Drawing the Line

Ethan Ham is an Associate Professor and the Interactive Media Department Chairperson at Bradley University. Prior to entering academia, Ethan worked in the video game industry as a game designer, programmer, and producer. He is the author of Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers.

I have had three careers in my life: game developer, contemporary artist, and professor of both. Being a contemporary artist comes with the knowledge that a significant portion of society is hostile to what you are creating. When people outside of the insular art world view your work, there is a good chance that they think “that is not art,” even if they are polite enough not to utter it.

Lately, I have been hearing similar statements in the game world; that a given interactive fiction, or a role-playing game, or a massively multiplayer game is “not a game.” Sometimes the dismissal seems motivated by a desire to protect some cherished form of game, other times it comes from a more dryly academic desire to define and categorize.

An example of the latter can be seen in James Wallis’s argument that the experimental tabletop RPG Microscope (Robbins 2011) is a brilliant “exercise,” but not a game. In a personal communication (shared with Wallis’s kind permission), he explains:

Microscope is not a game. It’s Caillois-complete but then Caillois’s six conditions are a definition of play, not strictly of games. It’s an exercise of constrained creativity, it’s group storytelling with a structure—but not a structure that imposes anything gamey onto the experience. One player adds a bit to the story, then another player adds another bit to the story, and so on until you stop. Everything else is details. There are no winners and losers, no successes or failures, no competition or overt co-operation, no rules for resolution, no puzzles or conflict except in the very removed ‘scenes’, which none of my players have ever actually bothered with, and which contains the only thing that actually looks like a game mechanic. Microscope is a series of interesting choices, to use Sid Meier’s definition, but then so is a trip to the supermarket.

I’m not saying it isn’t fun. But after this week’s session three of my students separately made the point that it wasn’t a game. If it doesn’t look like a duck, doesn’t walk like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck it may turn out to be a cygnet, but it’s certainly not a fucking duck.

Wallis later added, “I don’t think that the fact it’s not a game matters particularly, but I think we need to draw a line somewhere, and I think Microscope is on the far side of it.”

James Wallis makes a smart and compelling argument. But he is wrong about one thing—we don’t need to draw that line. We can allow anything to be a game, and we will have better games (and better conversations about games) for doing so. The idea that anything can be art sometimes provokes a response of “if anything can be art, then nothing is art.” If the idea that anything can be a game seems categorically wrong to you, please bear with me while I make the case.


In “The Game, the Player, the World” (Juul 2003), Jesper Juul provides a nice roundup of game definitions before proposing a new definition of his own. Juul examines his definition by seeing how it categorizes three kinds of activities: those that are generally accepted to be games, borderline cases that might or might not be considered games, and activities that are generally not thought of as games. Juul writes:

To set up the test before the definition, I will assume that Quake III, EverQuest, checkers, chess, soccer, tennisHeartsSolitaire and pinball are games; that open-ended simulation games such as Sims and Sim City, gambling, and games of pure chance are borderline cases; and that traffic, war, hypertext fiction, free-form play and ring-a-ring-a-roses are not games. The definition should be able to tell what falls inside from what falls outside the set of games, but also to explain in detail why and how some things are on the border of the definition. The existence of borderline cases is not a problem for the definition as long as we are able to understand why a specific game is a borderline case.

Juul’s exercise points to something interesting. Any definition that does not reaffirm the existing colloquial understanding of game, indicates a failure in the definition, not a better understanding of what constitutes a game. It is only with the borderline cases that a definition is at liberty to establish any meaning. But that meaning is not definitive—it is just a temporary view into what might be considered a game, not what is considered a game. The definitions are useful for examining the fluid boundaries of games, not for fixing them in place. This is why when Wallis employs Caillois and Meier in his discussion of Microscope, he uses the definitions as rules of thumb, not laws of nature.

What is art?

Picture1In 1917 the New York Society of Independent Artists put on an exhibition. All submitted artwork would be shown, as long as the submission fee was paid. Marcel Duchamp (possibly in collaboration with Louise Norton) pseudonymously submitted Fountain, a signed urinal. Perhaps the intention was to tweak his fellow artists’ pretentions of rejecting curatorial authority. Perhaps it was just a scatological joke. Either way, the submission resulted a long debate in the Society about whether or not it was art. In the end, Fountain was rejected from the show and Duchamp resigned from the Society’s board.

