Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Games Vs Games - A hipster among sheep

I usually keep some sort of game magazine subscription going to keep up to date with what's new and cool in the gaming world and also get some ideas for which games to invest time and money into next. As I have become more and more interested in computer games and less in the newer consoles (a price issue really, I have a computer and can not afford new consoles) I've decided to switch from a console gaming magazine to a PC one.

Regardless of TV or computer games, I've noticed a trending theme in these magazines. Inreasingly more and more articles are written about how games can transcend their lowly state as mere games and become more than simply entertaining, because we all know having fun is for stupid people anyway, right? You may have noticed a hint of sarcasm there but don't worry - there will be plenty more before I am done here.

It's no news or surprise to anyone that the gaming industry, and games generally, have something of an inferiority complex towards other means of entertainment. If you tell people you're really into books or movies they will most likely think you're cool. You're even cooler if you start quoting books or movies, or have deep discussions about them. Not so much for us gamer equivalents, unfortunately. Although more than 30 years have passed since gaming became a thing, we're still reluctant to tell people how much games mean to us and how much time and effort we spend on them. I used to be like this but feel like I have mostly overcome it and can now gladly tell anyone that I can spend hours a day on gaming. That probably 80% of my free time goes into gaming. Fortunately for me, in my line of work this has actually turned out to be something of a benefit. As I work a lot with young people, I have an easy way to open up a conversation with almost anyone, as long as they're into some sort of gaming.

I miss my undead...

I've become something of the "corky gamer girl" at work (because that's what you are if you like games), and I haven't noticed anyone having a problem with it. I do get reactions when I first tell people, like "really? That much time?", but no one really cares what I do in my spare time. There are people around me that I still can't talk about this with of course. My grandpa would have a hissy fit and probably not speak to me for months if I told him how much time I spend with games, although that time is equally matched by his time watching TV. It doesn't matter. To a lot of people today gaming is still seen as a menial form of entertainment. That it is in essence mostly dumbing anyone who spends "too much time with it" (whatever that is). There are many reasons for this and discussing them might be another post all together. That's not what I wanted to talk about today however - instead my point is that even after all this time, we gamers still sometimes feel bad about what we love to do most. Shameful even, we hide and lie about it like we're talking about drugs. In the past I've said things like I was "going to this event with friends" when talking about raiding, because that's what it basically is anyway and I couldn't be arsed with the looks and trying to explain. No one would question a movie night or a book reading club. But oh I forget, they're sociable. Yeah, sarcasm again.

Because of this, gamers have constantly seeked to transform games into something that all the non-gamers can understand and accept. Sure, you can argue that fuck everyone else, if they don't like your gaming then what's the problem? Well, there is a problem if you're living at home and your parents refuse to let you game at all because they just don't understand it, or if like mentioned you constantly have to hide and lie about your gaming because your "irl" friends think you're weird otherwise. I think, trying to increase the status of gaming as a form of entertainment worth to spend a lot of time and money on is a mission worth working for. But there are good and bad ways to go about it.

We're already seeing a form of trying to get games into everyones hands in the form of "simple" games that are Angry Birds and Farmville. Many gamers would argue that these are barely games at all, which of course, they are. There is a danger with these games that goes beyond the scope of this post, but is still necessary to mention - the fact that more and more gaming studios will focus on these small (ie cheaply developed games) that are easy to sell rather than the big, risky projects that we love. This is a real fear going through the gaming community at the moment, but I'm not overly worried myself. As long as there is an interest there will be a product, somehow.

Happy birds are much cuter though
These two things however, gamers low self-esteem and the market being flushed with "mindless mini-games" has led to an interesting development, and this is where this new trending theme comes back into the picture (you remember that thing I mentioned in the beginning?). More and more articles in gaming mamagazines are about games that are not supposed to be games. They are not designed to be fun, they are designed to be... important. To tell a story. To make you think. To make you feel something. You know, unlike regular games which you just play like a mindless drone because you can't help yourself (whoops, sarcasm!).

