@keithburgun I think it's not quite as complicated as you are making it out. "Formalist" doesn't have a precise definition, it points towards a set of preferences and tendencies. Game formalists tend, in a general sense, to be more interested in interactive structure and less interested in audio-visual qualities, in things that could be considered "content", in a game's fictional setting and narrative, to the degree that those things aren't germane to the interactive structure.
Sometimes a game's theme is deeply entwined with its underlying structure, and sometimes less so. To the degree that you can "re-theme" a game by plugging in different graphics and sounds and words, the formalist tends to be less interested in those graphics and sounds and words, and less interested in the theme.
A formalist tends to think "This game has really beautiful music in it, this music is an integral part of the experience of playing this game. But we already know that music can be deep and profound and mysterious and beautiful, I'm interested in the way *games* can be deep and profound and mysterious and beautiful. Sometimes a particular game might be mainly a vessel to deliver music, or visual art, or story, or some other content. No matter how compelling and rich that content is, that's not what I'm after, that's not what I'm personally looking for."
Recently there has been a lot of critical discussion about formalism. The push-back against formalism sees it as restrictive and reductive. According to this point of view, formalism attempts to dictate what *is* or *isn't* allowed to be considered a game. Formalism ignores everything except mechanics. Formalism wants to reduce everything down to rules, boil away all the subtle, delicate, ambiguous qualities of a game to reveal the rigid skeleton underneath.
Another version of this critique posits that formalism is only interested in winning and losing and therefore reinforces the conventions of competition and violence.
Sometimes there's a strong implication made that formalism is almost a kind of crypto-fascism - "If you love rules and structure so much..." You may think I'm exaggerating but here is a quote from a prominent critic speaking out against 'proceduralism':
"...proceduralism is a determinist, perhaps even totalitarian approach to play; an approach that defines the action prior to its existence, and denies the importance of anything that was not determined before the act of play, in the system design of the game."
Formalism is often accused of ignoring the player in favor of a focus on the designed system. (This accusation is especially ironic, given that the type of games that formalists tend to be interested in are the ones with lots of player agency, the ones whose beauty emerges from deep play, while the games that formalists are less interested in are the ones with lots of pre-authored content.)
And formalism is generally indicted for a kind of reactionary conservatism, for wanting to protect the status quo against change.
This last accusation is one that I particularly wanted to nip in the bud. I don't want to cede ground to this equation of formalism with neogaffery. "Trad" gamers, especially those of the anti-intellectual, just-want-to-have-fun variety, are by no means formalists. Thus my specific comment that people whining about "walking simulators" aren't formalists they're just philistines. (To a formalist 90% of video games are walking simulators. The single-player campaign of Call of Duty is a walking simulator with stuff. The fact that Dear Esther has a radically minimalist structure makes it *more* formally interesting not less.)
This is a general strategy of the anti-formalists, to paint the overall status quo as oppressively formalist. They would have you believe that formalism is the ruling ideology of the game industry, game academia, and mainstream game culture. This charge seems especially absurd to me. Could anything be farther from the truth? From where I sit I see almost nothing but an endless obsession with surface elements, audio-visuals, theme, story, and characters.
In fact, the one quality that unifies progressive critics with the great unwashed sonic fans of neogafdom is a distinct *lack* of interest in form. From a formalist perspective, both communities seem to want the same thing - games where you pretend to be a fireman - and the industry is geared up to continuously provide them.