When does software become a game?


I swear this isn’t a post about whether or not games should be considered art. I’ll be writing this post under the assumption that they are, and from there begin to identify the point at which game design shifts from being craft and becomes art. The craft of game design lies in the tasks that are most commonly associated with game design: programming, graphical design, sound design, etc. It’s a common argument to suggest that many of the component parts of a video game could be considered art when evaluated apart from the rest of a game. But they are applied to video games, they are art assets in service to another goal rather than to their own. You do not play a game strictly to listen to its soundtrack, or admire scenery. It’s part of the reason you are playing though.

Video games are software, and something that’s fascinated me for as long as I care to remember is the question of when does software change from just being software and become a game. It’s a topic I’ve explored in the past and written about here. It’s one of the key reasons I’ve become a software engineer myself, and I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years learning about software design. A fair deal of effort I’ve put into it during that time was into learning about game programming. In discerning what makes software a video game, it’s easy to say “I know it when I see it.” But when it comes to creating one yourself, you’re jumping down a rabbit hole that becomes overwhelming. It can be very challenging to become a good programmer and even more challenging to become a good game programmer. So when you are simultaneously trying to surmount those challenges, you end up with a whole lot of ideas that get off the ground only to crash into a mountain of existential doubts. Many times it’s easier to derive new games from other existing games, since trying to tackle all of these challenges at once is so difficult. Though we still haven’t explained where the original idea of the game originates from and how it comes to be.


The best analogy I can make to explain the concept of designing and implementing a game as art is to compare game design with the composition and performance of music by an orchestra. To create a game, there are many jobs that must be done in concert with one another, not unlike musicians who are broken up by the type of instrument they play. It requires skilled coordination by a director or team lead to craft a game, perhaps similar to the  role a conductor plays. But this analogy requires there to be a composition that’s been prepared and ready to be performed.  I’m certain that once more game design, apart from the crafting of a game, is something that we know when we see. It still leaves the question of what exactly it is? The composer knows what instruments are available, and what musicians are capable of. The concepts of music theory are harnessed to compose a piece that can be performed in a way that engages the audience. So what are the concepts of game design theory that the game “composer” could arrange to engage the audience?

There are high level concepts used to describe game design theory: level design, game mechanics, difficulty curves, and many others. Even these concepts are nebulous and rely on assumptions held by video game enthusiasts that are easily quantified or agreed upon. Level design can be pointed out in other games. They can be deconstructed and recomposed into new concepts, but you can’t simply add “level design” to software and get a game. Nor can you tack on “game mechanics” or other high concepts into software to produce a game. A lower level foundation is required to achieve those high concepts. You need notes before you can have scales, melodies, or harmonies. I’ve tried to write about this in the past in trying to separate the concept of games from fun, and I’ve written about a fair few games using lower level game concepts as a basis to deconstruct them. It was a bit awkward in its execution, but also an interesting exercise.

Software requires three basic components to become a game and to build toward higher level design concepts. Verbs, spaces, and impressions are the “notes” used to compose games. Remove any of them, and a game returns to being software. They are entirely conceptual and have no attachment to the crafting of a game. They don’t require one to have a background in programming to be able to compose them.  And the resulting design could be feasibly handed off to a developer and made a reality. For the purposes of this discussion, the game’s design can exist independently of how it is crafted. It can exist in the same way a piece of sheet music exists, and then be performed by any number of “orchestras.” We do see this many times with classic games. Developers will take a game like Tetris and rebuild it to master the craft of game programming and to admire the design of the experience. It could be said that a game like Tetris is recreated by amateur game developers so often because of its simplicity. But it’s a game that’s been thoroughly deconstructed and defined. Rather than being simple, its design is accessible and easy to understood when it’s been properly executed. It is a demonstration that game compositions can be picked up and “performed” by other developers as though it were a piece of sheet music.


Without repeating the content of earlier posts, let me try to describe verbs, spaces, and impressions. Broadly speaking, verbs describe how the players are able to express themselves. What are they capable of doing and “saying” in the confines of the game? Spaces represent the area in which these verbs manifest and how the game will proceed to respond. The interplay of verbs and spaces is a sort of conversation between the players and the game, and the progression of that conversation represents the game’s impressions. They are how exactly the conversations affect and change the game. I’ve often seen the case made that the art of games lies in the player acting as a storyteller communicating their experience with a game. This may be so, but the design of the conversation is important, otherwise it is simply a story about software rather than a game.  Once you have these three components, you can begin to build a solid foundation for the concept of game design and composition apart from the crafting of game software.

I believe that this brings us closer to understanding the point at which software becomes a game, but there is still one important, missing piece. Even if I were to take a piece of software like a spreadsheet editor and compare it to a game, I could still identify verbs, spaces, and impressions in both. What makes these components different in a game? It’s what end they serve that differentiates them. Spreadsheet editing software serves your need to organize information. It caters to the constraints of the data. The verbs, spaces, and impressions of a game serve the game itself, as its own end – a piece of software that serves no functional purpose other than to engage an audience. Maybe this is the point where you might stop suspending your disbelief. Would entertaining the audience with software be the same as providing you with tables of data? If that is your opinion, then I couldn’t hope to persuade you in the space of one blog post. I can only speak to it in my own experience as a software developer who has spent a lot of time trying to jump in between those two types of software.  But I believe that point where software seeks to serve its own ends as a game exists and is important to identify as part of the art of games apart from the crafting of games.


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