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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

Every time I write the word "videogame", I get this weird squiggly red line under it in word. It means the word is wrong. It means videogame is not a word, even though I see it used on occasion over its proper alternative- video games. “Videogames” is a proper noun, versus “video games”, an adjective and a noun. So why the distinction? Both words mean the same thing, even if one technically doesn’t exist. Why have both words in the first place? Surely we should be able to just choose one at this point. Why do semantics even matter when talking about defining a game? At the risk of admitting how pretentious I am, it does matter to me, at least a little bit.

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Let’s think about the term “video game” for a second. It’s two words, technically. Video, which refers to visual content, and game, something people do for amusement. So it’s a visual amusement, or specifically, a game where the visuals are on a screen. It’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t really offer too many problems. If it isn’t visual, it isn’t a “video game”. Taken on its own, game more commonly refers to an amusement played along set rules, usually with the possibility to win and lose. Video games pretty much always have rules by nature. Even in games like Minecraft, which lets the player do almost anything they want, they are still trapped in the confines of the world. There’s an internal logic to a game world, both from a narrative perspective, and a technological perspective.

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Technologically, games can’t account for infinite possibilities. Programmers and game designers can only do so much, and that’s why you can’t develop superpowers in the middle of Call of Duty and start flying around, melting people with laser beams. Sure, they could have done that, but they put their resources and efforts into making a different kind of game. One where that doesn’t happen, and can’t, because the developers didn’t code that in. Narrative-wise, every world has rules. In Star Wars, Luke doesn’t suddenly defeat Darth Vader by turning into a giant and crushing him underfoot. The story has established Luke can’t do that. He has some pseudo-magical powers, but we all understand their limits. On the flip side, that means everything that does happen in a narrative happens for a reason, even your own personal narrative of playing the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

For now, we understand that any game does technically have rules. You can only do what the game allows you to. However, we run into a problem with that idea. Sure, the world has established rules, but what happens if I break those rules? Speedruns often involve clipping through the game’s architecture, or glitching out certain segments to make the game go faster. Link can’t usually pass through locked doors without a key, but Wind Waker speedrunners can make him slip right through. But they’re still playing the game, they’re just playing for a different goal, with different rules. That’s part of what makes video games so great, often, you can take an existing set of rules, and layer your own over them for a totally different experience.

So rules are a bust, at least in the traditional sense. You can’t just suddenly start playing a heavily modified version of tag while everyone is playing hide and go seek, you’d be breaking the rules. Sure, you’re playing by your own, but the existence of communally agreed upon rules means you’re not the playing the game everyone else set out to, and that means less to some jerk who really care about defining games by their rules. Video game rules are inherently malleable, since, at least in a single player context, there’s no one to tell you that you’re playing incorrectly.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

What about win/lose states? Does a game have to let you win or lose? There is no traditional winning or losing in say, Animal Crossing, which goes on forever, with or without the player being involved. There are tiny win states when you pay off your loan, but those don’t end the game or anything. But what about a game you can’t win at all, like Pac-Man? You don’t “win” Pac-Man, you just go as long as possible. You do, however, lose Pac-Man. Not “can”, but “do”. You will eventually lose Pac-Man, because you can’t win. You can hit the kill screen, but that’s not a win state, it ends the game destructively, in an unintended way.

The same win/lose problems come up in playground games. You don’t win jump-rope, for example. You just go as long as possible until you lose. So at the end of the day, games by nature have to have a win or lose state. Even most playground games technically have win or loss states, because they are, by nature, multiplayer experiences, and it’s hard to have those in the real world without forcing a win in some way. So the “game” part of “video game” differs from its traditional definition. Malleable rules and non-traditional victories that don’t involve another player make up the backbone of video games. The “game” portion of the word is different than the one we based it off of. Why not come up with a new word for these kinds of games?

Merriam-Webster says that the first known use of video game was in 1973, which makes sense. That’s one year after Pong, and right when video games were hitting it big in North America. They were still simple enough that they could sort of be defined as anything. It was easy to call it a game, because that’s what it was, and it was played on a TV screen, so video. There. But there’s a weird issue here, both words come from other mediums. Video referred to video screens, like computer monitors and TVs, while game was referring to the fact that, at the time, video games were a lot like games that already existed. Pong was ping-pong, everyone knows what ping-pong is.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

It’s actually a lot like movies. The word “movie” comes from “moving picture”, which means movies are just a series of images flashed before your eyes. Kind of demeans the experience right? Aren’t movies supposed to be about combination of the acting, the music, the directing, the cinematography and everything else? I mean, if movies are moving pictures, then are .gifs movies? Are viewmaster reels? Movies are also called films, but that just refers to the thin layer of chemicals spread on photographic plates for developing film reels. Defining a medium by its physical presence isn’t the worst idea in the world, but it does offer some issues when it comes to video games, which are becoming increasingly digital, and began life as discs and cartridges. Can we just call an NES game a ROM? Is that the same as calling a movie a film? I don’t really have the answer, but common sense says we don’t because no one else does.

