WHAT ARE GAMES
I find this rather burdensome to write, but it feels necessary to set out my thoughts given recent rumblings, and specifically to respond to this article and its comments.
I don't call Proteus an antigame* or a notgame. I call it a game, but obviously I am at pains to make it clear that it doesn't have explicit challenge or "winning."
I’m also absolutely not against game mechanics or traditional schools of design.
If you want to narrow your definition of "game" for purposes of academic study or personal taste, then that's fine, but the vagueness of the term itself has been around as long as things that we call games. "Snakes and Ladders" is my favourite example of this inconsistency: it involves no decision making and therefore is well outside of many of the stricter definitions, but clearly is a boardgame as far as society is concerned. More recently, videogames like The Sims and SimCity are also "not games" according to some.
The stricter the definition of an inherently nebulous concept, the more absurd the implications. Should Dear Esther and Proteus be excluded from stores that sell games? Not covered in the games press? Since Sim City is either a toy or a simulation, that should be excluded too, along with flight simulators.
Are all comics "comical?" Meanings are fluid. Most of the words we use don’t mean what they originally meant – that’s just how everyday language works.
If you are a game designer and you are focusing on a particular formal definition or have a guiding principle to your work, like Sid Meier’s famous motto “A game is a series of interesting decisions” then go ahead. Insisting that your definition is the definition is a foolish obsession.
Proteus doesn't have or even aspire to the same systemic complexity as SimCity, but it does have systems. It's just 95% optional whether you engage with them and it generally doesn’t give you any confirmation when you do. There’s a design reason for this. But, as the other headline went: Who cares? Would adding more game-like elements improve it? Or would it just be a box-ticking exercise that would harm** what it's designed to express?
Outside of academic discussions, encouraging a strict definition of “game” does nothing but foster conservatism and defensiveness in a culture already notorious for both. Witness the raging threads on the Proteus Steam forum, most of which are posted (and re-posted and re-posted) by people who don’t own the game. There’s a huge difference between this kind of “activism” or claiming something is the Emperor’s New Clothes and individual people trying something and deciding it’s not for them.
Proteus was certainly made by a game developer (and a musician), working in the context of videogames, using game design and development techniques to express a particular set of things. None of that is really important, because the proof is in the playing.
(* I’m not accusing Mike of misquoting me here, as that part of our conversation was fairly ambiguous and more about my insistence that I don’t subscribe to the term “notgame” rather than signing up to a new term)
(** The emperor of the South Sea was called Shu [Brief], the emperor of the North Sea was called Hu [Sudden], and the emperor of the central region was called Hun-tun [Chaos]. Shu and Hu from time to time came together for a meeting in the territory of Hun-tun, and Hun-tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could repay his kindness. "All men," they said, "have seven openings so they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. But Hun-tun alone doesn't have any. Let's trying boring him some!" Every day they bored another hole, and on the seventh day Hun-tun died. - Zhuangzi)
Thanks for the comments. It's worth reiterating that the looseness of the word "game" is actually the original state rather than some limited formalistic definition, which perhaps originates in the "game theory" of the 20th century. I had forgotten about Wittgenstein's classic use of "game" as an example of the concept of family resemblances - thanks Lana Polansky and Chris McDowall.
Despite not subscribing to the term "notgame", Michaël Samyn's manifesto is a good, provocative read.
Old friend Simon Brislin pointed out something I should have made a bigger deal of in linking to the Gamasutra post: Who on the internet needs reassurance that it's ok to share their dislike of something?
Finally, I'm not feeling brought down by this whole argument, though it's regrettable to me that Proteus is being used as such a prominent example. We've had such an amazing wave of nice messages and good write-ups that the number of people who dislike it feels irrelevant. From a practical point of view, it looks like it should make enough in sales to pay for development time on a new project. After a long and uncertain development, and a very stressful January, it feels amazingly freeing.