“I don’t like or understand this, so it’s not a game.”

I sometimes feel like I live in two worlds. There is the area where formalism and definitions are vitally important, and then there is the space in which I interact with creatives and people who make things. As someone who has devoted most of my life to academia through both classes and now even work, I have a deep respect for those who spend their time trying to analyse each and every word of a text, who have years worth of study turned to the sole goal of teasing out some new meaning. It’s an important and worthwhile goal that can often expand how we can come to understand the numerous cultural artifacts of the past and present.

However, and I think Matthew Burns has put it exactly right, “the [zinesters] have arrived on the scene with such a completely different set of values that they might as well be from different planets.” Those that are on the edge of making things that dare academics to define what they produce as games, “games”, “not games”, not-games, or even notgames don’t care.  They “[uphold] personal expression as the highest ideal, the only goal that matters.” If it is meaningful to them, it’s a thing. The label doesn’t matter because the thing itself does.

It reminds me constantly of the fact that dictionaries are some of the most powerful books. Since they proscribe meaning, they can shape language usage. There is even the phrased tossed around causally by children “It’s not in the dictionary. That’s not a word.

Perhaps this is just me getting to it late, but the discourse is not over some grand abstract meaning of what games are, have been, or even will be, but over dismissing projects because you don’t like or understand them. It’s not trying to help build a community of respect, but tearing down someone else’s castle down because they, according to you, didn’t build it the right way. It’s “you’re doing it wrong” used to describe development, writing, and creation. And it’s disgusting.

It’s gotten to the point for me that I often want to ask people, right after they have told me something “is not a game,” to point me at their own work. I want to examine what games they might have made, what stories they have written, or even songs they have composed. I want to ask them about their process for creation. Where do your ideas come from? How do you combat the midnight of the artist?

The reason I don’t is that I have to go back to the tower of academia and work the next day. There is a threshold for me where, once we cross it, I can’t care anymore about the discussion. I have to go back to trying to teach in the hope of inspiring one student one day. I have to find ways to work within the system to help people and not just be another grade machine. I have to wait for the night to make things that I, and often only me, find interesting. Those little projects that scratched some “What if?” I had that week.

somedays, i wish i could be a zinster

3 thoughts on ““I don’t like or understand this, so it’s not a game.”

  1. What I don’t understand about all this is that if zinesters only care about their work, then why do they get upset when formalists, for the sake of clarity, say that toys, stories, simulations etc (stuff that zinesters tend to make) are not games? Saying that this stuff is not games isn’t saying that it’s wrong or of lesser value, it’s making a distinction that allows people to judge the art on its own terms. I think that it’s because people don’t distinguish between the two that non-games sometimes get a bad wrap amongst game players. When you evaluate non-games as games (on the basis of challenge, education, mastery, and gameplay) then they just don’t hold up, in the same way games don’t hold up to the tenets of non-games or movies don’t hold up to books. Here is an example of a critique I wrote of a non-game, this would have be a very different piece if I , like many, grouped non-games and games together:

    http://danielprimed.com/2013/03/storytelling-techniques-in-judith-terry-cavanagh/

    “Perhaps this is just me getting to it late, but the discourse is not over some grand abstract meaning of what games are, have been, or even will be, but over dismissing projects because you don’t like or understand them. It’s not trying to help build a community of respect, but tearing down someone else’s castle down because they, according to you, didn’t build it the right way. It’s “you’re doing it wrong” used to describe development, writing, and creation. And it’s disgusting.”

    I’m not so familiar with what other formalists are saying, but I know that this is certainly not true of any of the few formalists I know of. (I’d be interested in reading any links you have of formalists saying this kind of stuff).

    Interesting read. 😀

    • But it’s not clarity though. It’s one group of people deciding the worth by including some things and not others in definitions for another group of people. It’s making a distinction that purposely excludes projects and therefore people from the discussion.

      Any conversations around what is a game is or not is ultimately not about the object but the person. It’s excluding them. That’s what I keep seeing.

      I think Raph Koster’s A Letter to Leigh had good intentions, but the more time I’ve spent on the edges of the zinester scene, the more I’ve come to realize that it can very easily be seen as patronizing. And I don’t think he meant it that way, nor do I think Formalism is not the Enemy means to do that either.

      But, again, this is not the “Let’s all continue to make things” community I want. It’s turned into a “you are wrong, I’m right” debate that is meaningless in the long term. What might be considered games now might not be in the future. That’s certainly been the case reflecting on the past.

      Because I am not in a powerful enough position to make a distinction over what might be a game or not, I’ve chosen not to care. Sometimes I call my stuff games, sometimes I don’t. It all depends on my mood at the time. I’m not taking on some grand mission to make everyone come around to how I think because that would be tragic.

      We get more out of a diversity of view points than we ever would thinking the same way. It’s why I like disagreement. If we have an honest and equal discussion, we can reach new and unexpected ground together. However, we cannot do that if fight each other at each turn.

      If we want to try to convince other people, let’s make projects that embody those ideas. Let’s battle it out through one creation against another, not in slinging arrows of words across from our castles of entrenched thinking at each other. Make, don’t hate.

      • You make some good points here and I can understand your viewpoint, however, the term game has meant “a form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.” (Oxford Dictionary) for hundreds if not thousands of years. So, I don’t think that your idea that all things interactive should suddenly be lumped under the game definition is going to work out. Language does tend to exclude, but if it didn’t, and all words had very inclusive meanings, then it simply wouldn’t function as language. If you feel that the distinction discriminates against non-game makers, then I’m sorry about that. As I said on my site, treating each medium for what it is in the only way to treat them fairly. Judging non-games on how well they challenge and teach the player is not a very good way to evaluate a non-game, which is what your inclusive approach is suggesting.

        Also, I am confused by your suggestion that I am a hater of non-games. I love the non-game work that Terry Cavanagh and Anna Anthropy do, I think that your work is neat and interesting, and I have written positively about non-games on my blog. No hating go on here.

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