How To Destroy Everything, Or, Why Video Games Do Not Exist (And How This Is Great For Everyone)
A year ago, a game called Stickets won Best Australian Game at the Freeplay awards. This year, Stickets was released and it was received well by critics. Mark Serrels wrote this review for Kotaku Australia titled "Stickets Isn’t Like Most Puzzle Games…"
In it, he says:
"On sites like Kotaku we rarely discuss puzzle games. That’s partly because it feels like a dead genre where rusty ideas are endlessly recycled and rebranded, but the frazzled words we normally use to describe video games must also take share of the blame. Stickets isn’t ‘cinematic’. It isn’t ‘charming’ or ‘quirky’. It isn’t ‘visceral’. Stickets is a new set of rules, constantly in flux. […] Stickets isn’t like most puzzle games. It’s better than that."
When a new game that breaks convention comes along and makes a splash, it’s common to talk about it in terms of everything that it is not.
Now, in the Stickets review, Mark Serrels does talk about what is in the game, but this type of language is emblematic of a trend.
We’re used to seeing games which are “cinematic” or “quirky” and so it’s notable when a game isn’t trying to do this and still captures our attention.
We do this both positively and negatively. When a game doesn’t conform to our expectations, we will criticise it using this same language.
There’s the saying that “Reviews are opinions” which is meant in a way to debase opinions and reinforce that there’s no fact or objectivity to them. But this deemphasises the significance of “opinions”. Opinions aren’t some fundamentally arbitrary thing. They are informed by culture and from the body of work and conversations we expose ourselves to, we internalise taste and we internalise a specific vocabulary to talk about our taste. These things inform each other.
It’s worth being aware of how we talk about our games and what we have internalised as being “good” or “bad” and how this manifests in our language.
Vocabulary can be a problematic and revealing thing outside of games, of course. And often times we’re aware of this and do it anyway.
One of the most pernicious and most invisible examples of this in our day-to-day conversation is ableist language. This is words like “crazy”, “stupid”, and “lame”.
Ableism refers to discrimination in favour of able-bodied people and prejudice against the needs of disabled people. It’s an issue that is far bigger than these words which slip into our conversations, but the words do significantly reflect our own prejudices that are sometimes unnoticeable to us.
Why do we associate these words with either negative or positive qualifiers? Why is there a shared assumption that these things are inherently bad, for instance?
The word “lame” refers to people who have difficulty walking, but it’s used as a word to mean uncool.
The problem isn’t with the word itself, but with the intent.
For example, if you feel the need to describe something or someone as “lame” and if you try to replace that word with something without an ableist connotation (for example “bad”), you find there’s a certain nuance lost.
It’s in that nuance that the ableism lies.
Or in the case of “stupid”, which relies too easily on a shallow assumption of how intelligence works.
It’s convenient to say someone or something is “stupid”, “idiotic”, or “crazy” to classify it as beyond reason.
If we call someone “stupid” we give up any responsibility to engage with them. We say that their brain is simply wired incorrectly; I can’t make rational signal from this noise.
The word “stupid” is so often used in a self-deprecating sense as well. Not only do we use it on others, but on ourselves (“I did something stupid” or “I’m stupid”) and this is a dangerous way to think, too, because it’s a kind of defense mechanism to avoid losing pride. By discrediting something we do as “stupid” we’re refusing to submit ourselves to judgment. We’re saying “you cannot criticise my judgment because I acted in a momentary lapse of mental capacity.”
And the worst part is, we often associate that idea that “you are not worthy of consideration, attention, or care” with a word which is used to describe disability. Even if we don’t mean to make reference to a specific disability, it strengthens this underlying assumption that people with disabilities are undeserving of consideration, attention, or care.
Now, I want to be very clear: I’m not saying everything is worth engaging with, and that nothing should be ignored. And we’re not saying this in an effort to police your language.
But there are dominant trends and narratives of things which are considered “crazy”, “stupid”, or “lame” which we buy into when we have no reason to question them and we’re not exposed to alternatives. And most people who perpetuate ableist language are not disabled themselves.
But ableist language is, for me, one of the most sobering examples of how the words we use can reveal how we think, and how our aesthetics can be discriminating without our noticing.
So let’s learn from this lesson and consider some of the other language we use, and what this might reveal to us about how we see the world. Let’s take this back to video games.
Here are some common words that come up often when discussing video games to the point that they are, in many circles, passé.
Talking about video games in a careless way is obviously much less harmful than talking about human beings in a careless way. But this isn’t just about how language is harmful, it’s about how it is inept. And, like with ableist language, the solution isn’t just to replace these words with other words, but to think about why we’re using them in the first place.
He deconstructs the use of the word "replayability" as a default positive qualifier for games: Why must a game have different outcomes in order to be replayable? People reread books and rewatch films and get different experiences from them even though they fail this idea of “replayability” in the video game sense.
What defines a non-trivial choice which allows a player to play a game to have different outcomes? Does the Ubisoft approach of putting a hundred, optional collectables into a game satisfy these conditions?
