Sean Willett/the Gauntlet

Northern Sprites: The two faces of video games

Should all video games still be called video games?

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Even to a person who is familiar with video games the list of speakers at this year’s Ottawa International Game Conference could seem perplexing. Looking down the list, one can find that for every independent, bearded artist there are half a dozen suit-clad marketing gurus — with a few nerdy programmers sitting awkwardly between those two vastly different groups. People this different can’t possibly be representative of the same industry, can they?

In a way, they aren’t really in the same industry at all. The term ‘video game’ has been applied to an extraordinarily broad range of interactive experiences, to the point where a phone app involving matching colourful gems and a story about a Brazilian man’s experiences with an alcoholic father can be lumped together without anyone batting an eye. ‘Video game’ now serves more as an umbrella term than anything else, a catch-all category encompassing both mindless diversions and meaningful works of art. Yet, strangely, the tendency remains to treat video games as a single, homogenous entity.

Most video games can be fit into either one or both of two major categories: for the purposes of this argument let’s call them ‘tests of skill’ and ‘interactive stories.’ These two groups are similar in the same way that commercials are similar to movies — while both commercials and movies are a series of moving images accompanied by sound, they are otherwise fundamentally different. Likewise, while both types of video games are digital experiences constrained by specific sets of rules, tests of skill mainly focus on challenging the player to beat a high score or complete some sort of test, while interactive stories attempt to communicate some sort of message or artistic statement to their audience.

While many video games can fit into both categories — most big budget games such as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty mix both approaches with various degrees of success — the divide that exists between the two extreme ends of this spectrum is what has caused the most confusion. Not only are tests of skill and interactive stories completely different experiences, but they are usually created for different reasons, distributed in different ways, criticised using different standards and played by different people. One way is not necessarily better than the other, it’s just that tests of skill like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga are so different from interactive stories like Journey and The Walking Dead that the two groups can’t even be compared.

This difference is why looking down the list of speakers at OIGC is so confusing. Imagining a person that would be excited to see a scruffy hipster talk about his independent game collective right after listening to a seminar about mobile marketing strategies takes a significant amount of mental gymnastics. The conference is obviously attempting to appeal to the widest range of people as possible, although there is a bit more emphasis placed on the business side of video games — something that is much more closely related to the primarily profit-driven tests of skill.

As the industry expands and diversifies, I will be interested in seeing whether or not people will continue to attempt to treat all video games as one entity. How much longer will business-minded CEOs intent on learning the latest word on microtransactions and aspiring artists looking for advice on how to use sound in their narratives be forced to endure each other’s company? This depends on whether or not the divide separating the different types of video games grows or shrinks — there is a lot that these disparate groups of developers can learn from each other, and a future where the lines between narrative-driven games and skill-driven games is blurred even further is far from an impossibility. The most likely future, however, is one where video games split into more than just a straightforward binary, and become as varied and complex as other forms of media.

A change to how we talk about video games will most likely come sooner than later. With the release of ‘games’ like Proteus and Dear Esther, more and more critics are arguing over what actually constitutes a game, causing small changes to the lexicon surrounding video games to already occur. What we once simply knew as ‘video games’ aren’t very simple anymore, and the way we categorize them can’t stay simple either.

Northern Sprites is a bi-monthly column looking at video games and technology in Canada.