The Beautiful Game

This video encapsulates so much of what us “gamers” are trying to fight against. For a report that is supposed to be showing us the flip-side of our perceptions of gaming she still manages to start the report with: “If your parents ever told you that computer games would rot your brains” and ending with: “A career goal that might make parents around the world cringe but one that, ironically, makes his fellow Koreans very proud”. Both indicative of the prejudism against this sort of past-time and telling people what they want to hear or what they think they already know – showing the “the news” should really be renamed to “the olds”.

Another example of the mire of misinformation that we are fighting against are articles such as the one that shows that “Science” proves that 7-10 year olds and college students don’t concentrate in class. Consider that no recitation of the original material is given for us to verify the validity and that the article manages to lever-in a mention of cancer in the same breath and what does “linked to” actually mean? How many times is the word “could” used in this…ooo look, a pretty flower. Wait, was I talking about? Ah yes, how gaming reduces concentration.

To further our goals in removing the stigma of gaming we are coming to the point where a distinction in gaming needs to be made.  Would a football player say: “I play games” or “I’m a football player”? Would a Chess Grandmaster say “I’m a gamer” or “I’m a Chess player”? Yet it’s still not a good idea to admit you’re a gamer.

Nerd vs Gamer
Nerd vs Gamer (can you spot the difference?)

Gaming was originally used for entertaining competition. The Olympic Games, gladiatorial contests, football games, chess games, card games, etc. With a very few exceptions, these were all competitive in nature, either against opponents or against yourself. Even a lot of the first computer “games” were designed with competition in mind (tic-tac-toe and pong spring to mind). But since then, we were limited to having all interactions happening on a single screen and PC gamers were limited to a single controller (the keyboard). This led to home computer (I’m excluding arcades here) games predominantly being single player experiences. Until the internet arrived and competitive online gaming started to become major aspects of a lot more games. However, we haven’t revisited the term of computer “game” now that we have this split between single player and multiplayer. With the danger of sounding elitist towards my own style of gaming, here’s how I would distinguish them (n.b. most electronic media will fit into one or many of these categories):

  1. Interactive story (the likes of Fable, Mass Effect, Half-life, any other FPS single player):
    The interactive stories are the next generation on from film. The story evolves around the player and more often than not is directed by the game designers. On-rails gameplay triggering story events and encounters with very little risk-factor. The risk-factor is important here as there is very little to lose by failing except a small amount of time to go back to the last save/check point. There is no real way to fail the game unless the player decides to stop playing. We are hearing a lot from game designers these days such as the creators of Mass Effect saying they wanted it to be as entertaining playing it as it would be for somebody who watches it being played.
  2. Computer puzzle (e.g. Portal, Braid, ‘Splosion Man, Apple Jack, Lemmings, any RTS single player)
    The computer puzzle is the electronic version of any physical puzzle with all it’s aspects. The key being that the fun comes from finding the solutions to the given puzzles. But once the challenge of solving it is done with, there’s not much to be gained by doing it again as the solutions are already known.  Of course people will in the same way that people will continously resolve the Rubiks cube despite knowing the solution. The computer equivalents are Portal, Braid, ‘Splosion Man, etc. You could argue that most single player experiences fall under this category as once the “trick” of beating the A.I. is found, the game is solved.
  3. Computer Toy (e.g. Mahjong, Solitaire, Spore, Sims, Lego games)
    The computer toys are the ones where the game itself is to explore the mechanics given by the designer in exactly the same way as a real toy is used. The fun is twisting and pulling against the mechanics to see what the outcomes are. These mechanics could be as simple as playing with plasticine (Spore Creator) to a game like the Sims (doll playing and roleplay) which has a very large breadth of experience to play around with for the avatars. The Lego game franchises are in this catergory (as well as the puzzle category) as well due to their design philosophy of getting parents and children to play together (as in real-life games) where a lot of the interaction is not for the need to progress, but just to see what it does and how it works.
  4. Computer Games (e.g. Street Fighter and other fighting games, real-time strategies (RTS) and first-person-shooters (FPS) Multiplayer, Left 4 Dead, Magic the Gathering, Age of Booty)
    The computer game would be the ones that test skill and have risk to one degree or another. These must be the equivalent of real-life games such as chess, football, bear wrestling. The test of skill could be mental in the case of devising strategies, multitasking, opponent mind-games, reading the field, decision making and team work. Or the skill could be physical in the case of dexterity, speed, accuracy, consistency and execution. There needs to be some risk in not doing these well (of course games would target 1 or all of these traits), which would result in losing. The type of loss is not so important as long as there is a tangible feeling of it. Without exception this category of computer media would be multiplayer by necessity as anything involving an A.I. becomes a matter of puzzle solving (at least until A.I. unpredictability and creativity can match that of humans).

