Terminological Technicalities

I recently* asked my facebook friends the following:

1. Do you prefer to use the term ‘video game’, ‘video-game’, ‘videogame’ or ‘computer game’?
2. Do you think it’s an arbitrary choice?

This was inspired by having “video game” corrected to “video-game” in compound forms (such as “video-game music”) during a review process, a correction I found a little odd. While it seems to be a matter of grammar, it did get me thinking about how even the most fundamental terminology can be up for discussion.

My readings of video game theory etc. tend to indicate that there’s no single accepted form. A lengthy treatise on some aspect of video games will sometimes discuss the matter briefly, indicating (more or less) that the author thinks each term has these or those pros and cons but that they prefer the particular term they’ll use because reasons. Karen Collins often refers to “video games audio”, David Myers chooses “computer game”, and both “videogame” and “video game” are well represented in academic discourse and the press. Each has good points and bad points. I prefer “video game” because reasons. Well, because habit really. I know I thought about it for a while when I was writing my honours thesis, but I can’t remember the details of that inner dialogue — I just know it must have happened, because until then I used “computer game”.

Anyway, I asked my friends the question above. As expected, there was a fairly even representation between “video game” and “videogame”, with a slight preference towards “video game”, and a few preferences for “computer game” or “console game”. There was fairly wide consensus that “video-game” wasn’t an option. Two editor friends pointed out that a hyphenated form is sometimes used when a compound modifies a noun, but that since “video game” is an accepted form (a head word in the Macquarie Dictionary, also accepted by the OED) the hyphenated form probably shouldn’t be used. Aside from that, the difference between “video game” and “videogame” did seem to come down to personal preference and/or local conventions, i.e. US or UK or Australian English usage norms.

The more divisive question was whether “video*game” or “computer game” was more accurate. This tended to boil down to technological factors and preferences, but there also emerged a sense that “video*game” was a conventional term that has perhaps outlived its accuracy. My friend Darvids0n made this point:

Video game is what I say, but computer game is what I mean…. Any console, handheld, phone/tablet/phablet or personal computer is now classifiable as a ‘computer’ imo, and definitely not merely a ‘video’ device. Smart TVs are even computers.

My friend Kyle made this point:

computer game – noun – a game utilizing a computer
video game – noun – a computer game with moving images

which agrees with another point made by Darvids0n:

Whack-A-Mole is not a video game but it is a computer game (arcade if you want to be pedantic)

(which makes the assumption, I presume, that the arcade game has some electronic controls behind it – probably a safe assumption for later versions of the game). In favour of using different terms based on the device on which you’re playing, another friend, Toby, said:

I use “video game” when I’m talking about something played on the TV and “computer game” for one on my computer. In any other situation I’d probably just say “game”

while Evan said:

Computer game and console game. This differentiates primarily between keyboard/mouse and controller based input. Video game is too old and non-specific for me – it’s like ‘moving pictures’.

However, Kyle counter-argued in favour of a text-based rather than device-based classification:

Is minecraft a computer game one day and a console game the next depending on how you’re playing it? No. It is a video game, plain and simple.

I see merit in both these arguments — the device on which you play can greatly affect your experience of a game, and yet if you play the same game on different devices you’re likely to get a very similar experience. Personally I think there’s a good case to be made for sticking with a conventional term like “video game” for the medium as a whole, and using more specific terms as required.

Take Osmos (Hemisphere Games, 2009) for example. This game is available on nearly all platforms — Windows, Linux, Mac, iOS and Android — and the player experience is quite similar on each aside from the user input aspect (I think the touch screens of mobile devices work best, but the mouse is just as usable). I’ve played it most on my phone so I kinda think of it as a mobile game. But on my computer it works as a computer game, with near identical visual and sonic experiences. If I were discussing the similarities between the phone and computer experiences, I could differentiate using the terms “mobile game” and “computer game”; likewise if I were discussing the differences in the haptic experiences. But if I’m just talking about Osmos as a text, the term “video game” works perfectly well.

And yet, the term “video game” does seem, in Evan’s words, “too old and non-specific” in a sense. Many computer games use moving images, but I think it’s difficult to argue that the moving images are all that sets them apart from other games (music, anyone?). Two friends called Paul contributed thoughts on this point — Paul 1 believed that the distinctions between the terms discussed were arbitrary because:

We misuse the word ‘game’ in ‘video game’ so much that being finicky about the word ‘video’ seems silly

While Paul 2 preferred the term “videogame” because:

While board games are games played on boards, you can argue that video.*games don’t require videos or games (in the traditional sense). They’re a new form of media so they ought to be given a single-word name.

Regardless of the terminology chosen, video games can differ markedly from other forms of games even to the point where the definition of “game” is a relevant discussion. It’s possible that the terms “digital game” or “electronic game” create a subset of “game” sufficiently different from other game forms and sufficiently encompassing of the diversity found in games on computers, consoles, mobiles and tamagotchis. Some do use these terms, and I have to admit the reasons seem compelling, but not quite compelling enough to overcome convention. It’s nice when people know what you’re talking about immediately, and “ludomusicology” is a term that tends to use up many of the explainings. Or, perhaps we could follow my friend Andy‘s advice:

People should start saying vig for [VI]deo [G]ame. Along the same lines as movie for moving picture. I’ll inform the President of Games about this.

All in all, it was an interesting discussion. And it relates to a number of different discussions I’ve come across through my studies — ludology versus narratology, “semiology” versus “semiotics”, the rise and significance of mobile gaming, etc.  If you have any further thoughts, let me know in the comments or on the socials.

 

*Because I started writing this post in 2014 it’s probably best to consider this term in the cosmological time scale

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