Indie Implosion: “A Chair is a Videogame”

John is here with his first in a series about the Indie Implosion happening with independent games and their art critic developers

indie chair head

A chair is not a video game. Perhaps you could make a chair into a video game con­sole with some fan­cy mod­i­fi­ca­tions but, as it stands, we can safe­ly say the plain old ob­ject you park your bot­tom on is not, in fact, a video game. This might seem like an ob­vi­ous — even ab­surd — state­ment to make, but it is at the heart of the ero­sion of con­cepts and mean­ing. This could spell a dis­as­ter for in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ment, game fund­ing and the public’s en­gage­ment with gam­ing on a deep­er level.

The abil­i­ty to prove what some­thing is and isn’t lays at the heart of mod­ern ra­tio­nal­ism: through the mea­sure­ment and doc­u­men­ta­tion of the world around us and care­ful ap­pli­ca­tion of de­duc­tive rea­son­ing we can make sense of con­cepts and cat­e­go­rize them.  A chair is not con­sid­ered a video game yet a uri­nal can be con­sid­ered a work of art — as is an un­made bed.

The term “art” has be­come com­plete­ly use­less in the mod­ern world. We might as well not have the word at this point due to its de­f­i­n­i­tion, and es­pe­cial­ly its ap­pli­ca­tion, be­ing so stretched and warped. This un­cer­tain­ty has been wel­comed by many in the 20th cen­tu­ry as brave, new and ex­cit­ing. Art be­came a con­cept, but as it delved deep­er and deep­er out­side of the bound­aries pre­vi­ous­ly set, the less and less it had pub­lic in­ter­est and at­ten­tion — aside from the oc­ca­sion­al snick­er and shake the heads at how pre­ten­tious and ugly the art world had be­come. Instead of mak­ing art more de­moc­ra­tized, widen­ing the de­f­i­n­i­tion of art ac­tu­al­ly made it more ex­clu­sion­ary and elitist.

implosion 1 side 1Those who think they are push­ing the bound­aries are not ac­tu­al­ly aim­ing to make games any­more, they are aim­ing to make con­cep­tu­al state­ments. And as we’ve seen in the art world, this ends up alien­at­ing the public.

People just don’t buy art prints any­more by and large. Outside of small so­ci­eties in the ma­jor cities, peo­ple don’t sit around and talk about works shown in gal­leries much any­more. Art was seen as the pre­serve of high so­ci­ety and some­thing to be as­pired to.  The mid­dle class­es used to rush out and buy prints of the artists of that day; art was some­thing that had a great deal of pub­lic in­ter­ac­tion in the past — far more than seen to­day. There is a good rea­son many of the art-prints peo­ple buy are by artists who are long dead. They hail from a time when art gal­leries were push­ing new works that were in­nate­ly aes­thet­i­cal­ly ap­peal­ing. As art got ugli­er and de­lib­er­ate­ly more ob­tuse, the mass-market for it dried up. The same will hap­pen to video games as they be­come less fun and more de­void of me­chan­ics. Those who want to turn our ar­cades into art gal­leries should take a long look at the per­cent­age of our pop­u­la­tion that vis­its gal­leries at all. Outside of the art-world bub­ble, every­one is look­ing on in dis­gust. Outside of the “art game” bub­ble, gamers are do­ing the same.

The word “art” has be­come more syn­ony­mous with the word “wor­thi­ness” at this point; it has be­come a la­bel we stick on some­thing in or­der to make it seem mean­ing­ful. To put our stamp of ap­proval on it. Stripping the la­bel of art from a piece of me­dia or an ob­ject is a way of sig­nalling we don’t think some­thing is wor­thy. That we think it is low, vul­gar or com­mon. In a very real sense, the fuzzi­ness of the word art has al­lowed it to be­come open to the rule of arbiters.

The peanut gallery scoffs at a game like Hatred, and dra­mat­i­cal­ly de­clares it “could nev­er be a work of art,” or that it is “set­ting back games as an art form.” They don’t seem to re­al­ize that thanks to the ef­forts of peo­ple just like them is the rea­son why a uri­nal can be art to­day. Anything can be art — even if they don’t per­son­al­ly like it. Not be­ing able to point to a set mean­ing has em­pow­ered art crit­ics, and has had the ef­fect of con­fus­ing and turn­ing off the pub­lic. Doing so to video games will only serve to em­pow­er the crit­ics es­pous­ing that view.

