This post serves as a little mini-postmortem on two difficult class sessions in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” course. There are multiple overlapping reasons why these class sessions were difficult for me. One is that my lesson had to pivot strangely from seemingly-academic debates on the definition of games to a sudden dive into matters of harassment in game culture. Harassment itself is, needless to say, a difficult thing to discuss in class. It becomes exponentially more difficult when one is teaching a class with a high percentage of international students, many of whom (thanks to the registration realities of late-scheduled courses) have no particular interest in games, and who simply cannot fathom the cultural forces that align to drive a certain subset of American men to use things like changing conceptions of videogames (videogames!) as an opportunity to harass women online. I mean, how do you explain this, really—to anyone at all, let alone someone completely on the outside of American “gamer” culture?
I won’t go so far as to claim that my approach to this material was entirely successful. (The class did not, for instance, become a platform for thoughtful discussion in the same way my unexpectedly post-Trump-election lesson on the politics of American comedy did.) It was, though, a learning experience for me, so it’s worth sharing some details.
Lesson One: What is, and what isn’t, a game?
In a previous posting of a lesson plan from “Frames, Claims, and Videogames,” I mentioned that the language used by the ludologists makes them come across as the “game police.” For my first lesson in this two-lesson sequence, I explicitly pursued this connection. (You can follow along with the visual presentation for this lesson here.)
Readings for the week included included two book chapters: “Video Games and the Classic Game Model” from Jesper Juul’s book Half-Real: Videogames Between Real Rules and Fictional World (2005), and “What Is It Good For?” from Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (2012). For the purposes of extending our conversation past 2012, and taking a close look at some of the political dimensions introduced into efforts to define games in the wake of Anthropy’s book, I also included a conversation between game designers, spread out across three blog posts: Raph Koster’s blog post “A Letter to Leigh,” Mattie Brice’s blog post “Triptychs,” and Robert Yang’s blog post “A Letter to a Letter.”
I assigned students to play four games in time for this class, to complement the readings: Ultra Business Tycoon III (Porpentine, 2013), Is This a Game? (The Game Police, 2013), On Formalism (Darius Kazemi, 2013), and Cibele (Nina Freeman, 2015). You can find more information all all of those games, and some of my thoughts on there relevance, here.
Following up on a previous lesson, I positioned Jesper Juul within the ludology movement, a movement among academic game scholars in the late 90s and early 00s to cast off the analytical tools developed for studying other cultural forms, and instead study games as games, pulling what they could from the history of literature on play and games in fields such as anthropology and philosophy. Juul, like many of these people, is very interested in Half-Real in coming up with some sort of definition for games. The definition he arrives at is what I like to call “Juul’s orange,” given the orange slice shaped graphic he uses to represent it in one of his book’s figures. Games, according to Juul, have fixed rules, they have a variable outcome, there is valorization of that outcome, player effort is expended, players are attached to the game’s outcome, and there are negotiable consequences. These, for Juul, are the necessary and sufficient conditions for something being considered a “game.”
Of course, coming up with a definition also means coming up with those things that don’t belong within its bounds. Juul provides a chart that includes “border cases” and, more strongly, “not games.” Among these outside categories are “hypertext fiction” and “storytelling,” categories that presumably include at least a few of the “games” that students played for this week.
Half-Real is published on an academic press, and I pointed out that, when it came out in 2005, these questions as to the definitions of game seemed largely … well, academic. The sort of thing that people have spirited conversations about at conferences and in college pubs, but not something that could possibly ever effect the rest of the world. This, however, started to change, around 2012. In 2012, Anna Anthropy publishes Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which, within its pages, contains a very different definition of games: “A game is an experience created by rules.”
This is a broad definition. It is broad by design. Anthropy wants an inclusive definition, because she wants games to be an inclusive an art form as possible. As soon as we accept that “game communicate the values of their creators in a unique way,” then it follows that is it “absolutely essential that there be more creators passing on more values, more perspectives.”[i]
Here, I abruptly broke up my lecture with an in-class debate. I broke the class into four groups, and assigned the groups the following positions:
- Group 1: Cibele is a game vs. Group 2: Cibele is not a game
- Group 3: Ultra Business Tycoon III is a game vs. Group 4: Ultra Business Tycoon III is not a game
I instructed students to bring up Juul’s definition, or Anthropy’s definition, as they saw fit. I used my go-to format for in-class debates:
- Opening speech of odd-numbered group (5 minutes in length)
- Lay out your strongest arguments. Define key terms. Anticipate some of the opposition’s strongest arguments.
