The definitions game

Proteus is very different from most games, but that does not mean it is not a game at all.
Proteus is very different from most games, but that does not mean it is not a game at all.

Proteus certainly is an odd beast.

Played from a first-person perspective, like a classic shooter, it never the less features no weapons or combat, no enemies, and no clearly-defined goals or ending.

The Proteus experience consists of walking around a colourful and highly-stylised island, which is generated randomly for every game, interacting with the landscape around you by simply walking near it. Rocks ring like gongs as you tread close to them, birds sing complex notes and they fly away, and even the plants hum dissonant harmonies as you approach.

It's certainly a unique experience, but one that I quickly grew bored of. Many of the people I converse with on Twitter, some of them extremely smart video game critics, think Proteus is wonderful, while other, including me, think it is pretty but ultimately pointless.

Amid this amiable disagreement, a dusty old argument was dragged out of its display case and once again kicked around the room. "It isn't even a game!" shouted some of Proteus's critics. "You only dislike it because you think it's not a game!" shouted back some of its defenders.

Now, I enjoy arguing about games. I wouldn't be a games journalist if I didn't. A large part of my job, after all, is to share my opinions about particular games and give credible reasoning for those opinions. Even so, this is an argument I tire of quickly, because it is one that nobody can win.

Let's talk briefly about prototype theory, which I first encountered when I was studying linguistics at university. It is a theory of categorisation which suggests that rather than a set of similar things being within a hard-edged box, they are instead grouped around a central point, with some closer and some further away.

The classic example of prototype theory is what objects in our homes can be called "furniture". Many studies and surveys have shown that, for English speakers at least, the chair is the most central and prototypical piece of furniture we know of. A rocking chair is still furniture, but it is less typical, and therefore a little further from the central point.

At the other end of the scale there are outliers, items such as pianos and rugs. Most people would not generally class a piano as furniture, but they would agree that a piano is more like furniture than, say, an elephant or a loaf of bread.

As you can see, in the case of furniture you can easily pick examples that definitely are in the group, such as chairs and tables, and others that definitely aren't, like rowboats and grain silos. You can also pick out examples that are furniture, but are not typical examples, such as foot stools and hammocks.

Interestingly enough, another example we discussed in this linguistics class was games, in their broad sense and not just video games. Linguists and philosophers have been trying for centuries to formulate a universally agreed upon definition for what a game is, but the category is just too broad and fuzzy-edged for a clear, black-and-white definition to be applicable. As such, prototype theory has proven useful.

We can easily list many features that are typical of games, but we can also just as easily think of examples that lack each of these features. For examples, games are frequently competitive, such as chess or schoolyard tag, but the childhood singing game Ring O' Rosies has no competitive element. They usually have a formal set of rules, like team sports, but an impromptu race between friends to climb to the top of a tree will usually have no rules at all.

We can make a similar list with video games. They are typically interactive, and include tests of skill of some kind and challenges to overcome, have set goals, feature winning and losing conditions, give the player a rating or score according to their performance, and so on. I'm sure you can think of several games that meet all of those criteria, and they would all be considered central according prototype theory.

Again, we can also come up with games that break each of these rules. Minecraft has no set goals, though it does have complex rules and challenges to overcome. Dear Esther has no challenges or tests of skill - it is a game in which you simply walk through a world and experience the story around you - but it is definitely interactive, has a series of goals, and arguably a winning condition. Even interactivity, while it is clearly central to what video games are, is not a deal-breaker - imagine a game in which random instructions pop up on a screen, and you have to carry them out in the real world. I don't know of such a game, but it could be made, and it would still definitely be a game, albeit a very atypical one.

This brings us back around to Proteus. It is clearly game-like, at the very least. It is interactive, and is controlled using typical game controls: a mouse and the WASD keys on a keyboard. There are events that can be triggered in the game world by following particular steps, and it could be argued that these are goals. Even so, it does not test player skill, it has no clear winning or losing conditions, it contains no obvious problem solving, and it does not have a clearly-defined ending.

Within the framework of prototype theory, Proteus is a long way from the centre. Right in the middle we have strongly prototypical games - Pac-Man, Super Meat Boy, Super Mario Bros, Space Invaders - and on the outer fringe we have the games that are quite different from what we usually think of as a game - Dear Esther, Heavy Rain, Minecraft, Terraria, The Walking Dead, Journey, Flower, and now Proteus.

I think you can easily argue about which games are more central and which are further out, and it can be a fun conversation to have, but to bang your fist on the table and say definitively that Proteus (or Minecraft or Heavy Rain) is not a game is simply misguided, and bordering on arrogant.

What do you think readers? Have I made an excellent point, or is it all just pseudo-intellectual waffle. You can lend your support or tell me how wrong I am in the comments below.

- James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

This story The definitions game first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.