Does everything have to be a Game now?

I’ve been in the middle of an interesting twitter discussion lately, following up a comment I made after hearing about Choice:Texas (“a serious game about abortion”) via this article on Indiestatik

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The replies I received to my comment were intriguing on account of their diversity – from complete agreement to yet another discussion of what constitutes “game” in this day and age. That wasn’t really what I was going for though (even if it has a part in this discussion).

I’ll be honest and say I am completely weirded out by projects such as Choice:Texas and it has nothing to do with subject matter. I am all for making a wider audience aware of serious and seriously difficult but important societal, political or cultural issues, yes even testing new media and avenues of transportation. When it comes in combination with the game label however, I hesitate. This is not the first time either – I’ve had the exact same feelings on the recently published Depression Quest. Now, I’ve read several great reviews on this title and I’ve no reason to doubt any of them. For many personal reasons, one of which being my current employment in a mental care facility, I am a big supporter of getting the word out on illnesses such as depression, on educating a wider audience against common and harmful stigma. Heck, you cannot educate too much on such matters. Yet despite all of this, the title Depression Quest still fills me with cringe.

How do you make a “quest” out of something as crippling and insidious as clinical depression? How does the association with all of this being like a quest – that traditionally heroic undertaking with epic loot at the end – add anything to an otherwise important message? I get it: Depression Quest is an earnest attempt to take away some of the gloom off a heavy subject, in order to make it more accessible and encourage people to put themselves in the position of a person affected by depression. I just genuinely wonder why we need gameplay mechanics, tropes and quests to learn about or show interest in such topics? I wonder too, if the average person truly takes this seriously as usual gamer habits, such as looking for the correct answer or choosing the most efficient path, kick in (I assume that the main target audience of this title would be especially those who do not usually engage with it?). And if such isn’t possible here, is it still a game? Why does it need to be? Can we not learn about the world anymore in non-gamey fashion?

Choice:Texas takes my intuitive misgivings a step further. It is majorly bizarre to me how one can make a game out of “the severe restrictions placed on women’s health care access in Texas”. – Are you serious? That is a game now? You have just lost me completely.

Just to make it plain once more, I get all the intention behind this and the need for education. I just honestly don’t see how applying the game label to such a matter can help. There is an almost insurmountable bias or thematic association I have with the term game and I am happy to bet so have most people. Even if videogames can serve multiple purposes or be designed therefor, historically speaking games have been pastimes, activities done for distraction or entertainment. They are short-lived, limited in severity and therefore trivial to a certain point. And that lies at the heart of the problem for me personally: game is trivializing. I don’t feel it serves anybody to trivialize the issue of abortion laws in Texas to a point where it can be packaged into neat units of gameplay (*).

I don’t see how evoking associations with gaming (and questing, gathering points or beating the game from there) aren’t counter-productive in this case. One could even suspect the creators of Choice:Texas have already had similar doubts or why keep emphasizing how this is “a very serious game”? To clarify: I absolutely think you can create things like comics or even interactive clips / stories etc. on political subjects but why call them games?

Maybe I am completely off here and I’m sure those who think so, will kindly let me know. As I said, I appreciate all underlying intention but to me there is a bad aftertaste of desperate marketing thrown in the whole mix, all other misgivings aside. I think games are a wonderful medium, vast and creative, diverse and powerful, but all considered I still believe some things should be worth saying and hearing without having to make a game out of them. Guess I’m just old fashioned that way.

(*)This is where I take the opportunity to recommend the Black Mirror trilogy, especially season one, episode two: “15 Million Merits”.

24 comments

  1. I sort of agree with you, but to play devil’s advocate, take a game like Papers, Please. It’s a game about being a border guard/bureaucrat for a communist country. To me, that subject matter seems to fit in with “should this really be a game” subjects. But the game is supposed to be excellent.

    1. I’d differentiate between making a game based on a theme and trying to make a message look like a game, without actually making a game. I acknowledge that this is a fuzzy rectangle (it’s gone way past being just a thick line). To start refining that, I’d suggest that a game would be about an issue, rather than a specific situation. In the case of the Texas abortion game that would mean not making it specific to Texas, or even necessarily abortion or government regulation in general. Instead find a way to put the player in a difficult situation that is similar to that of a woman considering/seeking an abortion in Texas. This could mean making it symbolic, such as being a quest for water or medicine, with monsters that look suspiciously like state legislators.

