moving past destructive cycles, and modes of thought, about different game experiences

Over this weekend James from Seemingly Pointless contacted me saying he’ll reference some of my writing in a piece that he was writing about “You Must be 18 or Older to Enter” being banned from Steam.
As you can imagine I was pretty pissed when I heard this news. At the same time I was not surprised that this happened. As (game) creators, we’ve heard this type of thing being said often in discussion about the App Store guidelines. If you want to make this type of art (app/game) make a book, a movie, anything else. Not a game.

In a similar vein this is what I’ve been told frequently when toxicity starts hitting me about my work. If I want to discuss these topics I should make a movie, write a poem, write a book, paint a painting. Not a game. The culture doesn’t welcome that.

When you enter this particular “no man’s land”, you see just how charged the “game” label is when it comes to unusual experiences and interactive art that dares not to be fun… or literally just about anything else than standard definition.

What happened to “You Must be 18 or Older to Enter” falls too much in line with my recent criticisms of game culture (how we view these types of different experiences, how we treat them and their creators…) that it really sucks to see it happen to someone else so soon.
James wrote a great post about this on Gamasutra, and I urge you to read it. It’s important criticism of the culture at broad, and highlights issues that are not going to go away.

This sort of thing will require a mentality shift in games. One where we really have to examine our double standards, as well as what we are willing to admit to ourselves about what games are.

Are we really willing to allow them to be different?
Are we willing to allow games not to be fun?
Are we willing to allow different voices?
Are we willing to let in different experiences?
Are we willing to allow these different experiences to exist under the “game” label without being harassed?
Are we even willing to defend different experiences instead of viewing their presence as a sign that games are being destroyed by them?

I have discussed this fairly extensively in most of my posts, but this is an important topic (as a person that creates these types of experiences), so I’m not willing to let it rest just yet.

The degree of hate that I have received over the years of making just about anything that doesn’t fit the mold of a “normal” game has been intense. I see no other option but to fight these issues because, as I have often said: I will make something that I don’t view as a game (it’s interactive art), and fight really hard not to have the “game” label slapped on it, but then that label gets applied anyway, and I get eaten alive by gamers.
To someone like me, there is no other option but to make the “game” label more inclusive.
There are serious issues with this culture that I feel like we really have to start confronting if we want to see positive change.

I’m not only pointing at gamers, and youtubers, or consumers. I feel like game developers are also responsible for what we have created here. How this ended up being is also on us.
For example, here’s a wonderful Twitter thread.

It’s on us as well… We don’t challenge this toxicity enough. At the same time, we often encourage it by placing the needs of the player, and what sells, what would sell, monetary gain, and playing into this culture, above rational ethical choices…
Taking a stab at marginalized people is fun. Violence is great if you’re the winner. Sexism sells. Objectifying women and sexism sells so hard. It has an audience. Every fantasy can be catered to as long as it’s a comfortable one. This is a cycle that has to be broken out of, or at the very least challenged more.
The fact that we say “SJW’s are ruining games” speaks volumes to this. Art is critical. It discusses cultural issues. How are games to be art if we insist that they don’t even question societal problems? How are they art if we keep uncomfortably meaningful messages at arms length?

No, wait. Before you make that conclusion, I have no issue with mindless violent games. What I do have an issue with is that this is all that’s allowed to exist.

Normalizing violence is fine and great, whatever. What causes and doesn’t cause violence in the real world is a tired conversation that I feel like misses a broader point. When our sole focus is on making one type of experience, and holding that one type of game above all others, and making sure that this experience is the only type of game allowed to exist… this is the heart of the problem.

James puts it well when he says:

“We’re not shocked by digital screams of pain or gunshots, but we jump away from any audio that could be interpreted as porn. We’ve grown complicit in fictional death and afraid of fictional pleasure.”

So what’s our baseline standard here? What do games mean then? What do they mean in context of what experiences we allow to exist and not?

When I tweeted that:

The reactions to this where almost as toxic as the reactions to my Day of the Devs post.
It absolutely fascinates me how poorly games culture takes to criticism, or just about anything different.