- Opening speech of even-numbered group (5 minutes in length)
- Lay out your strongest arguments. Define key terms. Anticipate some of the opposition’s strongest arguments. Do not directly rebut—that comes later.
- Rebuttal of odd-numbered group (2-3 minutes in length)
- Engage directly with your opponents, while simultaneously carrying forward your strongest arguments.
- Rebuttal of even-numbered group (2-3 minutes in length)
- Engage directly with your opponents, while simultaneously carrying forward your strongest arguments.
- Closing arguments of odd-numbered group (90 seconds in length)
- Weigh your strongest claims against the opposition’s strongest claims.
- Closing arguments of even-numbered group (90 seconds in length)
- Weigh your strongest claims against the opposition’s strongest claims.
- Questions by all members of groups not presenting
- Voting on who won the debate by all members of groups not presenting.
After the formal debate, we had a large open discussion, in which students were freed to actually express the position they themselves held (rather than the one I had assigned to them). In the discussion that followed—as well as in the in the discussion board posts that students made, and in their first papers—I made an interesting discovery. I don’t know how generalizable it is, but I was fascinated enough by it to mention it here.
As I’ve already established, the creation of this course was a last-minute effort. This means that students mostly enrolled for it out of the need to fulfill a requirement, rather than out of interest in the course’s topic. I’ve had one student flat-out tell me that she’s “not interested in games,” and another categorically characterize games as “nothing but mindless entertainment.” It is, in short, a tough crowd.
Given several of my students’ expressed hostility towards games, and given that they are all art students studying art in a post-Duchamp, post-conceptual art era, I had an inkling that maybe they would like things like Porpentine’s output. After all, Porpentine, much like many of the 20th century’s most famous artists, aims to critically subvert established definitions of the medium in which she works. If these students are put off by Starcraft and League of Legends, I thought, then perhaps they’ll actually genuinely like Porpentine, and agree with efforts like hers and Anthropy’s to re-define what games can be.
Oddly, though, the exact opposite was true. Student appraisal of Ultra Business Tycoon III was monolithic: they hated it. They also stood fast in their position that it was “not a game.” One student described it using my old enemy, the epitaph “barely interactive.” Another went further, saying that she was glad that she did not have to pay for UBT, because that meant she “did not have to waste any money on a game that was a fraud.” Despite their purported lack of interest in games as a medium, it seems, my students were still happy to police the term.[ii]
I’m not sure what to make of this. Anyway, moving on!
During the debate and the discussion that followed, I depicted the definitions held by Juul versus Anthropy, and the types of judgements they lead to us making as to the boundaries of games, as basically neutral. After discussion had wrapped up, though, I resumed lecturing, bringing out the political angle of Anthropy’s intervention more explicitly. This meant turning to the Koster, Brice, and Yang blog posts.
Raph Koster’s “A Letter to Leigh” is an attempt on Koster’s part to sketch out what it might mean, in a post-Anthropy landscape, to return to the question “what is a game?,” and again assign a Juul-like formal definition. The blog post saw a lot of push-back among the developers of personal games, and the discussion that followed became something like a “road to Damascus” moment for Koster, who backed off from some of his original positions, and while keeping his engagement going. Koster is already aware of the stakes in his initial blog post, where he writes:
The debates over “what is a game” have been going on for a long time now. They have an uncomfortably personal edge lately. We are seeing powerful works of art created in the digital medium. Further, they are deeply personal statements. And even further, many of these works are coming from groups that have been marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against.
Despite Koster’s evident caution toward the “what is a game?” question, he still plunges in. This earned him a fair amount of criticism from some fellow game designers and bloggers, resulting in a great conversation that has been preserved for us by virtue of taking place online. First, I quoted a section from Robert Yang’s response to Koster’s post:
[W]hen you begin your letter with wondering, “what is a game?” My brain shifts into red alert. That line of inquiry has been a long favored tool of well-intentioned oppression, because these arguments often masquerade as thoughtful discourse but function as a weapon of de-legitimization, that argue these personal games can’t really fit a formal definition of game. The emotional leap is that these people can’t really fit a formal definition of people. Adding, “it’s okay if it’s not a game” comes off as sounding like, “it’s okay if you’re not a person”….