      1. That’s a very good way to differentiate the two. Is it the message or mechanics that come first. It is a very murky thing at times and something that really has no right answer at this stage..or ever.
        I’m of the persuasion that we do need better way to name these styles of games (and others) but still under the umbrella of Video Game. As Mr green gleamed from the developers, it does seem to be interactive fiction more than it is a game. That is not to discredit it’s mechanics, it’s game qualities or the developers work about it but more just making a distinction because of its style of presentation

    2. @Rohan
      It’s a good point. I’m not familiar with this game but I take it’s more of a sim. we currently call all sorts of sims ‘games’ too – but I guess most of them call less attention to themselves because there’s not much in terms of political messages or sensitive topics in playing house or riding virtual trains.

      @Kleps
      This.
      I think it’s a very legit unease or question to feel on the consumer’s end, when looking at Chance:Texas for reasons of intention or origins. Is this a game first and foremost being developed by a game studio – or is there a party, group of people / activists with a message going game format? there are completely different goals and intentions depending on who creates this. there may be a different target audience, too. I naturally assume games want to reach as many as possible, as game makers and publishers usually want to (and surely political activists would too).

      this assumption might be completely off though if the main goal here is diversity and inclusion of marginalized groups first, no matter wider reception. to me the question was only ever if this is the right format given popular associations with gaming (which funny enough I don’t interpret as bad. it’s okay if games are trivial. not everything needs to be a game). let’s say we knew for a fact that 90% of all potential buyers share my unease (ignorant fucks or not), is it still a successful approach? that completely depends on intentions.

      @j3w3l
      “That is not to discredit it’s mechanics, it’s game qualities or the developers work about it but more just making a distinction because of its style of presentation.”

      That issue is mostly lost on me. as you say, it’s not better or worse if it’s interactive fiction. it’s just has other connotations for me – it’s about formats and not every format is the most suitable for every subject, especially if some formats have this wide array of definitions. when I feel games aren’t made for serious topics like abortion, what I’m trying to ask is a) is this really best told through game mechanics? and b) would it not reach more people via other media? also, as an educator by trade, I have natural cringe for the current trend (in the education field anyway) of making games out of everything – until one day children know no other way of learning than through game mechanics and have no attention spans for a long written article. This outlook scares the hell out of me.

      1. This is what happens when any form of media starts becoming mainstream and more readily available to produce content with. At some point you have a whole lot potential for anyone to try anything with it and they will. The cases you pointed to above are likely less about being “games” and more about being “marketing materials”. Some good equivalents in another media would be a novel and an informational brochure. Each have very different goals but both could be called literature.

        While I agree with you that we don’t want to overly trivialize subjects like depression or abortion I do think that there is a lot of meaningful room for exploration on these topics in interactive media. As an example my son is Autistic and I found this to be wonderful: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/03/01/playground-nightmare-auti-sim-is-about-childhood-autism/ .
        Does this replace all the research I need to do in order to understand my son and how he may be viewing the world? Absolutely not! What it does do though is provide a take on sensory overload in a manner that many people can understand and perhaps even feel. Perhaps another person may then look at a couple of wiki pages on the subject and gain a better understanding of it, which is what I suspect Choice:Texas is looking for.

        I think in the long run it comes down to execution, quality and knowing what to ignore. Choice:Texas may feel weird to you, but any marketing they do in order to reach out to you likely will. Be it a commercial on TV explaining complicated matters in 30 seconds or a pamphlet in the mail that lists 10 bullets on why you should be interested.

      2. I think it’s an important point to make about games serving as additional or complimentary source of information. I can definitely see how that can be beneficial if, as you say too, execution and quality are satisfying. that’s how many good educational software used in classrooms works too, basic studies are still done via books / presentations / discussion but afterwards you can test some of your new-won understanding via interactive programs. that would be my ideal scenario, anyway.

        I have to make a mental note too that I’m not average in my reading habits. even if it’s far away from my more imminent environment, I’ve read a fair amount of discussions and articles on the Texas legislation, including the initial fiasco and filibustering. it was distressing to read about which may influence my own reaction about the game.

        Thanks for your comment.

  2. The problem is that the term “game” has a ton of baggage. I think one of the big problems in U.S. culture regarding games is that they are not taken seriously; they are seen as something for kids, and therefore unable to have “serious artistic merit”. (Although the U.S. courts have upheld that games are protected speech, but this attitude persists with politicians.) Obviously we see games as being more than that, but where are the boundaries?

    But, there’s no agreed upon definition of “game”. It’s one of those things that people just “know” what it means. Although we really don’t, because people get into Twitter arguments when someone posts on this type of topic. ;) This type of topic comes up frequently, to the point that some people tire of the discussion.

