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.

chair insert 1

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.

chair insert 2

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.

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John Sweeney
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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