Videogame vs. video game, cont.

Mark J.P. Wolf weighs in on the videogame/video game debate in the opening chapter of The Video Game Explosion: A History From Pong to Playstation and Beyond:

What exactly constitutes a “video game”? Although the term seems simple enough, its usage has varied a great deal over the years and from place to place. We might start by noting the two criteria present in the name itself; its status as a “game” and its use of “video” technology. These two aspects of video games may be reason for why one finds both “video game” (two words) and “videogame” (one word) in use: considered as a game, “video game” is consistent with “board game” and “card game,” whereas if one considers it as another type of video technology, then “videogame” is consistent with terms like “videotape” and “videodisc.” Terms like “computer games” and electronic games” are also sometimes used synonymously with “video games,” but distinctions between them can be made. “Electronic games” and “computer games both do not require any visuals, while “video games” would not require a microprocessor (or whatever one wanted to define as being essential to being referred to as a “computer”). Thus, a board game like Stop Thief  (1979), for example, which has a handheld computer that makes sounds that relate to game play on the board, could be considered a computer game, but not a video game. More of these kinds of games exist than games that involve video but not a computer, making “video games” the more exclusive term. The term “video games” is also more accurate in regard to what kinds of games are meant when the term is used in common parlance, and so it will be the term used here.

It’s clear why Wolf would choose to say “video game” instead of electronic or computer games, but it seems to me that he never really explains why this is preferable to writing “videogame” as one word. Moreover, he mischaracterizes the motivation behind those who consciously choose to treat “videogames” as one word. The reason I write videogame is not because I consider them to be a “different type of video technology.” That would imply that I am giving priority to the video element of videogames at the expense of their gaming roots. But that’s not the case at all. I don’t consider videogames to be a new type of video technology, I consider them to be a new type of technology, period. It is a technology and a medium composed of two preexisting mediums–i.e., games and video–but one which remains irreducible to either one; more precisely, I don’t think of the videogame as a new form of video or a new form of game, but rather as an entirely new form in and of itself, one with distinct characteristics and powers of expression.

Simply put, both games and video are essential precursors to the modern videogame, but if you believe that the medium is more than the sum of its parts, then it follows that we give it a name all its own. The advantage of using videogame as one word, then, is that it acknowledges and transcends these precursors in one fell swoop. It is a new word, a made-up word, but one that is very clearly anchored in the medium’s roots.

This is a surprisingly divisive issue, but I find it endlessly fascinating. For more points of view, check out this impromptu debate that took place over at Gameology 2.0 in 2006. Perhaps my favorite comment in that thread is the one by videogame critic/scholar Ian Bogost, who wrote in support of the one word spelling. (I only discovered this recently through his twitter feed–wish I had read it prior to my last post on the subject!) Bogost:

I use the term “videogame” for rhetorical reasons. Separating the words, in my opinion, suggests that videogames are merely games with some video screen or computer attached. But, I believe that videogames are fundamentally a computational medium, not just the extension of a medium like board or role-playing games (although there is also a genealogy there). I think that closing the space, in part, helps consolidate this concept. Personally, I’m only interested in gaming as it relates to computation. That doesn’t mean I don’t think gambling or board games or whatnot are useful, it just means that they are not my primary focus.

As for the argument that “videogame” implies video display…I don’t really care. I’m more interested in common usage, and the fact is that people use “videogame” to refer to the kinds of artifacts I want to talk about. I think video qua television screen is a vestigial effect of the arcade era and nobody is really confused about it.

For the same reason I abhor terms like “interactive entertainment.” I think inventing terms like this is a bit like trying to rename film or photography. More precise terms are more dangerous because they will lead to fragmentation. Jane McGonigal and I have had inconclusive conversations about whether ARGs and other so-called “big games” are videogames. I contend that they are, if they make significant use of computation (so, Cruel 2 B Kind, the game she and I created, is a videogame for me!). “Videogame” is a fine equivalent for “film” if we’d just stop worrying about it so much. And forcing the term into broader usage will help expand the medium much more than making up new words for each sub-type.