Fountain has become a statement about art that carries on to this day. It says that anything can be art. Art does not need to be beautiful or skillfully crafted. Not only is it possible for a urinal to be turned into art simply by declaring it so, the anointed urinal might even be great art.

So what does this mean? Is saying that something is art the same sort of statement as saying that something is aluminum? When we say something is aluminum we are stating a fact that can be objectively evaluated and measured—we can determine to what degree an object is composed of aluminum atoms. Can we do the same with artwork? Can we determine the degree to which Duchamp’s Fountain is or is not art? Is this even the right question? When a justice of the peace pronounces that two people are married, it is an act of creation and not just description—prior to the ceremony the two people were single and after it they are wed. Likewise, when an artist says that something is an artwork, the pronouncement itself is part of the artwork’s creation. Saying that something is artwork is an invitation to engage with it in a certain way. If someone says that a glob of mud thrown against the wall is art, a dialogue about its artistic merits is possible. Otherwise, saying that the mud splatter’s composition is lousy makes no more sense than criticizing the marriage of two people who just met.


dys1Dys4ia (Anthropy 2012) is an autobiographical game that explores the challenges of being a transgender woman and the trials of going through hormone therapy. The game consists of a series of short mini-games. The game mechanics are not designed to be challenging to play, but rather to serve as metaphors for various aspects of the developer’s experience. For example, one level presents the waiting room of a clinic. The player can do nothing but move around the room until a timer runs down, at which point the next mini-game automatically loads.

Game designer Raph Koster argued on his blog that many (but not all) of dys4ia’s mini-games are not actually games. In the main posting (which was about the cultural conflict between engineering-minded and artsy-minded game developers), Koster wrote:

I like Anna Anthropy’s work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game. That’s not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.

In the comment sections of posting, Koster expanded on why he says dys4ia is not a game:

Games have never in history been defined solely by interactivity. There is no definition of game, from any scholar, that is that reductive. Not all definitions agree, but they nonetheless share this trait.

The easiest way to sanity check this is to look at items that fit the proposed definition and see if you feel they are a game. I submit to you that many of the screens of Dys4ia have exactly the same functionality as a doorbell. My gut check is that a doorbell is not a game, and I suspect so is everyone else’s.

There are artistic doorbells. There are doorbells that play lovely music, that trigger complex narrative door opening sequences, doorbells that express unique qualities of their author/designer/architect. There are probably doorbells out there that are High Art.

This does not mean they are a game. It also does not mean that they are not deserving of respect, though, and at no moment am I implying they should be discounted of being great at what they are.

Raph Koster is correct that there is more to being a game than simply being interactive. Where he goes astray is in the idea that there is some functionality that needs to be added to interactivity in order to make a game. In fact, even interactivity is not necessarily fundamental to being a game—the interactivity in games of pure chance (Candy Land, Gewitter, etc.) is illusory.

What makes a game a game is not a certain set of functionalities. The functionality of riding a bicycle in a race, for pleasure, and for exercise are all very similar. The difference is in the mind of the rider (and the spectators and officials, if any). Similarly, what makes a game a game is not the fact it has fixed rules, or goals, or negotiable consequences, or attempts to provide fun, or any of the other traits that are typically incorporated into a definition of a game.

A game is a game when its creator or players say it is so. Koster observes that some of dys4ia’s best moments are the screens that are impossible games, such as the Tetris piece that does not fit. These screens, he argues, only work because they are not fomally a game. Yet, the interactive experience Koster describes only works when it is presented and experienced as a game—its intention is to subvert our expectations as game players.

Art games

dys2Can a game be art? When something is described as art, one of three things is usually meant: 1) Anything involving a creative medium, 2) Creative work that aims to move its audience, or 3) Creative work that wants to push the boundaries of its medium.

In the first and most broad category, art is the outcome of any creative endeavor both high and low. In this sense, all games are art. So is the graphic on a box of Kleenex, a diagram in a calculus textbook, and the latest summer blockbuster.

