Towards a Definition of "Videogames"

I think it is long past the point at which we needed an actual definition for a video game, one that differentiates it from a "computer game" or any other type of game.

The following conversation can be the beginnings of a discourse on the topic. If you feel you have anything to add to the conversation, please send e-mail to with the subject heading "definition". We will add the thoughtful contributions to the conversation. Please keep all responses under 25 lines in length.

Steven Kent: The difference between a computer game and a video game is soooo blurred. This isn't to say that I don't agree with you, I do. But trying to apply a cut and dried definition to it... I need to think about it some more...

Keith Feinstein: Ok, here goes. I think that the difference lies in the fact that a video game plays "with you" on a playing field that is somewhat comparable. Whereas a computer game runs the game that you are playing, there is not the level of randomness or the approximations of real human play.

Video games seem to play with you, drawing on the aspects that make human children so gleefully enter into the play that enables them to learn about the environment that they find themselves living in. video games present the opportunity to explore and discover, as well as to combat others of comparable skill (whether they be human or electronic) and to struggle with them in a form that is similar to children wrestling, or scrambling for the same ball - they are nearly matched, they aren't going to really do much damage, yet it feels like an all-important fight for that child at that given moment. Space Invaders gives us visceral thrill and poses mental/physical challenges similar to a schoolyard game of dodge-ball (or any of the hundred of related kids games).

Video games play with us, a never tiring playmate. Computer games are more cerebral, but far more removed from the emotional nature of humanity in most cases.

S.K.: I agree with this, but I feel that this can apply to computer games as well. Is Doom a computer or video game? It came out on computer first, yet is being ported (and cloned) to consoles as fast as we can imagine.

K.F.: No, those games that you are referring to are video games, Doom is a video game, it is immediate, emotional and makes an emotional connection with you. Just as Monopoly remains a board game regardless of medium, a video game remains a video game, even if it is written, and running on a computer.

S.K.: So, is that the difference? Video Games are, at their lowest level, 'twitch games'? Does a video game always have to have a hand/eye coordination component? (I can't think of any that don't right off the bat, so it may be part of it.)

K.F.: No, not twitch per se , but necessarily emotional. Just as the games that you played as a developing child drew you in, in a charged and emotional manner, a video game will always connect to you as a child connected with a playmate - in a very fundamental and imaginative fashion. In ways that make us remember the thrill of living and learning, ways that recall the times when every day and every sight brought new information, fascination, and experience.

How's that for heady?

Asteroids and Pac-Man are playing "with you" in the immediacy of its responses to yours. It has proxy "icons" (ghost in Pac, Asteroids and Saucers in Asteroids) that represent it's desires into the landscape in which you are both engaged. They want to beat you as quickly as they can, you want to stave off their assaults as long as You can.

In that way they are competing on a relatively similar landscape, you and it have similar goals, you want to win. Nearly all the time, one can hear a gamer saying "ahhhh, it beat me, or it cheated!" you don't say that unless, subconsciously you feel that there is an opponent there, and that it is playing against you. In computer games, you seldom hear that, you hear "its frustrating, or its too complicated, or I lost". There isn't the emotional immediacy of the conflict.

Andrew Boyd: This distinction was much clearer when computer games were almost entirely cerebral and video games were entirely visual. The difference between, say, Zork I and Space Invaders is astounding. As both genres evolve, they became much more similar to one another until the difference becomes a purely semantic one. This is compounded as the games we play start to bend and break genres as well.

Perhaps the clearest line can be drawn at the arcade. All arcade games are video games**, thus, all arcade games ported to the home are video games. This distinction, too, is about to be removed as Intel and MS work on their arcade box.

I must disagree on the point that computer games are removed from the emotional nature of humanity. Look at A Mind Forever Voyaging or Trinity, these were games that required thoughtfulness and imagination in an exploratory environment. As for immersiveness of action, we've got games like Tie Fighter or Longbow which remain computer games because of the depth of control required. Wing Commander was ported to the PSX, but virtually unplayable due to the awkwardness of the controls.

As for sheer emotional intensity, there's Command and Conquer Red Alert. The savage howls of rage I bellowed as the Allies swarmed my battlements with their helicopters are testimony enough to that. Just ask my roommates.

Bennett Campbell: I think of the main differences between video games and computer games is the level of social interaction. Video games are played in highly sociable places like arcades, bars, arenas, and the like. Computer games are played at home, often alone.

I'm a college student, and I've met more friends playing games in the arcade than I have in my classes. When a dozen people are clustered around a game of Tekken or Soul Edge, you can't just ignore the other people. The link that everyone shares - the game - holds that crowd together with something in common. Everyone is amazed at special moves and combos, and people who know share with those who don't the secrets of the game. Instead of these types of games being a bloody competition, they turn into an entertaining way to spend some time with a few buddies.