I don't mind meta-games, or "deep" games, or poetic games at all. I think they have their time and place as well, and thought we could all live in happy co-existance although my personal interest in them is generally low. I can find it interesting with wanting to create a game that is primarily designed to make you reflect over your own gaming behavior or the meaning of life, rather than to  "just" entertain old school style. I even subscribed to a magazine that started a couple of years ago called "The Enemy" in swedish (Fienden) which was a gaming magazine about games without a single review in it. It discussed games in a sort of abstract, study of ideas kind of way instead and I was intruiged by the idea. Sadly it was cancelled after the first issue.

But then I read an article that somehow really wound me up. It got me furious in fact, because of one little quote. The quote was from Michaël Samyn of the Tale of Tales game studio, and you'll have to bear with my amateur translation as  the magazine is in swedish;

"The problem with games is the 'game' part. That a game per definition is about learning rules, use them to overcome an obstacle and then win, and which therefor is almost always suited to tell only one story - the story of someone who's constantly challenged by enemies and defeats them. It's because of this that games can never be a meaningful form of expression." (Paraphrased, Svenska PC Gamer p.30)

I don't even know where to get started with this quote. What really grinds my gears is saying that games can't be a meaningful form of expression. In the article, Samyn continues discussing how the core structure in games is what is standing in its way to.. what, really? I'm not sure what he thinks "regular" games are lacking at the moment? The possibility to make us feel? To make us engrossed, entertained, to think and contemplate? For some reason I take this personal. It's like he is saying "remember those awesome memories you have of playing FFVII? Remember how cool you thought it was and how happy you were, and how still today it makes you smile? Yeah unfortunately that was just a lowly experience, it wasn't really meaningful". Then what is, I must ask? And who is Samyn to tell me that what I feel playing a good game isn't "real", "worthy" or "meaningful" enough? How can you even use such a word, "meaningful"? I thought I was the only one who could say what was meaningful to me or not.

You will not take this experience from me
The worst thing about it is that it doesn't even make any sense. That is like saying "The problem with driving a car is the 'driving' part. You have to shift gears and turn roads and stuff. That's why it can never be as fun as flying a plane". Or like saying reading Harry Potter can never be as meaningful as reading Frank Kafka. You're comparing apples and oranges here! I'm not saying Samyns own games are shit, frankly I don't have a clue. I'm saying that his games are not designed to give me the same sort of experience as say, Neverwinter Nights, so how can you even compare them? If I have fun playing NWN, then that is exactly what I am after and the experience is meaningful to me.

Yes, games have rules. In case you haven't noticed, everything in the universe has rules. I can't walk through walls even if I wanted to, and have to obey to the rules of physics (although in quantum-physics you can go through walls theoretically, but that's beside the point). I am sure the games Samyn creates have rules too and I am sure that if they didn't they wouldn't be very fun games. Wikipedia states that;

"Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction"

Although there is no clear definition of a game, I am sure that without a goal to strive to and challenges to overcome, it wouldn't be much of a game. An interactive story maybe, but not a game. When I play a game I want that challenge, and I want that goal to make the challenge fun to overcome. That is why I play a game rather than watch a movie or read a book. When I want a story without interaction, goals, rules and challenge, I go to those forms of media instead. So what is Samyn trying to tell me?

In fact, Samyn has started an organisation called "NotGames", focused on creating games (well, not games) that have risen above and beyond what regular games are trying to accomplish. Even the article goes on to point out that by saying you're making "NotGames", you're basically saying you're making anything, because anything except a game is a notgame, and who would be the target audience for those creations? In the article some game studios that have hooked on to the idea admit that they don't want to call their creations "notgames" for the fear of losing potential customers. You know, gamers. Who play games.

And what kind of a concept is that anyway? You wouldn't see anyone start a car company called "NotCars" or a sausage brand called "NotSausage". If they're not what they're not trying to be, then why even point it out? By saying you're not making a game, you're immediately connecting your product to games, unless you're just trying to be Captain Obvious.

