BioShock is Not a Game 24

BioShock is not a game. Neither is Half-Life, and neither is Braid. We shouldn’t be calling things games when we aren’t playing them against people.

Is this a problem? Not really. Just because single-player games are something akin to puzzles doesn’t take away from their enjoyment, and certainly doesn’t prevent them from presenting authentically moving experiences. However, this distinction between single and multiplayer games allows for criticism that gets closer to the matter of these works, since they have different goals.

For clarity’s sake, I’m calling single player games “ractives” (short for “interactives,” taken from Neal Stephenson’s term in The Diamond Age, where he distinguishes between ractive and passive entertainment.) This seems appropriate, since their distinguishing mark is their interactivity. Multiplayer games, on the other hand, I’m going to continue calling games. These terms are helpful, since they allow us to make more precise distinctions when criticizing playables, a term I use to cover ractives and games together.

It is legitimate to ask, for example, whether playables like Minecraft or Dear Esther are the same sort of thing as BioShock or Half-Life. One could argue, for example, that Minecraft is really a toy and Dear Esther is really a kind of audio book. I maintain, however, that the single-player/multiplayer distinction is the most fundamental, and that by categorizing playables this way they will be subject to more effective criticism. Once we recognize Minecraft and Dear Esther as ractives, for example, they can be judged against non-electronic ractives like Solitaire or the Rubik’s Cube. Similarly, games like Team Fortress 2, EVE Online, Settlers of Catan, and Chess can all be scrutinized together.

Why do I think the ractive/game dichotomy is fundamental?

A distinguishing mark of all ractives and games is choice; in fact, we could say that choices are what playables are composed  of. Although secondary arts such as music, voice acting, and visual design do have an impact on the work’s aesthetic effect, choices remain at the core; one could take out everything other than mechanics, and the playable would still exist. These choices, of course, are always limited, and the limits imposed on the player or players are enforced through mechanics.

The key here is that the mechanics in a ractive are geared towards a different goal than in a game. In a ractive, the designer controls half of the equation, the second half being the player. These two components are in conflict with each other in some manner; the ractive may contain enemies to kill, lands to explore, people to impress, buildings to build, or any combination of challenges. However, no matter what these are, the challenges are always between the fixed creation of the designer, and the free agency of the player.

The aim of a ractive work is to induce an aesthetic effect in the player through his interaction with the world. Ractives are necessarily incomplete; it is in finishing the work that the player experiences the designer’s vision, and it is in making the choices available to him that he does this. This relationship, between designer and player, the fixed and the mobile, forms the heart of a ractive.

On the other hand, the relationships within a game exist between players. One’s choices are inevitably made on the basis of what one’s opponents are doing, or are likely to do. Instead of fixed vs. mobile, games are mobile vs. mobile. Whereas a ractive engages a player in interpreting the designer’s purpose, a game engages players in the social activities of interpretation and communication. In a ractive, information flows one way, from designer to player; in a game, information flows in every direction at once. In a ractive, the play mechanics help you understand the designer’s thoughts; in a game, they let you express your own to other players. In a game, the aesthetic effect is generated by the unique types of player interaction permitted by the mechanics, rather than interaction with a fixed environment.

(A side note: Many ractives attempt to simulate a player vs. player experience, but these simulations always fall short, as dyadic action-reaction AI will never be able to truly replicate the behavior of a triadic signifier-referent human mind. In any case, players are mostly uninterested in bots acting like humans, except insofar as they are a meaningful product of the human designer’s mind.)

What does all this tell us about playable criticism?

Games and ractives have to be judged in different ways. Games ought to be judged in a manner similar to the way that the board gaming community looks at non-electronic games. Are the mechanics elegant and intuitive? Do they provide new, exciting, and innovative forms of interaction? Are the mechanics well integrated with the theme? Considerations such as music, visuals, and voice over work are secondary. This isn’t to say that they are unimportant (no one likes to play something ugly), but by bringing the interpersonal mechanics to the forefront, game criticism can begin to look at the ways that video games succeed and fail at making a game a better game, rather than one with higher polygon counts.

