This is the concluding part of No Alternative, the first part was posted yesterday.


What if someone wanted to market a hypothetical “non-game”? Channels for marketing and distribution have matured for games but are there any channels for publicising or selling “non-games”? Are developers being coerced into calling their works games for commercial reasons?   

“Sure, absolutely,” says Darius Kazemi, the author of the Fuck Videogames presentation. Recently profiled in The Boston Globe and known for his collection of Twitter bots, he stopped using the term ‘game’ to describe his own creations. “There are many well-understood distribution channels for games that calling something ‘interactive entertainment’ or whatever is probably going to hurt your sales.”

Pinchbeck, however, says The Chinese Room sees their target audience as gamers. “The medium and the audience are so large and so diverse now, that I don’t think ‘gamer’ implies ‘niche user’ the way it did even a couple of years ago. So I’m not really qualified to answer that I guess. I’ve never really seen a great need for us to reach people outside the gaming channels. We’ve been lucky to get a lot of support within the games community and it’s our community as people, players as well as devs, so I don’t feel like we need to be hunting for a market outside that.”

Key points out that the App Store offers an alternative route. “I think ‘app’ in the iOS sense is interesting. It’s one of those horrible nothing-words like ‘content’ but at least it’s less loaded than ‘game’ and there are some great ‘apps’ like Thicket, that I feel share a conceptual space with notgame-y stuff on computers.”


Tale of Tales have more concerns related to the narrow focus of game channels. “We want to make art for all people. And we design our games often for this purpose: to make them appealing and accessible to non-gamers too. But in practice our audience is limited to gamers because they are the only ones who will actually play and pay for our work.

“We would like to encourage non-gamers to buy and play games more, but it’s very difficult to send somebody to Steam and the first thing they see is an advertisement with soldiers and explosions, or to recommend that they get a good video card when that thing is advertised with pictures of demons and heavy metal typography.”

Key agrees and wonders where people go to discover “non-gamer-games” saying, “I’ve been lucky with Guardian coverage etc. but I wouldn’t know how to extrapolate that to other games.”

He also thinks this is a wider cultural issue. “I think the ‘soldiers and explosions’ issue happens way before you get to Steam, with adverts for Call of Duty etc. on the sides of buses and in shop windows. Maybe it’s also tied in with videogames’ marginal status to the mainstream of art culture. The latest generic superhero movie will be infinitely more likely to feature on Radio 4’s Front Row than the most provocative, important, innovative game.”


Pinchbeck takes issue with this and talks down the cynical view. “Valve put Dear Esther on the front page, and it’s not the only left-field game that’s got front page adverts, so it’s not always soldiers and explosions. It’s a difficult one – it’s a business and Valve would be stupid not to put the most popular products in the most prominent place. But they should be credited for the amazing work they’ve done in promoting and supporting games across the spectrum. There’s a lot of even very experimental indie devs who just frankly wouldn’t still be in business without Valve, so I think, on balance, we should be applauding Steam rather than criticising it. And this kind of stuff is popular across the board of media, not just games, so if it’s a problem, it’s a wider one. Although I am a shooter fan, so it’s never been that big of a deal to me, if I’m honest.”

Despite the difficulty they feel in getting the message out to the ‘non-gamers’, Harvey & Samyn are upbeat about the existing audience. “Gamers are a great audience for art. They tend to be very attentive and really take their time. Concerning gamers, there can’t be any complaints about short attention spans or lack of concentration, or effort to explore. A lot of art lovers could greatly improve their enjoyment of the arts by adopting some of the attitudes of gamers.”

A couple of years ago, Raph Koster wrote in the comments on this site:

I advocate for better understanding of games so that we can make better games. I happen to think that making better games will also lead to making better videogames, and that making better videogames will spill over into making better notgames, and so on. Would I prefer to see better partitioning? Actually, if we manage to evolve our understanding of games, I suspect that the resultant terminology itself will result in better partitioning. And I do think that understanding is coming, at a rapid rate.

Considering how much currently manages to shelter under the umbrella of ‘game’, is this splintering necessary?

Key thinks this is problematic. “I think I love the phrase ‘ludic artefact’ but it and all other alternatives are too cumbersome to ever gain currency, so I’m still in favour of wearing down the word ‘game’ like an old pebble. I also always get a little bit worried about ‘eschewing traditional gameplay’ and wonder whether that forces a wedge between two sides. Just to namedrop my current obsession in the most annoying way possible: is Kerbal Space Program a game? It’s mercilessly systemic but the fun seems to consist of building ramshackle deathtraps and creating Sublime space scenes via hardship and wiki-reading. It doesn’t really care about being a well-formed ‘game’. Ian Bogost’s talk on ‘fun’ as a kind of awkward work was a huge influence on my thinking this year too.”

“I’m wary of categorisation if I’m honest, too much of an academic burnout,” says Pinchbeck. “Those kinds of distinctions exist in flux and tension and that’s a good thing, so hopefully that will continue. There’s never going to be a simple, easy answer to where the boundaries of gaming are, or what kind of sub-genre classification things exist within and I’m all for that. Keeps life interesting…”

Kazemi has a slightly different perspective. “Take this example: we have ‘movies’ and we have ‘film.’ Technically they mean the exact same thing and are interchangeable, but colloquially, ‘movie’ carries the connotation of pop culture and popcorn, whereas ‘film’ carries the connotation of art. We use ‘flick’ to denigrate a movie. We generally use ‘cinema’ to refer to the wider medium. I think it’s possible that in 50 years we’ll see similar synonyms-with-connotation pop up. Maybe serious, artsy games will be referred to as ‘twines’ regardless of what technology they use!”

Tale of Tales believe that the distinction between what is considered gameplay and not is already disappearing but more needs to be done. “At the moment, the range that videogames cover is very narrow, compared to films and books. Much like there is a place for action movies and romance novels, there will always be a place for videogames with conventional gameplay. But it would be sad if the medium would remain limited to that. For everyone involved! Because opening up the medium and extending its range will increase its profile and make it much more acceptable for non-gamers that their sons or friends game. Because then it will be a matter of taste only: you like these types of games and I like those.”

Key notes that David Kanaga, composer for Proteus and Dyad, uses the term ‘possibility spaces’. “I feel it captures a certain essence of explorative play. If you look at games on this axis, it cuts across both the ‘accepted’ mainstream games and fringe ‘art games’. I guess I feel like it’s a more interesting distinction than between things that have score, challenge etc. and I’d worry that it’s the kind of thing that would get lost if we split things into two camps in the wrong way.”

The last word goes to Tale of Tales. “Erik Svedäng once compared the entire field of videogames to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is the games with traditional gameplay, most videogames available today. The largest part of the iceberg is under water. I think we owe it to the medium, and even to humanity, to explore that part. Who knows what experiences await us there?”

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13 thoughts on “No Alternative, 2

  1. “Iceberg” is good metaphor and all.
    All warm and fuzzy and politically correct and inclusive.

    Thing is, though, not all of us are interested in plumbing the depths of the iceberg. Some of us think there is still a great amount of potential in classic game formulas. That there is still a lot of depth and value in refining all the Metroidvanias and First-Person-Shooters and Marios to perfection.

    Thing is, though, in order to do that, we need a very solid understanding of what we are working on. We need a clear, concise and – above all – actionable answer to the question of “what is a game”. Even if that answer excludes someone.

    “Game is a kind of an iceberg” is not a clear, concise or actionable answer. It expresses not the desire for iterative improvement of existing experiences, but rather desire for completely new experiences.

    Refusing to define what a game is sacrifices potential for iterative improvement for potential for new experiences.
    I’m all for new experiences, but not at the cost of iterative improvement.

    In practical terms, i think everyone would benefit if “nongames” found their own distribution methods, that allowed them to reach specifically the audience that wants the new experiences that “nongames” provide.

    I understand that in the current market this is not really possible. But i also feel that games will never develop into anything meaningful without significant, devoted iteration time. Refusing to define what a game is creates tons of problems in regard of constant iteration.

  2. Great piece(s), Joel. It’s interesting to hear a wide variety of insights on this!

  3. Maxi, I’ve got to disagree with you there. There certainly needs to be a clear and concise answer in order for games to rationally improve, but that answer is unique to each video game genre -or sub-genre rather. Going along with that idea, “not-games” are simply new video game genres; ones that are un-inclined to borrow unnecessary fluff from their parent genres.

    Well, this is all based on the assumption that video game genres are built around two things. A feeling they induce in the player, and the mechanics they use to induce that feeling. This theory isn’t much used, near as I’ve seen, and I’d argue that that’s sometimes the reason for failed or sub-optimal games.

  4. @maxi – I’m just going to turn this around.

    If we do not answer “what is a game”, what bad thing happens?

    If we permit Proteus and Minecraft and The Path into the hall of games – will AAA studios stop making shooters?

    By excluding certain software from being games and, say, from being available through Steam, how does this benefit us?

    By not defining “the game” does it really mean that the shooter model cannot be improved? And is this definition likely to aid in the iteration of the shooter or the puzzle-platformer? I suspect the main problem facing the iteration of the shooter is the fear of studios when faced with exploding budgets – witness how the ambition of Bioshock Infinite wilted into just another FPS.

    “The field of games are an iceberg” is not meant to be a definition but a poetic appeal. It’s meant to get people juiced to make something different. Samyn & Harvey are quite clear that all that stuff we have now can keep on existing: co-existence is the goal, not replacement.

    I do wonder whether a “nongame sales channel” would be useful for helping stuff like Proteus reach beyond the usual spectrum of gamers – although Pinchbeck thinks this problem is exaggerated.

    @Amanda – thanks!

    @mwm – I guess I agree. I personally don’t see the value in answering the question of what a game is, because, you know thousands of games have been made without anyone even considering that question for 40 years. And many of them have been quite good. Unless we suspect we’re about to hit a creative wall or impasse, I think we can lump “the mystery of game” in with “ludonarrative dissonance”. Useful, but not a dealbreaker, by any means.

  5. Somewhere in my foggiest memory there’s a tweet that will prove impossible to find, whose author I won’t even remember, but it was about being cool with h8ers telling you your work isn’t games because it liberates you from all the baggage the term “game” entails.

  6. @HM
    “If we do not answer “what is a game”, what bad thing happens?
    If we permit Proteus and Minecraft and The Path into the hall of games – will AAA studios stop making shooters?
    By excluding certain software from being games and, say, from being available through Steam, how does this benefit us?”

    The bad things that happens if we do not answer “what is a game” is that without answering it we will never quite understand what makes a game good and worthwhile. The only similarity between games on the things on the market nowadays that call themselves games is that they all require user input. There is nothing good or worthwhile about that single fact.

    AAA studios won’t stop making shooters, but they will also operate under the assumption that everything that is good and worthwhile in games is explored somewhere away in the indie scene, while they are here only to make money off people hooked to guns and xbox swearing. Cue even MORE soul-destroying Calls of Modern Warfare.

    Also, at the moment, indie games are running on steam of being fundamentally new experiences. Proteus and Minecraft and The Path are great because there was nothing quite like them before. But that’s not true anymore, is it?
    “Indie” games will eventually figure out formulas that work best for them, and will start cloning that formula until it’s done to death, much like CoD. It happened in all creative mediums in the past, games won’t be an exception.

    Breadth-first growth is fun to behold, but ultimately you either choose things to focus deep on, or become useless and creatively dead.

    As for Steam, i am not particularily for or against it playing a centralised store for all sorts of games. I just wish that i didn’t find myself paying for something like Gone Home or Sword and Sorcery EP (amazing and pay-worthy as both of them are in their right), when i was looking for a good “quest” or “adventure” game, where interactivity exists for something a bit more than just providing the author with excuse to self-express in my direction.
    And, by the same token, where i wouldn’t find myself paying for some open-worldy stuff-buildy sandbox#152, when i actually want is to experience being a driving force in a conflict with some story point to it.

    When i buy a game, i want to buy a game. Not something that pretends to be one to get more audience.

  7. @maxi: But isn’t that what reviews are for? If I go to Inside Llewyn Davis expecting a lavish comedy musical just because it has music in it, isn’t that my fault?

    I think you’re indirectly arguing for useful games criticism, of which we currently have very little.

  8. @Eric: I think that’s missing his point, kind of. He’s saying that, since indie games are hijacking the existing nomenclature, people would find themselves buying an “RPG” that has very little in common with a typical RPG. On the Rain Slick Precipice, for instance; it uses all the same numbers and systems, it has a grind, and you’re on a quest, but OtRSP replaces easy catharsis with tricky, original, and cerebral battles.

    @Maxi: I see what you’re saying, but, again, this is about genre, not games as a whole. What’s more, the problems you suggest are nothing new, and have always been there: If you’re looking for a game where you’re the driving force in a conflict, with an interesting story to it, well, the good Call of Duty games* could do that, and so could a Western RPG, but the bad Call of Duty games have an atrocious tendency towards making the player unneeded, and Japanese RPG’s are about following someone else’s adventure. So, either you have to know genres in and out (and be confused even then!), or you read several reviews for the same game, hoping that one of the reviewers slips and gives a useful detail.

    Games are rarely, now or ever, made rationally and cohesively. Throwing Indie games into the bunch will not change that.

    *There *are* good Call of Duty games, god damnit! And I’m not talking about the first three either!

  9. Answering “what is a game” won’t necessarily help us understand what makes a game interesting and worthwhile. I can tell you what a Shakespearian sonnet is — a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with three quatrains rhyming abab and a concluding rhyming couplet — but that won’t tell us at all what makes a good Shakespearian sonnet. What makes Shakespeare’s sonnets great isn’t that he nails the rhymes every time, or even anything else that can be brought out in the formal definition.

    Also I wonder what art form, ever, has succeeded in preserving its creative life by codifying its defining principles and rejecting everything that doesn’t conform to them. If someone had come up and said “Music is performers reading the notes that were written down by a composer and performing them! If people are making up notes as they play that’s some kind of sound experience but it’s not music!”, well, where would music be?

  10. I’m so late to the party.

    I get the urge to define game to better understand games, but as matt says, defining something doesn’t always let you make better somethings. We often feel like we should come up with one perfect definition, because surely that will guide us to make better things. What’s interesting, though, is that different people and different time periods/cultures/groups define things differently and so get different results.

    For example, poets in the mid 18th century would have defined poetry as words arranged in a highly structured, musical pattern which please the senses, elevates the reader and, above all, reflects the ordered nature of God’s universe. Fast forward to 1820 or so, and the Romantic poets would define poetry very differently: as words which are ordered according to the emotional effects they can have on the reader. And both groups would basically define poetry as “words with metre and rhyme”, but poets writing nowadays wouldn’t even agree on that.

    Which definition is the “right” definition of poetry? None. Which poetry is “poetry”, and which is “not-poetry” or “art poetry”? Ugh. I think you get my point. The Romantics didn’t write great poetry because they had *the* definition for poetry – they wrote great poetry because they had *a* definition which interested them and gave them something to aim for. You don’t need *the* definition to make great platformers or shooters, you just need *a* definition to work with while you’re exploring that. By all means come up with a rigid, highly exclusionary definition for “Mario game” when you’re working on a Mario game, but if you extend that to all games everywhere in every context then you’re being unnecessarily exclusionary.

  11. I’ve not returned to this comment thread much because I’m not interested in the “game: but does it blend?” debate. I remain entirely unconvinced of significant harm involved if we let all sorts of ne’er-do-wells creep into the game stores or review sites. I don’t know if answering the question, once and for all, is going to solve world hunger. And I don’t know if the resulting conversation every single time this question comes up actually enlightens anybody involved about anything.

    Sorry if I sound grumpy, but I roll my eyes everywhere on the web there’s a discussion about definitions. Even when Amanda Lange wrote about her Bernard Suits one. I rolled eyes then too! But I’m not even going to evangelize “everything is games” because it’s sounds… evangelical.

    What I was more interested in was whether there were developers who DID want an alternative, who DID NOT want to be associated with games. That is: rather than precious games being harmed by this “invasion”, was experimental software art being fucked up because it had to be called a game?

    (I’m still interested in finding a “game developer” who would rather not be associated with “games”. Good luck on that quest, HM.)

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