essay

Could “not-games” be games without the baggage of “games”?

After I wrote my post yesterday, I published my newest weekly Twine project, Not Game. It was my personal response to the discussion in the form of something that, by interacting it with, causes it to change states. By even approaching the link, it switches between “Not” and “Game”. In fact, I even went so far to explicitly write, as a description on the Tumblr post, that “The following is not a game. You do not make choices. There is no play.”

That was last night.

This morning, I’ve spent the last couple hours reading through the quite long but very engaging discussion within the comment section of Robert Yang’s A Letter to a Letter. Between Naomi Clark, Jesper Juul, Raph Koster, and Robert Yang, the positions, privilege and power dynamics of various words, terms, and some isms were debated and diagnosed. It’s the type of open discussion I rarely see — maybe I’m not paying enough attention? — anymore outside of some remarks about it happening at some conference somewhere. I certainly don’t see it on blog posts much anymore.

The result of all that reading today though, at least for me, was that I changed how I felt about trying to change the word game to come to mean new things or not meaning older things. Instead of caring about the definition, let’s look at the power dynamics at play in the fight. Instead of new definitions, let’s look at the reasons not to use the word game to describe something or even those groups who would prefer not to have their projects be called “games” at all. What might they gain with such a rhetorical move?

Part of the back and forth between Clark and Koster was on the use of formalism and the label of a “game”. Wrote Clark:

“I have a sneaking suspicion, which could be unfounded, that hypertext authors don’t want their works to be identified as games because games, as a form, are being done a grave injustice and being culturally illegitimated constantly.”

That was certainly something I had not considered before. With having seen so many people fight to be a part of having their works be “games,” I hadn’t considered that some groups I might be lumping into having “games” might not actually want to be there. To them, the very associations of “childish” or “purely for entertainment” to the word games was enough for them to seek out new terms with stricter definitions and better inclusivity for their own group.

It was after thinking about that some that lead me to the idea that taking ownership of “not-game” might actually be a fantastic rhetorical move. I mean, I’m only on the barest of fringes of the Twine Revolution and not important in any critical circles, but even I couldn’t help but to think that declaring that projects be “not-games” might be a powerful move. It’s seizing legitimacy by rejecting the very things games have come to mean for many people: “killing / fucking

Even in writing it out now, it seems paradoxical even to me. In order to show much better games can be, it’s taking the label “not-game” to show that our, and here I dangerously place myself with far better people than me, games are what all these other “games” could be if they gave up trying trying to murder everyone to show how terrible it might be — you got points for it, so it’s obviously not too bad — and got serious about their messages.

By positioning objects as “Not-games,” it’s making the contradiction part of the message itself. It’s forcing the issue. It’s not that this isn’t a game, it’s a “not-game,” a separation from what games currently are. All these reject the violence and the underlining metaphors of conflict in those artifacts commonly labelled “games”. It’s about the rhetoric of the term itself.

It’s also rejecting the premise that all games are “good”. By having better not-games, it’s pointing out how repetitive, rote, and recycled so many games have become. It’s a purposeful binary of what games are and all these other, more creative, personal, and above all interesting not-games are in contrast.

Over there are the games and over here are everything they could be but aren’t currently — the not-games.