Michael Hancock is the Book Reviews editor on First Person Scholar. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. Currently, his grey matter is engaged in writing a dissertation on the use of image-based and text-based rhetoric in videogames.
One of the perennial questions of game studies is the basic question of definition: what is a game? And many discussions surrounding games can be traced back to it. The narrative/ludology debate is an obvious one: is a game a story? It’s there in Ian Bogost’s caution against framing games as “limp skins” that don’t properly exist without the player to finish the circuit: does a game have to be played to be a game? And, most recently, it’s there in works created in Twine, works that address issues rarely, if ever, voiced in mainstream videogames: can these things be games at all? (For my two cents: yes; no, but it’s usually more interesting if it is; and yes, of course.)
In response to Raph Koster’s recent attempt to define games, game designer Robert Yang argues that even attempting a definition is a politically charged act :
when you begin your letter with wondering, ‘what is a game?’ My brain shifts into red alert. That line of inquiry has been a long favored tool of well-intentioned oppression, because these arguments often masquerade as thoughtful discourse but function as a weapon of de-legitimization, that argue these personal games can’t really fit a formal definition of game. The emotional leap is that these people can’t really fit a formal definition of people. Adding, ‘it’s okay if it’s not a game’ comes off as sounding like, ‘it’s okay if you’re not a person,’ which doesn’t really help you seem apolitical.
To beleaguered game critics, the questions above become tedious through repetition, if not outright hostile, and the answers, though still firm, become rote. But I’d argue that asking the question is still important, because by asking the question, you expose the answers that are going unsaid. Or, to put it another way: the definition of a game matters when it’s being used as a muzzle to limit what games can do.
As an example of what I’m talking about, I’d like to introduce Exhibit A, Pipe Trouble. Pipe Trouble is a game developed by Alex Jansen and Pop Sandbox, in partnership with Jim Munroe. It was funded in part by the government of Ontario, and was to be featured on TV Ontario’s website, alongside a documentary on Canadian oil pipelines. Last December, I was invited to be part of the game’s beta phase, and it has since been released a few months ago. The premise of the game is that you play an oil pipe constructor, one who has to balance the demands of company boss in terms of maximizing profits through laying as few pipes as possible with the concerns of the local townspeople and farmers, who don’t want their land ruined.
In terms of gameplay, the basic mechanic of the game is taken straight from an early game, the one alluded to in the game’s title: The 1989 Pipe Dream. Pipe Trouble takes this basic premise, and adds—as mentioned—the need to balance the desire of the farmer and the businessman. The farmer demands that you avoid sensitive areas, but the businessman pushes you to build in the most direct manner possible, to minimize costs. There’s also the presence of protestors if you construct a pipe that is too close to a forest, livestock, or people. If you persist in building in such an area, the protestors bomb the pipe, causing a crack that forces you to replace the pipe with another piece. And if the oil ever reaches the end of the pipe before reaching the end of the level, there’s a massive spill.
Reading through my original notes on Pipe Trouble, I thought the weakest part was its reliance on the original Pipe Dream frame. It just didn’t make sense that oil would start through the pipes before construction was finished, or that the builder would be working from random pipe shapes. But I quickly developed a grudging respect for the game as my allowed budget shrank and the human presence grew. In particular, I remember a moment when I complained that it was impossible to finish a given level in such a way that both the farmer and the businessman could be satisfied. And that, of course, was the game’s rhetorical point: the nature of oil pipelines mean some are going to be left angry.
In essence, then, I thought it was a game that built on a classic model and made its point well. I played it, took notes, and forgot about it. And then, in March, it got its official release. Shortly after that, the Toronto Sun ran a column attacking the game, followed by a series of similar media pieces, and TV Ontario withdrew it from its website under the resulting bad publicity. As a result of the inclusion of the protesters’ bombing activity, the game was labeled a “pipe bomb simulation,” and routinely denounced by a variety of political figures. The mayor of Dawson Creek said that it made light of ecoterrorism (“Pipeline bombing video game irks B. C. mayors”); Alberta Premier Alison Redford said that it was disappointing to see a game depict the blowing up of pipelines (“Alberta Premier ‘disappointed’”) ; and BC Premier Christy Clark said that “there is no place in debate for positions that advocate violence and it is disappointing this video would ever suggest that approach is appropriate” (Babbage).