Why make THIS an issue to fight for when there are real issues within the gaming industry. Like the above mentioned fact that games still have a really low status as a form of entertainment, besides the fact that basically everyone plays some sort of game sometimes and that it's at least as big as the movie industry (I'm guessing). Or how about the fact that anyone not conforming to general play style in the increasingly popular online games is often ridiculed and turned into an outcast, basically making gaming into a "do it our way or no way at all"-style. These are things I think are worth addressing and trying to change - not that regular games are not "meaningful" and "deep" enough.

The last few years I have been thrilled to see indie developers getting a chance to disitribute their games and find markets through systems like Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter, to mention a few. The gaming community doesn't just need yet another FIFA or Medal of Honor, there is room for pretty much anything. And it is true that one of the most popular games of recent years, Minecraft, came from a no name creator rather than one of the big developing studios. It is clear that good gaming can come from anywhere. Of course there are differences between these games, just as there is differences between movies and books. And I don't mind us comparing the games, discussing which and what is better. But let us not discuss gamers. Let us not go there where one choice of games is held as better than another choice. Is the person playing To the Moon living a more meaningful life than the person playing LoL? I find the choice in games can hardly say anything about that. Gamers are already fighting the view of gaming being the lower choice of entertainment, do we really want to faction up within the community as well?

In the end all of these creations want to be games,
no matter what they call themselves, and I think they should be treated equally, within their own merits. When a movie reviewer reviews Die Hard 5, he's not comparing it to Shindler's List (I hope). He's not telling us which one is more meaningful. The review is not based on anything else but the quality of the movie - as a movie within it's own genre. I think IGN reviewers Anthony Gallegos did it right when he gave To the Moon a 7.5 because of a great story but weak gameplay. If you choose to tell your story through a game you need to think about all aspects of the game. It is true that really great stories can make you forgive mistakes in graphics, gameplay and physics. But if you're playing a game these will all still matter - just look at practically any Bethesda game of late. And if you want to make games, don't belittle the competition and even worse, the choices of potential customers.

The article writer points out that it's easy to write off the whole idea as Samyn being a pretentious wannabe whos creations will be art - but not games. Those creations will have their place in the world as well, but they'll have as much to do with games as anything else - inspired by and from perhaps, nothing more. And I am perfectly fine with that. Like I said, I believe in letting anyone create, like and play whatever they enjoy whether it be Mass Effect or Okami or something else completely. What I don't believe in however is gamers looking down on other gamers for their choices. Like I said; It's tough enough having to defend what I do to everyone who don't play games, I really don't want to start doing it within the gaming community. 

Right now I think Samyn and others like him are doing themselves a disservice. They have a really interesting idea on their hands, but decide to go all hipster with it, alienating the very people that might be interested in it by calling them and their game choices sheepish. Yes, philosophical games can be great, but so can regular games. Because there is no denying that no matter how much you strive to find that thing that make people really think, enjoy and feel like they've made something meaningful with their life it's hard to beat a plain old simple, awesomely fun game. These don't have to be exclusive and the one is not better than the other. As long as I get happy from playing it, it's meaningful to me. Just look at Tetris and say I am wrong.


  1. One thing that also seems to be missed is that everyone has "hobbies" (be it games, art, reading, cooking, hiking, etc.) for different reasons. I enjoy reading before bed because I find it relaxing and a nice way to wind down. I play games for similar reasons. Other people do things for the challenge, to push themselves and their abilities, be it through games (pvp or raiding), physical activity (running, marathoning, etc.), pushing their own boundaries (skydiving, base jumping, etc) or something else entirely.

    The reason people do the things they enjoy is for their own reasons and enjoyment. Sometimes you feel like entering a BG and smashing someone, sometimes you feel like watching a scary movie and being scared out of you wits, or a funny one where you can forget your troubles and just have a good laugh or you may just want to hit the pub with your mates. As you mentioned Zinn, no one else can say what is meaningful to you but you.

    1. Indeed, sometimes people just go so far into defending their ideas they turn into the people they are trying to convince. This is what seems to have happened in this case. I can only hope things calm down, people create their games, we play them and everyone is happy.

