Years before I played video games, I played piano. Though both instances use the word “play”, are those two meanings really related? After all, you can tell a DVD to play. Kids play make-believe. People often talk about playing tennis or football.
Most gamers are probably familiar with the phrase “playing a game” used to denote the activity as childish, along with hinting that the player should grow up.
But would you tell someone “playing a violin” to grow up?
What is a Game?
I love books. As a writer, I more or less have to. As a kid, the poetry and silly world of The Magic Pudding meant everything to me. But as interactive as it feels when you are reading a book, the actual text is linear. Games are not like books.
Movies are fantastic too, but they’re finished in two hours and don’t usually have the depth of immersion that a game like Bioshock or The Last of Us can. Although cutscenes in games resemble mini-movies, games are not like movies.
eSports are becoming more and more popular, although single player games are usually designed as challenging experiences, not full-blown competitions. What’s more is, while some sports contain artistic flourish (gymnastics comes to mind), not all sports do. So games aren’t really like sports, either.
I posit that video games most closely resemble the performing arts, like theatre or music, over any other medium.
First, you have to know how to read the language: the way that the music or play is written through words, symbols or so on. Then, using your own body or an instrument, you must play through the script using your understanding of the language. In games, your instrument is the controller, keyboard and mouse, or touch screen.
Finally you have a performance. Performing is different from playing, as it brings to life the script/sheet music for people who might not read the language or play the instrument. In the same way, game streaming has exploded in popularity as a way for single player games to be “performed” in front of an audience.
Games and Music Need Players
For the purposes of this piece, I will focus on music (theatre has never been my forte). Music and games both require another role different to the artist. Sometimes, both roles can be played by the same person, but playing is a fundamentally different skill to writing or coding. Without someone playing a piece of music, it is just print on the page. Similarly, without someone to play a game, it is a long programming script inside a computer.
“Wait a minute,” you might ask, “isn’t that the case with all art? Aren’t paintings in a gallery interpreted by people looking at them?” You would be right, random reader. Most works of art are a creative expression that gains extra meaning when the viewer or listener interprets it in their mind.
But you don’t play a painting, and it’s the computer or projector that plays the movie for you. By contrast, the scripts to performing art are written by one person with the intent to be played by another person or group of people.
Of course, while there are similarities in how players engage with music and games, there are still qualitative differences. Most importantly, video games can teach their language as you play. This is one of the arguments for educational games like Rocksmith, where even music can be taught by playing a game.
Not far behind in importance is the fact that a well-crafted single player game usually has much more people working on it than a band or, in AAA games, an entire orchestra. Compared with music, the numbers are reversed: instead of one conductor and many players, games have an orchestra’s worth of developers directing a single player.
So, dear gamer. You can read the game with your understanding of game language.
Using the controller, you can play it.
Now, you are called to perform.
What a “performance” means can vary from game to game. Performing to a high standard in a Platinum game, for instance, makes for the high difficulty.
On the other hand, the popularity of streaming and “Let’s Play” videos on the Internet shows that there is an audience for watching others play games, just like other performing arts.
Performing requires a higher level of understanding, both of reading the language and knowing how to play. Like the best musicians, the best game streamers entertain us with their mastery of the game. Some performers go even further, into the realms of tool-assisted speedruns and sequence breaking (you might consider these like game versions of improvisational jazz or remixes).
Sure, I don’t think anyone is going to say it requires as much dexterity to play a game as it does to play a musical instrument, and game performances won’t ever be as popular as actual concerts. Reading a game simply takes more effort than listening to music. And you probably learn a bit less about mathematics and artistic expression from game language than you do from music or theatre.
Despite all this, the comparison stands: when you play a game, you are bringing to life a script. As you learn the language, you read the game with more skill. Add a captive audience, and the developer and you are performing like an orchestra.