Next, I moved on to Mattie Brice’s take on the whole affair, which has the benefit of being more overt in some respects, and also connected with the history of boundary-pushing along the margins of artistic genres and media that I hoped my students would be able to appreciate:
Let’s say someone submits something that doesn’t look like a poem to a poetry contest. The judges don’t necessarily go “This isn’t a poem, therefore, it is not worth considering.” Rather, the form itself critiques the established genre, it says “I’m a poem, and what are you going to do about it?” The formal genres in writing are for convenience only—ultimately, the kind of criticism needed for flash fiction, prose poems, short stories, novellas, and novels, is ultimately one in the same. Maybe everything is really just poetry. Boundaries, bones of old men before us, are only there to be transgressed.
From here, I asked all my students to take five minutes to do a free-writing exercise. Especially after the hostility that some of them displayed towards Ultra Business Tycoon III and its right to be called a “game,” I wanted to give students a moment to reflect on the political weight of definitions and the privilege of defining out-groups. I asked them to answer the following question: Do you agree that setting boundaries around an artistic medium, such as games, can be a form of “well-intentioned oppression”? Why, or why not? We discussed student responses to this question as a group, and then I moved on in my lecture, presenting a link forward to the next week’s topic.
Dark clouds, I announced, were gathering as we moved onto the topic of the next lesson. In order to understand them, they would have to know a little bit about Zoë Quinn’s Twine game, Depression Quest. Depression Quest was initially released, like a great many Twine games, to little fanfare in February of 2013. When it was re-released on the large-scale commercial PC gaming storefront Steam in August of 2014, however, something in the internet exploded. Many gamers who were comfortable with the Steam storefront were quite uncomfortable with Quinn’s game being on it. They didn’t think this Twine-based simple text adventure was a “game,” and they couldn’t fathom why critics did, and why some critics even seemed to (gasp!) like it.
What resulted was an unspeakably ugly version of the familiar “what is a game?” debate. So far in the class, we had seen attempts to erect formal boundaries around the concept of “game” as an academic exercise (in the case of Juul). We had also seen parodies of it (in artifacts such as Is This a Game? and On Formalism). This, though, was something else entirely. Internet trolls dug up personal details on Quinn’s life, establishing a far-reaching conspiracy theory and associated harassment campaign that began with Quinn and quickly exploded outward. As hard as it is to fathom, the question of who gets to define the features of what we call “games” became an issue people were willing to threaten violence on others for. Stay tuned …
Lesson Two: Will games ever grow up?
This lesson capped off a weeks-long section of the course which I sub-titled “Five Major Debates.” The first of these was about whether games could be considered an art form. The second was about games’ status as protected expression under the US First Amendment. The third was about whether games should be considered a form of storytelling. The fourth was on the boundaries of the word game, as detailed above. For the fifth and final debate, I set at the topic, “In the end, are games actually worthy of serious critical attention? Can they ‘grow up’ as a medium?”
Going into this lesson, I stressed how often assumptions about this final question often slip into the discussions we had seen in the prior debates. Chris Melissinos, for instance, offers a very representative take on the ability of games to “grow up” in his curator’s statement on the Art of Video Games exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art:
It is precisely their interactivity that provides video games the potential to become a superior storytelling medium. I say potential because video games are still in adolescence. The advantage that books, movies, and television have over video games is with time only.[iii]
What high-minded optimists such as Melissinos failed to see, however, was that some of the biggest fans of games as a medium would not want to see them emerge out of this “adolescence.” Some of them saw what the medium “growing up” would entail, and did not like it at all.
“Growing up,” for instance, might entail Anna Anthropy’s call for there to “be more creators passing on more values, more perspectives.” And this would necessarily entail the player-characters of games looking less homogenous (see the figure on the right below). It would entail Robert Yang making his goofy gay games, Mattie Brice making her personal games about street harassment and dating as a trans woman, Zoë Quinn making things like Depression Quest (and perhaps even getting positive press for it, for reasons other than a conspiracy!). It might, in the end, entail jettisoning “Juul’s orange”-style strict definitions of games.