      I really do believe there is room for any kind of gaming and there is neither a definite way to say how to play a game as there is a definite way of saying how to create a game.

  2. "And who is Samyn to tell me that what I feel playing a good game isn't "real", "worthy" or "meaningful" enough?"

    Who are you to tell him what games he should or should not make? You are basing your argument on the assumption that games are already "meanigful" enough. Which is a fair point. However, unlike Samyn your are not providing evidence except for "it's meaningful to me". Good for you. But apparently it's not good enough for Samyn. So why shouldn't he make games that suit his interests? Can't we have games that adhere to different value systems? While I would agree that games have a worse reputation than they deserve, I don't see how that is an agrument against expermenting with them.

    The car analogy is quite adeuquate in this case. The whole reason why something like a car exists in the first place is because someone once thought "The problem with this horse carriage is that it has a horse". It must have seen ass-backwards at the time.

    There is a certain irony to your line of argument. On the one hand you are bemoaning the lack of inclusiveness of the mainstream against games. On the other hand, you categorically exclude the association of NotGames with games. On the one hand you argue for an egalitarian approach how we value and judge games. On the other hand you reject NotGames for not living up to the standart of being a game.

    You paint a bleak picture of games and gamers being repressed. But I fail to see how NotGames are to blame for this. It's not like Samyn is taking away your games. On the contrary, you will find that most experimental Indie devs are very appriciative of games and very much share your enthusiasm for this medium. It is precisely what motivates their work. It's not like Samyn completely snubs games and writes novels instead. He understands very well that there is something big here that the mainsteam hasn't recognized yet. Many of experimental indie developers are working very hard at smoothing out the sharp divide between gamers and mainstream.

    What you don't seem to realize is that the apparently contradictory term "NotGames" is an ironization of how most gamers react to those experiments. Instead of embracing the growth and diversification of the medium, many indie devs were shocked facing resistence from within games, the very thing they were serving. The most frequent argument against experimental games was and to this day continues to be "this is not even a game". Note the strategic use of the word "even". This is the same kind of value judgement and arrogance as the term "meanigful" you bemoan. The killer in me is the killer in you.

    Don't you think that the existence of games or intermediary experiments, which are more acceptable as art and culture in the mainstream, will help the very problems you identify as "real issues"? Extra Credits had an episode exactly about this some time ago:

    1. It's unfortunate that you've put so much time and effort into writing an overall good comment, when it seems you haven't read my post at all. I'm not sure why you think I am against Samyns idea, I am not at all. I even thought I pointed that out too many times, but it only goes to show that you can never be too clear. I will repost what you seem to have missed in my post for your benefit;

      "I don't mind meta-games, or "deep" games, or poetic games at all. I think they have their time and place as well, and thought we could all live in happy co-existance although my personal interest in them is generally low. I can find it interesting with wanting to create a game that is primarily designed to make you reflect over your own gaming behavior or the meaning of life, rather than to "just" entertain old school style."

      "The last few years I have been thrilled to see indie developers getting a chance to distribute their games and find markets through systems like Steam Greenlight and Kickstarter, to mention a few. The gaming community doesn't just need yet another FIFA or Medal of Honor, there is room for pretty much anything."

      " Like I said, I believe in letting anyone create, like and play whatever they enjoy whether it be Mass Effect or Okami or something else completely."

      "Right now I think Samyn and others like him are doing themselves a disservice. They have a really interesting idea on their hands, but decide to go all hipster with it, alienating the very people that might be interested in it by calling them and their game choices sheepish. Yes, philosophical games can be great, but so can regular games."

      What about "really interesting idea" makes you think I have anything against Samyns games? I have nothing against what he creates at all, and that is not what the post is about at all. It's unfortunate it came out that way, but I will write it in clear;
      The meaning of the post is to point out that only the player can decide what is meaningful. Samyn can create whatever he likes, but he can not tell me which games are meaningful, which he tries to do in the article, because that is totally subjective.

