What makes a video game different from other kinds of games? It's a question worth considering, prompted by a friend's comment the other day, and it's not something anyone talks about very much. We talk about "hardcore" and "casual" gamers, and go on about how never the twain shall meet, but is there even a fundamental difference between video games and other types of games?
From a definition standpoint, it's fairly simple -- a videogame involves certain technological elements that make it a VIDEO game, even if the concept has roots in traditional games. There's a display device of some kind, an interface between the user and the game, and logic that implements the game rules and monitors the user's interaction with the game to determine loss/victory/score conditions. The logic is generally contained in a program run by a computer (multi) processor, or a set of interrelated chips and circuits, back in the early days before CPUs became inexpensive enough to put in games.
But beyond the technology, what is the nature of a video game? It's difficult to generalize, because the technology supports a wide range of game types. There are implementations of real-world card and board games and simulations of team sports; there are abstract puzzle games and fully-realized 3-D worlds. And there are things like Endless Ocean and flOw that are presented as video games, even if they don't have hard and fast rules for victory or defeat.
I think the term "video game" is so general that it's not very useful to most people -- people whom we would call casual gamers may not see themselves as playing "video games" any more than they would say they like to watch "movies" or eat "food." They are playing Solitaire, or Wii Sports, or Rock Band, or Madden, or Call of Duty. As a hardcore gamer, I make an effort to sample genres and styles of game that might not be my cup of tea. But we're all playing video games -- it's a matter of degree, investment and interest level.
So is there anything in the nature of play itself that separates video games from other types? A few characteristics come to mind -- let's see if any of them work out as differentiators.
Interactivity: On the face of it, this is something that video games deliver that most other media do not. But in the context of GAMES, it's not a differentiator. All games involve some kind of interaction between the player's intelligence, a set of rules, and other human beings more often than not. Even a crossword puzzle is a game in this sense -- there is a design, meant to be challenging at a certain level, and the player/puzzler tries to work out a complete solution within a framework of rules. There is interaction between the minds of the player and the designer, even though they never meet or interact directly. So this is not unique to videogames... FAIL.
Time: Most video games take place in real time; time pressure is sometimes part of the drama, although there are turn-based video games where time is not a factor at all. And of course there are many real-world games where time is an element. So... FAIL.
Experience: Video games, moreso than other games, have the potential to give the player an experience beyond the rules of the game. Dialogue, music, and artwork can bring compelling storytelling to bear, with more drama than who has the best hand or whether Red or Blue will reach the finish line first. It's a debatable topic as to whether all of these elements qualify as contributions to GAMEPLAY, but strides have been made towards integrating storytelling with the action. Myst did this to an extent, although the action was limited. I think Bioshock does this admirably, never pulling the player out of the game interface, but still allowing a human drama to unfold within the context of the game's world and the player's experience of it. It is possible, and when done well it is something that other games and other media cannot achieve in the same way, so... PROVISIONAL PASS.
Subject Matter: I am tempted to suggest that video games tackle a broader range of subjects than traditional games, but as I really think about it, there are always precedents in traditional games and contests. Leading a party of adventurers in a fantasy world comes from pencil-and-paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, inspired in turn by the hunter-gatherer's love of the quest; fighting games, despite the strong fantasy element, have clear antecedents in wrestling and boxing. Guitar Hero is a low-impact substitute for actually mastering a musical instrument, and first-person shooters capitalize on our fight-or-flight instincts, like Tag. Trauma Center is a game of skill and dexterity, like pick-up sticks; Tetris is a shape-fitting puzzle; Grand Theft Auto is cops-and-robbers and capture-the-flag. So even though video games may present a more convincing illusion of reality than traditional games do, play itself doesn't seem terribly innovative. So... FAIL, at least until some better examples come to mind.
The bottom line, I think, is this. Videogame technology simply enables broader and more convenient access to games of every kind. And human beings enjoy games. We like to challenge ourselves and learn new skills, even when the stakes are so low as to make the "gains" inconsequential in practical terms. We play because we like to play, we like to explore, we like to show off and test our limitations. There are many biological and evolutionary reasons for this -- a love of challenges, and a drive to overcome them, makes us more likely to succeed as individuals and as a species. So I think game play of any kind is educational in a fundamental sense -- it prepares us to meet the world head-on and persevere.
Don't tell the kids, though.