Ultimately, Ben concludes that the word is meaningless and authors who use it possibly just want a shorthand for factors that influence whether someone is willing to endure repeat exposure to a game.
He also attacks "immersion" as a frame of discussing games, saying that it’s incredibly subjective, and that to talk about how a game is “immersive” might sound appealing, but ultimately all we mean is that it grabs our attention. And by replacing immersion with the frame of attention, which is a word that holds scientific and psychological significance, we can use this frame of attention to make more meaningful observations.
An example of this that he gives is from a study about how the fatigue of human attention to perform a prolonged task can be restored by visual contact with nature. It’s good for productivity to have parks in cities, and pot plants in your office, etc. And he uses this to explore the difference between games which feature virtual environments which are lush and full of trees and natural locales, and similar types of games which are instead in urban or industrial settings.
But in order to explore these things, we have to step back from “immersion” as our frame of how players experience a virtual world.
We should question what we mean by these words, and also question why should they be desirable, let alone measurable. Ben criticises some of these for being ill-defined or misleading, or convoluted words which are actually a combination of many concepts and assumptions that should be untangled. But even terms which are well defined, specific, or universally agreed upon, still harbor certain prejudices.
To take a more academic example, an infamous term in game criticism is this one: ludonarrative dissonance, which came about when game designer Clint Hocking used it to give a name to a specific criticism he had of the original Bioshock. He said the narrative of Bioshock is a critique of Randian Objectivist self-interest, having you work against Andrew Ryan. But the way the systems of the game encourage you to play, and what you have to do to progress, have you working in line with that very philosophy.
He says there’s three problems with the story:
- Why am I helping (this other guy) Atlas instead of working to my own self-interest?
- Why am I working against Andrew Ryan when I agree with him philosophically
- Why don’t I have a choice in this, when I do have a choice in the game systems?
And in order to play the game you have to ignore these questions. But as gamers we’re used to saying the answer is “because it’s a video game” and I’ll just play along and buy into it instead of trying to break it.
But then Bioshock reveals that the answer to these questions is a narrative conceit and it mocks you for making this concession.
What you’re buying into as a gameplay system and what you’re buying into as a narrative don’t map onto each other. This is to say that what the player does in the game is, not strictly working in opposition with the story, but dissonant to it.
This term was born in a time when critical gaming circles were concerned with how a game communicates its message through the dynamics of play and how this interacts with the prescribed narrative elements of a game.
This is why the very name of the concept casts a dichotomy: ludo—narrative. And the term has come under fire for this.
Two assumptions which are criticised are
- that a game’s “ludic elements” and narrative are distinct entities
- that these things can and should be harmonious
In its popular usage, “ludonarrative dissonance” is used to point out little things we take for granted in video games and how, when you think about them, they don’t really make sense in the story.
Some examples of ludonarrative dissonance in this popular sense are:
- A game about poverty where food and money can be found in trashcans.
- A character who is friendly and relatable in cutscenes, like Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, who becomes a mass murderer in gameplay.
- A character who is supposed to be very familiar with a space, for example Heavy Rain’s Ethan Mars in his kitchen, but it’s a space that the player isn’t familiar with, so when the player is told to go somewhere, Ethan uncharacteristically flounders and is chastised for doing so.
Game designer and teacher Robert Yang wrote a blog post called "Ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t exist because it isn’t dissonant and no one cares anyway."
In it, he attacks the notion that “gameisms” or concessions of video game logic are things that hurt the expressive power or coherence of a video game, and the notion that in the grand evolution of games, these moments will be squashed as we become more competent and mature at game design.
There’s an irony to Robert’s argument. By the end of the piece, he’s saying, look, Bioshock Infinite, which is full of this type of dissonance, still received rave reviews.
He’s saying that it was never a problem until you brought it up, and that we don’t need to remove these things in order to have a purer form of artistic expression.
In a sense he’s asking: Which is more likely, a mass culture of gamers are too naive to notice this thing, or that this “problem” of dissonance is a fabricated one?
But to say “ludonarrative dissonance” is a problem in games, and to say video games do not have this dissonance are both different sides of the same prejudice.
Now, this term isn’t supposed to be used to make fun of subversive play or glitches. But glitches are one of the most shared and celebrated forms of communal engagement of video games. In fact, there are huge speedrunning communities that have turned these things into a sport.
For many people, when they see a video game glitch up, especially if it’s a AAA game which prides itself on polish, the first thing they do is take a picture, share it on Twitter. We have an obsession with pointing out glitches.
Or when we notice something doesn’t make sense, “gameisms” are easy fodder for observational comedy.
We love to see systems break. And we love to point them out in a way that asserts our superiority over a game.
It’s also a way to air our grievances when these things impede our progress in the game. If someone’s trying to complete an objective in a game and a glitch stops them, through no fault of their own, that’s frustrating and will often warrant an angry comment.
But these things aren’t criticism. “Ludonarrative dissonance” has been somewhat reappropriated along the way from it’s original meaning.
The word “immersion” which we saw criticised by Ben before, has its own sub-genre named after it: The immersive sim. Loosely speaking, these are games which simulate a world and offer you limited agency within that simulation through that of a single character.
