Video media is separated into many distinct categories, such as films, TV shows, documentaries, and commercials. Yet no matter how varied they may be, games are very rarely separated into categories.
Each category of video has a different purposes and criteria by which it's judged. The industry benefits from these distinctions in that the ideals of one category will not necessarily restrict the other. For instance, a film does not need to teach, and a documentary does not need to entertain. Yet there will often be a lesson to learn in a movie, and documentaries can be riveting. This is because creators are free to combine several categories, while others push them further apart with their work.
The difference between the categories is essentially purpose, not format. Even the most similar categories, TV show and film have distinct intentions: a film generally tells a single, self-contained story, while a story-driven TV show typically recounts episodes or disjointed events that happen to a set of characters.
The Status Quo
Wikipedia divide games into three types: core, casual, and serious. The distinction between the two major types, core and casual, is made primarily by scope and accessibility. Small, simple games are thrown into the casual category, while more elaborate games are defined as core. I find this distinction inadequate for many reasons, but primarily because it doesn't deal with the game's intent.
By the current definition, challenging puzzle games like Tetris would be grouped with iPhone apps that hardly require more than a couple of taps from players. Fast paced games such as Call of Duty and Starcraft would find themselves grouped with a slew of RPGs, whose primary purpose is to involve the player in a storyline.
The only type listed on Wikipedia that considers a game's intent is Serious Games. However, this purpose is listed as "other reasons," basically encompassing any piece of software that is not exclusively entertainment.
What Should a Game Be?
As developers explore what a game truly is or what it should be, many varied opinions have been expressed. As opinions are subjective in nature, none are right or wrong. Yet people will zealously argue for or against their views. When Gamasutra posted an opinion piece by Lew Pulsipher suggesting that games should be more like interactive movies, it was met by much disapproval.
The problem here is not his opinion, but rather that he is making it of "games" in general. If he were to suggest the same things about "Immersive Entertainment," perhaps his critics would be more inclined to agree.
Games have reached a sufficient level of maturity to branch into various categories. I would argue that they already have, but we've yet to make the distinction formal. Think of the differences between a game on the iPhone that involves a cartoon cat batting at a roll of toilet paper as you drag your thumb across the touch screen versus a game like World of Warcraft. There are also games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that feature non-stop, twitch-based action, games like Second Life that focus more on socialization, and games like Wii Sports that combine digital entertainment with physical activity. Yet we refer to all of these as games.
But just as no one would suggest putting an end to all sketch comedy shows because their format doesn't lend itself to film, no one should feel threatened by the emergence of new game styles or an adherence to the old. This is why I believe that the industry would benefit from the differentiation of the very generalized word: game.
To this end I purpose a tentative list of five categories into which the word game can be divided. This list is by no means final, but my hope is that it will encourage discussion amongst the community, so that together we can determine what paths the future holds for our beloved industry.
IDE (Now with less programming!)
Before we get into the five partitions, let's create the root of the hierarchy. IDE, in this case stands for Interactive Digital Entertainment. This term, or hopefully a catchier one yet to come, should take the place of the current use of the word game.
The purpose of Digital Toys, like their analog counterparts, is to entertain. Most casual games pertain to this category, but just because they are casual, does not mean they are simple or small.
Scribblenauts exemplifies this category. It can provide an interesting and fun experience, yet it's unlikely to produce professional gamers. Even difficult puzzle games can be categorized as Digital Toys, so long as the puzzles are comparable to physical riddles -- the sort that can be quickly and easily solved if the answer is known. The generation of these puzzles in this type of game is not dynamic, and usually involves having to open a door of sorts to progress to the next stage.
The depth of Digital Toys can vary significantly. They can be full length, triple-A games, or simple iPhone apps. The latter of which can arguably be attributed to a different category, which I like to call Finger-Flickers. Digital Toys of this type do little more than respond to a player's gesture in amusing ways. But by the same token it is unfair to assume that all iPhone apps or Flash apps should automatically be qualified as Digital Toys, as many are not.
The primary purpose of Immersive Entertainment is to involve players in a story. Presenting the player with any form of a challenge is secondary to this goal. Quick Time Events (QTE) are a common in this category. Roleplaying games can often be considered Immersive Entertainment, although many contain sufficient elements of strategy or twitch to qualify them as traditional games.
Another purpose of this type of IDE is to provide players with a unique experience that fits with the tone and story, even at the cost of gameplay. The Resident Evil series often employs camera angles to limit the player's vision or slower paced movement to restrict their mobility to compliment the horror setting and instill a feeling of increased helplessness.
This is perhaps the broadest of the categories. The primary purpose of games is to present players with continued challenge. If you can get better at it, chances are it's a game. And while many core games fall under this category, some don't.
It's not just about games like Halo and Street Fighter. For instance, by my definition Tetris is a game. Strategy and twitch are the two pillars of skill in games. Most true games combine them in some way. In Tetris you must decide where to place the block and have the manual dexterity to get it there.
Even the players of strategy games are often rated according to their APM (actions per minute) which is essentially a measurement of twitch skill. In RPGs, character customization is a form of strategy, which makes that particular genre difficult to classify, often straddling between Immersive Entertainment and Games.
Games such as Second Life or The Sims Online certainly possess some aspects of a traditional game, but demonstrate a greater focus on socialization. The goal of social games is to offer their users an interesting way to meet, communicate, and network with one another. This can involve unique settings or methods. The continued evolution of social networking sites is likely to further incorporate this category of IDE.
The purpose of this type is to in some way improve the player. It does include educational games, but can be taken far beyond the realm of Math Blaster and simple games for children. The amount of information assimilated by MMOG gamers can truly be astounding, and there is a lot of potential to change the way we teach and learn through the use of IDE.
This category of IDE is not just for information. Take for instance the recent development of simulation software by the US Military to train troops as well as deal with post traumatic stress. It can also include games that physically improve the player, such as with Wii Fitness.
I also look forward to seeing the emergence of documentary-style games, such as Pfiefer's project dealing with the social unrest during the recent Iranian elections.
The Practical Games category is perhaps the least refined of the list. Their intent is to improve those who play it, but the way they improve the player can be quite broad. There is also the question of whether or not games which help players actually produce something, similarly to Mario Paint, belong in this category, should be listed as digital toys, or are deserving of a label of their own. Regardless, I would like to stress that the basic requirements to be listed as an IDE are held within the name itself. The software must be interactive and entertaining, usually at the sacrifice of extra functionality. This is why Mario Paint should be considered a game, and Photoshop should likely not.