I've been noticing a strange trend in the way we talk about video games recently. It seems like people are focusing more on a game as it stands on its own, and not on how they interact with the game. I shouldn't have to remind you that games are an interactive medium. You can't experience the whole of a game without pressing a button, moving a stick, or waving your arms around. If you could, then it's just a movie.
This really came to light for me on the October 15th Weekend Confirmed podcast. Jeff Cannata expressed his outrage at people who skip cutscenes; going as far as to call them "selfish and impatient" (* 1:29:00) for not getting into the story. I'm not attacking him for the language he used since he sounded very frustrated at the time and probably was being a little melodramatic, but I think this really illustrated how one can get caught up in their own way of playing games.
I'm going to make up my own jargon here. I'm really only using it to illustrate the difference.
Passive gaming is where you let sit back and experience the game. This is the most prevalent way that reviewers talk about games. This is about what the game does for you and not about what you're doing to the game. There's a big focus on story, since passive game is just a few steps removed from movies. Your interaction with the game helps you feel more connected to the story, but that interaction is secondary to what the game presents you. An extreme example would be something like Call of Duty's single player. There is a very specific experience that you can have with the game, and that experience is the main focus.
Active gaming is where the player is the focus. You're actively taking a role in the experience. You're not relying on the game to present you with the experience; instead, what you do to interact with the game is the experience. An example of this the multiplayer mode of nearly any game. You're controlling your own experience. This is extremely fulfilling to a lot of people, because when something amazing happens, it's a direct result of their actions, of their ability to pull off that combo or that killstreak. The game didn't set up that experience on a platter for them, they took it into their own hands.
When people game, they fall somewhere between these two extremes. They watch cut-scenes (passive) or they build their own levels and have an amazing match inside it (active). You can't make a value judgment about which of these is "better", that's defined by the player's taste. Someone could prefer the passive enjoyment of watching a game more than playing it, or they could prefer to skip those passive cut-scenes and jump into the active interaction of the game. They're both equally valid ways to play the game and one shouldn't forget about either of them.
*Weekend Confirmed Episode 30, October 15th. http://www.shacknews.com/onearticle.x/66047