Proteus

Let’s say, just for a moment, that Proteus is not, as its creators would have it, a game. A wild genius pops up, say, and provides a definition of “game” that everyone immediately recognizes as right on the money, and oh, hey! did you notice that Proteus fails to pass muster? Would anything about the experience change in light of that fact?

That’s the salient question, really: how does categorizing it one way or another change our experience of Proteus? It’s possible that the wild genius’ unassailable definition will irrevocably alter that experience, even for people who have already played and enjoyed the experience, like being told that the main course in the fantastic meal you’ve just finished was actually the family dog. That doesn’t seem very likely, though. There may be a few among the video game cognoscenti who will feel a little bit emptier knowing that one of the more compelling game experiences they’ve had of late was not a game after all, but most people are willing and able to prize their enjoyment away from the strictly categorical concern.

And while we’re at it, we might as well say that Proteus does present a compelling experience—at least, if the reviewers are to be believed. “You won’t dive back in to mop up the last few achievements, or to climb leaderboards,” read the Edge review, “but simply because you want to play Proteus.” Keith Stuart of the Guardian wrote that,

Proteus is beautiful, a beautiful thing. And it makes me happy—happy because it is so intrinsically interesting and emotional; happy because we live in an age in which things like this can be made and distributed to everyone with a computer. Maybe that’s the point.

I don’t suppose that anyone so taken with the experience would change their minds simply because we had informed them that they, as game critics, had reviewed Proteus under false pretenses. And yet, neither could quite help raising the question, is it a game?—in both cases, to assert that it is.

Few who have argued for the merits of Proteus have done so without making some form of the same argument, but why? If the experience is valuable when we acknowledge Proteus as a game, why shouldn’t it be just as worthwhile when we neglect to do so? Just who are they trying to convince?

If we do not treat that last question as rhetorical, then we can make a few guesses—their editors, for example. Presumably, these critics were hired to review video games. If, for some ungodly reason, they wanted to review the latest version of Microsoft Excel, their editors would demand an ironclad argument for why it should stand alongside reviews of Skulls of the Shogun and the latest Fire Emblem installment.

At the same time, the one thing a reviewer knows for sure about the audience of a game blog or magazine is that they’ve shown up expecting to read about games. A reviewer who wants them to take a chance on Proteus may hedge a few bets. And in the last resort, the argument provides cover so that, even if the reader is unconvinced by the recommendation, the publication can plead its relevance. “Since it is a game, it made sense for us to cover it,” the argument goes. “Come back next week and we’ll have more coverage of Dead Space 3.”

That none of this really bears on your experience of Proteus is just the point. Looking hard at the context of those arguments, it’s clear that they’re less about what it means for a thing to be a game, and more about justification. The experience of Proteus remains largely the same whether we call it a game or not, but there are any number of peripheral concerns that do change.

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Ed Key, one of Proteus‘ creators, acknowledged as much in a recent post entitled “What Are Games.” “The stricter the definition of an inherently nebulous concept, the more absurd the implications,” he wrote.

Should Dear Esther and Proteus be excluded from stores that sell games? Not covered in the games press? Since Sim City is either a toy or a simulation, that should be excluded too, along with flight simulators.

Those would, indeed, be absurd consequences, but not because we had managed an unprecedentedly high pitch of linguistic precision. Rather, the absurdity stems from our insistence on carving up the world with an exaggerated deference to language.

Fortunately, we’re rarely so strict in practice. Even if our wild genius were to settle once and for all the question of what it means for a thing to be a game, it might still make sense for Steam to sell, and Kill Screen to cover, some programs that are not, strictly speaking, games. All they need really ask themselves is whether it is likely to interest an audience that wants to play or read about games. With Proteus the answer is, quite clearly, yes.

In fairness to Ed Key, those concerns may not have motivated his contribution to the debate. Nevertheless, “What Are Games” suggests a fact we sometimes overlook: that creators, too, have vested interests in justifying their work by calling them games. For some, it’s a simply matter of what distribution channels are available to them. The growth of the indie game community over the last several years has been abetted by the appearance of a number of channels that make it easier than ever to publish games to a potential audience of millions. Taking advantage of those channels, though, often requires a cumbersome process of negotiation. Writing at Gamasutra on the demise of Microsoft’s XNA platform, designer Thomas Steinke provided a recent illustration of the hoops through which developers must sometimes jump if their games are ever to see the light of day. Bad enough that a reviewer can close off some avenues by calling a game “frustrating,” imagine how difficult it would be to market an independent game if competitors could block its distribution by casting doubt on whether it’s even a game.

Proteus, Key writes, “was certainly made by a game developer (and a musician), working in the context of videogames, using game design and development techniques to express a particular set of things.” If that’s not enough, you can always plead authorial intent on the basis of his declaration, “I call it a game.” All of which gives partisans a hook on which to hang a kind of authority, just as others have retreated to the authority of Wittgenstein to argue that games are inherently impervious of definition.

I’m not entirely convinced. At any rate, appeal to authority would be a logical fallacy. What’s more pertinent is that, for the most part, the debate hasn’t really concerned definitions. We’ve contented ourselves with justifications instead. Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing to be gained by asking what it means for a thing to be a game, nor that the answers would be of purely academic interest. The more we understand what games are and how they work, the better equipped we’ll be to make them great. Yes, a precise definition of gaming could serve reactionary ends, giving gaming conservatives a handle with which to beat back innovative work like Proteus. But again: the sin there is in exaggerated deference, not precision.

So is Proteus a game? I have an opinion, but I’m not inclined to give it. In truth, I wish that Key had declined as well, maintaining instead a posture that was sublimely remote from questions of categorization. Proteus, as an experience, has nothing to gain by it. Moreover, to the extent that the debate encourages us to play for answers rather than for the experience, it distracts us from what’s most compelling in Proteus.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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