As opposed to simulation games like SimCity which give you some omnipotent power and omnipresent perspective, immersive sims like Dishonored, or Deus Ex, focalize their systems through an individual with limited perspective and limited agency.
The type of people who first batted around the term “ludonarrative dissonance” theorise video games in a way that is very familiar and comfortable to immersive sim developers and players.
Bioshock itself, which first spawned the idea of “ludonarrative dissonance” has its design roots firmly entrenched in the immersive sim, it being a successor to the System Shock games, which are the seminal works of the genre.
"Immersive sims" prefer problems to puzzles, they’re about learning the behavior of a space and expressing yourself in those systems. Allegedly. The allure of freedom is stronger than the freedom itself.
When a game offers us more “freedom”, it means more decisions and actions can be acknowledged and responded to in-game.
More freedom implies expanding this field:
What if I do this?
What if I do this?
Well then this happens.
Having answers to these circumstances.
And the more answers it has, the more coherent the game is.
These games present us with an attractive notion that more freedom within its systems is better.
It invites you to bring any questions or criticisms you have about what the game’s “ludic elements” are saying and present them to the ludic elements themselves. Play out your queries inside me. Debate the way the world works, on my terms.
These glitches and “gameisms”, it’s not that they break immersion, or break our suspension of disbelief. It’s that they remind us that what the systems of this game say about reality is limited. It reminds us that life is inevitably more complicated than whatever abstraction this game has made. It offers us the liberty to remove the game’s agenda from any pedestal it might place itself on and see it as simply a thing. We take comfort in seeing its flaws. It becomes more approachable to criticism.
In fact, paradoxically, the more flaws it has, the more it allows us to respond to it. It forces us to reflect and take a distance, in the way we would respond to a book, or a movie, or a piece of music.
That is to say, the more freedom we have inside the game, the less freedom we have outside of it.
The word “dissonance” comes from music theory. And as music theory tells us, dissonance is pregnant with resolve. It’s used as a musical technique, an aural instability which is often followed by a harmony. The human brain finds the tension and release of dissonance and consonance pleasant.
So when an immersive sim, which has simulatory systems and a character narrative, has a dissonance between those things which is left unresolved, it implies an incompleteness.
And to perceive “ludonarrative dissonance” as something to be criticised implies that a game is incomplete. The idea of ludonarrative dissonance implies a utopian future where these things can resolve themselves. And to set our goalpost as: a game’s “ludic systems” should resolve with its narrative, well there’s a problem there.
When the means of production of games which are this systemically complex are controlled by a narrow group of people, who have the education and the opportunity to be in this position…
(Because these types of games are hard to make. Even the biggest, greatest examples of these still receive the harshest of criticisms. And the developers of those games are supposed to be veterans.)
…We have to ensure that the people who can make these games aren’t limited to the dominators and oppressors in this culture. The idea of a game which resolves itself falls into the trap of having a conversation purely on the terms of the oppressor.
For many people, truths are inarticulate. For many people, the world doesn’t work the way people tell them it does.
For many people, dominant narratives our culture is fed are certainly dissonant with the systems they have agency within.
We don’t want to develop a critical language which subjugates truths that are incoherent, that are told on their own terms, and that are nonetheless very true.
And to be truly destructive, we must revolt on our own terms. To quote Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Luckily, there are tools, and communities, and game design paradigms which destroy these ideas. But it’s an uphill battle.
Words like ‘immersive’ and ‘replayability’, when they go unchecked, contribute to underlying assumptions about how we expect games to be. And terms like “ludonarrative dissonance” dress up certain aspects of games to be problems that need to be solved.
So a lot of outsider art is at an advantage here; by not buying into these dichotomies or assumptions of what is normal, they can bypass the things that we frame as problems or debates. They can do things that we wouldn’t have thought of when trapped in this frame of mind.
But when games come along which don’t fit our expectations, which cannot be taxonomised by the vocabulary we’ve cultivated, how are they treated?
As we’ve seen, people can paint these games in both a positive and negative light. If we praise them simply for being “different” or “novel”, then we will only create a desire for difference or novelty. We will simply see them as an inverse of what we already have, which coalesces into its own conventions. We ignore why the specific abnormalities in these games might be significant.
Destructive games certainly do exist, and people are talking about them, even if they’re not being heard in more mainstream media. But in our existing structures of players, journalists, critics, and developers, it’s not clear whose responsibility it is to seek out these experiences.
And you hear some people saying “instead of buying a AAA game, you should buy 6 indie games for the same price” or “instead of critics and journos writing about Bioshock Infinite, why don’t they write about games which don’t get the attention they deserve?”
Presenting it as a tradeoff like this frames discoverability as a charity.
Whose responsibility is it to appreciate these games? It’s easy enough to say alternative game developers should be able to do what they do. But that leaves no one accountable to buy these games or write about them.
Is it journalists and critics who should be going out of their way to find these games to write about? Or is it players, who should be bypassing existing journalism to put in the effort to seek out these experiences themselves? Our current structures of journalism, development, consumerism, don’t hold the answers. For these issues to truly be solved requires more than just collective charity.