The second, more ambitious meaning of art refers to creative works that strive to do more than more than entertain, decorate, or educate. This kind of art attempts to explore the human condition. It is what Mary Flanagan is pointing to when she talks about critical play. It is also what Roger Ebert is referring to when he argued that video games can never be art.

The last category involves the avant-garde. This is art that explores and pushes at definitional boundaries. When someone declares that an artwork is not art, it is usually an avant-garde work (such as John Cage’s 4’33”) that is being dismissed. And it is easy to see why. Someone who does not know much about classical music can still find pleasure listening to a traditional symphony and recognize the skill with which it is executed. 4’33” cannot be experienced in that way, and there is no skill and mastery to admire. The pleasure it offers is conceptual and intellectual, not aesthetic.

4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (Purho, Kelley, & Söderström, 2009) was inspired by John Cage’s composition. It is a game that is won if the player is the only person in the world playing it for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. If a second person begins playing during that time, the game is lost.

In a comment thread about the game, one commenter wrote, “It is original, but I wouldn’t call it a game. Actually, I don’t think a game can be a work of art… Maybe posmodern art? But that’s not art either.” Why is 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness not a game (and not art)? The objection is not about what the game lacks (e.g., player choice, meaningful competition, and fun). Plenty of games fall short in these areas without being excommunicated from the medium altogether. 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness’s transgression is that its creators did not even try to provide those experiences.

Similarly, a dismissal of Gone Home  (Gaynor 2013) as a game is not an objection about its quality; it is an objection to the creators’ goals and motivations. (In his Game Designer Conference talk, Steve Gaynor asks how can Gone Home can both be derided as “not a game” and also win numerous “Game of the Year” awards). What is striking about the attempts to gate keep the term “game” is where the battle line has been drawn. Gone Home falls into the second category of art; it is a game that attempts to address the human condition. The argument against it is not about the avant-garde, it is about a game that is not intended to entertain in a certain way. It is as if book lovers want the label of “literature” to refer to nothing but spy thrillers. Is it because after a lifetime of Ian Fleming books, readers simply do not know what to make of Jane Austen? Or does it come from a zero-sum view of life that believes with each Ian McEwan book that is published, one less John Le Carré novel can come into the world?

It matters

Wallis says that it does not particularly matter that Microscope is not a game. But it does matter because its creator wants it experienced as a game. To deny this is to disenfranchise her as a creator. Allowing that Anthropy has the right to declare that dys4ia is a game does not mean it cannot be criticized as a game—in fact, it enables it. Would dys4ia be better if the player had more choice? Or would the added choice undermine the experience the game is conveying? To deny that dys4ia is a game unmoors us from being able to have that discussion. Which would be a shame, because it is those kinds of discussions that lead to new kinds of games and to better games.

If Anthropy says it is a game, it is a game. If Duchamp says it is art, it is art. A blog commenter responded to 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness by writing, “Cool concept, but to call this is a game is like shitting on a paper plate, signing it, and calling it art.” Yes, exactly.


Weird. (2012). Bashers <http://bashers.nl/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Weird.jpg> Retrieved: 02/09/16


  1. Great article! I agree with so many points that you raised here.

    I always found is perplexing when people are so dead-set on demanding that certain games are not games but “interactive fiction/visual novels/walking simulators”. Often it’s not due to the fact that they hate the game, but simply because they think that dictionary definitions are to be defended and never stretched further to include these newer works.

    Considering that these games are sold in game stores, played by gamer demographic, discussed on gaming sites, celebrated and hated by the gamers that played them… and then somehow, it’s still not a game. Where should the non-games go, then? Should they go to book shops, cinemas, children playgrounds? Where will they be discussed if not on gaming sites and who will experience them if not people familiar with digital formats and game logic?

    I never understood the point of denying the game label, nor why so many people insist on doing so.

  2. I’ll throw in this quote from Richard Garfield, re the evolving definition of game:

    “To call D&D an innovative game is a bit like calling the Wright Brothers’ vehicle an innovative car. The definition of game has expanded to include D&D, but there is really no reason that a neutral outside observer would categorize it that way. A definition for game would previously have been something like: A contest between two or more players or sides, constrained by rules that are understood by all players, which ends in a ranking — of winners and losers, or perhaps a score or exchange of money. Oh, and it is engaged with for entertainment. Now, along comes D&D, and what do we have? We may have no winners or losers, the rules may be unknown to the players (only the game master needs to know them) and are often somewhat flexible, and there may be no end to the game. There aren’t even clear sides; there are players and the game master, but the players are not exactly on the same side as their fellow players and the game master is neither antagonistic not usually entirely neutral. The only unambiguous constant with that old idea of game is that D&D is engaged with for entertainment.”