Ractives are a different story. Since one’s attention in a ractive is focused primarily on the world rather than on the activity of another player, secondary arts such as music, character, and visual design have a much higher value. Players are immersed in these arts as they encounter the ractive’s world, and they can speak to ractive players in ways that are mostly irrelevant in a game, since they are an expression of the person the player is competing against. Mechanics remain vital, but their goal in a ractive is to express the designer’s vision, rather than to express the player’s.

Are ractives a higher form of art than games? This is probably impossible to answer, mostly because the aesthetic appeal of a game is much harder to put one’s finger on. Board gamers will often rave about the beauty and elegance of a game system, where the interlocking mechanics produce unique experiences and complex choices, but it’s a cold, intellectual sort of beauty. Few video games have reached the mechanical brilliance of the best board games, but even if someday they do, their artistic appeal will be just as abstract.

Ractives, on the other hand, live more on their surface. Dear Esther, BioShock, Braid, or Shadow of the Colossus produce immediate cathartic effects not dissimilar from the effects created in movies or literature, albeit through different means. In a ractive we are encountering an author directly, while in a game we are using an author’s system to interact with other people.

It might be that games and ractives are basically incommensurable. Nevertheless, this realization may be the key to producing better playables, ones which understand their own inherent strengths and provide players with the most enriching experiences.

Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.

  • Hannah DuVoix

    Very interesting thoughts. I’m intrigued by the notion that games and ractives would have different kinds of beauty, with elegance for each being considered based on different criteria. Where do you place MMORPGs, which have elements of both?

  • Jeremiah Westly

    Great article! I couldn’t agree with you more! I’m actually kinda surprised I didn’t see this before.

    As to Hannah’s question I would answer: the genre is still trying to figure this out themselves. It would tend to depend on which game and what you are doing in it. A game like SWTOR is more of a hybrid at first glance (or Frankenstein’s monster depending on your POV) but it is more of a game trying to be a reactive. It has elements of being a reactive, but at it’s core the genre is a game. The ones that have this figured out are probably the more successful ones.

  • kavi

    I think the truly ontological point here is that video “games” are an art form rather than a genre. People (and dictionaries) haven’t figured this out yet. So “game” will have to suffice :D

    • Ben Milton

      I agree, Kavi, that games are an art form rather than a genre. I just think that they are a different art form than a ractive, although they use some of the same tools.

    • T. Dawson

      “Game” doesn’t really suffice, though, despite how liberally we use it as a descriptor. Example: today I met up with a friend after work for a drink and a chat. What he was mostly interested in telling me about was his experience in Minecraft, of which he is a recent convert (or possibly I mean victim, depending on your personal experience).

      Minecraft is a big hit in the gaming community. It’s a very successful game. Except, at the heart of it, it ISN’T a game as we conventionally understand such a thing. It’s just a box full of toys; you could build a castle, sure. Then what? Does it advance a storyline or grant anything new, or is it simply a pointless, functionless object that sits there defiantly reminding the player of a lot of wasted time?

      It’s a passtime, but it isn’t a game. There’s no way to win, no metric to measure progress. Yet it is a “game”. I think the term “video game” is becoming more of an umbrella term than a specific description – we experience graphical simulations of reality (or unreality) through the medium of a console and controller, or a PC and a keyboard, or these days even a telephone – in the same way as “sports”. You might say you like sports, but you’d then have to specify whether you like cricket or hockey. Saying you like video games is, to those in the know, much the same thing. You may say you like video games but the person you’re talking to doesn’t know if you mean puzzlers or FPS. Where the water gets murkier is that to those who DON’T know, all video games are the same and capable of being conflated into one amorphous mass, something they can ascribe behaviour or beliefs to and declare “That is video games!”

