There’s been a lot of debate in the last couple of years about what constitutes a video game. Critics of games like Dear Esther or Dys4ia, or even Call of Duty, argue that while these pieces of software play on the forms and expectations of a video game, they’re not “real” video games. This is often framed as a new development in video games, but I’d like instead to cast an eye back at some of the earliest video games. I want to argue that reconsidering some of the earliest video games can be enlightening for how we think about some of these more recent ones.
Spacewar! is often considered to be the first video game ever created. Espen Aarseth describes it as the first “computer-dependent” game. But it’s not the first game you could ever play on a computer. In fact, using computers for games is almost as old as computers themselves are. In the 1940s and 1950s, numerous programs were created to play a variety of different non-digital games, including checkers and chess. But those who consider Spacewar! to be the first real video game will often argue that these earlier games are simply digital versions of pre-existing non-digital games. They’re digital games, but only in a trivial sense, goes the argument, and the term “trivially digital” is often used to dismiss these sorts of video games.
But I’d argue this confuses the rules and framework of a game (digital or not) for the actual video game itself. Consider a chess program, designed for a human player to play against a computer opponent: traditional, non-digital chess obviously provides the framework for the human player to approach the game, and the rules by which both players will engage in it. But this does not mean a computer chess program is a trivially-digital version of non-digital chess. Because the actual activity the human player is engaged in, the actual video game the human player is playing, is not chess, but a whole other game, one that might be called “beat the computer chess player”. The video game is not just trivially providing a digital version of the board and pieces for an otherwise non-digital game of chess, but a whole structure of experience arranged around the concepts and frameworks of the non-digital game of chess.
The human player is no more “just” playing chess than they are “just” managing an army in Starcraft or “just” shooting a gun when they play Call of Duty. In the same way that playing Call of Duty relies on the player’s understanding of what a gun is and does, and a whole host of other frameworks a human player comes to a game equipped with, playing the computer chess video game relies on the human player’s understanding of playing chess. But when they’re actually playing the chess video game, the human player is engaged in an effort to outwit and out-manoeuvre the AI, via the framework of the non-digital game of chess.
Considered in this way, Spacewar! is no more “computer-dependent” than any of the early chess or checkers programs. Certainly the algorithms of a chess AI could be non-digitally simulated, but the effort required to do so (at least for any AI worth considering) could hardly be described as trivial. In the same way, the mathematical physics model and coded interactions between ships and projectiles of Spacewar! could, theoretically, be simulated non-digitally. Cut out some paper ships, calculate movements synchronised to a non-digital simulation of the computer’s clock, etc. Doing so would likely require a lot more effort than simulating the chess program, but to suggest that anything requiring less effort would be trivial seems ridiculous. And it’s equally absurd to make an argument that we can dismiss pre-Spacewar! video games based on non-digital games as only “trivially digital” simply on the basis of some arbitrary lower limit of scale.
It’s in this light, then, that I’d argue that video games like Dear Esther are perfectly valid video games. Because the player is no more “just” walking across a windswept Hebridean island in Dear Esther than they are “just” playing chess in a chess program, or “just” moving ships around and firing bullets in Spacewar! Video games can’t be reduced to a set of rules or mechanics, or to the representations of ships, or pawns, or islands they display or depict. Video games must necessarily be considered as a whole, as complete things which provide players with an experience. Even if that experience is structured around rules or representations, reducing video games to those things fundamentally misunderstands what a video game is. And it limits dramatically what a video game can be.