      You point out that one of the problems these creators face are that they're considered not games. Which I totally agree on and make a point off;

      "In the end all of these creations want to be games, no matter what they call themselves, and I think they should be treated equally, within their own merits. "

      You seem to be defending things I am not attacking, it makes it hard to understand your comment, but thanks for it anyway! To reflect back to that Penny Arcade post - not art is also not the opposite of fun.

    2. Indeed, I seem to have went overboard in some statements. I apologize. These are lengthy articles we are exchanging. It's easy to lose track of the arguments.

      "I have anything against Samyns games?"

      Right. And yet

      "For some reason I take this personal."

      so you do paint him as an adversarial figure. And with him, also the entire NotGames movement. Let us discuss why. Because he dares to express his subjective impression of games? Why is that so? Why do you think Samyn is belittling you? Would it have been better if he prefaced his statement with "In my personal opinion"? Isn't such a statement implied anyway? How would you have Samyn re-state that opinion in an egalitarian manner without defeating his argument?

      Also, consider how Samyn would have reacted reading you proclaiming that Neverwinter Nights was in fact a meaningful experience. Suppose he felt nothing playing the same game. Who are you to tell him what he is supposed to feel? By your logic, wouldn't you be implying he is daft? That is pursuit for something greater was misguided because look, we are already there?

      And how is that different from Anthony Gallegos giving "To the Moon" a 7.5? Imagine a gamer somewhere REALLY loving "To the Moon". Imagine this person thinking this is the best game they ever played. Shouldn't that person take it personally in exactly the same way reading Anthony's review? How dare Anthony implying that what he felt wasn't that amazing after all.

      At least you acknowledging the possible existence of such a thing "mindless mini-games". So implicitly, you do believe there are at least some agreed-upon values by which we may judge games. That there are standards to uphold. There must be a way to be able to tell that Transformers 2 is a shitty movie even though so many people clearly seem to have enjoyed it.

      You argue not to compare "Die Hard 5" to "Shindler's List". It's a fair argument. But are you seriously implying that both equally deserve the Oscar for Best Picture? How is the Jury supposed to tell which one to chose if the very process of the award is to compare?

      Of course everybody is entitled to an opinion. But those opinions don't exist independently of each other. There must be a way for us to discuss the reasons for why we find some things "meaningful" and not others. At least we seem to agree here. You said you "don't mind us comparing the games, discussing which and what is better.". Let's do that! Let's agree that criticizing games doesn't necessarily imply criticizing gamers.

      And of course we enjoy different things for very different reasons. But those reasons themselves are not entirely subjective. We understand that some goals are more lofy than others. The best expressionist short movies are probably culturally more aspiring than the best house appliance infomercials. And it's probably fair if the former are discussed more often film schools the the latter.

    3. I think most independent developers, including Samyn, don't criticize games for failing within their own merits. In fact, I think most of them realized that in the best cases they often exceed what they set out to achieve. That there is something sublime in the mesmerizing quality of Tetris which goes beyond a mere time-waster. That what we all felt in Final Fantasy VII is not just our own cheesy childhood-memory nostalgia but in fact the glimpse of an even brighter future waiting to be discovered.

      The problem is perhaps not that games aren't meaningful. The problem is that they don't set their goals high enough. That they don't dare to be more than entertainment, even though we all can see they clearly could and so often are. The offensive argument you quote refers to Samyn's thesis that perhaps this is related to the game industry's understanding what a 'game' is and what it can do. I don't see how it has anything to do with gamers. In fact, the very reason why he continues making games (or "NotGames") is because he clearly believes that there is an audience able to appreciate more challenging content.

      I agree "Meanigful" is perhaps an unfortunate shorthand here. Art and cultural significance aren't exactly well-defined terms either. And indeed, within the fuzziness there certainly is enough wiggle-room for multiple viewpoints to co-exist. Reading your passage about the "To The Moon" review I was reminded of Film Critik Hulk's "WHAT MAKES A MOVIE GOOD?". It's a long and a bit tiresome read because of the ALLCAPS. But it seems to discuss the complexity of the very question we are struggling with here.