      So “game” doesn’t suffice as a descriptive term, because it allows all games to be lumped together under one heading, and once they’re accepted as being one thing it becomes easier to attach labels to that thing. Since the labels usually ascribed to video games in the media are negative, this allows for the denigration of a wide range of interests. When a news reports talks about how such-and-such shooting was the result of video games rather than FPS games, you’re seeing the effect of this. Nobody blames Peggle if a guy gets shot over a CoD feud, but they DO blame video games as a collective, and that’s not good.

      • Ben Milton

        I agree. We need more acurate ways to express the kinds of experiences digital entertainment provides. When there’s only one word for it, it all get lumped together as brilliant, evil, puerile, cutting-edge, or whatever.

        • T. Dawson

          Don’t be silly, you can’t agree with me. I’m a rebel, an outsider, I go my own way and my opinions are totally distinct from anyone else on the internet who may have posted similar ruminations!


  • Ben Milton

    It would depend on the RPG, I’d say. For the most part, I’d say they were hybrids (and not very good hybrids, which explains why they are so boring), but some, like EVE Online, is much more of a game, while ones that focus on PvE like Guild Wars are more of a ractive.

    The problem with most MMOs is that they get confused by their own hybridization and can’t figure out what kind of experience they want people to have.

    How about one based only on kingdom vs. kingdom warfare, where the goal of each player is to help level up their kingdom, not themselves? How about one where the whole player community is pitted against a ravenously hostile world, one which actually will wipe out the whole player population and end the game if neglected only momentarily?

    By focusing on static quests, temporary parties, personal level ups, occasional PvP, etc, MMOs end up not being ABOUT anything in particular, other than a glorified chat room full of repetitive actions. But get all those players to play an actual GAME together…and something amazing can happen.

  • Mark

    The definition I have always worked under is that games are a form of play or sport, usually with a competitive streak to them. But whether you are competing with yourself, against the game, or against friends in person, online, or in leaderboards does not matter; they are still games.

    So, although I agree with your point that single, and coop/multiplayer games are different beasts, and must be reviewed, critiqued, enjoyed in unique ways, I don’t see a need to splinter the term “game” apart; especially when the words above already convey much of the meaning you argue for in this piece. As for quickly getting into specifics of genre and gameplay, we have a full library of subcategories we are all familiar with and have already built a robust dialogue around (indie, art, rpg, jrpg, mmo, platformer, action, adventure, rts, moba, and so on). You may have to string a few of them together to explain things like Braid and Bioshock, but if we split “games” apart as you suggest, then there will also become a whole new set of subcategories for ractives; further muddying the waters for newcomers and hobbyists and setting into motion an eternal argument over what constitutes what.

    On a somewhat related note, the community backlash to terms like “casual” and “hardcore” have shown that we understand there are different types of games and gamers, but that separating them is futile, possibly even a harmful effort to the gaming community, since their elements/habits are not self-contained. Most people consider games a safe-haven from the outside world. They can share experiences and stories with people they may hate in real life. We should strive to keep that as pure and simple as possible.

    …also, I’m pretty sure if anyone actually spoke the term “ractive” within arms reach of me, the urge to slap the RayBans off their face, knock their PBR to the ground, and let their nose hear the sweet crack of my fist would be too great to harness. The word just wreaks of needless pretension.

    • Ben Milton

      Well, I only picked a new term because it seemed useful (that’s the only good reason for coming up with new terms, right?) It seems to me that the distinction between single and multiplayer is fundamental enough to warant it.

      It’s like the distinction between reading a letter and having a conversation, except in this case the letter-writer made up the language being used (and made the the language in just such a way that it better comunicates his meaning), and in the second you’re using this made up language to comunicate with a third party. The language (play mechanics) can remain the same, but the expereince is very different.

  • NCares

    What about games that can be both single and multiplayer?

    So, are you saying that, for example, Unreal Tournament played against bots needs to be defined with a different word than Unreal Tournament played against other players? Actually that sounds kinda silly to me. It’s UT, it’s one game, it’s the same thing.

    Or what about single player games that can also be played as cooperative multiplayer? My point is, single player are games. If you play it, it’s a game. Solitaire, minesweeper, Half Life etc are games.

