If “games are art”: challenging the toxicity of gamer culture and preconceptions of what a game is

If you have been following me on Twitter then you may have noticed my tweet thread here explaining that

“If games are art then we have to embrace the idea that they don’t have to be fun. Art is not always fun. It covers a wide spectrum of emotions, and concepts.”

That’s the opening tweet, I explain more in the thread. It’s worth reading in full before commenting or attacking.

This was largely a reaction to criticisms from gamers that where justifying the toxicity directed at me by saying “if I didn’t want to receive toxicity then I should have made a funner game”. Interesting supposition because, again, what I made is not a game. It’s a “games as art” interactive experience.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about this intersection over the many years of doing this. This flood of toxicity has shown me that we have a lot of work to do in making games more inclusive to these experimental experiences.

The very first “this is not a game!” project of mine received similar fall out. I gave a talk about it here, where my conclusion was that games are ready for these experiences. The talk is worth watching, but I am SO SORRY for the misleading conclusion. Games are not ready for this.

What I never mentioned about the project was the darker side of the “fall out” (harassment) I received over the years of working on it. This ranged from frequent breathy phonecalls, to a van following me around in the city that I was working in (taking pictures of me), to people hacking my websites and emails, then sending emails in my name to people I knew… That’s not all, just off the top of my head.
I never mention this stuff because, you know, grow a thicker layer of skin!
Suck it up!
Stop whining!
I very much also realize that much of this is credited to me being a woman, and harassing women continues to be a kind of sport online. It always has been. I really get it. “Haha, funny! You sent me a virus!”

The point of all this is to show that you don’t belong. It’s a rejection of what you and your work stands for.

I won’t get into that more.
One thing I would really like people to understand is that when you say “hold in there” and “don’t give up” and also “don’t do it for the haters, do it for yourself” you have no idea of the extent that this type of bullying goes.

So, when I see a popular streamer picking up one of my games, and re-enacting much of the same mentality that led to this first wave of harassment, you have to understand why this makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t like it when someone picks up my game, and the avalanche of toxicity (“haha let’s pick on this person that makes that weird ass game!”) comes my way. I’ve seen all this before, and I know exactly what happens when this plays out (I wrote more about how this affects you mentally, here).
You also have to understand that when someone streams, showcases, or publicly preforms playing one of these “not a game games” to whatever million followers, there is a level of accountability that has to be held. This is because they form the public opinion, and inform people’s reactions to these games.
I have written extensively about this here and here. (both of these posts are worth reading, in the event that this interests you)

I am not asking for much more than a level of civility, and open mindedness, to be displayed toward different games and their creators.

I will keep making these points because I see that nothing will change unless people are willing to, despite threat of harassment, speak up about these mentalities.

So, the point I am getting at now…

When I heard so many people say that “games are finally art”, and see that maybe this label is more inclusive (covering a broader spectrum), I took them up on that.
Seeing all the trash this “game” has received just for sitting under that label, I realize that this is not the case. No, it is not because it’s a “bad game”. The nominations, and awards this “game” has been winning since it’s announcement proves that this is not the case.

The problem lies in the consumer culture. There is way too much baggage associated with games.
A game has to be fun. Art does not necessarily have to. Here is the basic conflict.

I share some tweets that I posted yesterday about this. I really can’t say it any better than this (read the whole thread)…

I realize that I sound very moral “take a stand” when I talk about this, but if you are in the situation that I am, and have had the experiences that I’ve had, you come to see that this (interactive art experiences bleeding into consumer game culture) is a very polarized and moralized intersection.

Games are not ready to be art in the sense of experimentation and breaking established rules of what a game is. If we can’t accept experiences that are radically different in what they do to push these boundaries then we can’t say that games are anything more than entertainment.
If we want them to be art, then we have to allow games that are different to exist without bullying them. They need a better form of criticism and discussion around them that goes beyond “lol acid”.
I sincerely believe that you cannot hold on to “this is what a good game is” and then insist that they are a valid art form, because you are judging art based on a very rigid set of rules, and this is contradictory to what art is.
If games are art then you can’t dictate what “game” is and isn’t art. You also can’t weigh the arts value against its ability to be pleasing or entertaining.
By these standard assumptions, like I’ve said, games are not ready to be anything more than just games.

