All swans are birds, but not all birds are swans. Similarly, all video games; that is electronic games played on some video device, are Video Games. But not ALL Video Games (with capital letters) are video games.
Indeed over the years, as the Video Game business grew from children’s toy to a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, with audiences spanning across nations and generations, it is worthwhile for us to reconsider what these things that we still call “games” has become.
In his book Fundamentals of Game Design, Ernest Adams defined “games” as:
“A type of play activity, conducted in the context of a pretend reality, in which the participant(s) try to achieve at least one arbitrary, nontrivial goal by acting in accordance with rules.”
This is easy to understand in terms of classical games. In Super Mario, you are in the Mushroom Kindom. The goal is to get to the next level, and eventually save Princess Peach, and you do it by not getting touched by the monsters. In space Invader, you are in space. The goal is to survive as long as possible, and you do it by not get hit, while killing the aliens.
However, this is not the case with Minecraft. In Mincraft, there is a “pretend reality” to play in, there are rules governing what the user can or cannot do, but there is no set objective. This, I believe, qualifies minecraft more as a “Facilitator of Play”, than a game.
I will define a “Facilitator of Play” as:
An object of environment which promotes and/or allows play activity to take place.
For example, a toy train is a Facilitator of Play, and so is a field, or a playground. Facilitators of Play allows playing to happen but does not determine the type of play that takes place. For example, a toy car does not bind it’s user to play a certain game. Indeed some spaces are better suited for some games (eg. a plain field is good for rugby but not hide and seek) and some facilitators of play even imply a particular game (eg. chess pieces suggest a game of chess) but the space does not determine the type of playing that takes place (eg. there’s nothing stopping gamers from throwing chess pieces around in a game of dodgeball. It’s not the ideal facilitator of play for the game, but it can be done).
In the case of minecraft, you can have PvP battles, you can have survival mode, you could even play traditional games like hide and seek, or capture the flags. Many players even choose to engage in creative pursuits, creating sculptures and houses and even space ships. This is not unlike how one would play with lego, and similarly, the act of building a house with lego is not a game, doing so in minecraft isn’t either. Though of course, if you have two players racing to build the same house, then it becomes a game.
So why does this matter? Because this is an example of a Video Game that’s not strictly a “game” anymore. On the opposite extreme of the scale to Minecraft are purely story driven Video Games such as Umineko: When They Cry and The Walking Dead. In these types of “games”, there are arguably no virtual space of play, or rules, or even objective. The experience is much more similar to reading a novel, or watching a TV show than Super Mario. While in some of these “games” like The Walking Dead, the player can influence the story line to a small degree based on his/her decisions, in other “games” like Umineko: When They Cry, the only “gameplay” is completely gone, unless you count clicking to continue reading. Indeed, calling Umineko a Video Game might even offend some people, for they too agree it is much more that just a “game”.
On a side note, sandbox games and graphic adventure/visual novels aren’t the only type kind of Video Games that’s doesn’t fit the typical idea of “games”. There is also the rise of games such as Starcraft and League of Legends. While they are still strictly games, they are much more like kind of professional competitive sports, like basketball, than children’s pastime games, like hide and seek.
As the Video Game industry continues to grow, and diversify, more and more of what we still call “Video Games” are will not really be games anymore. Is it at a point where it’s not just a type of toy for children. Instead it’s an extremly flexible media form that can be geared towards a lot of different people and be utlized for different forms of entertainment.