The easiest solution would be to say it’s the responsibility of the developers of the games themselves, to instead change the work that they make to fit the structures we’ve developed.
So you’re going to get a lot of voices that find this problem too hard to solve and who argue for the status quo.
And who does it convenience to argue for that?
Why, people who have already found success in these structures. People who have accrued the financial and cultural capital to have influence.
This is Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid, saying that Corrypt, which is this game by Michael Brough, would have been more successful if it had more “polished” graphics and sound. If it borrowed the aesthetics of other, popular indie games.
Game developer Liz Ryerson wrote a blog post called "The Talk of Magicians" in response to these types of comments.
Liz defends the art style of Michael’s games, saying that it is a highly-refined, organic style and works with the themes of the game, and in fact, are an integral part of the experience of playing. It’s a deliberate visual aesthetic that gets called “ugly” because it is misunderstood. It’s not what we’re used to.
Liz Ryerson also spoke at No Show this year, just a couple weeks ago in fact, about the power of aesthetics in indie games. This idea of accessibility and approachability falls prey to communicating ideas on the terms dictated by current norms.
What is considered “good aesthetics” in indie game circles carries discriminatory undertones of class, race, and gender.
When indie culture is Western-centric, when major events take place in only certain cities, when festival award ceremonies or online marketplaces require arbitrary entrance fees of up to $100: All these barriers inform what we perceive as a body of work. It paints an image of video games in our mind that is dictated by the privileged. And this happens, most of the time, without us realising it.
Game developer Merrit Kopas has written about the implications of the term "non-game", which refers to games which don’t have conventional or formal traits. Specifically in reference to responses to Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia.
So the label “non-game”, far from a neutral classification or harmless matter of definition, is a political weapon that repels nontraditional authors from membership in the community of game makers. It consigns those who wish to bring underrepresented experiences and identities into games to the limbo of “electronic art”.
This term seems neutral or objective on its face but is actually politically charged.
Our formalist understanding of games ignores marginalized authors, unless they comply with the dominant traditions.
Since games culture has been historically dominated by a narrows segment of the population, predominantly straight white men, the label “non-game” is a gendered label.
Another example of an aesthetic with overwhelming connotation is the concept of “realism”. This is commonly tossed around in video games, often in reference to “realistic graphics”.
The values of realism have been debated in media outside of games, notably literature and film, for a long time.
Robert Stam, a professor of film and media studies at NYU, describes realism as an uncommonly contested and elastic term, and says that:
[Some definitions] stress the conventionality of realism, seeing realism as linked to a text’s degree of conformity to widely disseminated cultural models of “believable stories” and “coherent characters.”
What is considered “real” usually just means what we accept as convention. And by “we” I mean what Westerners accept as convention. The word “realism” has just as much cultural baggage as every other word.
Video games have a particularly skewed perception of realism. This is put best by Tim Rogers in an article for Kotaku in which he points out that the difficulty settings for Rainbow Six: Vegas are “Normal” and “Realistic”. Which implies that, to gamers, what is real is not normal, and what is normal is not real.
And blanket statements like “video games are not realistic” because of bizarre conventions in their abstractions that we all graciously accept, as Robert Yang might say, is just as misleading as saying they are.
Now, in the indie games scene, realism is derided. We laugh at David Cage pushing graphical fidelity as the technical barrier to artistic expression in games.
We praise stylistic graphics, which are often more convenient to work with, and approachable to individuals and smaller budgets.
When really, we implicitly cast realism and stylism as just another false dichotomy.
It’s worth remembering that realism is not fidelity.
We don’t have to throw out realism when under restraint. We don’t have to be abstract and metaphorical. It’s possible to approach realism differently.
There have been two recent indie games that are excellent examples of how these two things (realism & stylism) can coexist in the same text.
Cart Life is a game by Richard Hofmeier, about being a cart vendor on the streets of New York.
People have praised Cart Life for being mundane, or depressing. And yes “the real” can be the mundane. But that isn’t exactly what is interesting about Cart Life.
Cart Life shows us the “real” that we say we want to see, but we really don’t. The real is somewhat grotesque and unattractive.
And visually, it does this without compromising its style.
The traversable space aligns the world on a series of these flat, one-dimensional axes.
The graphics don’t conform at all to Cartesian perspectivism, which is the model by which most art which attempts to be realistic abides. There are distinct layers, and orthogonal lines which contrast with the more grimy, gritty, human nature.
The text in the advertisements and the infrastructure is mimicked in the game’s menus and extra-diegetic texts. It’s very stylised but portrays the very “real”, quotidian struggles of New York’s cart vendors, without a abstract compromise.
The trees in this park are rasterised representations of photo-realistic trees. They look like they’re digitally traced and downsampled from a photo. Yet it co-exists with the other aesthetics at play.
It’s reminiscent of the art of early LucasArts adventure games, where low-fi pixel illustrations were still a technical restraint, rather than a stylistic choice. They would attempt an approximation of photorealism, getting as close as they could get in such a constraint. Whereas the recent HD remakes of Monkey Island opted for a more insecure, cartoon treatment of the original art.
