A couple of years ago in an essay called A Theoretical War, I touched on the Holy War over the meaning of the word ‘game’. The war has not gone away. Each time some ‘alternative’ release reaches across the divide – such as when Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2013) or Depression Quest (Zoe Quinn, 2013) hits Steam – there’s an outbreak of unpleasantness. This battle to control ‘game’ even has a parody Twitter account, TheGamePolice.
Outside of the mainstream, there’s a strong belief that no one needs to define or control what gets to be called a game. Everything can be a game. But let’s put aside a technical discussion on definitions. The word ‘game’, in popular culture, has connotations. It is a complicated word that means different things to different people.
Last year, Darius Kazemi published a slideshow called Fuck Videogames in which he suggested not everyone needs to make ‘games’. He admitted he had dropped the term himself, pitching his own work under the banner of ‘weird internet stuff’.
Here’s a question for you. Are there problems with calling everything a game? Here’s another. Are there developers who would rather not call their software a game? I consulted Kazemi, Ed Key (Proteus), Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (Tale of Tales) and Dan Pinchbeck (The Chinese Room) on whether we need an alternative.
Dan Pinchbeck is the creative director of The Chinese Room, a studio forged from academic research into FPS storytelling. The studio is responsible for two commercial releases which are notable for dispensing with conventional gameplay: Dear Esther (2012) and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (2013).
Pinchbeck’s work initially started out through Mod DB, so the studio never shied away from the term ‘game’. He says, “What was interesting was that [our work] flew straight away within the games community and was completely ignored in the arts. It's telling that about a year after the mod, but before the commercial version (so the mod already had 50,000+ downloads), we put in a proposal to the Arts Council of England to create a kind of punk sampler of games - like ours, Tale of Tales, Stout Games, a few others, and they threw it back saying they didn't consider it to have any cultural worth – in those terms as well, I'm not exaggerating. Twelve months later they were calling us every couple of weeks asking us to offer advice and do free consultancy on making art work in a commercial digital environment.”
Pinchbeck stresses this doesn't include the Arts & Humanities Research Council, who funded three mods (Antlion Soccer, Conscientious Objector and the original Dear Esther) and “have always had the vision to take on games.”
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn are the developer Tale of Tales, who have produced works such as The Endless Forest (2005) where players interact as deers in a virtual forest, The Path (2009) “a horror game inspired by Little Red Ridinghood”, and Luxuria Superbia (2013) a game about giving sexual pleasure. They coined the term notgame and have written much on alternative games, such as the Realtime Art Manifesto, but they are not looking for an alternative to ‘game’.
“We chose videogames technology as a medium because it seemed suitable for the kind of art we wanted to create,” they tell me. “And since we embraced computers and the internet to get away from the conventional art world in the first place, we are very comfortable with the distribution methods used in the game industry.”
“Strictly speaking we have no interest in changing games at all, except for the creation of an area where our work can be enjoyed. But more generally speaking, we feel the world is in dire need of a new art form that can speak to the current concerns of people in a way that is sufficiently accessible. We feel videogames can play this role in society, potentially better than any other current medium.”
Ed Key is the developer of Proteus (2013) in which the player roams an island for no purpose other than to experience it. When he was preparing to speak to the press, Key was a little shy about calling Proteus a game. This did not last. “When I first emailed RPS with a build,” he explains, “I said something about it being ‘more of an ambient piece than a game’ but I somehow lost that uncertainty. We certainly had no qualms about submitting to Indiecade and IGF.”
“At the early pre-release stage,” he adds. “I was thinking of ‘game’ being a good framing for it too – as a foil for what games usually do: tutorialise, reward, feedback. I'm not really sure whether it was the right way to ‘brand’ it but any other phrasing I came up with was just horribly cumbersome.”
Harvey & Samyn suggest the only problem is a refusal to acknowledge the true nature of games: “In English, the word ‘game’ has a much wider meaning than the one applied by hardcore gamers. Some of these meanings we are comfortable with to apply to our art, others less so. Chris Bateman has brought great consolation by arguing that all art is games and all experience of art is a form of playing, especially with regards to the fiction: we play along, we make belief. It's much more exciting to me to see videogames as part of this very large pool of art-as-games.
“The refusal of the game industry at large to recognize the size of this field does cause us some trouble. It makes it difficult to explain what we do to non-gamers interested in art. Because games have a very negative stigma in cultured circles, even computer games. But rather than inventing a new word that nobody understands, we try to educate people and help them understand that there's more to videogames than they might be aware of. It would be nice to get a bit more support here from the game industry and community, though.”