    Being too dismissive of something as “not a game” has lead to pain in the past, as some people see this as being dismissive of the creative work of others. But, I think that some developers spring on this controversy as something they can use to bring more attention to their work. Not to say there isn’t ignorance out there where people don’t want these types of things polluting their precious shooting games with meaningful topics.

    As a developer, I am in favor of not having an overly expansive definition of what makes a “game”. This isn’t so much me being exclusionary as much as it’s me not wanting to speak for people who fall further on the edges of the usual definition of “game”. If I talk about game balance, how can that possibly apply to Depression Quest? For me, it’s useful for me to be able to say, “A game does X” without having to make footnotes, so there’s some utility in categorizing without necessary intending to exclude.

    As an aside, I find it interesting in the linked article about Choice: Texas that the developer describe it as “an interactive fiction game” rather than as a “game”. Also, interactive fiction (IF) doesn’t often use the term “game”. I wonder if that was an intentional point on the part of the developer or not.

    Some discussion. I think it’s a fascinating and important topic, hope others will decide to chime in.

    1. Thanks for your clarifications on this Brian! It’s an interesting point about culture. I get that this may not be the same discussion depending on where you are ‘around the pond’ – it would be nice if others would, too. ;) I don’t share this anxiety about what games are or what they are not (just like I care zero for who is a gamer and who isn’t), for me it’s merely a formal distinction. I missed the memo that states everything ‘needs to’ be a game. ironically, I’ve written long articles about how games ARE art for me (which doesn’t mean they can’t be trivial also) in the past, yet I don’t see how that is part of this discussion. CT or DC strike me as games with a clear, educational intention.

      One anecdote in this context: I worked for a company a while back where people were obsessed with PP (powerpoint). absolutely everything, even a list of bullet notes, needed to be put into PP. it was ridiculous for obvious reasons: PP is a (load-heavy) presentation tool.
      what’s happening right now for me is something similar with gaming overall. I think you know how I feel about gamification and how that can affect authenticity (or alternatively also seriousness) in games. no dismissiveness was intended, much rather concern if choosing this format couldn’t be harmful for some topics. I think game creators and developers benefit from being questioned like that. I’ve had so many twitterers reply to me that they feel this is trivializing important topics (for them), that it feels misguided/snobbish for anyone to dismiss such reactions because y’know, games can be anything. that’s like defeating your own point / being stubborn. if a greater number of people tell you a format doesn’t work for them and you are genuinely interested in your message – at the very least you would consider their reasons. if anything, this shows us how differently games are still perceived in western culture and that is due to tradition a lot more than ignorance or malicious intent. gaming and riddle tradition are deeply rooted in history and like it or not, so are related connotations.

      A few twitter reactions also showed me another issue in ‘culture’ though – discussion culture. shooting down open questions from some self-proclaimed high-ground is never the way to go, especially if you don’t understand how some terminology may not be loaded for others as it is loaded for you. tired or not, if you aren’t sure what/whom you’re dealing with, no need to be trigger-happy. We do not all inhabit the same thought spaces or social circles (monocultures), which is exactly the big challenge when trying to position a product on a wide market. the majority of gamers aren’t even blogging or tweeting or spending nearly as much time on game design questions as we do. every now and then it helps to remember that…(not talking about you by the way, I know you remember all of that! hehe).

      All that said, I completely agree with your view on wide boundaries for games. again, I was never interested in having a super boring “what games are”-debate but much rather a “does it have to be a game?”-debate (as the title already states..). and tangentially also what that means culturally (see what I wrote to J3w3l further up about the education field) for us as a society. I have specific background here…also that TV series recommendation I gave in post scriptum is awesome, by the way! :)

      PS. Maybe another cultural thing: where I live in the EU, people are super aware and suspicious of ‘mixed bundles’ wherever politics are concerned. you try avoid mixing messages/education with contexts or in media that are more prone to create misunderstandings. needles to say, games will do that already for the wide array of definitions of game.

  3. The “is it a game” argument is something that some people seem to care way too much about.

    My go to argument is to claim that a novel is a game because you interact with the pages and can choose to read them in any order.

    1. I agree :) although I am also surprised how it’s good/bad if some things are games and some are not or maybe more or less suited. it’s as if there is now an inherent virtue to erm…being able to be a game…which sounds as bizarre as the opposite to me.