The other example is Gone Home, a game by The Fullbright Company, which is about coming home to an empty house and finding out what happened to your family. It puts its focus on a tangible, spatial topology to communicate a layered history to space. Which in this case is a family home in the 90s.
It’s an exploration of love via the exploration of a game space, with both the excitement, disappointment, and surprises which those things offer.
It takes the environmental storytelling of “immersive sims” which we discussed earlier, but strips out all of the serialized, active elements of conflict.
This isn’t to say serialized game mechanics are antithetical to this. Rather that introducing minor change into existing, established conventions is not going to get us there. Ultra-violent video games with themes tacked on is not the road to maturity. You don’t get there gradually. We need to be destructive. Gone Home destroys everything and starts from basics. Gone Home is video games finally walking before they run.
In fact, Steve Gaynor, one of the three co-developers of Gone Home, has himself declared that Gone Home is an “immersive sim”, unique in being a non-violent one. The systems which it simulates are only the ones relevant to the epistolary story it tells: it lets you move about the house, open doors, pick up and observe objects, put them back, and that’s pretty much it.
Video games are very good at representing an aesthetic of realism. If we interpret realism as a work which follows an internal plausible causality, games with rules and systems, can literalise that causality.
Many games even purify that goal to its essence, we have the “simulation” genre.
And this is one half of the name “immersive simulation” the genre which we discussed earlier. We can now see this for the clash of two different concepts each with incredible pretense and assumptions: Immersion and realism.
These games are destructive. Not because they refute what mainstream games do, but because they refute the very dichotomies we’ve constructed to judge mainstream games. Shallow concepts of aesthetics which portray ourselves as superior to others.
These outsider games, these destructive works, can help us broaden our perception of our medium. But outsider criticism can do much the same, and is often treated with a similar disrespect or misunderstanding.
Even though we’re beyond the idea that criticism is objective or definitive it’s another step to appreciate that criticism acts as a lens, and another step again to recognise this when we engage with a work of criticism.
Any work of criticism deliberately ignores some values and privileges others when judging or deconstructing. It is by definition, incomplete, and this incompleteness is a good thing.
Zero Punctuation is a popular video review series by Yahtzee Croshaw, which is renown for being harsh and funny, and for pointing out things we might take for granted about genre conventions.
In a sense, it takes the popular notion of ludonarrative dissonance and uses it as a method of observational comedy. The way Seinfeld would talk about airplanes, Yahtzee would talk about the character AI in Gears of War, or something.
Conan O’Brian also has a segment on his show where he reviews video games having no literacy for them. It’s funny to watch him play poorly, and complain about things, and make face judgments about what’s being presented to him.
These shows, while they’re primarily for entertainment, can unveil prejudices or things we’ve internalised about games from an outsider perspective. They’re engaging, and they’re effective uses of rhetoric which we can read to be self-critical.
In fact, the rhetoric at play here is the same as used in another popular video series about games: Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games.
While Yahtzee attacks narrative tropes or illogical game mechanics, Feminist Frequency attacks a more culturally pernicious aspect of games: their representation of women.
Feminist Frequency have done videos in the past about women in movies. For example, they have a video on ‘The Bechdel test’ which is a common measure of gender bias. It basically asks: does a movie have two female characters, who talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man. It’s the bare minimum one might expect.
The Bechdel test is not used to cast a judgement on a single instance of a movie, but rather a tool that can be applied broadly to a body of many works, such as the highest grossing Hollywood releases of a year.
It’s an objective measure.
This is why defending particular instances of its use miss the point of the exercise. If barely any films pass out of a large pool, that pool has a problem.
So that’s the Bechdel test. And while it’s relevant to films because films are conventionally predicated on having characters who communicate with each other, games are somewhat different, and require alternative objective rules which can be applied broadly. We need rules which are relevant to how games work.
So the first few videos that have been released in Feminist Frequency’s new series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, have looked at the Damsel in Distress trope.
Games, which are conventionally predicated on player agency in a game world, must be asked how often are women objectified and have agency removed in a game, when compared to male characters.
Thanks to an overwhelmingly successful Kickstarter campaign, Feminist Frequency have been able to cast a broad net and this is one of the biggest strengths of the series. To point out, with comical repetition, how many games fail this simple test.
It’s funny to watch this, even though it’s revealing a horrible, uncomfortable truth. We get the same perverse thrill out of this deserved mocking, and it’s a similar reaction to watching observational comedy: like, this is so obvious, you’re right, how did I not see it this way. And that’s what makes it effective.
Yahtzee’s show is popular among gamers, even though he relentlessly attacks games which are darlings with his audience. And Yahtzee’s audience can still enjoy a game and appreciate Yahtzee’s criticisms, especially when presented in a funny, observational comedy-like manner.
And Anita Sarkeesian says as much in her videos:
remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects.
Ultimately, if gamers can appreciate Zero Punctuation, they should have no trouble appreciating Tropes vs Women.
As young, impressionable game students, we’re sold these narratives of success stories in the indie games scene.
Indie Game: The Movie encourages us to lock ourselves into a room for months and months on our own and express ourselves through the language of the games we played in our childhood.