    If you make up rules and play alone with a ball you are playing a game that you just made up.

    Anyhow, very interesting read, really. Maybe it’s true that there’s a need for games to be judged in two different ways depending if the game is focused on the world or focused on the game. From my point of view a games is good only if it’s good as a game.

    I do think that Shadow of the Colossus or The Journey are bad games for example. While arcade (single player *wink*) games like the Metal Slug series or Cave’s vertical shooters are masterpieces of game design as I see it.

    Also, I don’t agree with this: “Few video games have reached the mechanical brilliance of the best board games…”. But that’s another topic. :)

    • Ben Milton

      Yeah, the boardgame/videogame comparison is a controversial one, and hopefully I’ll write more about that later. It is subjective when it comes down to it, but the fact is that boardgames have none of the distractions of videogames. They can’t lean on graphics, music, effects, etc. All they have is mechaincs. And some of the best german board games (Puerto Rico, Thurn and Taxis, Settlers of Catan, etc) take this to it’s own level of art.

      I consider co-op videogames to be ractives, since one is still opposed to the environment rather than each other.

      I also think that Unreal vs. bots is still a ractive, since you aren’t really expressing yourself to another player or trying to understand one. That being said, it does feel close, though it doesn’t ever quite make it, bots being basically uncreative programs. That just makes it a bad ractive, in the end, because everyone knows that it’s better when played as a game against people.

      • Matthew Schanuel

        Yeah, seems a useful dichotomy – I mean, dichotomies aren’t supposed to be ultimate, after all, and it seems like this is a distinction worth having. I do wonder about the Unreal bots vs. humans, though. You note that, at some level, it feels different… this assumes two things: A. The individual having the experience has a high level of aptitude and familiarity with the experience, such that the feel can be distinguished and the lack of creativity of these bots is noticed, and B. That the bots are exceptionally uncreative. Programming has gotten pretty rich these days, and I know that, on my occasions, I’ve been playing a game and a friend asked, “So is somebody controlling those other guys?” Especially as we move toward virtual intelligences, I think the line between these experiences in the video game format will become really fine.

        It also begs the question: what’s important, the actual nature of the entities controlling the activity in the digitally-expressed theater of the mind, or the experience of the player? If the player cannot distinguish bot from human, would the game/ractive dichotomy still apply to that experience? That’s delving pretty deep, but I’m curious to know your stance; seems that, to some degree, this dichotomy depends upon the relative crudity of programming to an active human mind. Are you playing AGAINST an opponent who is responding to your plays, or are you playing AGAINST a developer who has programmed his side of the competition in advance?

        • Ben Milton

          It’s conceivable that one might play certain kinds of games against a computer and never realize it. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t gain any real insight into another person, and you wouldn’t ever really be able to express yourself, because there would be no one to express yourself to. The relationship between you and your “opponent” would be an illusion. I take it for granted that we play games in order to experience personal interaction, which has consequences both for ourselves and other people. Since this is ultimately what we’re after when we play games, computers will inevitably fall short.

          Put another way, if you thought you were playing against a human opponent in online chess, for example, and you squeezed out a win, and felt triumphant, and then found out it was a computer, wouldn’t you feel let down? I would. A victory like that doesn’t mean the same thing. I think we all would admit that games get better the more human contact we have with our opponents. Hearing them over a mike is better than text chat, and playing against them in the same room is the best.

          • Matthew Schanuel

            I think that many would disagree with the assertion that games are necessarily better with increased human contact; I know that there are times when I would rather avoid human contact and simply interact with the mechanics, regardless of whether I’m playing against a human or a programmed opponent. You focus on the feeling of victory; that’s not always just what I’m after in a game, and is often not the main reason I play games. I really enjoy learning a system, figuring it out, such that loss is nearly as fun as winning. What matters is that I’m seeing the mechanics flex and bend.