For example, “Everything is going to be OK” has had many toxic reactions. Making this game has been an uphill battle.
Among the first that completely confused me was how some people got upset at the violence in it because they where asked to be the victims of violence (trauma, difficulties, etc…) this time.
In context of the situations that the “game” puts you in, the gore was too much. They even said that “Everything is going to be OK” was too graphic. I am not joking. It blew my mind.
This confused me, because this first happened at E3. I could literally look over my shoulder and see massive screens where NPC’s where being shot in the face, but this little “game” was too much?
In a similar vein, one of my oldest net-art works (the one I keep referring to) drew on a lot on experiences of being poor, or being a refugee. Basically, you experience being a victim of different forms of violence caused by inequality.
The reactions to “Everything is going to be OK” where eerily similar when it came to “players” of that project.
The betrayal that comes with reversing roles and no longer being “in charge” of a game… Being asked to be a victim, and experience that vulnerability, in a medium that is often about a single mode of expression (fun) ends up being a lot to ask for.

It’s almost heartbreaking to see games like “You Must be 18 or Older to Enter” go through a similar trial by fire for being what they are.

To further illustrate the state of things…
I invite you to watch this video, and please view it critically. It’s such a good reflection of this culture, and I hope it serves as a functional illustration of what I am discussing:

So, like, you know…

James ended his post with some great calls to action.
I want to be equally as optimistic. I mean, interactive art is not going anywhere. It’s going to keep being made. The creators may end up being chased out, their work may be ridiculed to death, but in the long run this has to change. Games can be different.

I end this with a longer conclusion, or “call to action”…

Presently, the label “game” has a tremendous amount of baggage associated with it.
This baggage is player expectations of what this interactive thing should be. It has to be fun, entertaining, stimulating… These expectations have to be broken down if we want games to mature as an actual art-form.

Right now saying “games are art” is really a shallow form of lip service. The fact that the primary focus of games has so long been on being a consumer medium is weighing down its ability to be an art form.
The conversations surrounding “games are art” are superficial at best. The focus is still too much on satisfying the needs of the “player” instead of challenging these concepts.
Art really doesn’t have these rules. It isn’t bound to a set of standards aimed at pleasing consumers.
Art will cover a wide range of experiences, emotions, conditions, many of them will not be fun, entertaining, let alone pleasing.
If games really are art, we have to allow these alternative experiences the space to exist where they are not attacked, and enjoy a level respect. We have to be willing to allow games to be more than just “fun”.
Demanding that art pleases the “viewer” runs in a vein of consumer entitlement that insists that these experience exist for no other reason but the consumer’s pleasure.

The challenge art games face is that all that baggage has to be broken down. The art game cannot be judged using the same metrics that a normal “fun game” gets judged by.
The toxicity of this culture that is used to having every need met, every fantasy entertained, and every desire catered to is the obstacle here.

I view games as an extremely entitled medium. The focus is on the player. If we want them to be art then we have to be willing to allow experiences that reject the player to exist in this same space, and enjoy the critical discourse they deserve.

One option is to segregate these experiences and call one side “interactive art” and the other “game”, but from my experience this never happens. No matter how much of an artist’s statement I slap on the work, and no mater how much I fight the “game” label and insist that my work doesn’t get called a “game”, people will still pick it up and call it a “game”. So here’s a self-perpetuating cycle of a label hell.
Then the other option is to break down all that baggage, and create spaces for these games that raises awareness of how much more games can be in terms of creative expression and experimentation. People need to be educated and given a more nuanced level of conversation that goes beyond dismissing them as an acid trip.

Games don’t exactly have enough “sub-groups” or “genres” right now (for lack of a better term). Yes, I realize that saying this is opening another Pandora’s box. I don’t think it’s the same in games as in other art forms. People from one group will pull in a game from another group as proof of how “those types of games” are destroying video games. Players will still pick something like this up, and it’s going to be criticized as if it should hold up to the same standards as a normal “fun” game.
We need a better conversation surrounding alt-games to exist.