Or there’s the idea that maybe one day we, too, can run a successful kickstarter or get our games on Greenlight.
Minecraft, is an overwhelming commercial success and has cultivated an astonishingly large community.
But what we see as the state of games today didn’t arrive simply from a series of successes, even though those are the stories we are most exposed to.
A terrific exploration of this is in a talk at No Show last year by Robert Yang called "A People’s History of the FPS" which he then turned into a series of articles for Rock Paper Shotgun. He presents an alternative, dissident history of the evolution of the First Person Shooter.
And he reveals how modders have been doing experimental first-person narrative games for years, the type of thing we’re just now starting to see become more mainstream with games like Dear Esther and Proteus. And so this idea that the FPS is a stagnant genre that needs to be revitalised with things like the 7DFPS game jam, show that it’s easy to ignore what exists.
"History is more than what John Carmack did on a certain day, as important as that was — history is also certain clans pioneering new strategies on dod_caen, or the rise of fy_iceworld. Did you know people have been modding Asian women into NBA games? How many stories are out there, and how many mods?"
So there’s a whole world beyond what is celebrated.
Another thing that popular success stories can blind us to is that our failures are just as worth celebrating as our successes.
Theorist Jack Halberstam wrote a book called "The Queer Art of Failure" which disassociates failure with the negative connotations it has. And that society’s image of success is defined by gaining money and reproducing, having a family. That is to say “success” is very capitalist and heteronormative.
And he points out that some of our greatest thinkers were dropouts from universities. And likewise, some of our greatest digital artists exist outside our cultural structures of video games: Outsider art.
Failure, in a sense means to resist mastery. In a creative field, having a certain goal in mind, immediately stymies the process of discovery.
And we can see this dominant narrative of success and failure reflected inside game design itself: that a game must present a player with scenarios that can succeed and fail. Just like how a capitalist economy must have winners and losers.
Over the course of the recent indie games movement, we’ve seen a trend of taking existing game designs and purifying them, or stripping away what we don’t like. And failure, in video games, is something that games like Super Meat Boy minimise and try to make absent. You die and fail a lot in Super Meat Boy, but you immediately respawn, and this means you’re never thinking about your failures. You’re always thinking about your next success, and the successes are what stick with you.
This is seen as elegant design.
And this trend of design has reached its purest form in Super Hexagon.
It takes Super Mario paradigm and purifies it, keeping a game system predicated on success and failure as an inevitable dichotomy, but encourages you to forget about your failures. And reinforces the story of success.
So Cart Life, which we looked at before, is a great example of a game which rejects this design. Cart Life is about failure. At its core, it is a market simulation. You’re a coffee vendor, or a newspaper vendor. But the game, instead of ignoring your failures, or seeing them as non-canonical, it treats them with the same narrative reverence as successes.
Failure in games often implicitly suggests that you aren’t grokking a system and that therefore you’re misunderstanding the text. But Cart Life doesn’t require mastery of its systems to understand what it does. In fact, playing Cart Life well misses the point.
And for an example of a game which completely disassembles the idea of failure: Pippin Barr’s Art Game is a game where you are an artist. Either a sculptor or a visual artist. And the way you create your artworks is, by example, playing a game of Snake or Tetris and the state of the board in which you lose the game becomes your art piece. So instead of trying to win, you’re trying to fail beautifully.
And then, you give you artwork a name and a gallery curator comes along and decides whether your work is selected to go on exhibition or not. I’m not sure what the algorithm is which decides whether your work is accepted or not, but I suspect it’s random. The feedback you get is always really vague.
And I think it’s a commentary on the arbitrariness of art taste and the frustrations or emptiness to being a misunderstood artist.
And then you go to the gallery and talk to people who are viewing your work and they’ll give their opinions on it, whether that’s good or bad. So even if you get into the gallery, you can still feel like a dejected failure.
By celebrating failure, we can shift our perception, and instead of looking at games which don’t sell or don’t get critical acclaim as games which must be doing something wrong, we can realise that these games are the only ones which can truly offer us emancipation. From a certain perspective, they’re the only games doing something right.
Voices that are queer, feminist, or trans, who are implicitly seen as failures by society’s notion of success, are on the forefront of transgressive game design and criticism. Theorising video games through these lenses has made some provocative insights.
Firstly, game design can help teach us about intersectional oppression.
Samantha Allen, a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University, used Halo in the classroom to show how a multiplayer game with players using different difficulty modifiers can be a useful metaphor for how different systems of oppression can interlock.
Halo’s “skull system” lets you activate specific handicaps for different players. One might halve the player’s ammo, another might remove the on-screen radar, or make enemies throw grenades more frequently, and so on.
So Samantha split the class into groups, having some play through the game on Casual difficulty, and others with several of these handicaps. This exercise was done in companion with assigned readings of feminist texts on privilege.
This is a quote from one of her students from the discussion afterward:
After seeing several of the other students play the game, it made me think more about the concept of intersectionality. For instance, it is much easier for a white, upper-class, straight man to move through the world and [he] is afforded multiple privileges that many others who do not fit into this mold run into on a daily basis.