    2. Well now, you could probably make a game out of a novel by creating a set of rules about how you read the book.

      We might be able to argue that a book is modestly interactive in the sense that if one stops turning the pages, or reading the words or engaging the imagination, one stops experiencing the story. But then again, the reader cannot change the story of the book via their actions (unless they decide to take scissors to it and rearrange its sections, I guess.)

      http://backer.tv/articles/2011/1/20/the-difference-between-non-interactive-and-interactive-enter.html

      And I’m also going to blur the medium boundaries even further and point out there are such things as “gamebooks.”

      Mwahaha. I leave exploration of why those are termed so to the comments reader. :)

  4. I think you’re absolutely right about a couple things here! First off, there are plenty of things that are worth hearing, saying, and learning about even if they’re not involved in a game in any way! That’s always been true; being part of a game isn’t what makes something worthwhile. Second, I think you’re correct in suggesting that there’s an exciting “let’s make a game” bandwagon that a lot of people and organizations are jumping on, and that some of this jumping might be ill-advised or done without enough forethought.

    Besides that, though, I think you’re pretty short-sighted in this piece about the potential and usefulness of games. Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that games are meant to be restricted to entertainment, fun, and trivial subjects — or simulations of non-trivial subjects (like say, war) which can be shrugged off without much thought. That’s been one “common-sense” definition of games for a long time, and people who started to try and make games about more serious subjects, games that weren’t necessarily trying to provide entertainment value, have faced a long uphill battle over the last decade or so because of that conventional wisdom. So you should be aware that you’re reinforcing the status quo.

    At the same time, you might want to consider that you could end up on the wrong side of history. After all, if you rewind time, you can watch practically every form of cultural expression available to us devolve in public opinion until it’s considered trivial. Comic books are a good recent example: until the latter part of the 20th century, they were mostly considered frivolous entertainment for kids. Then Art Spiegelman came along and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for a comic book about the Holocaust; now comic books about life, depression, conflicts in the Middle East, any number of serious subjects are often called “graphic novels.” Go back a century or two or three and you can find people decrying novels (penny dreadfuls, particularly) for being mind-rotting wastes of time that serve no positive purpose in society. Go back a few thousand years and you can even find prohibitions against music as frivolous and unworthy.

    So now it’s games’ turn to be the primary rotter of the minds of youths, and not a respectable use of media-consumption time for people who want to consider serious subjects or edify themselves. Is it any wonder that people who devote themselves passionately to making games want to throw off the shackles of “games can only be trivial?” To overturn what you’re describing as an “insurmountable bias” by say, a generation from now when articles like this one will seem quaint?
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324769704579010641205335768.html

    Yes, words like “comic” and “cartoon” still signify material that’s light, for kids, frivolous; that’s part of why some creators and fans like “graphic novel” and “animation” instead. Who knows, maybe we’ll see new terms arise for games as the evolution of categories continues.

    Of course we can learn about the world in non-gamey fashion, and I’m sure everyone mentioned in this article, and probably you yourself, would agree that games don’t need to serve as a replacement for other ways to communicate and talk about things; in fact, they’re often an adjunct. Look a little bit into research on games and learning, systems thinking, and related topics; games can facilitate learning in ways that these other forms don’t. That makes it worthwhile to explore games as a way of talking about practically any subject. It’s true of other forms of culture as well — I can read 50 informational pamphlets or textbook entries with the facts on depression and not get the same kind of emotional understanding that I would if I read a story with a character I empathized with who was struggling with depression or a loved one’s depression. You wouldn’t say that subject’s off-limits or useless just because it’s fiction, right?

    The same is true of games — I’ve suffered from chronic low-grade depression for many years, I’ve been in therapy, read books and articles, and I have to say, quite honestly, that Depression Quest gave me a different kind of insight into the nature of depression, a reflection on the nature of agency, the lack of agency, and the role of other people during periods of depression — that I might not have ever had if Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler hadn’t decided to make a game about the subject. Their game does this with a game system, a character state that’s affected by the choices you make. And yeah, I think they successfully made an experience that has a game system, choices that affect outcomes, and other things common in many (but not all) other games, without creating game-psychology incentives to optimize or grind or myopically focus purely on victory outcomes. How are they managing to do this? Well, I think you lay yourself bare to some deserved critique for talking about the supposedly inherent problems with two games that you haven’t even played. You ought to be respectful and open-minded and play Zoe, Patrick and Isaac’s game now, especially after you call their work out as cringeworthy in this blog post.

