Good Morning, Orthodoxy! #2

Todd Wohling / September 24, 2014 at 8:00 AM / Archive

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Disclaimer: TotalBiscuit and I were colleagues at WoW Radio from October 2006 until February 2010.

Good Morning, Orthodoxy is a series of articles examining posts made on August 28 and 29.  In the second installment, I examine how the articles attempted to change the definition of the term “game”. If you missed the first installment, you can read it here!

In GMO1, we established that a coordinated attack made against gamers and gaming on August 28th and 29th attempted to write an orthodoxy with a definition of “gamer” as straight white males.  In the same attack, they also tried to define what a “game” is.  To start, let’s look at the Ars Technica article, which says this:

For gaming to be taken seriously as an art form, it needs to be able to stand up to cultural critiques, and gamers need to be able to separate a developer’s personal life from her work.

The “her” in this case is Zoe Quinn, author of Depression Quest. We’ll come back to DQ later.  For now, let’s move on to Devin Wilson’s Gamasutra playbook on killing gamers:

We stop upholding “fun” as the universal, ultimate criterion for a game’s relevance. It’s a meaningless ideal at best and a poisonous priority at worst. Fun is a neurological trick. Plenty of categorically unhealthy things are “fun”. Let’s try for something more. Many of the alternatives will have similarly fuzzy definitions, but let’s aspire to qualities like “edifying”, “healing”, “pro-social”, or even “enlightening”. I encourage you to decide upon your own alternatives to “fun” in games (while avoiding terms like “cool” and “awesome” and any other word that simply caters to existing, unexamined biases).

But wait, there’s more:

We don’t afford any credence to the idea that games are “just for fun”. Games are not neutral. Anita Sarkeesian is not imposing her feminist values onto games; she’s identifying the misogynistic values that game developers have (sometimes unwittingly) incorporated into games… …We need to regularly compare our games’ expressed values to our own real values. In the end, we may arrive at different conclusions about what different games mean, but we need to stop asserting that they’re meaningless.

And, to complete a triple play of orthodoxy:

We get serious about inclusivity, which means understanding that “game” is a very loose category that—even when defined relatively strictly—encompasses an astonishing range of activities. This means that we should associate less strongly around such a vague term. Being interested in games doesn’t mean you need to play every game that comes out and have an opinion on it. It doesn’t mean that every game is for you. The games press creates an illusion that every big game needs to be played by everyone who likes games. Games as a medium (or—more accurately to my mind, lately—a plurality of media) are more diverse than all of film, radio, television, print, etc. Compare two random works of one of those other media forms. Then compare two random games (digital or non-digital). There’s no contest: the breadth of games is staggering, and we need to cool it on the preoccupation with having an encyclopedic expertise-of and exposure-to all games.

There’s a ton of dangerous language in these three quotes alone.  The first, and in my opinion most dangerous, is the assertion that I as a consumer should no longer have choice over what I dedicate my free time to and what I spend my disposable income on.  Further, whatever it is that I spend my free time and disposable income on, it shouldn’t provide me any enjoyment—it should make me feel like I do at work, or worse, it should remind me of how terrible a person I am (but not me specifically, me as cishet white male; me specifically is a great person, so I’m told).  Here’s the thing; I work in a technical job.  I read or write at least 8 hours per day 5 days per week, and I’ve done so for the last 14 years.  The last thing I want to do with my free time most nights is to come home and receive an ideological chastising from my entertainment.  What I do want is to come home, eat dinner, and settle in for a couple hours with some Dragon Age, Isaac, Diablo, Civ, Tecmo Bowl, or Toe Jam & Earl, and not think about tomorrow’s 8 or more hours of reading and writing.  Fortunately, my way doesn’t require changing the definition of “game” to outlaw fun.

The second piece of dangerous language is the word “inclusive”.  I’m going to dedicate an entire GMO to inclusion, but for now, what is necessary is excerpts from Shafik Asante’s 1997 article “What is Inclusion?”

It definitely becomes our responsibility as a society to remove all barriers which uphold exclusion since none of us have the authority to “invite” others “in”!

The act of inclusion means fighting against exclusion and all of the social diseases exclusion gives birth to – i.e. racism, sexism, handicapism, etc. Fighting for inclusion also involves assuring that all support systems are available to those who need such support.

On a cursory glance, inclusion seems like a good thing.  Look a little deeper, specifically at the phrase “remove all barriers which uphold exclusion”.  There are many things that uphold exclusion that have nothing to do with race, gender, or sexual orientation: merit, nomenclature, finances, education, and experience are a few.  In the inclusive world, it is society’s responsibility to fight against these things, too?  I suppose that’s how a “games journalist” who doesn’t know anything about Killer Instinct, fighting games, or arcade culture can take 3 seconds of a 90 minute E3 presentation out of context to write a 4 paragraph, 100 word, click-bait garbage article about “the rape joke”.

