Video games have advanced in leaps and bounds since their humble beginnings and are now an art form. Isn’t there a value in understanding what IS a game, when some designers are more interested in making art than designing a game? Let’s explore the idea and then look at how the mainstream media has discouraged the discussion of what’s “not a game.”


Before we get started it needs to be said that there are some slides that are VERY dense in information and will probably be too fast to read. In my research I found more than I could comfortably put in the timeline, but it was still too valuable to leave out.
The best way to experience this transmission is to watch it through once without stopping and then a second time, to pause it to read the slides. Trust me, they’re worth it.

The word “gamer” will make some people cringe. It’s been transformed to mean something else and the word “video game” is now trying to be redefined by the media. While we use language to communicate and evaluate ideas, the modification of our language can influence what we think and even believe as true.

To understand games and have any kind of basic knowledge we must understand them on a formal level.

Considering some examples will allow a better understanding of this very basic, core concept of what makes a game.
Cup and ball, Basketball, Settlers of Cattan and Pac-man are all games.

Later transmissions will go detail about game design, but for now it won’t be necessary. To define a game we dont even need win or lose states or abstract concepts of game theory; all we need is a skill to learn.

With Pac-man the player learns how to move Pac-man, how to use the powers up, develops a sense of timing and how to use the level layout while avoiding ghosts. In Settlers of Cattan the players ability to make choices at the right time as well as trade with other players is heavily tested in an intense end game scenario. Physical ability and skill developed through practice separates a beginning basketball player from a professional. And cup and ball, as simple as it may be, is a game dependent on the player’s manipulation of the simple toy.

These four are all games with different sets of rules. Whether it be Pac Man or Basketball, the win state can be an arbitrary score set by the players. The most important function of a game’s rules are that it creates a DESIGN that tests and builds the player skill level.

In the case of Settlers of Cattan or Basketball, the player’s skill will be tested by their opponents. In the case of Cup and ball learning to manipulate the very crude, formal constraints of the system; i.e. the weight of the ball, the motion of the toy cup, the length of the string and of course the pull of gravity on the ball; all will shape the player’s developing skill.

If the player masters cup and ball they can make the string shorter, use a heavier ball or maybe, some day in the future, try their old cup and ball on a planet with different gravity. Try to beat your high score on the moon!

It’s easy to see how Pac-man can be a self contained game when even nature gives us a set of challenges in cup and ball that guides the development of the player’s skill. By comparison an electronically maintained system of rules and variables would be much more predictable.

Cup and ball is a simple toy isn’t it? A basketball is also a simple toy. A child can have the goal of play time for an hour, but aimless play will not likely develop a skill. It becomes a game when we structure the play of the toy, when we give it a rule set or design that establishes guidance. It’s when we do this that we can develop a skill, whether it be catching, dribbling or throwing a ball.

While it’s not relevant to our discussion, the second core idea that helps determine something is a game is that this skill building is done for entertainment. If the individual is not developing the skill for their own entertainment this would make it work, training or education.

In Gone Home, the player’s progression through the empty Greenbriar house is not dependent on the progression of a unique skill. They are free to take their time exploring. Unlocking the next door doesn’t build on the skill that was required for previous doors. Combinations and keys are given very explicitly for doors and locks. The absence of formal game design elements means that there is no skill for the player to learn, test and master. It’s sort of like a toy that can just be played with, unraveling the story in a non-linear fashion.

It’s an environmentally based visual novel, like Dear, Esther or The Stanley Parable. Each one telling its story through the players interaction and exploration of set pieces. To be as accurate as possible, it’s like a museum tour. There’s software that even does that, and it’s likely no one would be offended if that was called “not a game.”

When Steam introduced a tagging system Valve gave the consumer a powerful tool to better categorize the available software for other consumers. A market place fueled by a well informed consumer opens up communication on all levels; resulting in what’s ideally an increase of quality in the product or services sold.

If a producer makes an excellent selling piece of software than other producers will be encouraged to create new software that even better meets the needs and wants of the consumer. With active communication between consumers and the producer there becomes an incline that would plateau at the inevitable edge of available technology and producer ingenuity.

This was a tag given to some games that encouraged real outrage with some people in the games community and industry.

Most notably was Gone Home.