And, for some gamers, this is scary and unwelcome stuff.
I mentally separated the readings for this lesson fell into two groups. The first group consisted of Mattie Brice’s blog post “Would You Kindly,” Chris Hecker’s video essay “Fair Use,” and “Nobody Asked for a Toaster Critic,” the introduction to Ian Bogost’s 2015 book How to Talk About Videogames.
Introducing this cluster of readings in class, I set the stage, historically. (You can follow along with the visual presentation for this section of the lesson here.)
In 2013, when Brice wrote her piece and when Hecker made his video, games seemed poised to break out as a major cultural form. The 2011 Brown v. EMA decision, the 2012 “Art of Video Games” exhibition, and MoMA’s 2013 “Applied Design” exhibition had established games as protected expression as a possible art form. As a result, many were optimistic about the future potential of games.
Other figures, however, like Brice and Hecker, doused this optimism in a more measured skepticism. Increasingly dissatisfied with the empty praise heaped onto mainstream games for the exhibiting the smallest degree of imagination, they offered strong criticisms of contemporary mainstream game culture, envisioning a much more expansive sea change in the subject matter that game would eventually be able to explore.
Brice takes on the limp “have your cake and eat it too” satires of game violence and the unquestioning attitudes of players that one finds in BioShock (Irrational Games, 2007) and Spec Ops: The Line (Yager, 2012). As a way of discussing these games—both their successes, and their failures to completely break out of the norms of generic expectation—I showed students some short sections of these in-class.
Hecker, meanwhile, offers a brutal critique of games’ unmet promises in his video essay Fair Use, composed entirely of archival footage of promotional events:
The way in which Hecker clearly announces his own blisteringly sardonic point of view without ever departing from the pre-recorded marketing speak of others makes this a favorite video essay of mine to show in class. After I show it, I always like to ask, “what does Hecker want to say with this video”? As students discuss this, I try to guide them to the following points, which I think are crucial:
- Mainstream games offer adolescent fantasies.
- The creators of these games, however, seem to be aware that their medium is experiencing a growth in cultural cachet, and so they feel the need to dress up their adolescent subject matter in a cloak of seriousness.
- The cycles of game hardware updates are driven by the economic necessity of planned obsolescence. This cannot be publicly acknowledged, so game developers again appeal to middlebrow ideas about “serious culture.” New hardware, we are told, will give us the ability to see “new worlds,” to meet “new characters,” to tell “new stories.”
- This is a lie. New hardware never gives us “something completely new.” The economic imperatives of big-budget game design disallow innovation. These are hollow promises, and we should not buy into them.
Between Brice and Hecker, we have some pretty excoriating critiques of the mainstream game industry. What is the solution, then? What can produce better games—games that actually follow through on the industry’s empty promises? Figures such as Anthropy and Brice would point to diversity of game creators as a possible way out of this trap. Others would call for better game criticism. Here we dipped into the Bogost, examining his call for serious criticism of games that balances a consideration of the functionality of games as “appliances for leisure” (and Bogost does in fact thing that discussion of said functionality is important) with discussion of the meaning of games.
Bogost’s ideas can give us something to chew on, but the fact of the matter is that it is impossible to discuss them in a vacuum. The criticism offered by figures like Brice and Hecker took place before Gamergate. The harassment campaign that exploded in the second half of 2014 is multifaceted in its origins, but in some ways it can be seen as a rejection, among gaming’s greatest fans, of the idea that games should be made into an object of serious criticism.[iv]
Gamergate was a breaking point. It exposed that a large-enough portion of gamer culture was hostile to the entrance of women and queer people into their world—hostile enough to try their best to harass them out of it. They saw these people as interlopers. And, furthermore, they saw the movement to see games recognized as “art” and “expression” as counter to their interests. They didn’t want the definition of “game” to be tinkered with. They didn’t want more creators passing on more values, more perspectives. And they didn’t want new forms of criticism poking at the meaning of games, if this was going to include feminist cultural critique.