The way I see it is that we insist that games are art out of pseudo intellectual reasons just to justify the vapidity of a hobby that is largely, in the larger scale of games, about shooting people in the face and then saying something superficially philosophical about that.
The “games are art” stance is a superficial type of polish applied to the game medium.

As a whole… game design choices, artwork, framing of context, etc. we’ll never go deeper than that. God forbid it risks not being fun, and disappointing the player.

Most of my comments have been a reaction to the toxicity I have been experiencing from the last round of attacks. Although, I have to make clear that this game has been being attacked pretty much since the first famous streamer picked it up.

What fascinates me about the criticisms from “players” is that their arguments have literally not changed since my first “this is not a game!” thing exploded in the early 2000’s (the project I mentioned at the start of this post).

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of these arguments. So here, I’ll try to contextualize…

“Art should be pleasing too so should games and your work is neither”

This is a very superficial, and narcissistic view deeply rooted in a consumer culture. It’s consumer entitlement. The assumption that art has to be for you, for your enjoyment, or exist to please you, goes against the grain of what a lot of art throughought history has been.
This view insists that the art cater toward satisfying the needs of “players” rather than challenging these concepts.
If games are art we have to also allow experiences to exist that are “not fun”. Experiences that are honest, visceral, confrontational, uncomfortable, provocative… a wide spectrum that does not necessarily entertain.
Demanding that art pleases the “viewer” runs in the same vein of consumer entitlement that assumes that all games exist to please a player. Maybe they do, but if you are going to call them art then games have to be allowed to be more than that.
We have a consumer culture. Art is not always a consumer medium. Art covers a broader spectrum of human experiences, and conditions, many of which will not be comfortable or “fun”.

I’ll just start quoting what I already wrote because I can’t say it any better but…

The challenge someone like me faces is that I will make something I view as interactive art. I try to avoid the label “game” but that gets slapped on my work anyway. I really do try. I tried so hard to fight that association. My work will get judged as “game” anyway, and all the baggage of games leads to a difficult situation to be in.
So, fine! Then I will fight to have games really BE art. I will advocate. I will argue. I will write posts about how streamers should represent these games better, and youtubers should go beyond “lol acid”… then my work gets judged and weighed down by the toxicity associated with a culture that is used to having every need met, every fantasy entertained, every desire catered to.

Games are an *extremely* entitled medium. The player is king. This runs contradictory to art. This also contributes to a lot of the toxicity because the consumer feels entitled to so much. If these needs are not met, or they are challenged, outrage follows.

“If you can’t take criticism make a real game”

Aside from the point that I am not exactly receiving criticism. Criticism should not be confused with harassment, threats, or toxicity… I’ll get to that…

If games are art, and who’s to say what art is, then who’s to say what a good game is anymore?
Careful with this one. You’ll end up in the “what is art” territory and I don’t think we’re ready for that, because it’s going to take a turn into “art is dead”, and then we’ll all have to admit games are dead because why not they are art right? There are decades of art critics that have kicked the “what is art” horse to death, and if games are just grappling with being art I don’t think we are ready for any of this.

In the end, you’ll have to be more open minded about these concepts. You can’t have your classic set of “good game” standards here, when discussing alternative experiences (art games).

All this could easily be solved by differentiating these experiences. Game on one side, “interactive art” on the other, but that doesn’t happen. People pick this up and slap “game” on it no mater how much of a fancy “artist’s statement” I provide, or how hard I try to make clear that this is an “interactive zine” or “interactive whatever”… and we’re back to where we started.

In the end open mindedness would be nice. Harassment over something you don’t like or disagree with is wrong.

