A Suit To Fit Every Man, or The Folly of Formalism

A few weeks ago, several people in the gaming industry/discussion circles created a controversy by declaring that certain people were not real game designers and their work was not real games. Instead, they were simply “zines” and there was a great need to make a solid distinction between those “zines” and “real games”. The arguments of these “formalists” were generally ignorant and facile (“games are only games if they’re fun!” and the like) and I would assume that most people within the gaming scene are tired of reading about something as obvious as how wrong-headed they are. People outside the gaming scene should do themselves a favor and if nothing else read Mattie Brice’s response. Now, weeks after the dust has settled for most people, I, a boring white dude who writes goofy nonsense about Koopa evolution, am going to bravely march in and talk about the problems in defining games. You’re welcome.

Dictionaries are not legislators. This is an idea that we really need to teach better, because its one that constantly trips people up. It doesn’t matter what dictionary.com says, there is no such thing as an iron-clad definition for any idea. Definitions are fluid tools and are constantly being challenged. This is not a phenomenon new to gaming at all, look at the debate that can rage when deciding if a certain writer is modernist or post-modernist. Its certainly not limited to art or literature either, anyone dealing with issues of social justice has had to deal with people INSISTING that sexism or racism means that people in power can face prejudice too. The definition accepted for a discussion of sexism or racism is “prejudice plus power”, and the idea that the definition in use can change depending on the context of the discussion is hard for people trained to expect everything to fit into easy boxes (boxes created by a system that has a vested interest in limiting discussion and debate). See also, people who get furious over being called out on misogyny or homophobia because “I don’t hate women!/I’m not afraid of gay people!” Its an issue that is dealt with in the sciences as well. The field of ethnobotany was created because there needed to be a way to talk about where botany and anthropology intersected. The evolution and biology of many plants was (and is) directed by human society, and they only way to understand how people influenced the evolution and distribution of these plants is by understanding the anthropology of the people connected to these plants. But even creating a new field wasn’t enough, as there are still debates over when something is botany, ethnobotany or anthropology or a combination thereof. Definitions are constantly being challenged in any and all fields.

So its not a surprise that this debate exists in games, and to be honest a game creator/critic who says “x is not a real game” is basically removing themselves from the conversation. The problem is when these people are in positions of power or gatekeepers. If we as gamers and designers really want games to be treated as art, we need to be open to the fact that this means we will be challenged. We will be challenged as to whether really fun games we like are harmful in their larger context, we will be challenged on how we have naturalized ideas about games (such as they have to be fun, have to be won or have to be immersive) and we will be challenged on basic assumptions about how games are separate from other mediums. Even more difficult for some people is the idea that not only will we be challenged, but that both our definition and the challenging definition can be right at the same time. Its ok if someone has a different definition than you, as long as you make room for each other! “You’re not a real game, you’re a zine” is not helpful for the debate, as it simply shuts down the discussion, but a question like “What makes this a game to you?” at least makes room for other contexts and views. The idea that acknowledging other views or opinions as valid means there can be no debate or discussion is a terrible strawman.

I’m not saying definitions aren’t useful, just that they’re tools. All of us have some definition of what a game is, even if we want it to be as inclusive as possible. My personal definition of a game, which I have only really defined in response to the debate, is that a game is “a space created by an artist (or artists) where a player (or player) is asked to interact with in order to participate in or complete a performance”. This is the definition that I personally believe includes everything I think of as a game, a medium which includes everything from improv to pinball to Mario to Depression Quest to D&D to tag. You might notice that its not a perfect definition in that other works traditionally not thought of as games can be considered to fall under its umbrella. Theatrical performances would often fall under this definition, but then anyone who has done improv knows that theatre games exist for a reason. Certain novels by writers like Jorges Luis Borges or Alain Robbe-Grillet (if not potentially all novels) could be considered to elicit an interaction or performance from the reader that would qualify them as games under this definition. The thing is… I’m ok with that. I’m ok with a novel being able to be a game in certain contexts, just as I’m ok with a painting being able to be a narrative or a poem being able to be a novel. My definition is not ironclad, but one that is constantly shifting in response to new ideas or work, and one that I accept is flawed and going to be forced to change. I personally accept that my definition could be used to describe works of art I wouldn’t consider games under normal circumstances because I would rather something “not a game” be viewed as a game than I would exclude someone or their work.

Even when we want to define smaller groups within this (or any other) larger definition we run into problems. We have platformers, table-top games, theatre games, board games, rpgs, jrpgs, action-rpgs, metroidvanias, shmups, visual novels, strategy-simulations and so many more. Where do we put the boundaries for these terms? How can we define one in a way that includes every game we want without opening it up for other games we wouldn’t classify that way? When does Civilization stop being a simulation and start being a strategy game? Where does Metroid stop being a platformer and start being an adventure game? Or if you want to get even nerdier, where does any similar game start officially being a “Metroidvania” (a genre description which makes no sense to non-gamers that I thought was amazingly clever when I first heard it and have grown to dislike more and more as time went on and I found more games that challenged it). Again, this isn’t a debate unique to gaming. Questions of when a novel stops being a novel still rage through academic circles today.