    • Would you mind expanding on how you’re attempting to incorporate this quote? Are you saying that we should embrace how people’s perspective changes with time and the fact that there is such a rigid line of what is or isn’t something is really a false signifier.

      That said however, I’ve always been a fan of the maxim, metaphors matter. This was imparted on my by my former undergraduate supervisor. I feel like there’s perhaps a bit of a scale mixup. If we were to compare games to vehicle’s, wouldn’t the different types of vehicles do better being compared to the different type of games, as opposed to the entire medium?

      • Sure, Shawn. I can’t speak for Richard Garfield, but to me it highlights that our definitions of “game” have never really hit the mark. Things like D&D that wouldn’t have fit common sense definitions of game one day are accepted as games once the culture shock wears off.

  3. And if we view it as art, then we have the tools and vocabulary to discuss where it fits among works of art. If I understand it correctly. Very interesting and eye-opening.

    • In some ways yes, but on the other hand I don’t think we can apply the same tools to understand or evaluate all forms of art. Games need their own tools and vocabulary just as painting, music, and literature do.

      • Oh, I agree totally, and I thought the author made that clear in an interesting way. I was saying that, if something is identified as “art”, then there is a very general-level mindset in dealing with it—and that indeed, the conceptual toolset for art varies from that for games specifically, but as you point out, there are also conceptual toolsetss for different arts. I was talking about the intersection of all those toolsets for specific arts: that intersection could be seen as a generic “art-approaching” toolset: the things that you use regardless of the specific art involved, but also quite specifically related to art.

        So once you decide to approach something as art, then you are using those tools. If it’s not identified as art, then some other approach will be used.

  4. This seems like ignoring the merits of games in their own right, really. Anthropy’s games usually contain little in the way of innovation for the medium itself, although it’s actually quite possible to make a game that’s an interesting and compelling experience while simultaneously containing something of a deeper meaning. Katamari Damacy, Mother 3, Rule of Rose, System Shock, Killer 7, Hotline Miami, and even something like God Hand all stand out as shining examples of games that provide commentary on the medium and subverting traditional expectations while also being interesting from a standpoint other than the narrative.

    • Could you expand on what you mean by “innovation” for the medium itself?

      • Sorry, wrote that when I was tired and ended up forgetting how loaded of a term “innovation” is, alongside other mistakes. What I mean is that it doesn’t really make any kind of statement as a game that couldn’t have been made through any other form of art, it’s just a story with game mechanics tacked on. Sure, it’s a game, I won’t argue that point because I don’t really care.

        But why is it a game? In what way do the mechanics of the game serve to more effectively communicate the message Anthropy is trying to convey? In my opinion it ends up failing to deliver a “total work of art” (or gesamtkunstwerk if for some reason a long german compound word helps clarify) and I just can’t really see what all the hype is about.

        Take something like Chibi-Robo for example, every element of that game works together, from the music and sound design to the story and gameplay mechanics. Every moment of that game works to convey this message of contributing to something bigger than yourself. Almost everything in the game had the potential to be incredibly dull or even outright tedious but if you’ve played it, you probably enjoyed it.

        Dys4ia’s fine but I just don’t really think it works as a game, nor do I see it as anything to get particularly excited about.

        • Thanks for expanding on this. Have you read any of Anthropy’s criticism? ZZT and Rise of the Videogame Zinesters both explain Anthropy’s approach to development.

          It seems like you’re coming at games from a very specific (and maybe prescriptive?) perspective, in that for them to be successful artistic endeavours, they are married to becoming totalizing technical spectacles. Even the least “technical” of the examples you’ve given (Hotline Miami, which was made with GameMaker, a generally accessible development platform, and did not have any kind of 3D rendering) utterly muddled its attempt to criticize videogame violence by also making the commission of violence as pleasurable and spectacular as possible.