Never mind that the object of the game was to avoid any circumstances where the protestors would act, nor that you at no time control any sort of pipebombing, nor that your role on the game puts you on the side of the pipe constructors. And it’s also worth noting that the documentary Trouble in the Peace, was not removed, even though it was more direct in its criticism of big oil. The implied conclusion is that Pipe Trouble was condemned in part because it was a game, and there was a strong feeling among politicians and mainstream reporters that games weren’t allowed to take sides on politics, or, for that matter, enter on politics at all.
What you have, then, is a game made by an organization that has some of its funding provided by the government making a politically charged argument, and subsequently under potential risk of being gravely, perhaps even deliberately, misinterpreted by the mass media. At stake here is basic question: what is a game? Or, perhaps more specifically, what is a game allowed to be?
In terms of videogames, one of the flashpoints for this issue comes in 1985, with the North American release of the Nintendo Entertainment System. After the videogame market crash of 1983, Nintendo revived the home console industry, or at least filled an existing vacuum. To distance itself from the failed Atari system, Nintendo attempted to rebrand videogames as, above all, games for children. Part of this rebranding was its draconian licensing policy, which severely censored games to make sure they were appropriate for a family audience (Arsenault). For example, all references to alcohol and bars in the Japanese game Earthbound were replaced with coffee and cafes when localized for a North American audience. And this censoring attitude is not unique to 20th century Nintendo.
Politics and Publishing
Last month, Apple banned Molleindustria’s Phone Story, which contained minigames featuring smartphone production’s involvement with Congonese coltan extraction, from its App Store (Brown). It also rejected GameTheNews’ Endgame:Syria, which revolved around the ongoing Syrian civil war—then accepted the game, once its developer removed all mention of Syria (Grub). Apple’s App store policies acknowledge that the restrictions it places on games are different from the way they treat other media forms: “We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.” The document goes on to say that, like the judge ruling on pornography, whether an app is appropriate or not can be sensed on a “I’ll know it when I see it” basis, and the policy is in place to “keep an eye out for the kids” (“App Store Review Guidelines”). Nintendo and Apple’s guidelines are different from the media-based censorship that Pipe Dream faced as it’s a restriction that comes directly from industry practices. But in all cases, it’s a matter of setting limits on what is appropriate for a game to be.
And when you’re discussing the limits of games, one of the more public discussions in the last few years is the one that was raised by Roger Ebert. In 2005, in the context of the film version of Doom, he argued that time spent on videogames were a loss of hours that could have been spent “to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathic.” In 2006, Ebert appeared on a panel arguing that video games are not an art form. And in 2010, he published an essay dissecting a presentation by Kellee Santiago, elaborating his original position:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
The subsequent discussion in the comments thread for the article has been ongoing for three years now and contains nearly five thousand comments—amply demonstrating how heated the issue was, and continues to be. But what’s particularly of note here is that Ebert’s definition of games and subsequently implied definition of art is that it creates formalist guidelines for distinguishing one from the other. If it has a winning state, rules, objectives, it’s a game. If it lacks these elements, it’s not a game at all—it’s a representation, and it’s representations that can be art. Through Ebert’s argument, we see another limit on what games can be, one that explicitly puts them outside the frame of art.
To return to Yang’s quotation and original frame for this essay, Ebert’s formalist definition of games fits nicely into recent discussions surrounding so-called non-games, things like Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, Dear Esther, and porpentine’s howling dogs. All of the above lack some form of traditional game markers, such as clear objectives, fail states, and rules—by Ebert’s definition, these may be art, but they’re not games. Porpentine’s howling dogs in particular was designed on Twine, a platform that generally functions by allowing the user to select words that link to further passages. Moreover, the content of such games varies greatly from norm, including discussions on depression, transgender dating, and homophobic exclusion. Their authors, in general, are making conscious decisions to address issues generally ignored in the traditional game industry. Gimcrack’d, the distributors of Twine, refer to the platform as a tool for creating interactive stories (“Twine), but many of its authors, porpentine included, argue that the result is a game, and it is their right to declare it as such. In many ways, this discussion is the opposite of Pipe Trouble; rather than being restricted by being kept in a narrow definition of games, these designers feel restricted by being kept out, by being denied the legitimacy they feel their games warrant. But what the debate highlights is that all of these questions—what a game is, whether it’s only for children, what it is allowed to depict, what politics it can show—are all themselves political questions.
Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play is one of the first book length examinations in game studies to dwell on what it would mean to create games that attempt to address political issues more directly. As she explains, the challenge is to create games that “provide outlets for entertainment, but also function as a means for creative expression, as instruments for conception thinking, or as tools to help examine or work through social issues” (1). Her chief means of doing so is to draw out the sense of play in avant-garde art, and draw play more toward art, with a discussion that ranges from linguistic puns and found objects to domestic spaces and boardgames. Flanagan’s stance, obviously, is diametrically opposed to Ebert’s when it comes to game and art. Far from one excluding the other, she argues that there’s a sense of play that binds together art as diverse as Duchamp’s urinals and Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th. In fact, she argues that the nature of games, as rule-based systems, make them ideal for subversive art practices. That is, following Antonio Negri, subversion is the act of breaking out of an established system of power, and a necessary element inside many organizations for individual and collective well-being. Games are organized with rules, but Flanagan argues that “play itself, pushing at the boundaries of a game system, could be said to involve a kind of subversion” (11).
The concept of subversion is what draws the strands of what I’ve been discussing together. For the designers working in Twine and other such platforms, they see their creations as a subversion and extension of what it means for something to be a game, to bring the concept of a game to topics often considered taboo. For Roger Ebert, the issue was that games were trying to subvert the concept of art, inserting themselves in a category he felt they had no place inhabiting. Nintendo and Apple set out vanguards to prevent subversion, constructing systematic gatekeepers and guidelines that they hope will keep out unwanted products from their definition of game. Pipe Trouble ran into its own trouble when it was branded as subversive, as it was perceived as suggesting that pipe bombs and oil business were concepts that could be addressed through play.
The definition of game is not static. Definitions rarely are. The English language, like most media, changes, and changes in response to the cultures in which it is contained. Pipe Trouble is not the first game to be met with controversy, nor will it be the last. I would say it’s a subversive game. It’s not subversive of its portrayal of pipe-bombing, as some of its opponents claim. Arguably, it’s not even subversive in the way the designers wanted it to be, by complicating discourses concerning Big Oil. Rather, it’s become subversive simply by being, by existing as a game that pushes at the boundaries of what some believe a game should be. And that’s why asking what a game is remains important—it’s asking what a game is that allows us to redefine it as something else.
“App Store Review Guidelines.” World of Apple. n.p. Web. May 28, 2013.
Arsenault, Dominic. “System Profile: The Nintendo Entertainment System.” The Videogame Explosion: A History from Pong to Playstation® and Beyond. Ed. Mark J. P. Wolf. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.
“Alberta Premier ‘disappointed’ government funded game showing pipeline bombing as game-over scenario.” Post Arcade. The National Post, 13 March, 2013. Web. 28 May 2013.
Babbage, Maria. “Public broadcaster pulls online game showing bombing of pipeline.” The Vancouver Sun, Business. The Vancouver Sun, 22 March, 2013. Web. 28 May 2013.
Bogost, Ian. “Videogames Are A Mess: My DiGRA 2009 Keynote, on Videogames and Ontology.” Ian Bogost – Videogame Theory, Criticism, Design. Ian Bogost, 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 28 May 2013.
Brown, Mark. “Apple Bans Phone Story Game That Exposes Seedy Side of Smartphone Creation.” Game|Life. Wired, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 28 May 2013.
Dear Esther. Computer. Dev. Thechineseroom. Thechineseroom, 2012. Videogame.
dys4ia. Computer. Dev. Anna Anthropy. Annie Pixelate, 2012. Videogame. Web. May 28, 2013.
Ebert, Roger. “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Genders?”. Movie Answer Man. Chicago Sun-Times, 27 Nov. 2005. Web. 28 May 2013.
—.“Video Games Can Never Be Art.” Roger Ebert’s Journal. Chicago Sun-Times, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 28 May 2013.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play:Radical Game Design. Boston, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
Grub, Jeffrey. “Endgame: Syria back on iOS App Store: Has new name, no real places.” Gamesbeat. Venturebeat, 21 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 May 2013.
howling dogs. Computer. Dev. porpentine. Porpentine, 2012. Videogame. Web. 28 May 2013.
Pipe Dream. Computer. Dev. The Assembly Line. Empire Software, 1989. Videogame.
Pipe Trouble. Computer. Dev. Alex Jansen and Jim Munroe. Pop Sandbox, 2013. Videogame.
“Pipeline bombing video game irks B. C. mayors.” CBC News.3 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 May 2013.
Trouble in the Piece. Dir. Julian Pinder. Six Island Productions, 2013.
“Twine.” gim crack’d. Web. 28 May 2013.
Yang, Robert. “A letter to a letter.” radiator DESIGN BLOG. Robert Yang. 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 28 May 2013.