Things Best Expressed by Games

There are, I think, some things best expressed by games, as opposed to other media. When I say ‘games,’ I mostly mean videogames, but some of this probably applies to other games as well. I don’t think these are necessarily qualities of games themselves, but of how we currently develop games; nevertheless, I think these apply at least to games as we now know them.

These qualities mostly come back to two things that games have and most other media don’t (or have less): procedurality and interactivity. Games consist of processes and players interact with them. Other things can also consist of processes and be interactive, but games are currently the most prominent example of both.

Games are good at expressing:

  1. Connections between things. This can mean causal connections (“if I change this, that moves”), but can also mean correlations. Whole genres of games are built on simulating complex systems. It’s hard to play Cities: Skylines without coming away with at least a rudimentary understanding of how the complexities of urban transport operate. This doesn’t mean all connections, since games are decidedly worse at portraying personal relationships than novels.

  2. Failure. Games can give you a chance of doing something and seeing how you fail. Some games are simply hard, but others can be impossible. They can show you that your chosen approach is not suited to a task at hand, for example by making an enemy unbeatable unless you adopt a specific strategy. Some games also make tasks intentionally impossible (like September 12th) to express that a thing (terrorism) can’t be solved by the tools at hand (missiles).

  3. Complicity. Some games focus on how you are the person making things happen. This means that whatever happens in the game – good or bad – is your fault. Spec Ops: The Line makes you complicit in war crimes while you guide Captain Walker through Dubai on a quest to help people. He didn’t mean for those bad things to happen any more than you did, but they did – and they only did because of your help.

This is a very short list, so I probably missed something. If you think of something that I missed, please tell me on Twitter or Mastodon.

Thank you to L. Rhodes for constructive feedback.