“If you can’t take criticism make a movie, book, or painting, not a game”

Ah yes criticism again. It really is not “criticism” tho.
Harassment, threats of violence, stalking, toxicity, and directed anger, is not criticism.
Criticism is pleasant and can be very intellectual. We can agree to disagree.
So much of this has not been criticism. It is indicative of a larger problem in games meant to force these experiences out. Games should be kept pure, and about entertainment. Not about politics, social justice, or any other things that art is.

As I said in this post, these games will (by default) have a target on them because they are different. Games made by women, and minorities, will too.
All this is indicative of a larger problem in games. It’s consumer elitism. A type of “don’t touch my hobby and nobody gets hurt!”

“Make a better game”

It’s not a game.

“If you can’t take criticism then don’t make a personal game or stay away from games.”

As I said in this tweet, I get inundated by these. It’s so hypocritical because on the one side you want games to be art, but on the other you are not willing to let them be art.
We really have to carve out a space, and understanding for art games. There has to be more of an awareness of what they are. We have to encourage open mindedness when interacting with them.

Again, as I said, what I (more often than not) experience is not criticism.

“Free market! don’t expect anyone to pay for your game then”

I love this one. I mean, really?
First of all, people do buy it. It has surprised me.
Second, are you not seeing the hypocrisy here? This is coming from a breed of consumers that regularly outdo themselves by sinking to new lows on exactly this topic. Should we talk about how gamers will try to play through a game as fast as possible, one that they did like, and return it so that they don’t have to pay for it? How about pirating? Do I really need to cover all the strategies people have for beating the system so that they do not have to pay for a game, even if they enjoyed it?
Comparatively, very few people will actually support the developer on principle. When criticized on this behavior I’ve way to often heard the “well they shouldn’t be making games if they want to make money” or event the “then make a better game” argument (this last one made to well designed good games too).
There is no sense of honor here. Getting away with playing for free happens all the time.
I don’t see how this justifies any toxic behavior.

“The starving artist trope to illustrate that you will die poor and alone”

Even a developer that makes a great game, and follows all the rules of success, will go broke. Predicting starvation on me based on my creative choices is hypocritical, especially if you consider it’s harder and harder to get people to pay for games to begin with.

This is not about money. This is about making something different and allowing that different thing to exist and enjoy respect.

“The “terrible indie” like you with your terrible pointless walking simulators that is flooding the market and hurting real games argument”

I’ve said what I need to say here…

I have never played a game that I didn’t see some level of value in. This includes “terrible” rip-offs. Each one of them has presented some type of different view of looking at a game. Even if you’re trying really hard to fit in, and make a game that everyone else is making, some little bit of your own touch is going to get through.
I’ve received quite a bit of inspiration by playing “bad” student games because somehow they always manage to present something new that I would not have thought of. Even if, on surface, they look “bad”. Even spectacular failure can be inspiring.
All this adds to the pool of creativity. A very bad game can inspire a good one.

I think the “terrible indie” mindset is rooted in a level of player entitlement that is old and tired. The idea that only “good games” should be allowed to exist is very elitist. When you counter this by saying “well I can only play so many tetris clones” or “i don’t want to see anymore walking simulators”, are you listening to yourself? Do you have a right to dictate that? Are you being forced to play them? If you don’t like something go find a thing you like and leave the thing you don’t like alone. Someone else likes it. There is room for everyone.

I keep saying this, and I really mean it. Every one of the indies that I’ve met, and have had the pleasure of getting to know, has made something amazing that inspired me. Just by making something different, unique, brave, complete disaster of a train-wreck, has added to the discussion of what games can and should be. The indie side of games has meant the world to me because I see so many people that are working really hard to make things that are unique modes of human expression. All this adds to making the world a better place. Artists deserve more respect than this industry is currently giving them.

I am not asking for much. I am asking for open mindedness, and civility, when it comes to games that are different. We can do better than saying “lol acid”, or targeting the developer because we don’t like what they are saying and creating.

I don’t know what more there is left for me to say. I suppose I’ll write another post after this post gets attacked since that seems to be the pattern here.