      Going even deeper, I'm reminded of Ian Bogost's "Shit Crayons" article - where he discovered that gamers can very well discover meaning even in things which weren't designed to be meaningful in the first place.

      I do believe this is a case of barking up the wrong tree due to a misunderstanding. It's not an unreasonable reaction either. Superficially, this yet another person talking down on games after all. To make matter worse, this seems to believe he has it all figured out and that he can do better.

      I agree there are forces trying to put games and gamers in a sad place. But that's not what NotGames are trying to do or even implying, on the contrary. You should try to reach out to those guys. There is a NotGames forum you could post this article to. I wouldn't be surprised if you would find yourself agreeing on many things with Samyn himself. Perhaps even on NVN? ;)

    4. I think it's easy to get the impression you seem to have gotten from my post, I admit it is aggressive in its tone. But it's definitely not my intention to ridicule or diminish any of Samyns (or others like him) ideas and creations. Rather the opposite, although it might be hard to see. I love the whole idea of making games with the story being the #1 creating force, rather than gameplay or "old" ideas of how games should look to sell.

      I think exactly because I want to believe in Samyns ideas I take it extra personal and as extra hurtful when he (seemingly) questions his heritage and the very community that he comes from. Well, questioning is good, but condescending is not. Sometimes it's easy to get these confused. To say that other games can't be meaningful experiences is simply taking it a step too far in my opinion.

      I hope, and think, you're right. Maybe it was just unfortunate wording. At the point I was reading it I was just sick and tired of constantly having to defend my gaming, and it felt like the final straw to me when it seemed I even had to do it towards fellow gamers and game creators. I simply felt like I had to defend my right to judge for myself what a good game is, just as I can't tell Samyn or anyone else what a good game is, to that person.

      As cheesy as it might sound - discussing differences are fine, but let's not judge them, here or anywhere.

  3. Wow. Excellent post. I think you've certainly illuminated a very controversial topic that maybe hasn't really had the spotlight shined right on it quite yet in the blogging community.

    I think the approach each of us takes towards games is probably incredibly affected by our personal history and occupation. Games designers think about games as a set of rules that inhibit play, since they're constricted from doing everything they want to by whatever medium their using. We don't necessarily see that constriction if the designers do a good job, as we still have fun playing their game. Some players, on the other hand, are getting the meaningful experiences you discuss from the games and are basically satisfied. Other players are still looking for more.

    You're quite right that there's tons of room in the market for virtually any "fun" "activity" that's "done well." Of course, each of those words and phrases could be interpreted differently by different people (occupation as an English teacher has its effects, too). Still, I think that idea of "play" and "games" are becoming too intertwined. I think that many sandbox "games" aren't actually games at all; they're a form of play, but without another term by which to label them, we just call them games.

    I suspect that's why some people feel like they're tired of "games" and that "games" need to transcend to a broader form of "play." They miss the point that without the constraint of rules and goals, you're not really engaging in a game, you're just playing - which is perfectly fine, too, even though it's inherently different.

    Great post!

    1. Thank you for your comment!
      Something you're saying is really hitting home with me, I might graze it in my post but don't think I fully grasped it. There must indeed be a difference in how gamers and game creators perceive their creations, and the limitations set upon the game, and I also think that must make a difference at how the end result is perceived. There are many examples of how limitations have resulted in some now iconic gaming moments and characters (like the looks of Mario) and of course there is no saying what could've been if game creators had no limits.

      But just like you mention, I think boundaries don't have to be a bad thing, they can make things interesting. The same way not having boundaries can be interesting. Either way, the gaming community has room for both.

      I think a game like Minecraft shows the difference between these two pretty well since it is both a game and a sandbox open for "any" play. You can either try and beat the game, or just sit and build whatever you like. It is clear the latter has gotten a lot more attention than the "regular" game of Minecraft but both are options. And how you choose to play the game is really up to you. Most importantly, both choices are good choices.