    Oh! There’s one more thing that I think you’re right about: games are “limited in severity.” That’s definitely part of the value of games in serious contexts — they allow players to experience some aspects of a system or situation, but in a limited way. After all, nobody would think it good if players of Depression Quest actually suffered months of depression. Nor, as a wise man once told me, would we think it desirable if a painting of a bear, or a story about a bear, or a song featuring a bear, could actually maul us to death. These forms of culture are mediated ways for us to experience things without actually experiencing them. But that doesn’t mean they’re inherently trivial. If you’ve ever cried from witnessing the suffering of a character in a story or a film or on a stage, you know that’s not the SAME as crying due to your own suffering, but it’s not simply entertaining, or not worth dealing with serious subjects, or worth dismissing as “trivial.” Games communicate and create different kinds of experiences than non-interactive stories — things we’re still just exploring the depth of.

    I think of a game as anything that someone’s made for players to approach playfully, that they intend to be played like a game, and which can be played. That doesn’t always mean XP and levels and rolling for loot, I’m sure you’d agree; chess and poker don’t have to be played for points to be games either. The word “play” also connotes something frivolous, something non-productive, but I think there’s a new understanding — in multiple disciplines, psychology and sociology and so forth — of the immense value for all sorts of endeavors of a playful mind, one that’s open to exploration, to trying to push into something that’s going on, a situation or system, and see what happens, what the response is when you push or try or investigate. There’s much more to a playful system than bare-bones interactivity that you might find in an “interactive museum exhibit” that delivers pages of a brochure with a flick. And Depression Quest is a playful system, and it sounds like Choice: Texas will be one as well.

    So don’t be so hasty to slam this kind of work in public. Yes, words like “game” and “play” still carry a frivolous connotation in conventional wisdom — they carry a connotation of “for kids” too. I’d think seriously about whether you want to be old-fashioned about all of that, or whether you want to get on the right side of the bus and help push it somewhere new. It’s not like the fun stuff is going to be destroyed by these new possibilities! And it’s not like games are going to make other forms of learning and communication vanish or be devalued. Things can only get better.

  5. A briefer follow-up: Syl, I read some of your comments on Twitter and realized that I may have misconstrued what you were attempting to get across in this article. Quite honestly, when I first read it, it came across as: “games are inherently trivial and should not address difficult and serious subject matter, because they unavoidably trivialize them” — with two examples of games that are guilty of that, neither played nor understood by you. I’m honestly still not sure whether you DID mean to say that to some degree; if so, I still think that’s a reprehensible and harmful stance to promote and would urge you to rethink it.

    However, I now get that you were trying to say a couple other things, which may actually be more the point of this article, and I really do apologize if my previous post went on too long lecturing about things not disputed, already known, or irrelevant. So if you’re saying “look, this word has connotations, people are inevitably going to think you’re trying to make abortion FUN” — to that, I have to say “yes, everyone knows that already.” It’s what people trying to make games on serious subjects have been struggling uphill against for many years — in the press, when trying to get funding, with angry respondents, etc. And if you keep track of how these kinds of games are received, reviewed, and covered, you can see the tide slowly shifting from say, 7 years ago (with games like Darfur is Dying) to games of today like Unmanned or Papers, Please. So yes — there’s a shift in language that flies against conventional wisdom; maybe there’s going to be a new term equivalent to “graphic novel” that hasn’t emerged yet. And for now, “game” actually does make sense, for many creators, as an orientation suggested to players to approach their game with, as a player rather than say, a “reader” of an “interactive story.” I think if you play Depression Quest you’d see why.

    I also understand that you were saying “look, this is my reaction, I don’t want to play these games and find them distasteful, because I associate games with fun, low-impact, trivial entertainment!” Which is fine, of course — they’re not to your taste, nobody “ought to” like every kind of game. There’s something in the mixture you’ve made in this post which makes it massive flamebait, however, and I think it’s the combination of your personal distaste — which doesn’t really *have* to matter to anyone else, to avoid the “I’m freezing, you really should put a sweater on” fallacy — with broader statements about how these games are “doing it wrong,” whether you intended that to just be a criticism of marketing, of definition within “games” at all (surely the most boring question…) or a claim that it’s actually wrong to make games that try to be more than trivial, entertaining, and fun. It comes across as shitting on these games, at first blush and even stlil a bit after close examination: I still can’t parse and separate all those threads of your writing — but maybe that’s the peril of the “Rambly Me” tag.

