Definitions, Formalists and Zinesters

There has been a lot of talk about the definition of the word Game. Ralph Koster’s open letter to Leigh Alexander, Tadhg Kelly’s attempt to say that formalists are not the enemy or a lovely piece I stumbled onto on tumblr who points something important out. There isn’t a binary between formalists and indie/zinesters.

I find this interesting as my position is both being an “Capital I” Indie but also somewhat of a formalist. Straight off, let me say that my policy about ‘what is game’ is close to peoples policy toward gender pronouns: I’ll call you what you want me to call you (within reason. Don’t call a potato a game please… unless we’re playing hot potato). By saying your work is a game I will approach it like a game and look at it in that context, even if it doesn’t strike me as particularly “gamey” or gamelike. I’m very sympathetic toward the formalist position, though. I love talking about systems. I love defining new ideas. Politics aside, arguing about what games are can be fun and interesting, even if I don’t think the answer is terribly important.

I 100% believe Raph when he says he’s not trying to be dismissive when he calls something interactive fiction (though some people are certainly being assholes). Something “not being a game” really doesn’t change it’s value… in theory at least. Interactive fiction has a lot of kinship with games anyways and would frequently be relevant. I think the fear of exclusion is almost misdirecting from what I think might be the real problem.

I think the problem is that it ignores cultural identity. The “Zinesters” are making what they think of as games. Saying they’re something else does not exclude them (they still get to go to all the cool parties, and talk with all the cool kids!) but it is profoundly disrespectful. That is how they use the term and formalists wield no authority in that space. Also, why are we so married to the word ‘game’ anyways? It’s a term deeply rooted in culture at this point — why not let it be used to talk about a wide range of experiences? We need a word for that ANYWAYS. Nothing is being wasted or squandered. We can come up with other words for things if we REAAAALLY have to.

Remember, this also isn’t a binary. I love talking about systematic stuff. Frame data, minor tweaks to recovery, little things that produce profound changes. But I also like stuff like world ecology, storytelling and lore and other fluff. I love internal consistency not just in mechanics but in the world. My interests aren’t as personal or even as interesting as the stuff a lot of people are doing in TWINE, but it’s far from game systems. Like what was said on Mammon-Machine’s tumblr — systems are for anyone who want to play with them and the reverse is true.

But how can we talk about games if we don’t understand what they are!”

This is a common line and I think it’s kinda bogus. How I make games and talk about games is NOT affected by whether or not Proteus is a “game”. If we’re concerning ourselves with systematic interactions, we’re going to think along those terms. If we’re thinking about personal expression through symbolism, we will think in those terms. Some people design to find elegance and simplicity. Some people see system as only mechanical interaction and some see the entire game world as a system. There are many valid definitions with different repercussions that can be used to achieve different ends. We can’t be bound to one complete definition. In a sense, this is why genre discussions are so good, as each supplies a different framework with different goals. We need to be flexible and adjustable.

As designers, we need to stop chasing definitions for games. There is a definition for every human that exists. Everything from interactive fiction to tetris has a lot of shared parts that we can talk about. We can talk about how to use those parts to achieve different goals. We can do a lot of things without a formal, consistent definition. Art has been doing it for years. It’s annoying, and not terribly but we can deal with it, because the needs of culture are more important than our minor inconveniences. Because that is all this is for us — a minor inconvenience. It doesn’t matter that much. The things that are on the fringe of your interest should not be interfering with the things you want to talk about. Getting distracted by those things and trying to make them fit into your world view is more “OCD”ish behavior than any sort of design. Let it go. You’ll be a better designer for it AND you’ll piss less smart, talented people off.

Besides, any theories that hinge on a precise definition of game are too frail to survive or trust.

9 thoughts on “Definitions, Formalists and Zinesters

  1. Maybe it’s because I am tired but I am having trouble parsing some of what I’m reading here. But I agree with the overall vibe of this statement, though.

    Huh, I think.

  2. I’ll probably give it another read to make sure because I was probably a bit tired too when I wrote it. :P

  3. (Disclaimer: I have not played Dys4ia, nor do I plan on it. From what tiny bit I know about it, I don’t think I’d enjoy it at all.)

    “By saying your work is a game I will approach it like a game and look at it in that context, even if it doesn’t strike me as particularly “gamey” or gamelike. ”

    The problem I have with this is that this isn’t a flattering context at all for “art-games”.

    Even in the very wide world of “non-art” videogames, whether we’re talking about Border Down, Civilization, Starcraft, or Necrovision, we’re looking at these games mostly through the same lens- namely, whether we find the problems they ask us to solve engaging (by problems, I mean in the “in-game” sense, not in the “let’s develop empathy for our fellow man and meditate on the meaning of life” sense; I would consider using the word “puzzle” here were it not for some implications that the word carries) and whether we find the tools they give us to solve these problems fun to use. Even in the most “narrative-driven” “non-art” game I can think of, Planescape: Torment, the central thrust of all of that writing and narrative is to help solve the game’s problems; dialogue is an interactive element, and without the context that narrative provides, it would be nothing more than blindly picking A, B, C, or D, and hoping for a favorable outcome.

