Videogames: A tug of war

Let’s get one thing clear. I’ve never read anything by James Newman before other than “Chapter 2: What’s a videogame? Rules, puzzles and simulation” – without reading Chapter 1 or a preamble, it’s hard to say where James Newman sits on the pantheon of videogame scholars.

To say that this chapter iritated and angered me beyond belief would be the understatement of the millennium. The problem starts with defining what a videogame is. The working, though quite broad, definition offered by Frasca (2001, cited in Newman, 2004, p. 27) worked quite well for me. Frasca says that a videogame is:

any forms of computer-based entertainment software, either textual or image-based, using any electronic platform such as personal computers or consoles and involving one or multiple players in a physical or networked environment

So why-oh-why is Newman even mentioning the likes of Furby or Sony’s AIBO as being possibly thought of as a “videogame” because they are computer-based. Well, if you followed that line of thinking, you may as well chuck in the microwave and the washing machine to boot; after all, they are computer based as well you know! He then tells us about the two schools of thought on videogames, the narratologists (story telling) and the ludologists (game playing) arguing what makes a videogame what it is today. It’s at this point that I lose the will to live as for me, the very nature of videogames lies in the term itself “video” (as in screen) and “game” (as in to play). This argument to define “videogame” becomes rather belaboured and futile. Even the deployment of game genres (Berens & Howard, 2001, cited in Newman, 2005, p. 12), those of:

  • Action and Adventure
  • Driving and Racing
  • First-Person Shooter
  • Platforms and Puzzles
  • Roleplaying
  • Strategy and Simulation
  • Sports and Beat ’em-ups

becomes belittled and not worthy of scholastic scrutiny – and that is what is at the heart of all this, dare I say it, nonsense. Making videogames a “respectable” subject discipline that is recognised for it’s academic rigour and scholastic standing. I know some of my more cynical colleagues with scoff at Newman for using his book to justify is monthly salary – well I don’t know about that.

The videogame and the various genres does exactly what it says on the tin – that is the nature of the beast. Alongside the videogame, sits the arcade game, the slot-machine game, the mobile device game, the text-based game, etc. as these are part of the same computer-game based continuum. It’s the chain of gaming evolution that can be traced and catalogued. Upon this evolutionary scale are those who have survived and those who have become extinct; there are those that have evolved and metamorphised into some new and those that have made minor enhancements and are instantly recognisable.

Most of the reasoned arguments came from Newman’s references and not Newman himself (but of course, I could have entirely missed that for being impossibly annoyed with his “scholarly” work). I put this question to my partner’s two sons who are both ardent gamers. I asked them: “what is a videogame?” They said a videogame should be:

  • entertaining
  • challenging
  • have good characters
  • have a good plot / story
  • good graphics (which would suggest that it is screen based)
  • good sound / music
  • totally immersive (my word, not theirs, but that is what they meant)
  • engaging

I’ve rattled off a list of characteristics that get mentioned in both Newman’s and Gee’s work as to what defines a videogame. To say that Newman’s chapter iritated and angered me beyond belief would be the understatement of the millennium!


Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (Revised and Updated Edition). New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Newman, J. (2004). Videogames. London: Routledge.