What’s in a name? What’s in a game?

Written by: Liz Owens Boltz

Primary Source: Liz Owens Boltz

I find the “game vs. not-a-game” debate to be problematic and unproductive; yet it’s a discussion that crops up time and time again. It has been argued, for example, that stories cannot be games because they lack interaction; and toys cannot be games because they lack player goals (Fullerton, 2008).

Immediately a question forms: how do those strict definitions account for the surprising and novel ways that play can emerge? Can’t we interact with stories, build upon them, respond to them, and rearrange them in different ways? Isn’t interpretation a form of interaction? And what about toys – how often do we see children interacting with toys in unexpected (maybe even “gameful”) ways?

It seems more interesting to keep our definitions broad — and perhaps, to focus on the experience of play and less on drawing firm boundaries or categories for what is a game and what is not. This approach seems to focus more on the player, and her interaction with the game, than on the game itself. A broad definition seems better equipped, therefore, to leave space that accounts for player-side emergence, subversive play, and the fact that people don’t always follow the “intended use” of…well, anything :)

For games that seek to encourage meaningful play, it seems important that designers be open to the wide-ranging, varied, subjective experiences players may have instead of limiting their own perspectives with rigid definitions.

As Ferrara notes in Playful Design, “If designers didn’t conceive of games in broad terms, we wouldn’t have so many diverse ways to play” (2012, Loc 465).

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Hello! I'm a doctoral student in the Educational Psychology & Educational Technology program at Michigan State University. My research interests involve the affordances of video games for learning - specifically, how specific design features can affect learning outcomes such as historical empathy. Prior to pursuing doctoral study, I served as the web content administrator for a private university in Ohio, where I developed, managed, and wrote content for the main website, portal system, and mobile site. Working in higher education, I helped students to blog about their experiences studying abroad, connected classrooms with podcasts and video, and emphasized the importance of accessibility, usability, and intuitive information architecture. I hold a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Literature from the University of Toledo.