving a car—sometimes, these games emulate their real-life counterparts; sometimes, your soccer ball might burst into flame when kicked or your car runs a loop-the-loop on an upside-down track.
Sometimes, video games are very, very hard. You might literally break a controller in frustration because you can’t make it past a section of a game. You might even break your TV with your controller. The mechanics in these games—the methods by which you interact with them, and the systems that contain them, are often complex. There are more than 20 inputs on a modern game controller. Sometimes, games use all of them. Few things in entertainment are more satisfying than finally defeating that giant monster.
Sometimes, they are very, very easy. They might only use one button, or no buttons at all. There might be no way to lose.
tl;dr: Video games are infinitely complex.
And They’re Fun (Sometimes)
The guy (certainly a guy) who submitted the Urban Dictionary definition of video games was being a bit hyperbolic, but he was getting at an important point: video games are a uniquely enjoyable medium. The addition of interactivity by default forces you to become a part of the experience in a way that other media simply cannot match. It’s active where cinema is passive. If you don’t press a button or push an analog stick, the game cannot and will not progress. (At most, your digital life will be ended by some in-game enemy or obstacle and you’ll be sent, without effort, to a Game Over screen.)
The act of pressing buttons and moving sticks and affecting your game world is visceral. The more responsive the game is to your inputs, the more directly you feel connected to what you’re seeing and doing. The things you’re doing are often designed to be, well, “fun.” They’re there for your enjoyment. When creating the original Halo, one of the most influential first-person shooters ever made, the team worked on a core principle of “thirty seconds of fun,” which was contained within a larger structure of a three-minute design. That 30 seconds looped in the three minutes, and then the three minutes themselves looped. The Halo franchise was built upon those rock-solid foundations, changing up that gameplay loop with new environments, enemies, weapons, etc. but keeping it to that fundamental. And though most developers wouldn’t think of it in quite that way, this core concept of a gameplay loop that is re-contextualized throughout an experience is crucial to a game’s immersion.
There’s a psychological state called “flow,” and though it was created before the advent of video games and applies to other experiences, it’s a critical piece of why people love games so much. If you’ve ever seen someone in the middle of a game session, slack-jawed, wide-eyed, they don’t really look like they’re in the living room at all, just a husk where a person would be. That’s because their brain isn’t in that room; it’s in the game. They’ve gotten into the flow. This is the ideal experience, the one creators design for and the players hope for. Even the most avid consumers of other media don’t fall into their own little worlds the way players have been utterly engulfed by World of Warcraft.
But what the anonymous Urban Dictionary user misses is that it’s not just about fun. At least, not anymore.
Video Games as Art
On the opposite end of a state of flow is one of hardcore critical analysis, of grappling with the text (or, more broadly, narrative) of the game. While most people tend to think of video games as a medium for pure entertainment, that does a disservice both to experiences that currently exist and the fundamental potential of interactive media.
A video game makes you culpable. It makes you a part of something. It can make you do things that you don’t feel comfortable doing, and it can make you consider your actions both within its own context and the world beyond your TV’s bezels. While many of heavily violent games that the industry is so derided for may revel in carnage, others ask you to consider what you’re doing and what you’ve done (perhaps the best example of which is the spectacular Spec Ops: The Line). Usually, these games are lower budget, made by small teams or even single people, and they try to expose or critique our society in the same way that any other medium might. But once again, a game presents the experience in a visceral way that is simply impossible elsewhere.
It’s still relatively rare that a game takes full advantage of the unique opportunities afforded by interactivity to critique or bring new perspective to cultural issues, but the experiences that do are unlike anything else in any medium. These games are rarely “enjoyable,” though at times they can be mechanically “fun” (or, at least, interesting), which is arguably more significant, as it creates a fascinating dissonance that games like the border-security puzzler Papers, please use to excellent effect.
These games serve to demonstrate the power of the medium, a potential has been largely untapped. While literature, cinema, and other media/art forms will continue to surprise us with new stories and make us rethink our worldviews until the inevitable heatdeath of the universe, the extent of their capabilities are comparatively known and limited. Games, being so young and so incredibly diverse, will be able to do so much more to shock us—narratively, structurally, and formally—for many, many years to come.
To those who don’t play video games, the industry can seem opaque and the culture uninviting, but the medium is thriving, home to some of the most brilliant work available anywhere. Video games are important. They matter. And they’re worthy of your attention.