The newest in Steam’s long line of disappointments is that Valve has prohibited “Not a Game” as a tag after the explosive response of those who felt it was insulting. While it’s understandable it could be seen as negative, there is a real value to tagging these titles as “not games” when they’re really stories. What’s troubling is that the tag “not a game” is actually appropriate as Steam sales various art and authoring software that also aren’t games. Ultimately removing the tag shows that Valve doubts the judgement of the majority of their users and is willing to bend their service to the misinformed feelings of a vocal group. This is one way to help change the meaning of words. There will be more about Steam in future transmissions though.

Unfortunately there were some close minded people who took issue with Gone Home’s themes, which should be no surprise as with anything popular, someone somewhere on the internet will dislike it for any number of reasons. What was a valid reason for concern, was the apparent unanimous praise Gone Home got from the media which was so wildly in opposition to the consumer’s response.

Reviewers who gave Gone Home such outstanding scores openly admitted it was for its story and how they felt it was unique that it was about a teenage lesbian and her first girlfriend. While homosexuality isn’t new to video games and the storytelling isn’t exactly revolutionary, other aspects of the title were not particularly strong or innovative. It’s clearly suspicious as it received perfect or near perfect scores for just one aspect, and in some cases just because of its subject matter regardless of whether it did anything else new or that none of what it did do was executed to perfection. Wouldn’t a perfect score mean that all aspects of a game were perfect? Even the story, which was it’s strongest suit, was too disjointed and short to create a real bond with its characters.

Whether its for one part of the game or on the basis of the reviewer’s emotional experience, this highly subjective approach removes common ground for communication with the audience.

The gaming media has proven itself to be lacking in many ways but what was most problematic was the complete branding and silencing and labeling of those who do not agree with them. Should the audiences be shamed or insulted by the media simply for not agreeing? This was the case with the Devil May Cry reboot and Mass Effect 3. It’s become tolerated and even expected that “professionals” in the industry act in this way toward the consumers who are supposed to guide the market. Even if the case of Gone Home isn’t actually something suspicious, there’s a problem when the media looks down on the people it is supposed to be informing and servicing.

Reason has been established to doubt the talking heads and blog like articles of the gaming press and actions like this can only create worse infighting and an even greater rift. Is it really appropriate to degrade and vilify someone for wanting to play something with game design?

In addition a game like Gone Home is considerably easier to make than a traditional game and if the press speaks endless praise of a game that is comparatively cheaper to produce, the perceived success of it can become a new direction in game development. This could be possible as the industry has demonstrated its already willing and eager to exploit the consumer in all kinds of pricing schemes.

In a push to make games more accessible, gameplay elements have become deluded. These challenges based on skill are an obstacle to those who just want an interactive story. It’s easier to just click through dialog and cut scenes than to overcome a gaming hurdle. It seems gameplay may become a victim to profit.

Contemporary military shooters already aren’t very difficult, with regenerating health, heavily scripted scenes, constant checkpoints, and AI partners that will kill your opponents for you. QTEs have become popular as it boils down what could be intense scenes of gameplay to lazy design and button prompts.

Telltale has seen such great success with their point and click adventure titles they’ll be managing four different series; The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among US and soon Borderlands and Game of Thrones. Despite their tendency to run over budget and miss deadlines, even Double Fine secured crowd funding to make two new titles, one of which is a point and click. And after closing Irrational Games Ken Levine said that he and his new team will “…make narrative-driven games for the core gamer that are highly replayable. “ It’s that narrative part that seems suspicious.

There’s clearly a growing interest in these sorts of titles so the caution of those who like gameplay isn’t uncalled for.

Hopefully the future of games won’t be wrestled into submission by story driven games lacking in formal elements, after it’s been so heavily dominated by an avalanche of first person shoots over the last several years.
Having these kinds of software titles isn’t a bad thing. The market can benefit with even more choice to the consumer, but being concerned that people have lost sight of the qualities that video games have started with is not wrong to do either especially when there’s a prevailing attitude that shuns them from saying this about any game outside of Demon/Dark Souls. These games are apparently one of the few titles that are still allowed to proudly boast its difficulty and is the go to comparison when someone wants to say their game is hard.