    1. Hehe, it may very well be :) although I think as you said, this is a loaded discussion (more than I knew) with so many layers, that misunderstanding are very likely to happen especially if you do not know the author. I don’t expect anyone to know me but the fact that those readers on twitter (and I give some too much benefit there because they did not put in effort to read my article the way you did) who were the most volatile are people who never ever usually read my blog nor comment. they don’t know my voice nor position in the MMO blogosphere, nor my gaming background which is likely to be longer than many’s. that shouldn’t matter by the way, but it seems to matter to some. there was a heavy wall of confirmation bias coming my way yesterday which tells more about those who reacted in such manner than it tells about my post. I get this is a sensitive topic, already because part of it falls into gaming & feminism. I did not however include this aspect anywhere here and enough players probably wouldn’t, either – which makes it a legitimate way of analysis. I run a general meta gaming blog that specifically does not have one big focus. that doesn’t mean I don’t care for specific issues but I very often ask open questions and invite debate like this because it’s my experience that too many of my readers are scared away to partake or even voice their feelings elsewhere because someone will call them uneducated. I find this type of discourse on twitter and some other sites incredibly destructive as it reaches only selected few, and the fact that I suddenly got a ton of direct messages very telling (clearly many people were afraid to comment or agree with me in public lest they be shot down equally).

      As far as I am concerned, all voices are included in my comment sections as long as they are stated with genuine question, concern or respect. it’s not ignorant to ask questions and questions aren’t ignorant. as a teacher I know that better than most – and it’s the belief of me and “my professional colleagues” (as I was told on twitter I am no journo colleague lol) that people who have neither grace nor humility in their responses should never be teachers of anything. one can be tired of a discussion or of educating others (if such is your self-adopted task), in which case I would recommend not to react to something overly quickly lest you not be guilty of uninformed replies yourself. it’s the beauty of high standards that they apply to us also. which is the only thing I took fault with – it was not the fact that some people disagreed with me but the arrogant way in which it was done. alas, all that means is I’ve lost a certain amount of respect for them and that truly isn’t a big deal in the big picture of the gaming community. I wonder if the devs of these games would appreciate some of the hefty and volatile support done on their behalf though…would they indeed hire these type of voices to market themselves more widely?

      All that said, i thank you kindly for your very long reply. there is so much ground covered there and yet to cover for me, I don’t exactly know where to begin. I agree with much of what you’ve said, also in your first comment. by now though, I feel like there are at least four completely different questions / angles there that differ completely and that I personally feel differently about, too. that’s why I am grateful for such comments and why I see nothing bad coming from posts like mine, either – already it’s becoming a much more differentiated debate I can only gain from.

      For one thing, there’s the general question of whether games are trivial and if they are/were, is it a bad thing and does it need to change. secondly, there’s maybe the more important question of how useful/successful it can be to turn important topics into games, given the current status quo and that many gamers are on the defense. you make a legitimate argument that these reactions can only be changed by creating more serious games though or alternatively also, that making people feel ‘uncomfortable’ is a good thing (I second that but it doesn’t work if they won’t even buy the product). and then, just to add as a third option, we could talk about whether games/mechanics are really effective in educating on certain topics or if the format in itself isn’t too limiting or teaching wrong habits. after this, we’ve yet to address the issue of ‘marketing stunts’ which may or may not be part of it (yet it’s understandable and in fact needed to consider).

      To clarify my outlook to you once more, as an educator I absolutely have misgivings whenever it appears that more ‘gamey’ media are being overused. I love games and have been playing them for 30 years – yet I also hold a torch for literature, poetry and other media. I have a controversial relationship with gamification and what it potentially does to serious issues (I hate achievements). from that POV I’m grateful for your personal feedback on how much you enjoyed DQ. I would never dismiss your experience with it. at the same time, I’ve had people suffering from depression tell me they thought it was misplaced for them – which is not an attempt at quantifying anything. but from where I am/was originally, I assumed the makers of DQ would especially try and reach players who lie outside the already more educated/interested/affected demography. I still do wonder if these are reached but maybe that is not the intention and my assumption therefore wrong. as I said further up too, the goal can totally be inclusion and diversity before maximum exposure. you have a point too, that one can only try and reach more players by creating more such games. having more second-hand experience with severe depression (although very directly so which is quite affecting), my instinctive reaction is that it never compares with what real people go through and given the risk of being made fun of or not being taken seriously enough because ‘game’, that’s a big part of my unease. I don’t think such issues deserve to be anywhere remotely trivial – I might be completely wrong there, though. maybe they should be broken down and some of the severity should be given up for accessibility. also, I am a big reader which isn’t the case for everybody.

      I don’t find these games ‘distasteful’, by the way, that is way too strong. I would definitely give them a go if I came across them. but I do have a lot of reserve and I know it’s shared by many – which is reinforcing my concerns. does that make sense? I also completely hear you on –

      “Is it any wonder that people who devote themselves passionately to making games want to throw off the shackles of “games can only be trivial?”