While games can teach us about privilege, privilege can also teach us about games.
Samantha Allen has also written an essay for The Border House blog contrasting the freedom and constraints of space in open world games like Skyrim to queer games like Lim and Dys4ia.
Making reference to an influential feminist essay by Iris Marian Young called “Throwing Like a Girl”, Samantha draws a connection between the inherent masculinity of open world games and how gender differences manifest in our ability and confidence to use our bodies.
The space immediately surrounding a woman, for Young, is not a space of possibility but a space of restraint. In contrast with men who are able to interact with others confidently and with clear intentionality, women “often approach a physical engagement with things, with timidity, uncertainty, and hesitancy”
Games which let you do whatever you want and promise unlimited freedom, represent the experiences of people who typically get to do what they want in life. This is not the experience of the repressed.
Games like Lim and Dys4ia make the player very aware of the limitations of their agency. They make you feel weird and uncomfortable about your virtual avatar in the space that it’s in, the same way that a transgender person would feel weird and uncomfortable about their body and how the world treats them for it.
Another marginalised experience that has been represented in a video game’s logic of agency is that of mental illness.
Depression Quest is a Twine game that puts the player in the role of someone going through depression. It takes the conventions of a choose-your-own-adventure game by offering you a selection of different actions at each nodal point in the story. But some of these are crossed out. You can read them, but you can’t click them. This explicit removal of agency is supposed to represent what it is like to go through depression: the feeling of “I know what I should be doing but I just can’t do it.”
How much agency is offered to you, that is, how many choices are blue vs grey, is informed by how deep in depression you are.
It turns the idea of “choice” in games on its head speaking directly to people who misunderstand depression and don’t see how the experience is different to someone who is mentally healthy.
The second time I played this game, I was able to get my character to therapy and was taking medication. After a really rough time, my character fought his way out of deep depression, just a bit. And I reached a decision tree with five choices, and for the first time, all five choices were blue and available to me.
No AAA video game power fantasy, no immersive sim, has ever made me feel as close to having as much agency as I felt like I had in that moment. No amount of freedom any game could offer me, made me feel as triumphant in that moment in Depression Quest.
That moment, in context with the rest of the game, was really meaningful.
This game is not meant to be an objective representation of what having depression is like, and the game has been criticised for the way it portrays metal illness.
But the ludic metaphor can teach us a lot about what we can do with choice and agency in game design.
Another Twine game that does really significant things with contextualizing choice and agency is Howling Dogs by Porpentine. In this game the protagonist is in a claustrophobic cell where each day you wake up, eat, drink, and go through this routine as you and the space around you gradually deteriorates. And each day you enter a kind of virtual reality machine that takes you to fantastical and nightmarish worlds.
The first of these virtual realities puts you in the role of someone who must describe a garden for the records of an empire. And you can describe it aesthetically, horticulturally, or bureaucratically. And you don’t know what this choice means when you’re presented with it. The significance is only revealed after you make it, when they each reverberate in different ways.
Twine games rethink the idea of choice, instead of being about morality or manipulating other people, they’re about constructing an identity for the character or the world.
These guerrilla logics of twine are making their way into other games.
For example, Kentucky Route Zero, which is a magical realist adventure game.
The aesthetic of realism which we discussed before, encompasses this sub-genre of “magic realism”. It exists within realism, where fantasy and mundane reality combine in a dream-like state. To show how the magic it presents is not so distant from the truth.
Magical realism in literature can be defined in terms of its non-synchronous play with temporality. These works defy the cause and effect of linear plots around conflict of formalist narrative.
For example, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, concentrates “a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant.”
As a work of magical realist hypertext, Kentucky Route Zero does this with video game’s traditional aesthetic of causality.
Again, where choices in games are about moral dilemmas or specifically altering outcomes or manipulating something, Kentucky Route Zero eschews these and rethinks what choice can mean.
One of the very first choices the player is offered in the game is when you talk to your dog. And how you address it, what name you call it by, how you gender it, retroactively determines those things in the game’s canon.
The choices are not about making change in the game world, but determining the character’s intentions. You can never exhaust all the content in a dialogue tree because it cares more about the beautiful transience of conversation. It’s about what questions you ask, which information you seek, and which you don’t - not because any of it is quest-specific, but because it affects how you perceive your character. And it hints at the parallel realities where you said something different, hinting toward a causal possibility space that is bigger than the sum of its parts.
Failure, choice, realism, these concepts and any value we assign to them are destroyed by these games. They don’t erase failure, or devalue choice, they come from a different frame of mind completely.
"Games are art" means listening to voices of dissent. It means engaging in these discussions about what our culture and our games say. That collection of words, as a predicate, is not a belief. It is a practice. It’s something you do, not something you say.
Seemingly innocuous opinions on what constitutes a video game, or how polished a game should be, or what aesthetic fits in to your taste: All these things are politically charged, whether you think they are or not. They’re all informed by a culture where certain parties control the means of production, who control the conversation.
The education required to gain the technical skills needed to create systemically rich games, contributes to barriers of entry concerning class. A culture that can be overwhelmingly sexist can produce barriers of entry concerning gender.