(Image by Bill Mudron)

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This entry was published on August 3, 2010 at 6:36 pm and is filed under game culture, videogames. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “Videogame vs. video game, cont.

  1. ralphalicious on said:

    Videogame or video game. I am pretty sure that if you said that word to anyone, they would know what you meant. If not then they are delusional in thinking they can pick apart a word and define it. It is what it is.

  2. Yeah you’re probably right ralph. Alas, while the difference between these two spellings might seem trivial, the implications behind this whole “debate” are surprisingly deep.

    Videogame, written as a single word, is essentially a made-up word. It’s a noun that doesn’t mean anything other than the medium itself. The two word spelling, meanwhile, treats “video’ as an adjective used to modify the noun “game.” Hence, it suggests that a “video game” is merely a kind of game (i.e., a game that is projected on a video screen).

    So why is this important? I don’t think it’s a matter of people understanding you (since, as you mentioned, people will probably understand you either way). I think the issue underlying this whole question is really about what we should expect (and how we should approach) videogames in general. If we think that videogames are simply a NEW type of game, then it follows that videogames should be evaluated strictly on the basis of how ‘well it is structured as a game,’ with the ideal being a perfectly balanced game of strategy like, say, Chess or Go.

    If, on the other hand, you think that the videogame is a unique medium in its own right–one that is closely related to the history of games but not beholden to it–then it becomes possible to evaluate games on far broader grounds. Balance, depth, and fairness no longer become the be-all-end-all of how we evaluate games. Instead, we ask these questions alongside a host of other questions that belong more properly to the realm of “art.” How does this game make me feel? Why does it make me feel that way? What is it trying to say? What is the meaning (if anything) behind the rules and demands that it makes on players? Etc., etc.

    Traditionally, games that are unfair, luck-based, or outright impossible to solve are understood to be “bad games.” (This is why hardcore board game fans tend to be dismissive of luck-dependent games like Monopoly). But videogames, being the unique medium that I claim they are, don’t need to abide by these rules in every case. Indeed, unfairness may be built into their game design as part of the “message” that the game designer wants to communicate. Deliberately making a certain part of the game “unfair” does not improve the game understood “as a game” in the traditional sense, but it might improve my experience of the videogame as a work of art.

    Examples of this kind of “expressive rule-bending” abound in videogames: Passage ( http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/passage/ ) ; Noby Noby Boy, Flower, Animal Crossing, etc. To a lesser degree, this is also seen in No More Heroes (where the tedious side jobs that you are forced to perform mirror the daily existence of many wage-earners in post-industrial societies), and Shadow of the Colossus (experienced through the emptiness of its game world, which in turn builds a sense of dread culminating in a tragic and ironic finale) as well.

    In other words: video game implies a narrower definition of the medium, whereas videogame implies a broader and more ambiguous new medium still in its infancy. It is a more inclusive term, which is one reason why I like it so much.

    But it’s not the only reason: as you said, people already know what is meant by “videogame” regardless of how you write it. They don’t think of a “type” of game not unlike Monopoly or Chess. No, what they think of is an entire medium, one which has produced things as diverse as Mario, Tetris, and Heavy Rain (non of which would be possible as boardgames). That alone suggests that videogame is a noun, a medium, and, yes, a single word as well!

  3. That’s a interesting discussion; that’s why I really like to use as synonym Digital Games. It sounds a little more actuated [at least, in Portuguese].

  4. @Thais I wonder, how would you normally say videogame in Portuguese? In Spanish it’s videojuego; in German it’s videospiel ; in Italian videogioco. I think English (and perhaps French?) is among the few Western languages to separate the term, but I might be mistaken.

  5. We just call it videogames, in English and generally in one word, though separeted is also commom. In the 90s, some newspapers tried to to use the Portuguese version as “video jogos”, but it haven´t catch up.

    Of course, I´m talking about Brazil; in Portugal there is a strong tradition of translating new words, so they use “jogo de vídeo” or “videojogo”, so both separeted and not.

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