          As I understand it, your approach here suggests that the ideal version of a game is one that reflects existing industry definitions of game, where every system is bent towards the player’s pleasure. And that’s fine! There’s something to be said about how Skyrim’s every system is tweaked toward provoking a sense of endless discovery (even as it maybe robs some of the more secretive factions like the Thieves Guild or the Dark Brotherhood of some of the surprise they carried in the previous Elder Scrolls games).

          Anthropy’s assertion in her criticism and games is that games don’t need to be a total work of art to be valuable artistic works. They can be messy, they can be personal, they can be perfectly acceptable as good works of art but still not need to be tied to technical skill or spectacle. They can be accessible, and that doesn’t diminish their value. Especially since it means that games can be made by anyone and can broach a broad range of topics that the videogame industry is either unwilling to touch or incapable of handling with respect and empathy.

          It’s perfectly okay that Dys4ia didn’t speak to you, but I suspect it’s not because it’s not saying anything important about games. It might just be that it’s not saying what you think is most important about games. That’s a pretty big distinction.

          • I’m not saying it didn’t speak to me, I’m saying that it didn’t speak to me as a game. In fact as someone with friends who struggle with gender dysphoria, it DID speak to me, however rather than actually playing the game I simply watched a video of someone else doing so. The gameplay portion of the game was lost on me, and yet it didn’t lose any of its intentions in the translation.

            Playing a game should be as essential to the experience as seeing a painting or watching a film. You can’t get the same experience from someone describing the Mona Lisa to you as you can from actually looking at it, so why should you be able to watch a game being played and get the same experience?

            It really didn’t have to be a game to make its point, and while it certainly is one, I don’t think it really gains anything from being one. That’s where the distinction comes in for me.

            Also, it’s actually kind of ironic that you mention Skyrim because I’m probably the one person on Earth you’ll find that thought it sucked on every level, from the creepily player-focused story and characters to the floppy, limp combat. I don’t agree that every system should be bent towards the pleasure of the player, or even the will of the player. In fact in several of the games that I mentioned (Rule of Rose, System Shock, God Hand), the game’s systems are specifically designed against the player. System Shock in particular has a UI that is intentionally designed to make you break what you’re doing to reload or heal or pick something up.

            Additionally I don’t think that a game’s value is tied to the creator’s technical skill or the spectacle of the thing, in fact I’d say that Hotline Miami is one of the more technically advanced and probably the most soaked in spectacle of the games on that list. Hotline Miami’s creator, cactus, has created dozens of games. While it’s made in Game Maker, yes, it almost certainly eschews the drag and drop functionality for GML, the built in programming language (which is terrible from a design standpoint, but similar enough to a “real” language to count in my opinion). It’s not painfully distant from something like Unity at that point.

            Mother 3, actually, would probably be the least technically impressive on that list, both from a game design standpoint and a technical-technical standpoint. Most of the cartridge space for Mother 3 was actually used for its ridiculously eclectic selection of music. It was actually cancelled at one point and later revived on the GBA because the development team lacked the skills necessary to release it in 3D.

            From a gameplay standpoint, Mother 3’s only improvements on the traditional JRPG formula are that if you press buttons in the battle menus in time with the music you do more damage and the health meter rolls down rather than immediately subtracting the damage you’ve been dealt. The rhythmic timing of the battle system isn’t even mentioned within the game at any point, it’s just there to add to the feeling of the game. The whole game’s like that, and that’s why it works.

            Mother 3 has something to say though, and it says it through every facet of the game. There’s a charm that permeates every aspect of it, and it’s something that you can’t experience without playing it, and play it you should because it’s one of the best games of all time, or at least my favorite.

            I don’t think you could distill it into any other medium, at least not without losing something. And that’s kind of my point, games should gain something from being games. You can do things with games that can’t be done with other media, and I think that you should. I think it’s essential.

            Just to clarify, the games that I listed in my first post probably weren’t the best picks for examples because they’re all pretty well rounded, except for maybe Rule of Rose and God Hand. Those games are a glorious, deliberate mess and I love them for it. I can see how that would make it seem like I just don’t “get” Dys4ia or Anthropy’s assertions. But I understand them, I really do. I just don’t necessarily think that they’re all that interesting.

