There have been some really interesting articles and discussions about the uses and abuses of ‘formalism’ in games recently. For example, this article by Raph Koster and the reply by Robert Yang, and the very interesting discussion in the comments to the latter. I would not normally speak up on this kind of topic since I have no real credentials or background in the field whatsoever. I’m just an interested bystander. However, this recent post by Tadgh Kelly raised a couple of thoughts that I wanted to put into words. I think they are very obvious angles and so I apologise in advance for being trite and stating the obvious.  However, I was slightly surprised to see a writer as thoughtful and studied as Tadgh Kelly apparently not appreciating them.

Kelly adopts the term ‘zinesters’ as a catch all referring to those people making and discussing games outside of the commercial mainstream, particularly people making more experimental games that don’t sit comfortably within traditional commercial genres.  He suggests describing these projects as ‘zines’ rather than ‘games’ so that they are not exposed to criticism on the same terms as games.  [EDIT:  The term ‘zinester’ is taken from Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters where she uses it particularly to describe amateur game-making by people outside of the professional and trained game development community.  It is not Tadgh Kelly’s own term, although I think he is using it in rather different way from Anthropy.]

I felt very uncomfortable with Kelly’s use of the ‘zinester’ term in this way. He returns to the point repeatedly and it is emblematic of an instinct throughout the article to segregate non-traditional/commercial game makers into an identified and contained group. A kind of ghettoization. I can see how this is a tempting approach, even with best intentions. In the short-term it can make it possible to give greater attention, consideration and – in some contexts adaptation – to the people who are put within the ghetto. For example, setting up a group for working mothers within a company can be a step forward if it allows focused adaptation to ameliorate particular challenges that working mothers may face. Being in a ghetto can also be an attractive option if it enables a louder and more united voice for a group that has been overlooked or is at the wrong end of a structural bias in the society. There is also an attraction in being in a space that is insulated from being measured against a yardstick that may not be appropriate or applicable. The idea of a space for ‘personal’ games which is orthogonal to that of mainstream games, an idea that comes up in the comments to Robert Yang’s article.

However, ghettoization is also a regressive strategy in the medium to long term. By creating an identifiable group, people in the group are explicitly placed outside of the mainstream. The effect is to insulate the concerns of the identified group from the mainstream and vice-versa. This not only maintains structural biases but actually reinforces them since the pressures that may have been gradually opening the cracks in those structures are removed. To return to the working mothers example, once a company has set up its working mothers group, that may take the pressure off issues to do with a long-hours culture, which are more widely problematic, if the people most obviously impacted have been taken out of the equation. By putting games like Dys4ia and Proteus (as different as they are) into a distinct ‘zinester’ category it reduces the chance that the ideas in those games will filter into the mainstream and reduces the chance that game-makers will build on the foundations suggested by those works. (At least until Zynga spot a monetization angle, following which those ideas will be abruptly plucked out of the zinester ghetto and adopted into the mainstream.)

The second aspect of Kelly’s article which I really didn’t get were his thoughts about how to characterise games. I know that there is a long history of thinking in this area with which I am barely familiar and I know that Kelly has, himself, done a lot of thinking about the formal characteristics of games. However, my concern isn’t about the idea of thinking about games in formal terms, that can be a useful approach. My concern is that he appears not take into account the extent to which any framework or way of thinking about games, or any other medium, is necessarily descriptive rather than prescriptive. People make art/music/literature/games et cetera, and then once they are done you can look at what they have done and see how it all hangs together. But that formal analysis is a description and not a recipe: you may find its precepts to be a helpful lens when making a new game or novel or piece of music; however, if you follow it slavishly you will just make a copy rather than something new.

The strange thing is that the descriptive nature of the analytic exercise is actually shown up by the examples which Kelly cites. He distinguishes between poems and novels, for example, as being something wholly distinct. However, the novel clearly grows out of and replaces a tradition of long-form poetry. No-one nowadays writes a massive three-volume poem like Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Cervantes writes Don Quixote he is building on traditions of long-form medieval poetic romances, but deciding to ditch some of the formal constraints of those forms and in the process revealing new formal possibilities. No one turns around to Cervantes and says “well, this doesn’t look like traditional literature, you’re better off not considering your writing as literature at all”. People adapt and come to appreciate Cervantes work as being both part of a the same literary tradition and something distinct from its poetic predecessors. The structures of criticism describe rather than prescribe. In the same way, Howling Dogs may ditch the puzzle-solving requirements of Zork but this does not mean that it cannot be part of the same videogame tradition.

I wrote about this a bit in my post on Proteus a couple of months ago. My point is simply that different expressive media expand, evolve, change and convulse. Mozart’s use of minor seventh harmonies would probably have been considered a musical ‘mistake’ by Bach but we’re cool with it now. Formal analysis can help us understand those convulsions; however, analysis necessarily follows creation. When analysis is applied at the point of creation in order to categorise and segregate, even in the mistaken belief that it may give more breathing space to innovators, all it can do is marginalise the innovators and fossilize the mainstream.

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