Computer games, on the other hand, often focus on strategy and use the computer's AI much more intensively. These games can and are played for hours on end, one lone person sitting at a computer. Lately, many of these games have gained the option of playing another human via the internet, yet the player is still isolated by themselves, with their computer. The minimal amount of chat that goes on is nothing compared to the social gathering of the arcade. Games like Command and Conquer, Civilization, and Warcraft are all solitary games, though they can be shared by multiple players far away.

There is something to be said about a throng of people surrounding a game, watching to see if the players can shoot their way through to the end (House of the Dead) or seeing if those last two tanks can be destroyed in the final 5 seconds (Tokyo Wars). It's much different from sitting at a monitor with a cup of hot cocoa, clicking around the screen to solve puzzles (Myst), or firing at hellspawned beasts while chasing down some guy in Arkansas who just found the rocket launcher (Quake).

Dan Iwerks: I'd say the difference is the immediacy of gratification. Games like Asteroids or Doom are more Video Games because they're instantly approachable--the objectives are clearly defined, and the focus is primarily on reflex and gameplay. Games like Civilization or Warcraft are Computer Games because players are required to enter more into the world of the game, and it takes a while to really understand what you're doing.

Richard Burk: Just my two cents,

But I think that video games cost a quarter, have a goal and specifically don't allow the player to continue the game from where one last died. You get three lives and may earn additional lives periodically if at all. If all of those conditions are met then it is a video game. If none of those conditions are met then it is a computer game. If the ability to continue condition is not met then the gray area is skewed towards a computer game. Otherwise if any other two conditions are not met then it is skewed towards a computer game.

That's just my opinion.

D. Christopher Goodman: I don't think it's quite fair to distinguish between the two. The differences between "video games" and "computer games" are primarily those of the audiences who play them. Video games, if used to refer to arcade games, also differ in terms of the requirements of their environment. Arcade games must last only a few minutes so all players can have a chance to play. Also, arcade games must be relatively easy to pick up and play. Computer games (home games) can span a broader area of gameplay simply because they are played at the convenience of the user and for any duration of time the user wishes. So computer games can encompass long, complex games that video games cannot. Strategy games and RPG's are certainly not viable in the arcades**.

If comparing computer games to console games, the difference is almost entirely in the audience of the two. PC gamers are stereotyped as being more strategy and simulator oriented while console gamers seem fond of action games. It would also seem the PC market is influenced by American developers while the console market is dominated by Japanese developers. However, now we are starting to see the line blurred between genres. Strategy and console style RPG's have begun to blend together. We've seen Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle. We have action blended with RPG's. Arcades games get almost arcade perfect translations to home systems. Typically, PC games have started appearing on consoles and vice-versa. The lines between genres and game types are being erased. How can computer games and video games be defined differently? This is an entertainment industry, and all electronic games share one quality: To entertain. I feel that if any differences in definition are to be made, they should be made literally. Video gaming implies the use of a monitor or television. Computer games are games using some form of electronics or computer to handle the management of the game. It would seem that both definitions are encompassed in electronic gaming. Electronic gaming is a new and legitimate form of entertainment. Trying to separate computer games and video games is like trying to separate a VHS movie and a theatre movie. In the end, they are both the same movie.

K.F.: Ok, here we go... I think some of the point is being missed. (and first, a movie is NOT the same on VHS as it is in the theatres... even if it's letterboxed on VHS, the experience is VASTLY different.)

The terms "computer game" and "video game" are being assigned to different types of games. A "video game" may be played on a home computer, an arcade game, or a home console... point is, all games called "video games" would have a very strong common thread. A "computer game" could also be played on a home console or an arcade machine, but they would also be of a different nature.

The fact that Monopoly is being played on a Sony Playstation does NOT make it a video game. It is a board game and will always remain one, just as Pac-Man is being played on many thousands of PCs will NEVER make Pac-Man a "computer game"... it will remain a "video game".


D.C.G.: Sure, playing a game in the arcade is a different experience than playing that same game at home, but that is an issue of atmosphere. Tekken 2 is just as good on console as it was in the arcade. I can either play it solo and comfortably at home or competitively in a loud, bustling arcade. The game is still the same.

How is XCOM any different of an emotional experience than Tekken? If the dividing line between computer games and video games is how well the game stirs the player's emotions, then who's to say which are computer games and which are not? Is XCOM even a computer game? I would think bringing one's emotions into a game is individual. Many players sit down to a game of Monopoly and feel like they are actually trading real estate. They feel the loss when they put property up for mortgage. People get into a fighting game and really feel they are fighting an opponent who is out to defeat them. I played XCOM and felt I was up against an alien armada invading my home, my land. I had to defend it. So I ask, which of the above mentioned games are video games and which are not?

Dave Conklin: OK, so it seems here the discussion has encompassed everything from environment to emotion, but I think the main point is being missed. Video games are usually defined as those games usually played on a dedicated console (this includes arcade machines). The computer medium is an extremely large playing (no pun intended) field; it is used for writing essays, digitally editing video, exploring the internet, playing games, and countless other areas of interest. Games played on the computer are, by definition, "computer games". If they are ported to a dedicated system they become "video games". Is it the same game? More or less. Then why the distinction? help an otherwise confused consumer. (Remember, little Jimmy's mom and dad are not as educated in the realm of gaming as we are.) It is only a distinction in terms, they are still games. And as long as they are fun, who really minds?