            However I don’t think that you necessarily get Hotline Miami, because the closest thing to criticism of video game violence in that game are the shifts in tone after each disconnected killing spree. Personally I think of those as the come down from the high of the action. If anything, Hotline Miami embraces video game violence, and yet at the same time berates you for doing so. It’s not a failure, it’s an asset and a key part of its unnerving, delirious style.

            Now if you want to talk about failing game violence criticism, go play Dishonored. You go through the whole game being introduced to all these flashy new mechanics designed specifically for killing people and then right around the end the game decides you’re a terrible person for having used them. It’s trying to be The Vanishing when it’s actually Taken, and it kinda drops the ball.

            But no, I don’t think that games should be massive technical achievements to be good. I like Chulip so much that I keep a keychain from its presentation at E3 on my keyring. Howver the gameplay is so frustrating that I literally can’t force myself through it a second time despite never hesitating to recommend it to people. I’d still say it’s complete though, and I’d still say it’s a total work of art because at the end of the day, it’s a complete and enjoyable experience that could only have been done through games.

            I’m not great at describing what I want out of games, and this is getting super long and probably overly incoherent, so I’m just gonna end it and direct you to In Praise of Sticky Friction by the excellently descriptive and horrifyingly long-winded Tim Rogers. It’s far from exhaustive, but it’s probably one of the best examples of analysis of the “game” parts of a game. His review of Mother 3 for ActionButton.net is also absolutely fantastic if for some reason you read any of that first article and didn’t immediately assume he’s a crazy person, and it also helps elaborate on how a game can be narrative driven and yet still incredibly compelling the whole way through. Hold off on that if you haven’t played Mother 3 though, because that game is nothing short of perfection.

  5. “A game is a game when its creator or players say it is so.”

    I usually see this phrased as only “when its creator says so,” so I appreciate the additional clause! When it’s only the creator mentioned, my immediate thought is that it erases the player’s subjective reaction to the work.

    Unfortunately, by the end of the essay, you back away from this and assert, “If Anthropy says it is a game, it is a game. If Duchamp says it is art, it is art.”

    The implication of subjective reactions, of course, is that for any given player — or creator! — something might also be said to NOT be something. To say otherwise is to assert that the creator has ultimate control over how the work is experienced, and this is quite against the current of postmodern thought. The best that the author can do is *frame* the work in a particular way to encourage the viewer/reader/participant to address it in that manner. But to deny the viewer/reader/participant their own lived and subjective experience of a work is essentially a political move, in this case undertaken in order to assert the validity and value of a work that is outside the commerciualized norm for games — and in that sense, I deeply and strongly support it.

    This is unsurprising overall, because the battleground on which these terminology wars happen is largely political, even when it’s not intended as such (politics is also deeply subjective in that sense). A fact nearly universally overlooked by those who cite my “Two Cultures” piece is that it is a plea for empathy and for greater understanding and less denigration of alternate points of view, for critics and creators to let go of their personal axes to grind and realize that all of the points of view have merit as we touch this particular elephant. But people prefer to pick on the admittedly over-the-top description of some parts of Dys4ia rather than engage with the larger point the piece is making.

    The unfortunate result is that despite the accusation typically being levied in the opposite direction, it’s actually the “author says it’s a game” position that ends up being overly reductionist to my mind.

    In practice, I think it is useful to speak of this issue from three distinct vantage points: a cultural one, a craftsmanship one, and a philosophical one.

    So, from the cultural point of view, Dys4ia, and others, are games in the sense of belonging to the group. There are reactionary crowds who want experimental work banished from the frame of “game” but by and large the game creator community itself has been fairly welcoming, though not financially remunerative. Instead, the currencies of credibility, soapboxes, and attention have been fairly liberally given — that’s about all the cogniscenti of games have to give.

    In that sense, there’s no question that it is a game. As a political act, as a cultural act, we (primarily games academics, games designers, the people who run conferences, thought leaders, etc) have made that decision and frankly, have embraced it forcefully enough that there is substantial political backlash against it. Oh, there’s definitely still plenty of tension on finer academic points (cf the next point on craftsmanship elements) but the cultural broad consensus seems clear.

