The Problem with “Videogames”

For years, many people have been use the word “videogames” to describe various different things – often a similar category of games playable in arcades and at home thanks to digital electronic technology and using video displays. Sometimes this category is distinguished from “computer games” which are played on general-purpose home (or, if one is lucky, office) computers. Often people nowadays who think about gaming don’t think of specific classic titles (_Zork,_ _Hunt the Wumpus,_ _Star Trek_) as videogames but are willing to consider them computer games.

It’s not universal to use the single-word term. The OED has only an entry for “video game” (with 1973 and 1983 references), although “videotape” is listed as a single word. In _Racing the Beam,_ Ian Bogost and I compromised on using “videogame” as the adjective form and “video game” as the noun form, so we wrote phrases such as “videogame players” but also wrote of “popular video games.” Perhaps this was the worst of both worlds, but no one, not even our copy editor, railed at us about it.

The problem that I see is that I like to explain to people, often in writing, that I study “computer and video games.” If I use the term “videogames,” what would I say? “I study computer games and videogames”? “I study computer. Also, I study videogames”? “I study video- and computer games”?

In an effort to make videogames seem like their own special thing (which was provided to me by one editor as an explanation for why the one-word version was used), _Bioshock_ for PC is verbally classed in an entirely different category from _Bioshock_ for Xbox 360. Given my work as an editor of the MIT Press Platform Studies series, I certainly recognize the real importance of the subtle difference between these two – but it seems awkward as a digital media scholar to actually go and call them different things, and it seems like that is what the sleek and special term “videogame” compels us to do. Maybe I need to become retro and go back to the two-word version of the term.

11 Replies to “The Problem with “Videogames””

  1. I typically use “video games” for most forms of virtual interactive entertainment, subdivided into “computer games”, “console games”, and “mobile games”.

    Those games at the arcade, though, I don’t know what to call them.

  2. I know I’m mired in the past (I read you on Planet IF), but I had no idea “videogame” was a thing. I’ve always used the two-word version.

  3. I always used to consider “videogame” and “computer game” interchangeable terms and was quite shocked when someone ranted at me that they’re not the same thing. (By his definition, it’s only a videogame if it’s implemented in hardware.) I still think that’s a pedantic distinction. Late commercial arcade cabinets even housed generic game consoles with interchangeable games. And speaking of arcade games, the term has come to mean “fast-paced with little physical realism”. Maybe we should criticize this use as well?

    Nope… language evolves. I can see why it’s an interesting problem from a linguistic perspective, but in most cases everyone will just know what you mean. Don’t worry about it.

  4. Here’s the way I see it.

    Back in the day, “video games” meant games running on standup arcade machines or consoles (Asteroids, Pac-Man), while “computer games” meant games run on PCs (Zork, Wizardry). Computer games generally were very much their own thing, with their own aesthetics, traditions, and approaches. As the editor of Platform Studies will appreciate, many of the reasons for this were bound up with the strengths and weaknesses of the platforms themselves. Computers could store huge amounts of data compared to consoles, offered a keyboard for input and could easily generate text for output, and could easily save and restore state thanks to their disk drives. On the other hand, they were often much worse than consoles at displaying fast graphics. These factors in addition to cultural ones led to fairly simple action games holding sway on consoles, while computers often hosted more cerebral adventure, RPG, and strategy games. Both camps, naturally, tended to stereotype and look down on the other (“brain-dead console games,” “those boring PC games with their 350-page manuals”). Later, as consoles started to get better at storing state and data and to offer more options for input and output, and as PCs got better graphically, these distinctions started to go away, and the two strands began to merge. The trend kind of came to fruition with the XBox, which is essentially a PC in disguise. So, now to most people the terms “videogame” (now ubiquitous enough to start to merge into the compound, a process I suspect will be complete within a decade or so) and “computer games” mean effectively the same thing. Which can create a problem for those of us writing histories of the medium, as we suddenly need to separate the two terms once again and educate our readers on why we need to do so.

    None of which helps much with your “video- and computer games” problem, of course. :)

  5. I use video games for games in which the video aspect of the game is actually important. One example are old versions of Pong. Unlike newer versions which work with the concept of “position”, the original ones bounced the ball when it was simultaneous with the paddle.

    A simple rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t contain a microprocessor, but a video screen (TV-set, etc) it certainly is a video game. If it contains a microprocessor it depends on how it is designed. Some game consoles, like the NES have support for video games with video based collision detection.

    Computer games, on the other hand, don’t necessarily require a video screen. Many of those games like Startrek or Hunt the Wumpus work just as well on teletypes. In fact, even more modern games like Tetris, a Russian game btw., can run over terminal lines.

    But come on it’s not like computer games have a big impact on society or economy. There’s probably more money in cat litter than in video and computer games combined.

  6. As a linguist the spaces really don’t matter, and no one should care what you do. If you want, go back to scriptio continua!

  7. Thanks for all of these responses, and particularly, Jimmy, for your nice elaboration of the relationship between these two categories.

    While I’m not trying to overestimate the importance of a space (or lack thereof) here – we can keep studying games quite productively in either case – I also don’t agree that “language evolves” by itself and that those concerned with games shouldn’t care about terminology like this.

    Changes in language are made, wittingly or not, by speakers and writers. Experts, including those who choose style guidelines for their books in a new field, do have a responsibility to think about issues like these and to try to make good choices, because terms have an influence on how people study, think, and create.

    I do expect people in the field, not descriptivist linguists, to be the ones who take a stand on whether “videogames” or “video games” is best. ButImustadmitthatthelastsuggestionwouldsolvetheproblem…

  8. Nick, I feel your pain. Back when I was writing Commodork, one of my earliest hurdles was the “word” BBS. Technically, B.B.S. is correct, but I felt BBS was acceptable (I found a few people who used “Bbs” as well, but I didn’t care for that one). The plural version of the word got even more tricky: BBBs? BBSes? B.B.S.s? BBS’es? Or do you cop out and just refer to them as “boards?”

    In the end I went with BBS and BBSes — but I’ve always felt that more important than which one I went with was consistency throughout the body of work. Start switching back and forth and you’ll drive your readers mad.

    The problem with “videogame/video game,” and where the confusion comes (I think) is that people compare it to “computer game.’ A “computer game” is a game that is played on one’s computer. A “video game” then should be a game that is played on one’s video. That doesn’t make sense. The term there is “console game” — along with “computer game” and “arcade game” (sorry for all the quotes). A “videogame” is the actual game. And I guess it would be case closed, if anyone ever said that they were going to go play a “computer videogame”.

    Sigh. I’m going back to boardgames. Er, board games. Er … ah, screw it.

  9. In my courses, I refer to these things we build and play as digital games. Everyone seems to get it.

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