Minecraft is NOT a video game

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”.

Umineko: When They Cry gameplay screenshot

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.


13 thoughts on “Minecraft is NOT a video game

  1. Funny that you used Umineko as your example of visual novels when you could have used something like Ever 17, which you actually played in person. I don’t suppose this is a bait to catch the attention of a certain someone who initially only planned to skim through this article, but upon seeing a screenshot from his favorite piece of writing ever, decided to read the whole article carefully from the start?

    This entire article hinges on the assumption that Ernest Adams’ definition of “video games” is absolutely definitive. However, what’s to say that he has the authority to define what “video games” are? He entered the industry in 1989. That’s pretty late. Nintendo had already discontinued the 6-year-old NES by that time!

    Let’s take a look at other definitions from actual dictionaries that I found:

    “An electronic or computerized game played by manipulating images on a video display or television screen.” – American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

    “(Electronics) any of various games that can be played by using an electronic control to move points of light or graphical symbols on the screen of a visual display unit” – Collins English Dictionary

    “An electronic game in which players control images on a television or computer screen” – Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Merriam-Webster English Dictionary

    “A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display.” – New Oxford English Dictionary

    Now, does Umineko satisfy all of these definitions? Absolutely. Does MineCraft satisfy all of these definitions? Sure.

    Yes, I referred to Umineko as a “piece of writing”, but that’s not because it’s not a video game. It’s simply a genre of video games; a subset in video games. It’s also a subset of storytelling mediums. These two are not mutually exclusive properties. StarCraft is competitive, and it’s a subset of eSports. However, it’s also a subset in video games. Again, two properties, not mutually exclusive. What StarCraft and Umineko are mutually exclusive from is Ernest Adams’ definition of video games.

    Before you say that a certain “video game expert’s” definition of video games is more powerful than standard dictionary definitions, I would like to again bring up the fact that visual novels are often top charters on’s video game section. And just how many people will agree that MineCraft is not a video game? I have to say that simply from consensus, most people will take the dictionary definition over Ernest Adams’ one.

    Then again, most people are pretty stupid. Things most people agree on are usually wrong. I’m just kind of annoyed by Mr. Adam’s definition, so that was a motivator for me using this argument.

    • I think you might have misunderstood my argument.

      Firstly I completely agree “video games” are electronic games, as stated by all four of your definition.

      Secondly, please note that Mr Adams’ definition is a definition for “games” not “Video Games” (with capital letters). There is a distinction between “play” and “game”. Consider, a kid can be playing by himself, but he doesn’t have to be playing any specific game.

      “Play is the aimless expenditure of exuberant energy” – Friedrich Schiller

      “Play refers to those activities which are accompanied by a state of comparative pleasure, exhilaration, power and the feeling of self-initivie” – J. Barnard Gilmore

      “Play is whatever is done spontaneously and for its own sake.” – George Santayana

      Games are different

      “Games are an exercise of voluntary control systems, in which there is a contest between powers, confined by rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome.” – Elliot Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith

      “A game is an interative structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle towards a goal.” – Greg Costikyan

      “A game is a closed, formal system, that engages players in structured conflict and resolves in an unequal outcome.” – Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swqin, and Steven Hoffman.

      This means, “games” are a closed formal system of, conflict, rules, interactivity, and challenges, with results, winning or losing. In other words, “games” are structured play.

      My argument is that that not all “Video Games” are “video games”. Umineko and The Walking Dead are not “played” and are not “games” so they are not “video games” but they are “Video Games”. Minecraft is “played” but is not a “game”, not in itself at least, so it’s not a “video game” but it is a “Video Game”. Starcraft is “played” and is a “game”, so it is a “video game”, but because it’s a different type of game than, say hide and seek, it is also a different type of “video game” but it’s nonetheless still just a “Video Game”.

      To help clarify what I’m getting at, I’m saying “Video Games” is becoming a format, much like Books, or Film. And just like how textbooks and comic books are examples of Books, and just like how films(as in feature length movies) or tv commercials(if shot on film) are examples of Film, I suggest that video games and visual novels, and virtual environment are examples of Video Game.

      I hope that makes sense?

      • English is a confusing language. I know what you’re trying to say because you keep thinking that MineCraft is not a “game” anymore. However, this doesn’t mean it’s not a “video game”. Just because there’s a space between “video” and “game” doesn’t mean that it’s two separate words. The word “video game” is one word. It’s not two words. You need to realize that the definition of “game” does not apply to “video game” at all. They are completely unrelated and have separate entries in the dictionary.