    Tangible Loss
    Tangible Loss

    The multiplayer doesn’t necessarily have to be in versus-type games as cooperative multiplayer can hold many of these aspects of a true “game”. Friendly competition with your team mates while also cooperating to achieve the same goals with the skill of reacting to your own teams strengths and weaknesses give the aspect of the true “game” in computer games.

    Team Work
    Competitive Teamwork
  5. MMORPG (e.g. Eve Online, World of Warcraft, etc).
    MMORPGs are a special breed as they are essentially sand-boxes cynically designed solely to draw you in through your biological addiction to get at your wallet. Putting my own personal bias to one side for a moment, these games get their own category as the interactions inside the massively multiplayer world are so varied as to almost be impossible to categorise without just saying they fit into all of the above electronic media categories; If you are a PvPer (Player vs Player) then you are likely playing it as a “true” game, whereas somebody who enjoys levelling up is playing it as an electronic toy. A quester is interested in the interactive story telling…I could go on and on and on and on and on and on (which is exactly what the companies such as Blizzard and CCP want us to do!)

It is our responsibility as gamers to not bow-down to the social stigma attached to our hobby (or livelihood if you are lucky enough to be a progamer).

We want more progamers like this (and yes, this is a real Korean Starcraft progamer named TossGirl who earns more than you or me by playing "games")

The fight is worth it and can lead to some great things. But for now the war will continue.

10 thoughts on “The Beautiful Game

  1. I’m still marvelling at the brilliance of your category definitions. 🙂

    I’ve spent the last day or so trying to ‘break’ this system (hey, it’s what I’m paid to do!), and it’s really pretty tight.

    All I can really add so far though is that many computer puzzles can become computer games IF people choose to play them competitively through some kind of speed challenge, high score challenge etc, where they start to indirectly compete with other people. One day I want to re-watch “The King of Kong” (a fantastic movie – even Olga would like it I reckon!) with you to see what you make of it – it’s about guys trying to get the highest score in the world at Donkey Kong… the level of competition, although completely indirect in terms of the game there, is definitely something closer to a ‘game’ in the sense you use it here.

    However I do feel there’s still something different about it. The competition IS indirect in the way that most other ‘games’ aren’t. For example race driving has trial laps to determine pole position, yet the REAL race is head-to-head. The same thing with olympic runners. But what about high jumpers? Perhaps it can be said that most if not all of these types CAN be made into a true game (much like the dedicated PvPer in an MMORPG). The question then becomes how good a game do they make?

    And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with a big reason why current day game reviews fail so badly, as they don’t consider “computer games” (in the wider sense) under these categories. They are trying to review toys, puzzles, stories and ‘experiences’ all under the same banner- which is of course impossible. They do, quite literally, compare apples to oranges. I’ve often thought of this due to how badly actual competitive games are reviewed. No-one makes the comparisons I want to see made (compare to it’s contemporaries and classics in the genre), no-one gives the information I want to know (what kind of skills does it test and how). Of course it’s an impossible task for one person to actually do properly. It’s like asking the same person to comparatively review chess, soccer, F1 race driving, and monopoly all on the same scale. As well as at the same time also reviewing lego bricks, rubiks cubes, an office job (similar experience to many MMOs) and an action man toy against them also.

    I often wanted to separate my review thoughts for multiplayer games for this exact reason – I am certainly going to think about how this reflects my reviews where I make them. Of course as I am into computer GAMES of all the above types, I’m the type that tends to review everything on the game scale – how much do I enjoy this game or how good can I see it can be for other people. Even computer puzzles I tend to view purely on the challenge scale – what skills and things do I need to use to solve the puzzle. I almost never review anything along the interactive storyline scale, since I rarely see anything any good here in gaming anyway.

    Take a game like Splosion Man, I’d say it could score something like:

    Interactive Story: *
    It has some kind of story, but mainly it’s just jokes.

    Computer Puzzle: *****
    I find the challenge level perfect for me (both Normal, Hardcore, and the Achievements), and I find the skills required really interesting and fun and rewarding. I especially love the fact it is also a co-op puzzle for more than 1 player to actively solve them together using teamwork & team skills.

    Computer Toy: **
    It’s really quite fun to just leap around doing silly stuff with Splosion Man (or Men! in co-op). But there’s really not that much to play with as a toy.

    Computer Game: **
    It has high score charts and time trials etc, but they are not very direct and clearly not a major purpose of the title.