    This isn’t what “art-games” are trying to do at all, and by asking people to look about them that way, the “artsy devs” are doing themselves a massive disservice. They’re asking people to focus on a point that they’re neglecting, because it’s ancillary to their goals. No matter how you try to spin it, randomly wandering around Dear Esther presents is a less compelling process than trying to balance rank control vs. extra lives and the need for score vs. dodging bullets in Battle Garegga, and thechineseroom are foolish for asking me to make that comparison. This is why when I go on my rants against “art games”, I tend to spare Tale of Tales; since they outright say that they aren’t making games, I can’t make that comparison anymore. The context goes from “competitor to Metal Slug/Doom/GalCiv2/whatever” to “some interactive medium that I’m simply not interested in”.

    “Remember, this also isn’t a binary. I love talking about systematic stuff. Frame data, minor tweaks to recovery, little things that produce profound changes. But I also like stuff like world ecology, storytelling and lore and other fluff. I love internal consistency not just in mechanics but in the world.”
    I don’t know if you can really separate these things 100%. As I alluded to above with my PS:T example, there are genres (perhaps most obviously, the western cRPG genre) where “decision making” that only has context in narrative is a major solution to the challenges the game throws in your way. More examples of this would be in the Geneforge series or in Mask of the Betrayer; in both of those games, the story branches you choose to take actually changes the way you approach combat.

    Finally, something said in one of those links really pisses me off, and I just have to respond to it somewhere:
    “That’s bullshit. the attempt to label games like dys4ia as ‘non-games,’ as ‘interactive experiences,’ is just an attempt by the status quo to keep the discussion of games centered around the kind of games it’s comfortable with—cus if there’s one thing existing videogame culture is good at, it’s making a certain kind of dude very, very comfortable.””
    Yes, the entire reason that I think R-Type and The Path need to be treated as separate kinds of entities is entirely because I want to keep women and minorities down. Obviously, it couldn’t be because they’re trying to do completely different things and are described by completely different types of concepts.

  4. Let me rephrase that quoted bit and keep this short so I can go to bed (maybe I’ll say more later).

    I’m not going to take an art game and compare it to like, some systematic standard of games. More by saying it’s a game I’m asking my self “why is it important to them that this is a game”. There intent changes my perception.

    As for the last bit, I do find that troubling. Even if we were to say such things do keep women and minorities down (at least incidentally) I’d be hardpressed to think of anyone who would be saying those things about games from any sort of racial or gender related context. Even then it definitely is sorta mushing a bunch of stuff together (Like, if you look at some formalists, they’re trying to shake up the ‘status quo’ in totally different ways). Still, in situations like these, while I do sorta cringe inside reading stuff like that, I think “these people are angry for a reason, even if they manifest it poorly sometimes”. Gaps in communication unfortunately exist between like every group of people to some extent.

  5. When you say “why is it important to them that this is a game”, do you mean “why is it important to them that other people call this a game”, or do you mean “why was it important to them that they express themselves through this particular medium, as opposed to painting/music/whatever”?

  6. That’s mighty generous of you, Kayin, condoning a grossly racist and sexist attack by saying it’s merely “gaps in communication”. I wonder if you would be as charitable if it was a similarly ignorant, racist, and sexist rant about women and/or minorities? I’m guessing you wouldn’t be.

  7. Well yes, because women and minorities rarely have the potential to be true oppressors. It doesn’t make their behavior right or fair, but considering their position, YES, I’m going to be more generous toward the missteps of oppressed groups. The idea that they should just smile and be like “Hey it’d be nice if you treated us as equal members of society” is absurd. They are mad because many of them HAVE done this they have been ignored.

  8. “Well yes, because women and minorities rarely have the potential to be true oppressors.”

    This self-hating belief is very common and widespread nowadays. Women and minorities are always the “victims” and those fucking evil men and whites are always the “true oppressors”. The actual facts and situation don’t matter.

    I think it sucks to live a life where you consider yourself an inferior human being because of your genitalia and skin color, and are totally fine with vile racist/sexist slurs, because of your awful white male guilt. But hey, many people, yourself included, are totally okay with this. I understand.

    What I don’t understand is this; why even write the post to begin with? According to your own beliefs, you’re a white male, and thus, according to a far wiser and better person (a transexual), a racist, sexist scumbag whose only goal is to oppress women and minorities.

    Ergo, everything you write is irrelevant/wrong.

  9. (I’m just…I’m just going to ignore Michael’s stuff)

    It seems to be that when and when it isn’t good to call a game a game or a non-game depends on the conversation (which seems to be what you’re saying). When semantics aren’t the main issue, then yeah something Dys4ia should be called a game. I don’t just go casually “hey man this interactive digital fiction is sure something!” I got “hey man this *game* is sure something!”

    To put things more layman, it’s like when talking about a book you like in high-brow terms versus just saying what you think of it to friend who’s interested. Maybe that’s something. When talking about games people should be aware of how high their brows are, so to speak.

    In other words, yes, games should all-inclusive; and designers shouldn’t go chasing their definitions when they should be just MAKING THEIR GAME. That being said, it would be nice for theorists looking at this strange new(ish) medium to come up with some new words that we haven’t been using so we have a broader vocabulary to use to help guide the directions of where we want our designs to go. To go back to book comparisons, it would be like someone wanting to make their told from 3rd person perspective then switching to 1st person perspective not having the words for 1st/2nd/3rd person perspectives. Sure it can be done, but it’d be kind of awkward to work with!

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