      …however, due to all reasons given above, I ask if this is a fruitful course. to devote yourself is commendable only if you’re doing something that is either beneficial or wanted. and if it’s ‘just art’, it should make that clearer. I am pretty pragmatic here, I know. I don’t mean to be conservative though and I’m not looking to forcefully maintain a status quo, it’s more that I don’t see what’s bad about trivial games and games being more inherently trivial. to want to change a status quo, one needs to be unhappy about it (is there really an ‘interest group’ pro ‘more serious topics in games’? or are we arguing an artificial point?). a great deal of important things, interesting things, even fun things simply don’t need to be gamified for me personally. to clarify: I don’t accuse the makers of DQ or CT of trivializing as much as I blame connotations that exist in and around gaming culture for this effect. quite obviously it is not what’s intended but it affects reception nonetheless.

      I don’t know if I was able to at least clarify my stance for you, but I’ve done my best. :) it’s not easy and I’ve this eerie feeling that I am asking ‘why do apples now also need to be oranges, if we have enough oranges?’ while others say ‘what’s wrong with more oranges? apples meh’. to some degree we don’t talk about the same thing and we come from different directions. I am definitely taking a lot more away from this though, even if I can’t possibly cover it all. thanks Naomi.

  6. Sometimes a game about a topic that should not be a game makes you feel uneasy, and the fact that it does makes you think about it. Which can be a good thing as well in a way. But I get your ambiguous feeling, I get the same about certain topics (like realistic war games that play in a historic setting – yup I’m old fashioned like that).

    1. Absolutely. the fact that this has happened for me and also others who have replied here or elsewhere, shows that discussion is always helpful and therefore asking open questions always needed. there will never be a time where everyone is equally informed about everything.

  7. I’m going to jump on this a little late, but jump on it all the same because I harbor a pet fondness for the interactive fiction format. It is a medium, just like comics, books, film, or other genres of games. It’s a bit of a hybrid, really, between the written word and using the computer to deliver sections of text to you based on the decisions you make, with how you interact with the computer differing based on the specific format/language it is coded in.

    I don’t know if you can strictly call it a “game” per se, we’ll end up running into a semantical definition dead-end, but yes, it has boundaries/rules, there is usually a goal of getting to the end of the narrative (may be multiple endings), there may be challenge involved and of course it is interactive. So yes, interactive fiction counts as “game,” but not in the sense that most mainstream people would understand it, with all the take-home connotations of being trivial, lighthearted pursuits for children.

    Is that a problem? I suppose that depends on what one is trying to achieve. If you want to change people’s minds about how “serious” “games” can be, then creating “serious games” with adult messages attached (erm, not that kind of adult) can be part of the tactic. If you want to reach a gaming audience with a particular message, then yeah, you can try embedding your message into a game – though you’ll promptly run into the issue of gamers being rather picky about the types of genre they play and/or being particular about the quality of your game thereof.

    If you want your message to reach those who hear the word “game” and dismiss it as something they’ll never touch, then obviously, including a message within a game is not an effective tactic at all.

    Now as for the choice of the interactive fiction medium itself – for specifically Depression Quest since I have not played Choice:Texas – was it an effective choice?

    Interactivity allows the player to make choices and see the consequences of those decisions. Interactive fiction allows for branching narratives and multiple endings, and players are usually encouraged to play through more than once to see how different choices might affect the ending. The text is usually written in second person narrative to allow the player to immerse into the role/character in the moment, it’s personal, it’s immediate, it draws the reader into what’s happening right now in the story.

    If you actually play it, you’ll find that it makes use of IF mechanics in a very cunning way. By purposefully limiting certain choices because certain conditions have not been met (your motivation is too low, you don’t own a cat, etc.) it purports to simulate the lack of choice that people in depression are facing. (Whether that actually works depends on how receptive to the message the particular player is, I suppose.)

    I submit that what Depression Quest was trying to do, it could not have effectively done with any other medium, regardless of whether one considers it a “game” or no.

    As for the rant about its title, that’s unrelated to whether its message should be in a “game” or not. The rant seems more to be about the particular choice of the “quest” word and its connotations, in conjunction with “depression” and its connotations. If you actually play the game, there are no quest mechanics as one typically understands it in RPGs. (A lot of interactive fiction actually makes it hard to seek an optimal path, and is usually more about exploring possibilities, unlike other game formats, which does make it alien to your average gamer.)

    DQ does play around with the idea of an optimal quest path by making it very difficult/almost impossible to get “a good ending” and does harbor a loaded message for those who persist that taking medication/seeking help, etc. improves the depressive’s lot in life (something I don’t personally have to agree with, btw, but that’s the message the creators wanted to convey.)