            Now, especially in regard to your statement about expression against a computer opponent, I find your stance interesting… and honestly, this ties right back into my last article here on the OntoGeek. I think regardless of whether you’re interacting with a human or digital construction, you can still construct meaning. I’d certainly challenge your assertion that I wouldn’t be able to gain insight into another person via games against a computer, and I think that, without knowing what entity is on the other end of a game, playing against a computer might even be MORE meaningful. Basically, I don’t think that the reality of another person against which one competes changes the potentially transformative elements of interacting with a game for the player. Playing against a complex biological computer can change things, depending on the game, but it doesn’t have to, and it can be essentially the same experience for a player who chooses to eschew more personal interactions, which is allowed in many games today. I don’t think that the “game” experience can be so easily distilled to a mechanism for human interaction.

          • Jeremiah

            It won’t let me reply to Matt below, so I’ll do it here.

            It seems Ben is really driving the line between PvP (game) and PvE (ractive), with some subtle differences tagged on as caveats. As someone who has played a lot of both (especially PvP, in both MMOs, and Shooters) I feel qualified to say it is VERY easy to tell a computer from a person, simply because in no way can you program a computer to act like one, both in good and bad ways.

            It’s extremely difficult for people to program “aggro” into an NPC in a way that acts like someone would in an actual PvP scenario, so in MMOs, there is an entire mechanical system which players deconstruct in order to “game” the system. This really isn’t an issue in a single player game, because the player is the focus. And in PvP, this simply impossible to do.

            Bot’s are just notoriously terrible, and I used to play against them A LOT back in the day, cause I hated playing against friends. Thankfully now the prevalence on online servers and matchmaking means that my friends and I can fight coooperatively against other players.

            But to respond to what Matt says below, he’s exactly talking about what drives Ben’s point here. When he says he’s avoiding contact with people because he wants to enjoy X Y Z, that’s exactly what Ben is saying a “ractive” needs to be judge on. What you appreciate from PvE games, is the experience. What you enjoy from PvP games is the challenge of a completely unpredictable opponent. You have the knowledge that in this moment, you triumphed and someone else failed, it’s a declaration of your skill over someone else’s.

            Some people may play Solitare and compare their “score” with others on some kind of leaderboard, but it’s a different experience and the rare exception, not the rule itself.

            When I play Mass Effect, it’s because I love the experience of being in that world. The goal of the programmers should be to make the mechanics as invisible as possible so that I can experience their story, environment, and vision. When I play Battlefield 3, it’s ALL about the mechanics. I want to have the best kit, the best weapon, and the best squad, all working in concert with my play style for maximum efficiency so that we can triumph over someone else. Sure there is should be some reward in the playing of the game itself, but most people play to win, rather than just to participate (and it’s that triumph of victory which really grants the high).

  • Frenzy23

    Really interesting article, Ben. It’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, but never been able to fully expound upon. Keep it up!

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Response to Jeremiah:

    See, that seems pointlessly essentialist to me.

    I think that the motives, and rewards, of a player interacting with a PvP and PvE scenario is much more complex than “experience” vs “competition.” Competition can and does seep into games played against a programmed, uncreative entity; finishing off any boss in Demons Souls offers far greater rewards to my competitive side than a match of Halo ever has. I enjoy many shooters partially because of the rush and breathlessness of the action – the experience of being in simulated combat rather than the sweetness of knowing myself a better competitor. Using this dichotomy to pigeon-hole either of these sides, using it as a way of saying “You shouldn’t be focusing on this, because multiplayer games are FOR competition,” makes it worse than useless; it makes it aggressive and potentially hurtful. This is partially because games always become something more when a human mind interacts with them.

    You say that this mixed experience is in the minority; I would certainly challenge that. I would challenge that victory is why even most people play multiplayer games. And I would challenge that victory is so simple a concept so as to remain uninvestigated as the end-point of the ideal multiplayer experience.

    Regarding the bots, that depends very much on player familiarity with the game’s systems, complexity of the game’s systems, and complexity of the computer. These are all variables worth considering, and I’m not sure if the dichotomy as presented can handle it when some of those variables are maximized. I think it’s still a valid criticism, beyond even current and advanced expressions of digital opponents.