Saying some­thing “isn’t a game” isn’t a form of de­ri­sion like many see it — that is pro­ject­ing their own hang-ups about lan­guage onto the de­bate. They see the words “Game” and “Art” as be­ing in­ter­change­able and mean­ing­less. To be used as badges to show how wor­thy their project is. They don’t un­der­stand the need for use­ful de­f­i­n­i­tions most of us have.

When you’re sell­ing a prod­uct, you need to be able to de­scribe to an av­er­age mem­ber of the pub­lic what it ac­tu­al­ly is and all of this con­cep­tu­al post­mod­ern bull­shit won’t help you reach and en­gage with the gam­ing pub­lic. This is un­der­min­ing faith in the in­die game mar­ket as “in­de­pen­dent” is be­com­ing syn­ony­mous with “prob­a­bly not even a game.”

To them, gamers are the un­en­light­ened mass­es to be re-educated. They feel us poor fools just don’t know what a “Game” is and we need to “Grow Up.” That’s one of the cra­zier things about the “in­die scene” to me. They think a group of peo­ple who have gamed for a good por­tion of their lives don’t know what they like, and have no abil­i­ty to de­cide what they think is or isn’t good, as if the gam­ing pub­lic haven’t been mak­ing that judge­ment call for decades.

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Mr. Kirioth, from YouTube chan­nel Unit Lost, ex­pressed this ex­as­per­a­tion per­fect­ly af­ter play­ing a glut of in­de­pen­dent­ly de­vel­oped “walk­ing sim­u­la­tor” games that lit­ter the Steam store­front. And it’s not like the Steam tag sys­tem does any­thing to help you weed out these game. In fact “Walking Simulator” is a banned tag. Jumping up and down with rage at the term “walk­ing sim­u­la­tor” does not make this grow­ing stereo­type of a game­play type any less per­va­sive or re­viled by the gam­ing public.

Indie” games has mor­phed into a brand, and the en­forced in­clu­sion of non-games un­der that brack­et is dam­ag­ing that brand — and in­ad­ver­tent­ly strength­ens the po­si­tion of the AAA in­dus­try. Whilst they have flirt­ed with the in­die brand in the re­cent past, the big stu­dios are nev­er go­ing to em­brace the world of con­cep­tu­al non-games. Frankly, they are not stu­pid enough and have enough busi­ness sense to re­al­ize there is no mar­ket for it. So as in­de­pen­dent games move fur­ther and fur­ther up their own rec­tum (or each oth­ers, as the case may be) even the most bland big-budget game has a de­gree of cer­tain­ty of at least hav­ing game-play. By fo­cus­ing on no-hope con­cept games, the gam­ing press and in­die de­vel­op­ers are ac­tive­ly dam­ag­ing their own market.

Words and con­cepts do change their mean­ing over time, but who de­cides what a word means? Well, those who use it of course. Language is de­mo­c­ra­t­ic and I think we shouldn’t look to “fail­ure states” or “bar­ri­ers to pro­gres­sion” as our way to de­fine games; we should look to the free mar­ket. What does a con­sumer, a gamer, ex­pect when they hear the word “Video Game?”

Well, they ex­pect game-play and pro­gres­sion; the idea of a fail­ure state is use­ful but what is more use­ful is what the reg­u­lar gamer comes to ex­pect when they pur­chase a prod­uct. You don’t de­fine what a game is from an ivory tow­er of “Art” and “Culture.” We all get to de­fine what a game is by how we use the word in every­day lan­guage — and this con­cept scares the shit out of self-appointed cul­tur­al crit­ics be­cause it com­plete­ly un­der­mines their power.

A large mass of gamers say­ing they don’t think some­thing is a game isn’t a philis­tine mob re­ject­ing the glo­ri­ous gam­ing fu­ture; it is the con­sumer re­ject­ing your de­f­i­n­i­tion. The at­tempt to ram “con­cept games” down our throats will end in a mir­ror of the con­cep­tu­al art world; with the ma­jor­i­ty of the pub­lic re­ject­ing it as mas­tur­ba­to­ry twaddle.

This idea would seems ob­vi­ous. That there are things that are and are not video games. But we’ve reached a point of ab­sur­di­ty al­ready, be­cause the de­bate has be­come politi­cized and in­ter­twined with per­son­al agen­das. The push for ac­cep­tance of “games” with­out me­chan­ics, the idea they shouldn’t be dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed from ac­tu­al video games, is self-serving and we see the very same clique of “art” peo­ple at its helm. Again, we must look to the art world and the idea of an elite set of pa­trons con­trol­ling what gets made.

