Video Games Do Not Exist

October 01, 2019

I was invited to write an original piece for the then patron exclusive ‘From the Aether’ newsletter, the text extension of the wonderful Into the Aether podcast. As of December 9, 2019, the piece became available to the public.

With permission from Into the Aether, I’ve published the full piece here, but I’d love it if you gave it and the other wonderful accompanying pieces a read on Medium.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast. If you’re so inclined, become a patron of an insightful and welcoming low-key video games podcast.

The year is 20XX. Video games do not exist. They never have.

But tomorrow they will.

And when they come, all of today’s modern technology and tools will be available to their creators. There will have been no precedent other than their analog counterparts, which — come to think of it — consist of cardboard, cards, metal or plastic tokens, dice, tiles, paper, pencils, backpacks, guns, talking… walking… geese…

The first ones will be clunky; nigh unplayable. But without limitations in technology, we’ll quickly learn what’s acceptable, butt up against new limitations, and impose our own.

The first will feature a camera moving around a space. The next will include music. Then voice over. Then a third-person perspective and objects to interact with. Some will simply be digital recreations of analog forms. Maybe you’ll simply speak to them. Maybe you’ll move a character from left to right, or maybe right to left. Maybe you’ll console a character. Maybe that character is actually a real person. Maybe you’ll discover the nuance of an intimate relationship, or the complexity of geopolitics. Maybe all you’ll do is observe and sustain an ant farm, a household, or a city. Maybe it’ll strictly be text, or nothing at all — just a voice.

You’ll play them on a smartphone, a first-party handheld device, a TV, a computer, a watch. Perhaps you’ll play these through goggles or virtual assistants. Maybe your phone will ring or you’ll receive a text message that informs you to open an email that tells you to navigate to a particular GPS coordinate in your neighborhood, then open an app to reveal a new clue.

Each is an experience. Each requires an interaction. But they are not simply interactive experiences. The act of reading these words, right now, is an interactive experience. The mode of input varies. The goals vary. The display, playback, or broadcast will vary.

Perhaps the constant is a digital device. It may not be the only artifact necessary to partake in the experience, but it’s a requirement.

Perhaps the other requirement is agency or the illusion thereof. You’ve been spewing thousands of opinions on social media, but you know damn well that you have no control or influence to change the world in a single tweet. But in this limited, digital experience, you play god. An analog god over a digital domain.

So, what are these things? What are these experiences? Some are games. Some are simulations. Some are stories. Some are lessons. The same as any form of book.

But they don’t come on paper. They come to us through video — “an electronic medium for the display of visual media”; a screen — but maybe also a speaker, or require a pen and paper.

With unlimited creativity and technologies that can produce images that rival reality, these things reshape what we know of interaction and storytelling. They unlock our ideas of what worlds and systems should or shouldn’t be — human-made full-sensory utopias and dystopias. They are as simple as connecting dots and as complex as connecting people.

So, what do we call them?

[Edit] This piece was updated on December 9, 2019 to reflect the public availability of ’Video Games Do Not Exist‘.

[Edit] This piece was updated on December 28, 2020 to include full text of ‘Video Games Do Not Exist’, with permission from Into the Aether.