Games on Games. Game design as critical reflexive practice
In its fifth issue, G|A|M|E invites the submission of analyses and reflections about the possibility (or lack thereof) of creating playable critiques of video games and of game culture at large. With this topic, G|A|M|E aims at exploring the feasibility of a playable game criticism – a meta-level in which playing, designing and critiquing overlap. The meta-representation of ludic elements in games has been tacitly addressed in the past by mainstream and indie titles alike. In this vein, we might point at DLC Quest (GoingLoud, 2011), a piece providing a satire of downloadable contents in games, GameDev Story (Kairosoft, 2010) a management game simulating a game development studio, up to Linear RPG (Houlden, 2009) an indie title subverting the typical narrative and game mechanics of role-playing video games.
A number of design disciplines are looking at practices such as DIY, ‘making’ and ‘hacking’ as alternative ways to produce knowledge. For example, Matt Ratto famously defined ‘critical making’ as a way of “[using] material forms of engagement with technologies to supplement and extend critical reflection” (2012), reuniting conceptual and physical explorations (DiSalvo, 2009). Bogost (2012) dubs ‘carpentry’ the practice of designing and producing objects that ask philosophical questions or, more broadly, materially coalesce critical thought. In other words, critical making challenges researchers not only to theorize but, most importantly, to make as a way to produce critical concepts. It is clear that not every act of making is per se critical, but some of them offer the chance to theorize and to communicate concepts from a different perspective. Following the growing interest in similar research practices, we raise the following questions: could the practice of game making be adopted as a meta-reflection? Can game design supplement and extend theorizing in the field of game studies? Since the DiGRA 2013 Conference, we have seized the opportunity to name ‘games on games‘ (GOG) these still understudied but quite promising artifacts (Caruso et al., 2013). We have tentatively proposed to call ‘games on games’ those pieces that not only represent the way games are designed, made, played and sold but that also critically reflect upon the same topics. Recognizing this definition as preliminary, we offer it as a starting point, whose discussion and critique is urgent.
To facilitate the discussion, we might further unpack our preliminary definition of GOG by pointing at standalone games, digital or otherwise, that set aside simple entertainment to pursue other critical objectives, such as:
Describing or commenting on videoludic genres or sub-genres, highlighting their qualities, weaknesses and recurring features.
Critiquing a specific game, expressing an original point of view through interactive and procedural dynamics.
Elaborating on some aspects or peculiarities of gaming practices.
Describing the interaction between computer games and society, or describing – either critically or satirically – how computer games are perceived and represented in social discourses.
Theorizing on the general characteristics of play, or on those specific to computer games or to a particular genre.
Presenting and exemplifying theoretical models to describe and understand gaming practices.
Representing the historical evolution of videoludic media through interactive dynamics.
Parodying a game, a genre or a series.
As we invite contributions from game scholars and game designers, we offer this list – certainly not exhaustive – of provocations to discuss:
What are the defining characteristics of GOGs? Which are the exemplar pieces of this genre? Can we attempt to generalize their most important characteristics? What are their limits and their argumentative, rhetoric and persuasive potentialities? Would it be possible to produce game analyses that need to be played, instead of read? Are Games on Games able to highlight some elements of play practices more effectively than written texts? Can they make visible some characteristics of ludic practices that could otherwise remain undervalued or even invisible?
This kind of meta-pieces already existed in other media: what is the relationship between GOGs and their precursors? After all, we have similar excellent examples in the fields of cinema and comics: from Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), we could identify a long and successful tradition of crafting theoretical and critical discourses about a medium adopting the affordances and constraints of the medium itself. By tracing the evolution of the historical precursors of GOGs, could we envision and orient their future developments?
What are the epistemological bases for GOGs? Which is their contribution to the understanding of games, of game culture and game design? Are GOGs a form of academic inquiry, of Research through Design (Zimmerman et al., 2007)? Are they artistic practices of meta-reflection, or are they just inventive gimmicks played by publishers and developers to carve a new niche for their products? How can they be situated in relation to other qualitative and quantitative approaches to the study of games? Who produces GOGs today, and who will do so in the future: critics, designers, indie developers, hackers, ordinary players? Will we witness the rise of a new form of game research?
How can we situate GOGs in the academic world, in relation to more traditional analyses expressed in linear media? Could GOGs explain elements of play practices more effectively than written words and audiovisual media? Could GOGs complement more traditional ways of analyzing games and game cultures? Will the rise of GOGs bring changes in the way we teach game design and criticism, moving the didactic practice further away from textbooks, towards ad-hoc interactive experiences? And, more broadly and more provocatively: have we reached a point in which written language is not sufficient anymore and we need to turn to procedural media to express our analyses?
Which theoretical contributions could GOGs offer to designers and researchers? What are the lessons that the design community can learn through GOGs? And what is their role to the academic debate? Could our comprehension of game culture be better and more situated if we stop debating and focus instead on making games on it? How could GOGs participate to the heated discussions on crucial topics in game culture (e.g. gender roles and their representation, diversity and inclusion, violence, intellectual property…)?
Acknowledging that the field of the Games on Games project is almost unexplored, G|A|M|E opens this call to test its potentialities and to map its boundaries. Coherently with our theme, we invite the submission of both written essays and actual, playable Games on Games that elaborate on the practices and cultures of computer gaming (playing, designing, developing…) using procedural media. Following Bogost’s and Ratto’s ideas of critical making and carpentry, the playable submissions should aim principally at being self-reflective experiments to explore the affordances and potentialities of procedural creativity.
Those who wish to contribute written essays will have to submit a 500-words abstract by October 5th, 2015. Those who wish to propose a playable GOG will have to send a 500-words executive brief, possibly with screenshots, diagrams and/or a playable demo, by October 5th, 2015. Submissions must be sent at firstname.lastname@example.org
Notification of acceptance, for essays and games: November 5th, 2015.
All accepted authors will be asked to submit the full paper and/or full game by February 20th, 2016. Those submitting a game will also need to produce an author’s statement/critical introduction to their piece (about 3000 characters).
The 5th issue of G|A|M|E is expected to be published in Spring 2016.
Special instructions for game developers
It is possible to submit games that have already been published elsewhere, provided that they are freely playable (NOTE: written essays, instead, must be completely original). Participating game developers certify that they are the principal creators of the work they submit and that they have every legal right to do so. Each participant retains ownership rights, and grants G|A|M|E the right to publicize the submitted games and link to them.
There are no limitations to the tools and the technologies adopted. Each developer will be responsible for hosting his/her own product on a website of his/her choice that will be linked to G|A|M|E. Web portals such as Kongregate.com or Newgrounds.com are admissible. