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.”
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?”