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.”

Click here for the second part: Do financial considerations coerce developers into making “games”?

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8 thoughts on “No Alternative, 1

  1. I was recently thinking something related to this: The few Twines I’ve made are both gamey and literatury. Most Twines are. But I don’t think of them as literature. Of course I know they are, but that’s not how I feel about them. They were inspired by other games and game designers, and were written when I was reading about games a lot.

    I’m very interested in games because I’ve made a few and people have played them. I don’t know of any such community of young writers that exchange their works and talk about their craft and have companies and groups and jams and Flappy Bird controversies. Or where you can do something clever with words and someone you don’t know will tweet about it. Games are a space where I can conceivably have a spot.

    If there was something like this scene but for literature, I’d be all over there. I’d be defending Úrquel’s right to be called a short story and such. But there isn’t. And I don’t know exactly how, but somehow I was thinking this and then I believed “game” had more to do with acceptance in the game scene than with the work itself. It was a moment though, I’m not that convinced now. I’ll look into this and report back.

  2. I believe the word “game” must mean some distinct things about a the entity that it is applied to.

    For example, that said entity presents humans that interact with it with a win/loss condition, and also that said product has enough basic complexity to afford being played with (that is, trying a multitude of subtly different approaches to a problem at hand, each time experiencing results that are noticeably different).

    Problem is, this interpretation necessarily requires me to say that some of the much-loved products of the game industry, ones that it derives a lot of self-worth from, are not actually games. For example, neither Stanley Parable, nor Minecraft could be called a game under the above definition. First for severely lacking in actual complexity of game mechanics, second for lacking a win/loss condition.

    And that’s when people get all up in arms and start saying things like “Minecraft is the most important thing that happened to gaming, EVER! If Minecraft is not a game than NOTHING is! If defining what a game is leads me to exluding Minecraft from calling it a game, then i’d rather not define it at all!”

    In a weird way, some of the most beloved products of game industry and game community have been not-games. Attempts to define a game, therefore, necessarily bring the attenotion of the game industry / community to that bit of schizophrenia.

    Mad rampages, obviously, ensue.

  3. @David – I’ve been involved with groups a little like what you describe, back when I was more involved with SF&F writing and criticism. Obviously it’s not quite as you describe because the written word is not video games (as you say!) but there are author or critic groups, discussions on issues of the moment, mutual support and critique, events to attend, etc.

    Actually the critical apparatus and community around SF&F puts what video games has to shame. Obviously, video games is a much less mature medium.

    Loved this post and the follow-up, HM. I came in with the mindset that the last thing we need is more taxonomy, and passed through a few other opinions as I read the arguments and opinions you’ve collated. To be honest I still think more taxonomy is going to be pointless, but if it’s helpful for a creative or critical individual or group to make a point or produce something great, then by all means invent new lingo.

    (That is what I would argue occurred with the majority of cultural manifestos that sprang up during the Modernist period of art and literature, many of which were very exciting but most of which were deeply flawed – if not complete horseshit!)

  4. @David, I’m definitely playing devil’s advocate here. It occurred to me the common (indie) wisdom of “everything is games” might actually be exclusionary for those people who do not want to be seen as a game – but have no choice. So I chose to reverse the question and ask if we were short-changing any developers, preventing the growth of communities of “software art” or whatever you want to call it outside of game channels. I didn’t really get anyone agreeing – we have three developers here who are selling “games” after all – but I think some nice discussion came out.

    I don’t want to tell you what you should see your Twine game as; that’s down to you. But I think it’s healthy to ponder whether we want our Twine masterpieces being shoveled into the same space as Call of Duty. You should definitely check out Fuck Videogames because also raises the issue of whether the purpose of making a game is to get attention for your art rather than making a game.

    Before I started Electron Dance I was part of a creative writing group which I attended every week. We read out pieces, critiqued each other, and our group was diverse – a wide age range was covered. We had poetry, sci-fi, historical fiction and journals. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what you’re looking for, but this was what I was looking for when I was developing my creative writing skills in the years before this site.

    @maxi, my background as a mathematician means I’m very much attuned to rigorous definitions. But I think the toothpaste is out of the tube on this one, which is why it’s so damned frustrating why there are so many debates about why there is a game. In a world where – as you point out – Minecraft wouldn’t stand up to a particular definition of game, it’s ridiculous to see so much froth and bile over games like Depression Quest being admitted to the same spaces.