The third piece of dangerous language is the notion of games are somehow the broadest entertainment and/or information medium.  At this point, enter from stage left Dan Golding, who parrots this notion:

Taken in their simplest, most basic form, a videogame is a creative application of computer technology.

By this definition, all the episodes of my podcast from 2006 to 2012 were videogames.  Facebook is a videogame.  Pandora is a videogame.  Innovative software developed in industries like consumer electronics or aerospace that have nothing to do with entertainment are videogames.  It is easy to argue that all of the above are creative applications of computer technology, yet none of these are videogames. The Golding definition turns out to be worthless.  Unless, of course, you need the Golding definition to apply to something that’s not a videogame so it can be called a videogame to justify elements of the orthodoxy.

So what constitutes a “game”?  We’ll start with the definition of game.

An amusement or pastime.

The material or equipment used in playing certain games.

A competitive activity involving skill, chance, or endurance on the part of two or more persons who play according to a set of rules, usually for their own amusement or for that of spectators.

Notice anything?  2 of the first three definitions have the word “amusement” in them.  Amusement is a synonym for fun.  Take a look at the etymology for “game”.  Game is derived from joy, glee, and merriment.  Fun, it would seem, is at the heart of what makes games what they are.  Thus the only reason one would need to change the definition of game is to impose an orthodoxy on the people playing them.

If a dictionary definition wasn’t sufficient evidence for what a game is, let’s go next level and hit up Wikipedia for their entry on “game”. Wikipedia gives us several definitions from which to choose; the easy ones are as follows:

A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)

A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal. (Greg Costikyan)

A game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context. (Clark C. Abt)

At its most elementary level then we can define game as an exercise of voluntary control systems in which there is an opposition between forces, confined by a procedure and rules in order to produce a disequilibrial outcome. (Elliot Avedon and Brian Sutton-Smith)

A game is a form of play with goals and structure. (Kevin J. Maroney)

To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity. (Bernard Suits)

When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. (Jane McGonigal)

From these definitions, we see some distinct commonalities: goals or outcomes, rules, and opposition.  We see similar from Chris Crawford’s definition.  Roger Caillois definition focuses more on fun and uncertainty than rules and goals, which aligns with the dictionary definitions above.  One more thing of note, in TotalBiscuit’s video In defence of specific definitions, he defines games similarly as above, but also notes that calling something an interactive experience, virtual exhibition, or virtual installation should not be used as a pejorative, and I completely agree.  We are seeing the dawn of a new medium that is closer to art than it is to videogames; this new medium has every right to exist and be critiqued, advertised, and consumed. Depression Quest is one of these experiences, but it is not a game.

The most apt description for DQ is semi-autobiographical Choose Your Own Adventure style e-reader.  In fact, DQ organizes itself exactly as the CYOA books I read in grade school: a couple of pages of text with or without illustration, leading up to a choice.  Each choice leads to more text.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Obviously, DQ has a significantly darker tone to it than Prisoner of the Ant People or Hyperspace does, and DQ does deviate from the CYOA formula slightly, in as much as certain choices in the narrative are closed to the reader.  The stated goal, per the Steam page is “to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people”. This goal isn’t one achieved as an end state of consuming the media; rather, the goal might be achieved passively by consuming the media itself.  This fact alone is enough for DQ to violate every definition of “game” sans the new orthodox definition.  There doesn’t appear to be any rules per se, other than choices being locked out, but those choices being locked out aren’t done so in accordance with psychological research on depression, but are done so due to autobiographical reasons.  The rule set, therefore, is esoteric at best, a second violation of every non-orthodoxy definition of “game”.  At this point, it is safe to say, conclusively, that DQ cannot be considered a game by any relevant definition of the term. Similar applies to Glitchhikers, Proteus, Dear Esther, Gone Home, among others.  This is not to say that these titles do not have value, because obviously they do, but not as games.

I have some homework for everyone before GMO #3.  Do a google search for anti-GamerGate articles from the gaming press or the mainstream press and look for the common themes among them.  One of the ones you might notice is that all of them refer to ZQ as “game developer” or “female game developer” and DQ as some variety of “game”.  We just demonstrated that DQ doesn’t fit any relevant definition of game.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at other commonalities among anti-GamerGate articles. Update: Good Morning, Orthodoxy! #3

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.