    • Jeremiah

      I think, Matt, where there difference lays is in that between the sense of achievement, and the sense of competitive victory.

      Richard Bartle’s test of gamer personalities breaks people down into four groups: Achiever, Explorer, Socializer, Killer.

      The enjoyment you’re talking about from defeating that really difficult boss in Demon Souls caters to your enjoyment as the single-player aspect as an Achiever (Everyone is some mix of the four). However, defeating someone in multi-player competition appeals to the killer aspect of a gamer. To a player with a killer, the supreme joy is from pitting your skill against that of another. And to tie this back into the original article, this person power-games to the extreme. Their enjoyment of the game doesn’t come from immersion and the artistic expression of the deisgners, or their story. The Killer wants to get down to the nitty-gritty. When I was a main raid tank in WoW, we would go over spreadsheets to calculate the exact optimal rotation of powers, and this changed with every patch. There were communities devoted to eeking out every last tenth of a percent.

      That competition drives these player versus player communities. They are more concerned, as Ben puts forth in his article, on the mechanics over the artistic experience of the game.

      Compare this to Mass Effect or BioShock. People don’t rave about the elegency of Mass Effect as a shooter, because in this aspect it really falls short. And that wasn’t BioWare’s primary concern either. They were forcused on the experience… something that would feel comfortable to both FPS gamers and RPG gamers. The mechanics were subject to the design and the feel and atmosphere the developer wished to create with the game. I think Ben is absolutely correct that when considering these games, there is a hierarchy.

      Mutliplayer means Mechanics > Experience
      Singleplayer means Experience > Mechanics

      • Matthew Schanuel

        Again, I disagree that the dichotomy is anywhere near as pure as this. Mechanics are an element of crafting the experience; the things you list as “experiential” will change our understanding and approach to mechanics. And games support multiple types of players, who play for all sorts of reasons.

        Richard Bartle’s separation of aspects of the gamer personality is a very high-order abstraction, and there’s plenty of room to disagree with it; drawing lines between functions and reactions of the brain is always a vague business. What I’m saying is that the single player and multiplayer experience need not be so discrete, even if their current expressions tend to be easily categorized (though certainly not in all cases). I think the gulf is generated much more in common expression of the single-player/multiplayer concepts than as an inherent quality of the games.

  • Bill Coberly

    Ben, I think this way of thinking of things is fascinating– while I doubt you’ll ever get folks to use the term “ractive” in casual conversation, there seems to be some utility in dividing games along these lines.

    I do have a question– you mention that you think co-op games are ractives… would this include a game like Arkham Horror?

  • Craig Bamford

    This may be the weirdest kind of reactive prescriptivism I’ve seen yet.

    You DO know that the meaning of words change over time, right? If the overwhelming consensus among users of the word “game” is that it can refer to what you’re calling “ractives”, then that’s what it means. That’s just how language works.

    If nothing else, I somehow doubt you’re going to have much luck convincing people playing Solitaire that they aren’t playing a game simply because there are no competitors. They’re going to say “of course it’s a game: it’s structured play based on arbitrary rules”. And the thing is, they’re right.

    • Bill Coberly

      While you’re right, it does not necessarily invalidate Ben’s project.

      “This might be a more precise and helpful way to talk about games,” seems to be his point. So I hardly imagine that the current state of the language is going to upset his thesis.

    • Ben Milton

      Some people aren’t crazy about the term ractive. As a name in itself, they could be right, and in common speech, I’ll probably just call them single-player games.

      However, when people get irritated that a new word is being used at all…I can’t figure that out. Terms like this are just ways to help us think more precisely. In other words, I’m using it because it is USEFUL for thought. I’m not using it because I just like making up words.

      Once we have a new word for single player games that emphasizes their interaction with an environment over their gaminess, we’re able to reorient single player game criticism along that axis. The term aids in seeing the fundamental similarity that binds together not only single player games, but experiences like Dear Esther or Minecraft or Solitare, which many people might have a hard time calling games at all.