Gone Home’s most vocal supporters were outraged when users tagged Gone Home as “Not a Game”, not only because they want to define it as one, when it isn’t, but for some reason they think this is an insult. As the broad perception of gaming is shaped by the image the media creates, there has been a labeling of people who don’t agree with these journalists and commentators as anti-intellectuals or bigots. Why? Aren’t these the the same people who are always saying that video games are art?

Embracing an art form means fully exploring it from all kinds of views and themes, especially by giving it context with its formalist roots. A painter who can admire VanGogh’s technique and use of color is not the enemy of newly arrived art appreciator drawn in by modern experimentation. Is this how games are supposed to be appreciated? Silencing those who enjoy Formalism by calling them hate mongers?

If you agree with the views expressed in this video, please share it with as many people as possible, especially with those who agree as these views are not being well represented in the media. As the medium finds new and exciting ways of experimenting and making art, it’s worthwhile that newcomers also see and understand the formalist nature of game design.

If you’re someone who disagrees with the views expressed in this video or thought that anyone who held that view was simply a bigot or an obstacle to the art, it is deeply encouraged that you vote to dislike and that you share this video with as many people as possible. Let this idea be tested repeatedly and made to stand on its own merits or it’s destruction act as the foundation for better, stronger ideas.

This video isn’t meant to be a personal attack on any one person or the opinions they hold, rather it’s meant to help draw attention to the reasonable view of why some people felt ‘‘Gone Home” isn’t a game, how silencing the debate it created was only counter-productive and to highlight the flawed point of view the media has by pointing to the contradictions and vitriol.

It’s not really so bad to say “Gone Home” isn’t a game. Gone Home’s lead designer, Steve Gaynor, said he was okay with the criticism. Despite being The Fullbright Company’s most vocal member on Gone Home’s status as a game he seemed to agree.That doesn’t mean he’s immature, does it?

The art form needs constructive discussion and it won’t happen if we stereotype and write off those who don’t share our view as enemies.The privilege of having a platform or professional status is a power that carries with it responsibility. Can the hostility of an audience really be condemned when those who should be our guides not only act just as toxic but profit from it?

Is the medium really maturing when even those who should represent the best of us act in this way?

To condemn someone as a bigot is not only ignorant and irresponsible, it’s dangerous. In certain environments campaigning the idea that someone is a bigot can destroy their reputation and livelihood.

Are we really so callous that we are willing to jump to a conclusion that would destroy a person just because they don’t share our opinion? Is it really so easy to forget our ideological opponent is also a living, breathing, person like we are? Is this what we want to be?

The criticism of bigotry requires proof and anything short of a personal admission or obvious behavior is not proof. Accusational interpretations are not proof and unexpressed thoughts are not crimes.

Saying “not a game” is not a call to war. It’s not even an insult. It’s a clarification of bold experiments. There are and will be people who say it with insecurity, but ultimately it is in respect of the roots of this art form. It is in respect to pioneers and artists who created a new kind of entertainment in cramped garages and apartments, not knowing if there would even be an audience for what they made.

I honor them and I honor those first steps onto a path the timid had no interest in.

…and for what it’s worth some of my favorite games are “not games” and I enjoy them just as much or more than even the most punishing titles in my library.

Until next time.


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Sources –
Gone Home Metacritic –
Wikipedia LGBT characters –
Yes, Tony is Gay –

Gone Home reviews:
Recommended Reviews:
Eurogamer –
Gather Your Party –

Featured Reviews:
Kotaku –
Polygon –
Giant Bomb –

Hsu and Gerstmann:

After E3 2013 –

Idle Thumbs –
Giant Bomb Bastion Review –
Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann -

Leigh Alexander’s Article –
BranWheatKillah’s Steam Post –
Leigh Alexander’s FAQ –

A Message from Ken Levine –

HyperBitHero’s The Order 1886 video –

Polygon’s DuckTales Remastered Review -
Tomodachi Life -
Forbes article about Robert Florence –

Steve Gaynor’s tweet –
Steve Gaynor’s deleted tweets –

Hanako Games –
George Kaitani –
Kotaku Dragon Crown Article –

Klepek and Alafax Youtube –
Klepek encouraging Harassment –

Music by Chris Zabriskie,