A month­ly stipend to cre­ate works is not a new idea. It is a very, very old idea, but one that has been giv­en a new edge by the at­tack on the free mar­ket we’ve seen tak­ing place in the gam­ing world. A push for gam­ing to be more tight­ly con­trolled by a hand­ful of crit­ics and con­nois­seurs; this is why we see so many peo­ple ask­ing for month­ly stipends to make what the mar­ket would nev­er sup­port. The gam­ing press then pushed these non-commercial projects and li­on­ize their de­vel­op­ers, like we saw with Depression Quest and Zoe Quinn. They liked the con­cept of a game about de­pres­sion so much they over­looked the fact it was a “choose your own ad­ven­ture” poor­ly writ­ten in HTML. They even man­aged to erode the de­f­i­n­i­tion of game cod­ing, at­tempt­ing to push HTML (Editors Note: HTML is markup, not cod­ing, you pre­ten­tious fucks) as a hard-coding lan­guage — some­thing any­one even vague­ly fa­mil­iar with cod­ing would laugh you out of the build­ing for. But in their mind the truth is un­palat­able and not po­lit­i­cal­ly cor­rect; so we must swear black is white, down is up and every­thing is a game and a cod­ing lan­guage. By this log­ic my left bol­lock is a cod­ing lan­guage, a game, and a work of art — all in one I suppose?

chair side 2Back in the re­nais­sance, wealthy pa­trons used their vast wealth to show off their en­light­ened sta­tus. On Patreon, and so­cial me­dia, we have peo­ple do­ing the same in gam­ing. The overt sup­port of the de­vel­op­ers “stick­ing it to tox­ic gamers” is so­cial sig­nal­ing by peo­ple (many of which we came to dis­cov­er have trust-funds) who think them­selves a su­pe­ri­or so­cial class. Patreon, when used to de­liv­er work with set tar­gets, can be a very use­ful way of con­nect­ing more niche con­tent with an au­di­ence. But as a form of “hip­ster wel­fare” it funds those who frankly don’t have the tal­ent or abil­i­ty to make some­thing even a mod­er­ate amount of peo­ple would want to play. The ideas be­hind many of these games are more cel­e­brat­ed than the games them­selves, this is the move into “con­cept over con­tent” at work in video games. The who the de­vel­op­ers are, raw iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, also takes prece­dent over the mer­it of their game.

The push to re­move the mean­ing of the word video game has win­ners and losers; once again this also comes with great po­ten­tial fi­nan­cial gain.  Governments and ed­u­ca­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions are look­ing to in­vest pub­lic mon­ey and give grants to video games and video game re­search. As we saw with the mak­ers of Sunset, Tale of Tales’ arts grants make up a huge pro­por­tion of what many in this area get in in­come — since their games are com­plete­ly un­fit to sur­vive in the com­mer­cial mar­ket. Once the arts grants dried up, Tale of Tales threw a spec­tac­u­lar hissy-fit and imploded.

This is how a whole le­gion of ter­ri­ble art games gets made and the de­vel­op­ers pock­et a prof­it with­out ever hav­ing to sell a sin­gle unit or com­pete in the mar­ket­place. If you can con­vince a gov­ern­ment or uni­ver­si­ty that you are “push­ing the bound­aries of video games,” or that your sin­gle lev­el made with stock uni­ty as­sets fea­tur­ing a voice-over about some­thing ‘mean­ing­ful’ is in­deed a video game, and not a mere­ly min­i­mal ef­fort piece of garbage a 7‑year-old could make, you can se­cure more fund­ing.  The vi­o­lent re­ac­tion to peo­ple who say “these aren’t games” is part­ly an ef­fort to avoid scruti­ny of their product.

The losers are those who gen­uine­ly want to ad­vance game de­sign, or have re­search that re­quires fund­ing but are be­ing drowned-out by so­cial sci­ence ma­jors want­i­ng a quick and easy buck with­out hav­ing to learn how to make an ac­tu­al game. This is made all the more galling by the fact that this mon­ey most­ly comes from tax­pay­ers like you and me.

