Defining Games Pt. 2: What’s Wrong With Defining Games?

Previously, I brought up the topic of why people try to define what a game is, concluding that this urge arises in order to address the very real problem of being unable to have productive discourse pertaining to games without a shared definition in place. While this logic does seem it make sense, I believe it is ultimately deeply flawed. Thus, the question for this blog post is as follows: What’s wrong with defining games?

The answer to this question lies predominantly in the fact that I do not believe it is possible, as many hope to accomplish through creating game definitions, to actually come up with a definition that encompasses all games and still functions to provide any useful contextualization for talking about games. In what I have observed of people attempting to define games, such endeavors wind up going down two paths. Either their definition becomes so broad as to include anything that could possibly be considered a game (and thus winding up extremely vague and unhelpful in providing contextualization for conversations) or, more commonly, the definition serves to exclude certain works that others would consider to be games. The later of these two paths I believe to be just as unhelpful, perhaps even more so, though admittedly for a different reason.

The issue that arises from this is that a definition which explicitly creates boundaries pertaining to what is and isn’t a game actively excludes the people who hold definitions contrary to it. At best, this means that whatever the definition is being used for might not be as useful as it could be (ie. research being limited in scope). At worst though, and this is arguably unavoidable, such definitions serve to reinforce systems of power that actively harm and repress people of non-normative identities and backgrounds. Such is the case in Aubrey Anable’s Casual Games, Time Management, and the Work of Affect, in which Anable illustrates how the lack of regarding casual games as games by the academic community who studies games meant that the role of women as gamers was equally disregarded. Such a blatant exclusion of women from game narratives occurred largely because of the exclusive definition of games being used by many academics.

While I understand why people (academics in particular) seek to define games, I would argue that doing so is at best unhelpful, and at worst directly harmful. In the end, I would challenge those who seek to define games even with the best of intentions, and ask them: Who are you to define games?

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