Games have been around for centuries, but academic discussion or critical theory of games is relatively recent, which I think is one of the reasons so many people both in and out of the gaming world have difficulty with how to define games. Lets take a look at a different medium with a similar history; puppets. Puppets exist in virtually every culture encountered, and yet there is remarkably little research and critical theory on puppetry. Some exists to be sure, and there are many people writing amazing things and putting on amazing performances with puppets. But as far as I know there isn’t a “Department of Puppetry” at any major art university. Despite the huge commercial success of The Lion King and The Muppets, puppetry is still often considered an “outdated” artform by the general public (even at the same time that same public actively consumes puppet material, has huge reactions to puppet satire, or relies on puppets for basic education and socialization). So because of this perception of the medium being “lesser” or “outdated” and therefore not worthy of academic research, there is no single formalized way of categorizing puppets. Do you categorize them by geographical origin? By the number of performers required? By their material? Their intended purpose? Everyone does it differently! But I don’t think this lack of a formalized categorization system has harmed puppetry or puppet theory/criticism in any way. I don’t think its necessarily hurt a medium with a huge history of categorization and formalism, such as literature, either. Its simply a tool that can be useful or not depending on the context. There’s no dude of note out there going “puppets have to be fun and only used in stories!” any more than there is someone in literature going “novels have to have happy endings and specific narratives!” and expecting to be taken serious. We don’t need to tolerate that in gaming discussions either.

One of my favorite bits from Scott McCloud’s seminal work Understanding Comics is in the first chapter where he attempts to come up with a singular definition of comics. He starts with “Sequential Art” and continues to define it in response to challenges from an “audience” of critics within the comic. The definition changes in response to challenges that it isn’t open enough for certain comics or that it is too open and includes other mediums such as film or even written language itself. In the end, McCloud ends up with a long, unwieldy and completely flawed definition that is not useful in the context of truly understanding comics. For the rest of the comic, McCloud sticks with “sequential art” or just “comics.” Amazingly, in the many years since then we have seen comics created that challenge the unwieldy definition McCloud jokingly comes up with even further. This is a lesson that gaming formalists can stand to learn: you can spend pages and pages and hours and hours trying to come up with the perfect definition that protects you from anything impure, but in the mean time the rest of us will be busy making and discussing games.

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5 Responses to A Suit To Fit Every Man, or The Folly of Formalism

  1. flonnebonne says:

    Hello! I stumbled upon your blog and read pretty much everything on it. I especially loved reading about your FF6 romhack and the Tactics Ogre and Ogre Battle articles. And the Etrian Odyssey and Chrono Cross articles. (You can see what kind of games I like.) I would love to see more science-related games as well! I am downloading Benthic Love right now.
    Keep up the fantastic work. You’ve given me lots of food for thought. I wish you worked for a video game developer. 😀

  2. Pingback: Spect-actors in Novels and Video Games | Video Games of the Oppressed

  3. Wow, so much to address..I’m just going to keep this brief and to the point.

    I am a formalist and I disagree with you. While I accept that definitions to words do change all the time, the reality is that if we are to properly discuss video games, we need a common language to do so. This is something that all specialised areas (law, painting, handgliding, whatever) of life have come to accept, games will accept this too in time. The only alternative to not having a common language is to not be able to discuss games in a very clear manner. Such is the nature of communication.

    The rest of your argument, and the reason why you say the opinion of people like myself is ignorant and facile, lies in the relative legitimacy in the word “game”. The word “game” has more cultural legitimacy than, say, a new term like zine or nongame. The problem, however, is that Twine stories, simulations, and toys aren’t games, because they lack challenges of skill, and so people like myself make the distinction, which happens to make the creators of these non-games/zines upset. Now, what other “formalist people” may have not stressed enough (I don’t consider any of the people labelled as formalists in these arguments to be formalists because they simply don’t use a formal vocabulary) is that this distinction isn’t to discredit or marginalise a group of creators. In fact, this distinction is needed so as to clear up the mistreatment these stories, simulations, and toys get for being labelled and critiqued games. For example, it doesn’t make sense for me to critique a twine story on the basis of learning, mastery, and skill, and if I did, the twine story would only be judged unfavourably. However, by promoting inclusive definitions, this is exactly what people like yourself are calling for.