        You want to treat the word “video game” as two words, so to make an argument, you state that the term to use to treat “video game” as a single term to be “Video Game” with capital letters. However, a noun describing a category of things does not magically turn the noun into a proper noun. The term “Video Game” is the same as “video game”. Using capital letters for nouns that are not proper nouns in regular sentences is just a grammar mistake. You’ll never see any person read “Video Games” in capital letters and expect it to mean something different to its non-capital letter counterpart. There’s only one word in the dictionary, “video game”, and that’s all there is to it. There is no such thing as a “Video Game” – it’s just a grammatically incorrect way to write “video game”; which is one single word, completely unrelated to “game”.

        The thing that has changed is the definition of a “video game”. Umineko is a “video game” because it is an electronic game in which players control images on a television or computer screen. Video games are not becoming a format – they have been a format since the very beginning. It’s just that the very first video games happen to be very limited in variety due to both hardware and software limitations. Now that there are more variety of video games such as MineCraft and visual novels, it doesn’t change the fact that they are video games.

  2. sorry. I gotta call bullshit. Minecraft does have a goal. Its arbitrary, sure, but by your quoted definition, it counts. The main goal is to get to The End and slay the Enderdragon. They even roll the game credits after you do it. Its still an endless sandbox, but you could play it in a traditional manner if you chose that aim.

    • Absolutely, I agree, you could play it to get to The End and to slay the Enderdragon. But the reason I say Minecraft is not a game, but instead a “facilitator of play” is that you don’t have to slay the Enderdragon and still have lots of fun. In other words “Slay the Enderdragon” is just one of the many different kind of play you can do in Minecraft. Much like how kids on a beach can play tag, or they can build a sandcastle. But the fact they can play games on a beach doesn’t make beach a game.

      Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that some games are getting so complex that some of them, such as Minecraft, are more like a beach, or playground, or soccer field, which allows playing to take place, but doesn’t dictate what games are played.

  3. Why does something vague like a goal matter? Letting a program run to the end could be a goal. Seeing value is a goal. A definition is one way of establishing how a subset of reality is different from all other subsets, but it does not actually describe that specific subset. Videogames are concentrated/virtual reality that employ audiovisuals, text and interaction. Currently no olfactory sense utilized. Yes, for every definition you’ll have borderline cases and stuff that blends together, stuff that you would not actually consider to be X. But the notion that we should not call Minecraft a game because it doesn’t fit with our definition of videogames is ridiculous. To begin with, all borders are abstract, there’s no such thing in reality, it’s all just one, singular thing. But our abstract border of “Minecraft is a videogame” is most certainly sensible, in terms of the very real experience you have playing Minecraft, it is similar to most other things we would call videogames.

    • I agree with everything you said about definitions and borderline cases etc. I’m making the argument that minecraft is not a borderline case, but rather a new category that’s been missing in software. Let me explain.

      Consider real life, games are structured play. Playing according to rules. Tennis is a game. A tennis ball is a toy. Hide and Seek is a game. A playground is a play space. Lego are just toys, there’s numerous ways to play them, and some cases you can make a game with them eg. lego building contest or something.

      In the case of videogames, they are all ultimately just softwares. We called all softwares that’s meant for playing ‘videogames’ because initially, they were all games. They were all sturctured play with objectives and rules and goals. But I think minecraft is one of the first, if not the first to be more like the digital equivalent of a toy or playspace where players can decide how they want to play, or what games they want to play in minecraft.

      I guess it should really be called a ‘video toy’ or ‘digital playspace’ or something of the kind, rather than a game. I guess an earlier example would be Second Life, where users can be just about anyone and do anything. In fact, with Second Life, people even ran real business out of there, big brands like Nike set up shop in the online world, which is why it’s more often called a ‘Virtual World’ than ‘Video Game’

  4. To elaborate, words matter to the exact extent that they allow for accurate images of reality. When I’m not at my PC and I tell myself, “I want to play a videogame”, visual novels are in fact a part of that subset. I am looking for something fictional (concentrated reality) utilizing high-stimuli (audiovisuals + text) and some level of interaction. That’s the sort of experience I am looking for, even if it’s just clicking to move forward. If I was looking for a non-interactive experience I’d tell myself I want to watch a movie or something. Interaction is one of the key elements here, not having a strictly defined goal.

  5. I plan to share this information. However another argument would be, most games are somewhat mindless like watching TV. But Minecraft has a developer aspect along with socially creating server community environments. It makes the game a heavy thinking activity when you get to the server creation side, not to mention some server reach into advanced levels of coding like Java.

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