Louise Gillman: Assuming that there is a line that can be drawn between that which is classified as a "computer game" and something more - pure, is it? - which we call a "video game", it seems to me that the difference lies not in the absolute medium of the game, because all arcade games were at one point designed and tested in very different settings from those in which they were eventually played, but in the presentation.

In this sense, it strikes me as the same kind of difference which exists between "theatre" movies and "home videos." The basic informational content is there, but the context, which some would say is much more important than it is given credit for, is different. With "Tempest" played in the arcade, many assumptions are made about the game's setting that are NOT made about home versions - that the game player is NOT at home, is in public, is probably around others in a room filled with similar objects which have a certain type of sound, smell, feel, etc. - all these assumptions add up to a PUBLIC, or SHARED experience. And the anticipation of the environment in which the game is supposed to be displayed (and played) in turn influences the designers in the look, sound and feel they give the game.

The subtle distinctions between public and solitary experiences are often swept under the carpet today.

Greg Cappolla: Actually, I think the difference between computer games and video games is very clear. A computer game is basically a watching game. You watch what happens with very little control over what happens. Where on a video game you control every move right down to the wire. On a computer game you have to follow an outline, where on a video game you can change the outline and mess with different things.

Jeff Kane: To draw a distinction between video and computer (and other types) of games is difficult because a computer game can, by virtue of its design, be a video game. I can think of few examples however, of video games which are not computer games, that is to say controlled by a computer.

To blur the distinction a bit more. . . looking back I can recall countless hours sitting at a computer with friends playing a game with absolutely no video component other than the text which displayed who's planet was being assaulted and which planets were, as yet, unexplored. This is a prime example of a pure computer game which is not a video game, although the game could have just as easily been played on a board rather than computer. Back to the philosophical distinction of video games playing with us and computer games being more cerebral, the computer in this case was not simply controlling the game but was approximating a level opponent. Even though it's not a video game, it had a random element, and you were still drawn into an interactive world. . . of your own imagination.

I believe that there is not a distinction but rather that the term "video game" simply refers to one type, albeit a more advanced type, of computer game. . . one which heavily relies on visual stimulation to immerse the user in play. My pair of pennies towards a litmus test of "video" game: "Can the game still be played without the visual aspect?"

Steve Cherecwich: I accept your challenge, Jeff, and here is my response. Zork is a video game. Zork is a computer game. Taking your proposal to the next level, if it is played on a computer, it is a computer game. At the same time, it can also be a video game, much like a square is also a quadrilateral, but a quadrilateral is not necessarily a square. I have never heard anyone referring to MarioKart64 as a computer game. . . (although technically it is)

The discussion then becomes, "What is a video game?" That's like asking "What is a book?" There are too many variations from a text adventure game like Zork, to strategy a-la Command and Conquer, to RPG's like Final Fantasy VII. To take the term literally, video means that there is something to look at, whether it be text or graphic. Game means something that can be played with, whether it focuses on your imagination or something more tangible like a pool table. Therefore, a video game is something that can be played with and has a primarily visual component - including text.

Travis Mossa: The difference between a computer game and a videogame is very small but important. Videogames are created for consoles that never change unless the producers release a change. The hardware always stays the same. On a computer, the hardware and configurations of people's computers is different on every computer. The games have to be flexible. Also most console games are set when they are released. When a programmer wants to add something, he/she has to make a new game. On a computer, the user has the option of changing things to what he or she feels is the way they can get the most out of the game. We all have different configurations when we play Quake or Sim City. The cost is also a factor. Hardware on consoles is considerably less than a computer, but computer games are generally cheaper than console games. My definition of videogame is a gaming device that does not allow for normal user modification.

Sophia: I agree with the first thing that Keith said. I used to think that video games were either on a home console or in the arcades, and computer games were strictly on computers. But now I know different. A game like Super Mario Bros. is the same all the time. You can play that game for years and years and it'll still be the same levels... the same enemies at the same time... the same ending the same way. That is a computer game. It's programmed to be repetitive. It wasn't programmed to do any different, and in the end it gets boring. But compare that one to a game like Tempest. That game plays with you. You make one move, and the video game makes another move to try and beat you. It's something constant and it's never the same. Super Mario Bros. is a computer game. Tempest is a video game. Which is why at times some of the classic games seem more exciting to play than some of the new games. People want something that is going to challenge them and play with them the way Tempest would, not something fun for a while and then "yeah okay whatever," which is what you would get with Super Mario Bros.

Copyright 1998, 1999 Electronics Conservancy

** Please note that this is a statement from the contributor which the Electronics Conservancy finds to be in error.


VIDEOTOPIA and Electronics Conservancy are registered trademarks of The Electronics Conservancy, Inc. All rights reserved. All photos (c)1997, 1998 Electronics Conservancy. All videogames, characters, brand names, and trademarks are the properties of their respective owners.