    MMORPG: nil
    No grinding bullshit required.

    I think computer “puzzle” is perhaps the trickiest bit of terminology, since the word puzzle makes people think of brain-teasing problems, when in reality most games test other skills than problem solving, often requiring dexterity, reactions, speed etc. Another site I need to add to our links soon breaks down the skill tests of games into his “DKART” system. (Edit: Link added to Critical Gaming Network 🙂 )


  2. So, as we discussed on XBL. 🙂

    I think the only common type of “video game” not covered here is pure simulation titles – flight sims etc. These can become puzzle games when you “play to win” however I don’t think this is really an issue since no-one really confuses pure sims with ‘games’ in the other senses.

    I do think the toy categorization should be expanded to include amusement / experience type of games. Again, a lot of games blur the lines between all these areas. Playing Gears of War on easy just to chainsaw people, or playing L4D2 mutation with the M60s is pretty much just playing these games like a toy though – this is the “I’m just playing to have fun” in the purist sense that sometimes people mean it – which is often annoying, as it implies competitive play precludes having fun, which is obviously nonsense, but I can see the difference.

    Another thought, the huge differences between video “games” shown here, not only highlights the problems in reviewing them, but also in people’s attitudes to “gamers” as you point out in the article. When I think about it, when I talk about a “gamer” as I do on agoners, I am always thinking of someone who is either playing things competitively as a computer game, or at the very least enjoys playing very challenging computer puzzles. It’s a million miles from someone grinding through interactive stories of rpgs or mmos etc. This is also what I mean by “hardcore” gamer in some ways as I discussed here:
    I actually feel that a competitive poker playing grannie has far more in common with me and is far more of a “hardcore gamer” than most of today’s ‘hardcore’ players of videogames.


  3. I’ve been thinking about a better word than “puzzle” to describe how most “vs the computer” videogames are, but it’s tricky. I’m wondering if “skill test” might be a better wider description? What do you think?

    I’m also thinking the ‘toy’ category to be a bit wider – anything you’re doing “just for the experience” seems to classify into this. L4D2 Gib-Fest Mutation played by experienced players would certainly class under this for me. 🙂


  4. Indeed, the more I think about the classification titles the more I don’t like them 😛 That’s not to say the classifications are wrong, but better names are definitely needed!

    I would have liked to keep the titles matched with real-world examples as the idea was for the layperson to be able to identify with them so as to break out of the stigma currently smearing the terms “computer game”, “gamer”, etc.

    Here’s some alternatives off the top of my head (they will likely suck so bear with me):
    -Interractive story: e-story (e-novel, e-epic, etc), interractive film/media.

    -Computer toy: Cyber experience, e-xperience (bleurgh), digital diversions

    Hmm, I can’t think of any more just at the moment.

    I’d definitely like to add the category of “simulation” to list as this is a genre to it’s own. But it must be pure simulation, not the pseudo simulation/game that marketing try and use to justify adults playing games (no justification is needed! Gah!). E.g. COD, Battlefield, Need for Speed, Topgun.

    On a sidenote: Are TossGirl’s feet actually that massive!?


  5. Best names I can come up with right now are by using double-barrelled ones that cover the general meaning better for me:

    Interactive Story/Film

    I’m wondering if a MMORPG can really be viewed against those categories or not – they are generally more about the Toy/Experience than anything else I think – at least that’s the bit that they tend to do well in my experience.

    When it comes to reviewing against these categories, I started trying to do it, but then I realised that I wasn’t really interested in anything other than the Puzzle/Challenge and Game categories anyway. The rest of it can only add to the overall experience for me when those parts of a videogame are good. So only in very rare circumstances are they anything more than icing on the cake and it would even affect my overall review score anyway. The only recent game I could think of would be The Maw, where I enjoyed it, even though it’s a pretty rubbish Puzzle/Challenge and a non-existent Game. Limbo’s another one I enjoyed probably more than it’s pure puzzle elements would imply.


  6. Another piece (not especially good) but definitely closely related to the public perception side of this article (and also my previous article regarding videogames as spectator sports) –

    Tipped off by:

    Some of the comments on SRK are far more insightful than the article (as you might expect). Funniest comment – “Alex Valle confirmed for coach of the LA Fireballers. ”


  7. paragraphs 1, 2, -4, -3

    (Also he’s right about GW2, in thirty years of games including dozens with more personal attachment for me, Grid Wars 2 and Spelunky are the only two games thus far which I feel actually make me a slightly happier, more competent, just all around better person after I play them than before)


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