The best way I personally have to define a video game is by saying that it’s interactive entertainment. You watch movies, you look at art, you listen to music, but you play games. That verb distinction is important to me. It changes how I experience the medium, how I ingest it. You look at art, because it does not move. You watch a movie, because you have to observe the motion. You listen to music, because you use your ears. You play a game, because your actions have influence over the experience. That’s the distinction, and that’s the definition I like. The win or loss matters only when you start dissecting the “game” part of the word, and that's for another time.

It’s hard to be mad that we use a word. We’ve been calling them video games since the ‘70s, and we won’t really stop anytime soon. Video game rolls off the tongue a lot better than “interactive entertainment”. And it’s truly incredible that we’ve come to the point where calling something a “game” defaults to a video game, rather than a board, card, or playground game. I’m not looking to change the way we write the word out, it’d be silly to. This isn’t a crusade, I just prefer videogame over video game. As a proper noun, the word has a transformative power that pushes it just a little further from its two parent words.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

Sure, it’ll always be stuck there, since most video games are still games in the traditional sense, and almost all have some visual element. That’s why keeping that parent word DNA at the fore is still important. I don’t think the word even separates the conversation. Personally, I don’t want to let games that are less visual, or less game-y get brushed off as “not a video game”, but honestly? That doesn't happen that often. I think I just want to combine the two words, make them inseparable, as their own concept. A proper noun that shows that these aren’t like two other mediums. That video games aren’t a combination of video and game, but something greater. They can’t be viewed in the same lens as movies, nor like traditional games. They’re inherently comparable, but that’s because they’ve evolved from them. They’re something bigger than video games They’re videogames.

And also, I’m pretentious. But that’s a given.

 

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Law and Gaming- The Saga of Ralph Baer

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Law and Gaming- The Saga of Ralph Baer

Video games are like pornography, we know it when we see it.

It’s sort of a troublesome statement, but you can appreciate the idea behind it. Porn is hard to define, especially from a legal perspective. Erotic imagery isn’t necessarily erotic to everyone, and anything may be more erotic to some than others. A bare breast shown without the intent of titilating might not be porgnographic to say, some of the readers of the New York Times, but others were offended that children were seeing that kind of image.

But porn still has a working legal definition, and one that’s pretty easy to follow. Any image with the intent of titillation is pornographic. Law doesn’t often take things on a case by case basis unless it’s important. Blanket laws are laid down early to catch most instances of a problem, and if something makes it up to the supreme court, the case can be taken on its own merits.

So why not try to define video games from a legal perspective? After all, we definitely have a whole bunch of cases and decisions to draw from.

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Ralph Baer is a guy responsible for a lot of things. He claims to have been responsible for all video games ever. He is definitely responsible for the Magnavox Odyssey, the first ever reprogrammable game system. He’s also responsible for launching dozens of patent suits against video game companies and developers based on the fact that he believes he owns the patent for video games.

In 1966 Baer, an engineer who worked for Sanders Associates on defense contracts, got the idea to make a game that could be played on a television. Eventually, his ideas led to a patent on an “apparatus for generating symbols upon the screen of a television receiver to be manipulated by at least one participant.” Basically, Baer and his company patented video games, if you want to define them as “things you control on a raster monitor”.

There were sub-claims in the patent, specifically the idea that there needed to be a hitting symbol (the player) and a hit symbol (a ball) moving both vertically and horizontally. So while Baer did patent video games, he defined them all as ping pong. He also defined video games as anything you do on a screen that you control. No win state, no lose state; he wasn’t worried about the “game” so much as he was about the “video”, which is a surprisingly forward thinking move for an industry that would soon be made up entirely of Pong clones.

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Times were tough, and Sanders wasn’t in a position to turn the patent into a product, so they licensed it out to Magnavox, a TV company. Along with Baer, Magnavox created the Odyssey, a game system with different cartridges that could be swapped out to play simple games, including a now infamous tennis game.

Isn't that Pong?

Isn't that Pong?