    That said, where commercialism and culture collide, there’s definitely a large gap. Many consumers of games perceive these products as not-really-games, and what we’re speaking of here is actually a marketing problem, one wherein new genres are springing into being, new audiences are forming, and there is a lack of infrastructure, common ground, and tolerance. We are already, however, seeing positive co-option of the once derogatory term “walking simulator” to being a genre name, and I have no doubt that over time the market definition will broaden and these sorts of issues will subside.

    It’s unlikely that challenging or purely artistic work will ever go straight into the mainstream, but many of the new directions being explored have great potential for mass market acceptance. I suspect that for some game designer/artists, the financial rewards may never materialize, but the flip side is that they will change games through their work.

    In the sense of mechanical structure, I have taken to using nonce words instead. This craftsmanship lens is the vantage point from which I most often write, and its is not at all concerned with subjectivity. It is really quite rigidly mechanical. It concerns itself with mathematical structures, with affordances and feedback systems. These are the grounds on which the “doorbell analogy” functions, and it is a mistake to conflate this with the political and cultural turf wars. While frequently taken as an anti-narrativist position, it isn’t one, really; it simply has less concern for those elements.

    The value of taking this sort of narrow point or view is often questioned. But the value should be evident; in all forms of art we have always had formal studies (color theory, draftsmanship, composition; harmonic analysis, melodic analysis, rhythm; plot, point of view, prosody; I could go on). Their existence does not preclude or inhibit subjective, cultural, or experiential criticism in any way. In fact, it often enriches it, cf my talk presented at Critical Proximity last year: http://www.raphkoster.com/2014/03/24/a-new-formalism-critical-proximity-talk/

    With this lens, saying that a particular feature or system is not a game as akin to saying it’s also not an alligator. There’s really no value judgement implied, since the intent is to understand the tools and craftsmanship inherent in making the work what it actually is.

    Dys4ia as a whole is mostly not a “ludic artifact” in a pure technical sense. From the cultural point of view, this matters not a whit. It is a game. But for those who study Dys4ia, want to achieve similar effects, the question of whether it is a ludic artifact is VITAL to understanding it and why it is brilliant.

    Finally, there’s the philosophical point of view; here, a game is really anything that a player chooses to play. This is embodied of course in the Bernard Suits-style argument, but ALSO in the much more science-grounded Theory of Fun sort of approach. Every player comes to a given artifact with different willingness to engage with it. Every one comes with different understanding of it. It is pointless to fight the fact that for any given person, something may or may not be fun, or might be fun in the abstract but not in practice.

    Game grammar approaches arising out of game formalism say this is because systems that players perceive as having sufficient complexity to trigger interest (“ludic systems” such as the stock market or the principles of music) exist everywhere, and are only sometimes desiged by humans (“ludic artifacts” such as World of Warcraft or Crossy Road). These invite but do not mandate the sort of lusory attitude that Suits and other philosophers allude to when they speak of games; by implication, so too, anything that is a “game” may not be a “game” to a given player. They may take it too seriously, or not seriously enough. They may invent their own game to place upon the ludic structure. They may not.

    In this sense (explicated in much more depth here: http://www.raphkoster.com/2013/04/16/playing-with-game/) yeah, Dys4ia or for that matter League of Legends, isn’t a game — if I as a player don’t treat it as such. The fact of non-theoretical subjectivity means that it may not matter at all what the author prefers the work be classified as, and we are then in one realm of the personal where really, for once, politics cannot impinge. The one act that a player can choose to perform to leave something out of the category of game is, of course, to never play.

    In the end, for an academic approach that consciously eschews ontologies, there’s an awful lot of attention paid to belonging, membership, and labeling. It’s inevitable that this arise out of commercial and marketing circles — they label everything. It’s also unsurprising that craftsmanship circles are interested in terms, it’s how they do their work. We should just all remember that terms and words ad labels cross the boundaries of communities of practice, and that it behooves us all to speak the lingo of all of them, because we’re all playing games together here, and it’s supposed to be fun.

  6. In principle, sure? The piece does acknowledge that these conversations carry the capacity to become as absurd and bad faith as your example. Its value, I think, is that it emphasizes the idea that these discussions can be productive and indeed constructive if both parties enter them with an open mind.

Comments are closed.