Your tastes and opinions, even the vocabulary you default to when talking about games, whether you intend them to be or not, are all political.
But all these things can be used to work for marginalized voices just as well as they can work against them. If you know how to.
Cart Life, that game about failure: Some people don’t realise this game came out in 2011, and for a couple years after its release, it received no fanfare. A couple people played it. It wasn’t until years later when certain circles noticed it and suggested to Richard Hofmeier that he should enter it in the IGF where it inexplicably won, like, every award.
The little guy working his hardest, on a meaningful game, putting his heart into it, finally getting the attention he deserves. A happy ending to the story. A success story. The type of story we love to hear.
But Richard Hofmeier rejected this ending.
He did this:
After the awards ceremony, Richard defaced his booth scrawling ‘Howling Dogs’ with black spray paint over his title and had Porpentine’s game running at the exhibition instead of his. He had decided that Cart Life had received too much attention and Howling Dogs was a beautiful game that he was afraid people would never hear of otherwise.
This is a beautifully destructive act.
The IGF, as a structure, at least in the state that it was in this year, would never have accepted Howling Dogs. And yet Richard Hofmeier, using the voice and space that he had, made it so.
What this iconic imagery represents is the destruction of the narratives of success we’re used to seeing.
Richard used the voice and space that he had to change things. To reject the structures that were offered to him.
Porpentine’s games challenge what we consider to be aesthetically acceptable. Not all concepts are clean and beautiful. This a quote from her tumblr:
Articulateness is way overrated. The truth isn’t always articulate. It’s usually hysterical and bleeding and broken.
It’s our responsibility not to cast these truths aside as ‘crazy’. It’s up to us to create alternatives which allow these things to exist.
To return to the subtitle of this talk: “Why Video Games Do Not Exist And How This Is Great For Everyone”
When we say “video games” we’re not talking about a collection of individual works. We’re not talking about a formal definition of a medium. We’re talking about when people say “I choose video games as my form of expression” or “video games can do things no other medium can!” or “how can we push video games forward?”
There’s a shift here to talking about “video games” as though it were some enigma, some thing in the sky that will lead us to salvation.
If you construct your identity around video games, it’s going to really hurt you when they get questioned and deconstructed. And they will because we’ve said “video games are art.”
Likewise, if you disenfranchise someone’s art, you can unwittingly disenfranchise their identity.
This is why people have such defensive reactions to criticism by Feminist Frequency. The Tropes vs Women In Video Games video series had to work through the most vile, misogynist hate campaign to get to us.
The idea that we’re all in this together, that we should put aside our differences for the sake of “video games”: that is a harmful practice.
Matthew Burns wrote a blog post titled "Our Immiscible Future" about the fracturing of indie games scene. It’s about how pretending we’re all friends, how systems-driven games can coexist with not-games, how indies and the mainstream are best friends, and that games are games no matter where they come from— that this is no longer true.
In reference to the people who are making destructive works, who have different values, Matthew says:
This group consciously and deliberately rejects indie’s failed split from the mainstream and its poorly-concealed capitalist underpinnings, and instead upholds personal expression as the highest ideal, the only goal that matters. And in order to do that successfully, they must break off completely, not at a branch somewhere on the tree but at the very root of the established order. This cannot be papered over or explained away; no amount of hemming and hawing over the definition of the word “game” will fix the fact that there are games out there now that willfully abnegate other games.
And Darius Kazemi gave a talk at Boston Indies this year called Fuck Videogames, in which he deflates the idea that working in the medium of video games is nobler than working in any other medium. And he warns not to fall into the trap of making games simply because the community will support it.
In a sense, he’s proposing an agnostic approach to the medium of video games. He says games should be a tool in your belt, not the one form of expression that should be privileged over all else.
We think Darius doesn’t go far enough. The almost religious way people clamor to video games, and this agnosticism that Darius advocates, only suggests to us the existence of an atheism of games.
There is no such thing as the “potential of the video game medium”. There’s a shallowness in asking “what video games can do?”
And furthermore, to take the positive things that individual works of art do and use them as examples to praise this false idol called “video games” — to shill this culture and claim “look what video games can do”. This discredits the artists who put in that hard work.
"Video games" didn’t do this:
"Video games" didn’t do this:
"Video games" certainly didn’t do this:
Individuals did this.
Artists did this.
In fact, what we call “video games” has been complicit in suppressing this. By identifying with “video games” you are part of that. By simply engaging with the machines of production and discourse, without actively questioning them, without attacking them with every action, every breath.
It’s easy to say the problems of this culture are not your fault. Or anyone’s fault individually. It’s convenient to push the blame and come up with excuses which allow you to perpetuate the status quo.
We’re not attempting to guilt you. We’re saying if you’re going to celebrate what the amazing things in this medium can do, you have to equally take responsibility for this culture. You have to take responsibility for the things you don’t own. Give up ownership of video games. See them for the social construct that they are. For the sake of others whose voices aren’t being heard, who won’t be heard unless things change.
Video games don’t exist.
We invented them.
And we can destroy them.