    In truth, I’m not interested in a woolly definition of game because I think it tells us nothing aside from “my my, this is a big club” – which is why I don’t tend to waste any words here on what constitutes a game at all. But I can also see why folks like Raph Koster and Dan Cook adopt a more constrained definition, because then they feel they can say something more concrete about “game” design. (I have never been much of a fan of the term “notgames” but I think they’re trying to drop that one now.)

    So what’s going on here? The definition used in the indie scene is about inclusion, it has social intent; the definition used in a ludologist perspective is about science. (A bit heavy-handed, but I think it makes the point.)

    @Shaun, as I was explaining to maxi above, I think taxonomy for the purposes of SCIENCE can be useful, although I’ve seen many cases of taxonomy for taxonomy’s sake, with little being done except cataloging what there is. My drive here was to consider whether “everything is games” is a landgrab, in the way that ludologists once suspected the narratologists of conducting. (oooh those DIRTY narratologists) There are things out there that could conceivably be pitched as games but people aren’t calling games. Look at the “interactive toys” here. My favourite is snm#1.

  5. @HM
    “The definition used in the indie scene is about inclusion, it has social intent; the definition used in a ludologist perspective is about science. (A bit heavy-handed, but I think it makes the point.)”

    Yes, that’s pretty much the point. Allow me to expand on it a little bit.

    It helps to consider that human knowledge in modern age has become fragmented into three fields – gnoseology, ethics and aesthetics. Gnoseology is the field in which science operates, and considers truth of things above all else. It establishes truth through accepting a number of axioms and definitions, and then working from them through logical inference. It cannot accept “fuzzy” definitions, because fuzzy definitions occlude the truth and are therefore considered harmful to study of truth that is gnoseology.

    Indie games, on another hand, seem to be largely unconcerned with truth of games and are more interested in beauty they may carry (aesthetics) or – for the lack of better term – justice that they engender (ethics). That’s why they are willing to experiment in areas where a ludologist sees no point in going.

    That’s the mechanics of it. The reason why these mechanics seem to be emotionally supercharged is because the world at large is experience a significant shift in values.

    For many centuries now, the world’s philosophy has been ruled by what came to be known as realism and later positivism. It basically says that beauty and justice are great to experience every once in a while, but ultimately are second-class citizens to truth. This resuls in thinking that lack of truth – that is inability to create a strict construct of logic from axiomatics to end result – also means lack of anything else good. Therefore intense emotional need for strict definitions of things, games included.

    However, events of XX century have largely undermined the notion of “truth above all things” in a great many ways, and ultimately resulted in rise of postmodernist philosophy, which – in simple terms – says that truth is only relevant to point of view. And suddenly, truth is also demoted to a second-class citizen, allowing beauty and justice (i really need a better term 🙁 ) to once again compete for the top spot.

    In practice, this allows indie developers essentially say that “I don’t care if my game is a ‘true’ game in anyone’s point of view, as long as it is ‘an experience’, that is something that touches the sense of beauty or the sense of justice”. A century ago that kind of thinking would have been easily shut down by positivistic thinking. “I don’t care what color the cars are, as long as they are black” – sort of reaction was the expected norm. Nowadays, this is no longer the expected norm.

    So on one hand you have gnoseology adepts in the field of ludology, trying to hold on to their slowly dissolving world of truths. On another hand, you have aesthetically and ehtically invested indies, happily stomping on the faces of their once-dictators, seemingly cheered on by the gaming community at large, who just love their “differently colored cars”. Emotionally charged hilarity ensues 😀

    That all being said, all the games that really stood the test of time seem to engender all three aspects in a seamless combination. From Mario to Bioshock, all of the true classics are ludologically sound, aesthetically powerful and engender a consistent and solid sense of morals of their creators. So, while i appreciate everything that indie game devs seem to be doing with regard to making more peple appreciate games, i will personally continue to observe this indie carnival from my firmly chosen place in the corner of ludology.

    A car, even when colored with a replica of Michelangelo’s frescas as a kind of social statement, must still remain a car to be useful.

  6. The idea that gnoseology cannot accept fuzzy definitions because they are inimical to truth is a bit oversimplified. It might be worth looking at “Can We Trust Logical Form?” by Mark Wilson, which largely concerns a case in mathematics–seemingly the most anti-fuzzy of truth-seeking disciplines–that proceeded on fuzzy definitions and gained a lot of truth before it was possible to give rigorous definitions of what was being talked about.

    (Also, Bioshock has stood the test of time? It’s seven years old. Photopia has stood the test of time for longer than that.)

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