    One could also subjectively argue that getting through each day in depression is a herculean task similar to an epic quest, and perhaps that’s what the authors were trying to imply when they chose that title. Or maybe they were trying to attract more gaming audience by copycatting the format of names like Ever Quest or Progress Quest. We wouldn’t actually know unless we asked the creators why they chose that name specifically though.

    As for whether it simplifies or trivializes a topic like depression, of course one game is not going to cover the breadth of the topic. One ARTICLE or brochure or book or film for that matter, does not cover it, and also involves some manner of simplification or cutting down to fit the format. We could end up having a similar debate over a “comic” about depression, that it’s not a funny subject matter, why make a comic about it? Yet people do. And sometimes achieve specific goals by doing so.

    If the idea of such a game existing interests you enough to give it a try, then do. If it immediately repels you, then you are not the target audience.

    (If you want to discuss it though, how about giving it a try so that further discussions can be made with more basis? It’s hard to discuss a piece of literature or a specific film in depth if one has only looked at the cover or watched the trailer and made a judgement about it. :) )

    1. “Or maybe they were trying to attract more gaming audience by copycatting the format of names like Ever Quest or Progress Quest. ”

      About this: there are actually people who think these games are parodies because of their titles or descriptions. I had one person ask me as much after publishing my article. obviously this can never have been the intended effect of the creators…and it does fill me with cringe / regret for these subjects. it says nothing about their content or quality otherwise but my main argument has always been a formative one here.

      I think it’s fair enough to shrug off anyone already turning away at the doorstep as ‘not target audience’, if you’re not looking to reach as many as possible. as I said in comments before, you can absolutely aim for diversity or inclusion. I was looking at these games in a different light myself – with the same standards I apply to all games. that includes how they’re marketed and how that affects their overall success / popularity on a mainstream level. that’s also why I’m not talking in-depth about content and I’m not trying to judge them further. that was exactly not the point. there’s an entry barrier here that prevents many players to even go there and that’s mostly what I wanted to discuss, also maybe in terms of how/if it could be improved (I understand the name-giving of DQ was probably meant to sound peppy and more attractive but somehow that just doesn’t work).

      1. Ah, I see where you’re coming from now. I tend more to evaluate games by the conventions of their sub-genre, eg. FPS, RTS, MMO, IF, whatever, as I find that standards differ across those lines. Can one really complain that a tactical turn-based RPG or even an online chess game is too slow and boring, compared to an arcade shooter?

        Out of curiosity, what standards do you feel apply to all games?

        As for inclusion and appealing to a general audience, I always did get the impression that the interactive fiction / narrative-and-storytelling-in-games / serious games communities were a more “artsy” or ivory tower bunch of folks than the mainstream gamer community.

        The moment a game is all in text, I think there already is an insurmountable entry barrier to quite a number of ordinary gamers. :P

        That may explain some of the dissonance of Depression Quest. Ostensibly, they say they’re trying to spread awareness about depression to a wider audience using a “game” as a medium, but they choose the somewhat rarefied sub-genre of interactive fiction that doesn’t really appeal to most gamers and shoot themselves in the foot reaching a non-gaming audience with the stigma of the word “game.”

        Well, no developer can think of everything. :) For what it’s worth, it isn’t a bad game for a prepared-to-be-receptive audience.

      2. Indeed – I think you’ve just given the best summary of what I was trying to say. :)
        I realize my thoughts are somewhat convoluted in the article, but then that’s what rambly-tags and posts about “how something makes me feel” usually entail. feelings aren’t always rational or neatly ordered. they’re powerful nonetheless when it comes to buyers decisions.

        “Out of curiosity, what standards do you feel apply to all games?”

        Whoa…..now that would be its own post for sure!

      3. Was a pleasure to have this discussion. I enjoy the whole process of trying to nail down and clarify an elusive thought/feeling via a lot of different viewpoints.

        Looking forward to that post! Muhahaha…

  8. I think you hit the nail on the head. What they have made, they’re calling a “game”, but it really isn’t. A game is simply an activity we engage in for fun. It can be competitive, but doesn’t have to be. By that definition, the “game” isn’t a game at all. I’d just use the term “interactive media”. And I agree, for such a serious topic, using the term “game” trivializes the entire message!

    I don’t know on what side, politically, the game lies, but I really don’t want to know. I don’t like when politics enters the gaming space, whether I believe in it or not. This is supposed to be an area free of stress, not an area where it creates stress.

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