This lead into my second cluster of readings: Brie Code’s blog post “Video Games Are Boring,” and Robert Yang’s blog post “For Better or Worse,” both from 2016. For me, these two statements by game developers speak to the exhaustion that has set in among previous optimists. Dealing with harassment takes time and emotional energy, and 2014–2015 saw the exit of several women critics and game developers from the world of games, simply because they didn’t want to have to put up with it anymore. Code and Yang’s statements reflect this sense of exhaustion, this sense that the heady optimism of 2012–2013 had run its course, that getting games to grow up was exponentially harder than anyone thought it was going to be, and that the dream that the medium was going to open up to new kinds of developers and new kinds of players had evaporated.
After running through these readings and the historical moment they represented, I turned to our game for the week: Michael Lutz’s The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo (2014).
This turned out to be a difficult game for students. It’s not difficult to appreciate it as a horror text adventure game, but it was difficult for my students to pick up on how it obliquely commented on a sickness running through gamer culture. Perhaps this was, again, a matter of culture clash—the game is very much based upon an understanding of American middle-class life, one that would not be accessible to my international students. I do, though, think if I ever assign this game in the future I’ll explicitly instruct students to read Lutz’s writer’s statements after they complete the game.
Speaking as someone who admittedly has much more knowledge of American gaming culture in the back half of 2014, for me the game has clear resonances with the feelings of exhaustion with the problems of gaming culture that infected the readings I assigned for the week. The “gamer culture” that Gamergate set out to defend is an enthusiast culture, in which your ability to remain a “good and true gamer” is defined largely by your ability to accumulate the associated stuff. This idea of “gamer” as an ideal consumer is explicitly defended in the pro-Gamergate editorial statement of The Escapist. It’s critiqued by figures like Yang (and even more explicitly by people like Matthew Seiji Burns). And it’s critiqued in The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, in a way that is filtered through storytelling.
The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo is about the way in which the identity “gamer,” defined as “ideal consumer,” is essentially an identity of privilege. It rests on having enough disposable income to gleefully ride the cycle of planned obsolescence, to celebrate consumption for consumption’s sake. In Uncle, gamer culture becomes a Moloch figure, a monster that demands that “true gamers” prove their worthiness by sacrificing those who are less privileged than them, feeding them to the beast.
To try and squeeze these themes out, I broke students into groups, and had them discuss and then present on the following questions:
- What is the game about? (You can approach this question in any way you like.)
- What is the Uncle?
- What is the message of the sixth, final, “real” ending?
- If the game makes an argument, how does it make it?
The conversation that followed exposed some difficulty on my student’s part in moving from the game’s explicit text to its implicit meanings. Again, I think this was mostly a matter of cultural distance, and again, I think it’s something I could head off in the future by instructing them to read Lutz’s notes. I also think some academic literature on the cultural functions of horror—as well as perhaps some literature on Moloch-figures in fiction—would have helped them here, but that would have likely required breaking this lesson into multiple days. In the end, our conversation was good, but I found myself explaining more things than would have been ideal.
[i]. Anthropy, Anna. Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. Pg 67.
[ii]. It’s worth noting that, despite my provision of several generous hints on how to get past its challenges, none of my students “beat” Ultra Business Tycoon III, and reached the ending. During the in-class debate, students held up the fact that it couldn’t be “beaten” as evidence that it wasn’t a “game.” When I corrected them on this point, however, they didn’t change their tune. (I’m sure that, if any of them had beat it, the goalposts would be moved to its lack of multiple endings, in any case.)
[iii]. Melissinos, Chris. “Preface: The Resonance of Games as Art.” In The Art of Video Games: From Pac-Man to Mass Effect. Ed. Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke. New York: Welcome Books/Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012. Pg 9.
[iv]. Bogost’s book How to Talk About Videogames came out in November 2015, which raises some interesting questions about how long it takes for academic manuscripts to actually leave the presses. The ideas expressed in its introduction seem to me to expose a very “pre-Gamergate” mindset, one still optimistic about a forthcoming transformation in how we talk about games. The fact that it’s not tempered with mentions of what critics such as Brice, Leigh Alexander, or Anita Sarkeesian went through for simply having the temerity to offer up cultural critiques of gaming means one of two things: 1) Bogost’s manuscript was finalized prior to September 2014, and didn’t see publication until 14 months later, or 2) Bogost was still comfortable making his high-minded proclamations about the future of game criticism post-Gamergate, and unconcerned with acknowledging the harassment women critics around him were receiving at the time. The latter is a disturbing possibility, so I very much hope that the former is actually the case.