In 1972, Nolan Bushnell played Tennis on the Odyssey at a demo event, and went back to his then-new company Atari, and told one of his employees, Al Alcorn, to make a better version of it. Eventually, that game became Pong, and catapulted Atari to the top of the burgeoning video game industry.

Three years later, after Baer prodded Magnavox to take action against Atari, they sued, claiming that Atari’s Pong was a direct ripoff of Odyssey Tennis. They won, of course, considering that Baer had a guest book from the event signed by Bushnell, who later admitted that he was, in fact, inspired by the Odyssey. Atari and Magnavox settled out of court, and let Atari retroactively sublicense the patent for “video games”.

Isn't that Odyssey Tennis?

Isn't that Odyssey Tennis?

But that wasn’t the end of Baer’s lawsuit career. He spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s on the stand as a fact witness and consultant claiming that all video games technically belonged to him and Magnavox, as he was the “father of video games”.

In 1985, he (along with Sanders and Magnavox) sued Activision, as they didn’t obtain a license to produce Atari VCS games from Magnavox. Activision first brought forward nine pieces of prior art that disproved the validity of Baer’s patent. All of these pieces had already been brought forward in two lawsuits Baer had filed between the Atari and Activision cases, so Activision moved to claim that their games were different because they had more complicated circuitry that the patent didn’t cover. Even though Activisions games didn’t even resemble anything on the Odyssey, the judge ruled in favour of Magnavox, forcing Activision to pay out over a million dollars and obtain a royalty license from Magnavox.

Uh, let's zoom in on the screen there.

Uh, let's zoom in on the screen there.

Over the next few years Baer would end up in court with companies like Coleco, Mattel and Nintendo. All were either sued for not licensing, or attempted to prove that Baer’s claim was illegitimate. Nintendo’s lawyers dug up Tennis for Two, a game made in 1958 by William Higinbotham, a physicist who created the ignition system for the atomic bomb. Higinbotham worked for the Brookhaven National Library at the time, and put the game together for an exhibit funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to get visitors excited about atomic power. Tennis for Two was almost exactly like the Odyssey’s tennis game and Pong, but played on an oscilloscope, a device used for measuring voltages.

The courts didn’t side with Nintendo, who had to keep paying licensing royalties to Magnavox and Sanders. According to Baer recollection of his own testimony, there are a few reasons that Higinbotham’s game doesn’t count. In an interview with game historian David Winter, Baer says that “to qualify as a video game, you have to have to pass one major test: Can you play the game on a standard home TV set or a TV monitor ?”

Much better. You can even sort of make out the tennis!

Much better. You can even sort of make out the tennis!

Basically, Tennis for Two isn’t the first video game, or even a video game at all, because it was only available for a limited time, on specialized hardware, and never made commercially available to the public. Remember, Baer says that in order to be a video game, it must be played on a standard TV or monitor. Even though Tennis for Two, Tennis and Pong are virtually indistinguishable, because the oscilloscope demo was taken down after a while, and was not made available for play on a standard TV, it doesn’t count. Though, the only difference between Tennis for Two and say, Tennis is that one is played on a TV and one isn’t. Kind of a silly distinction huh?

There were other video games that existed before the Odyssey. Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann created the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device in 1958, which played a simple missile simulator using analog controls and screen overlays. In 1951, the British company Ferranti built the Nimrod computer, which used a panel of light bulbs in order to play a strategy game called Nim. Spacewar, which is often cited as the first proper video game, was made in 1961, by students at MIT working on a PDP-1 mini-computer.

A screenshot of Spacewar, or: The Case for Capture Devices

A screenshot of Spacewar, or: The Case for Capture Devices

As far as the internet can tell, the patent has lapsed, and no one pays Magnavox, Sanders or Baer anymore for making video games. But if you want to be strictly legal about it, a video game is  anything happening on a screen that you control. If you want to be like Baer and get stingy about it, you have to make it commercially available and playable on someone’s actual screen, otherwise it’s not a video game, it’s just a nuisance that prevents someone from calling him the inventor of video games. And to be fair, Baer is incredibly important to the history of video games. He even invented the concept of home video games, making him the great-great-grandfather of the PS4 and Xbox One. But his definition of games that was legally enforced for years is a little problematic. The part about interactivity is forward thinking and all, but the part about raster monitors and commercial availability seems like it mostly served to keep Baer in royalty checks. The definition might not be valid anymore, and Baer might be important, but let’s try not to stick too close to his definition. After all, I’m pretty sure not every game is secretly tennis.  

 

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