    My short blog post here may also interest you:

    All the best,

    • joffeorama says:

      The problem is your argument relies on a number of faulty premises.
      1. That we need a “common language” of very strict definitions in order to discuss media. This simply isn’t true, as I already demonstrated in my post. Even specialised areas do not have 100% agreement on definitions. Do you really think that people who specialize in LAW all agree on every definition? Painting certainly doesn’t have a consensus on definitions, terms or media either. Healthy debate is the hallmark of academic discussion. The “communication” you describe is not discussion at all, but rather the destruction of discussion.
      2. That your personal definition of “game” is the accepted one. This isn’t true either. Your own definition certainly has no more “cultural legitimacy” within the discussion of games. I reject the notion that games are solely defined by challenges of skill. For one thing, the term “challenges of skill” is hopelessly vauge anyways. Painting challenges skill, is the act of painting a game? Reading a book challenges skill, are all books games? You are not even abidiing by your own definition when you exclude games which you do not believe challenge the “correct” skill in the “correct” manner. If games were only about specific tests of skill, then we wouldn’t have theater games, role playing or even games of pure luck. Your definition has been challenged long before Twine came around.
      Even if your definition WAS the most commonly accepted one (a premise I do not concede) it wouldn’t matter. Look at the history of literature. There have been many movements within literature where authors challenged what it meant to write a novel. Yes there were people who argued that these were not true novels but poems, experiments, zines or other non-novels. But lets be honest, the people today who say that James Joyce or Alain Robbe-Grillet didn’t REALLY write novels aren’t exactly considered to be at the forefront of literary discussion or theory. This is true for visual art, theater, philosophy, religion, hell even the hard sciences have had debates and movements about definitions and methodology. Howl into the night as much as you want, but the discussion of games includes interactive fiction, play-spaces, role-play and countless other games that are not simply math puzzles or hand-eye-coordination tests.
      3. That defining interactive fiction as a game would mean you had to judge or critique it by the same standards as, say, Picross. Frankly, this is an asinine premise. Thats like saying that Invisible Cities is a bad novel because its not the same kind of novel as Huckleberry Finn. Games can be critiqued on their artists’ intent, on the audience’s reaction, on the methodology used, or countless other ways that don’t require them all to fit a single template of discussion or merit.
      4. That “zines” or “nongames” are appropriately descriptive labels without judgement and its simply whiny Twine makers who are getting angry over nothing. Come on. Zine is clearly meant to highlight the percieved amateurism or outsider status rather than detail anything about the medium or methodology. Nongame is so ludicrously vague and useless a description that I am again forced to challenge the idea that you even care that much about definitions in the first place. When you state “you are not making games” from a percieved position of authority (even if only self-percieved, as in the case of formalists) you are absolutely making a value judgement. Otherwise you would ask “what makes this a game to you?” or “What was your intent?” or one of a billion other questions that actually deals with fostering communication.
      If you wanted to argue that we needed definitions and discussions WITHIN the medium of games to deal with and discuss certain skill-based games then I would agree with you. There’s a lot of space within any field or medium to discuss multiple movements or methods. But to me, the weird reaction AGAINST discussion and actual definitions indicates that something else is going on with formalism. What really is so threatening to you about an “inclusive” definition of games? Are you worried that your own games will instead be judged by the standards of interactive fiction? Are you scared of your work being overshadowed by new work with different intentions and audiences? Are you simply so wrapped up in the idea that “game” and “gamer” are specific identities that including other people would challenge your own sense of self? I believe you care about games, but until you can deal with these questions you will basically be doing nothing but removing yourself from the larger conversation of games and rendering yourself irrelevant to the evolution and discussion of the medium. I don’t think that’s what you, or any formalist wants.

      • 1. As I said, words change meaning all the time, but the nature of specialised subjects requires a common language, especially a base language. Of course, no one is going to agree on every term, but without a core language, the discussion, and perhaps even the specialisation itself, can’t exist at all.

        2. My definition of game is the one that has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, “a form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck” (Oxford dictionary). You don’t have to agree with this definition, but it’s been the way most people have used the term for a very long time.

        My point was that the word “game” has cultural capital or legitimacy, not the definition.

        If you’d like a more specific answer on the meaning of challenge and skill, then here’s what I use:
        challenge: http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/ (“A new definition: 6 game features” breaks down the meaning of challenge)
        skills (series of posts): http://critical-gaming.com/blog/2010/3/31/an-examination-of-skill-pt1.html

        3. Wow, second guessing an artist’s intent, sounds like a very unreliable way to critique something. I would much rather talk about the game in question then try and guess what the author meant. On “Methodology used” I’m not sure what you mean by this, craftsmanship? Interactive fiction doesn’t have challenges, so if I critiqued them on the basis of being games, having challenges, then it would obviously not fair so well.

        4. If you made a book and I said that it wasn’t a movie, you would not feel that I was making a value judgement on your work. You’d probably think I was talking common sense. Take away the cultural capital of the word “game”, and you have the same thing here. I don’t really care if these sims, toys, and stories are called nongames, zines, etc. I’m quite happy with these people to find their own label, one that they like.

        You make a lot of assumptions at the end, but I answered your questions pretty clearly already. I want to talk about this stuff clearly, so I use these terms.

        Also, I am not a zine/non-game-hating monster, so please spare the venom.

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