Once again we see how those wag­ing a war on the mean­ing of video games — and the con­cept of the gamer — get around hav­ing to gain a lev­el of com­pe­tence, com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­i­ty, com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, and avoid pro­duc­ing a prod­uct peo­ple will ac­tu­al­ly want to play and pay mon­ey for. I said in part six of my Death of Games Journalism se­ries that I ex­pect some­one to de­clare their self a video game in the near fu­ture, and that per­son could well do so with a grant of pub­lic mon­ey and a breath­less push from the gam­ing press for their brave con­cep­tu­al state­ment. There is al­ready a prece­dent, there have been nu­mer­ous peo­ple in the art world who have said they them­selves are some­how a “work of art.” If the press and in­die scene con­tin­ue to take the same tra­jec­to­ry as con­cep­tu­al art, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore we see this tripe in games.

The con­sumer isn’t go­ing to pay you mon­ey to say a chair is a game. No one is go­ing to buy Existential Crisis Simulator 2015; yet still there is a push to drag games back down from uni­ver­sal ac­cept­abil­i­ty, and ubiq­ui­ty, and place them be­hind a glass case to be pon­dered and mused over.

So to all the peo­ple out there say­ing gamers are be­ing “ex­clu­sion­ary,” do you think a chair is a video game? No? If we can say some­thing isn’t a video game and some­thing is a video game then the term has a set de­f­i­n­i­tion and a mean­ing we can un­der­stand and agree on. Now we’re just hag­gling; this isn’t ugly ex­clu­sion­ary ac­tions like the gam­ing press and some de­vel­op­ers claim. It’s mere­ly a dry and bor­ing de­bate about de­f­i­n­i­tions. We’re sup­posed to be hav­ing a de­bate, some­thing the press and their pet de­vel­op­ers de­spise hav­ing, so they la­bel the op­po­site side of this de­bate “ex­clu­sion­ary re­ac­tionary man-babies” and de­clare the de­bate over in­stead of ac­tu­al­ly ar­gu­ing why these bare­ly in­ter­ac­tive pieces of me­dia de­void of me­chan­ics are games.

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An inan­i­mate ob­ject is not a video game and if you be­lieve oth­er­wise you look like a jab­ber­ing mad-man. Is say­ing “A chair is not a video game” ex­clu­sion­ary too? If not, then why is try­ing to find the line of what is and isn’t a video game such a con­tro­ver­sial sub­ject? The first port of call I sup­pose is in­ter­ac­tiv­i­ty, but a DVD menu is also in­ter­ac­tive, is that a video game? Is a com­put­er desktop?

Here’s a chal­lenge for you: prove to me a DVD menu and an op­er­at­ing sys­tem aren’t video games with­out us­ing a de­f­i­n­i­tion that would also ex­clude some­thing like Gone Home and Mountain. I think you might struggle.

By push­ing the mean­ing fur­ther and fur­ther it be­comes dam­aged. We warp and dis­tort it away from a real and use­ful term, and in the process do dam­age to the very peo­ple those push­ing the con­cept of “any­thing can be a game” claims to want to be help­ing.  Worse still, this push is be­ing made by a priv­i­leged few plac­ing them­selves as the elite of the gam­ing world for their own ben­e­fit and to the detri­ment of every­one else. We need to have a set idea of what a game is and isn’t for peo­ple to be able to make pur­chas­es with con­fi­dence. Independent de­vel­op­ers are al­ready strug­gling to get their games played, to make a ba­sic liv­ing. If the peo­ple buy­ing a game from Steam don’t ac­tu­al­ly know if it will even be a game at all, then it erodes con­sumer con­fi­dence and un­der­mines the en­tire in­die brand. It caus­es those who do want to cre­ate a com­mer­cial prod­uct to suf­fer be­cause con­sumers are less like­ly to take a risk on a new game con­cept from a small­er developer.

Gaming is an in­dus­try built on the con­sumer. The in­de­pen­dent games mar­ket is al­ready over sat­u­rat­ed with a dizzy­ing num­ber of games and has, fair­ly or un­fair­ly, al­ready gained a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing too many “walk­ing sim­u­la­tors” and too much “pre­ten­tious crap.” There is pre­cious lit­tle mon­ey in this busi­ness that does not come from the gam­ing pub­lic. If this trend con­tin­ues then the mar­ket can’t help but shrink. The en­tire in­die mar­ket im­plodes if gamers won’t buy the games.

Update 9/29/2016 — Edited slight­ly with gram­mar fix­es. Old ver­sion here.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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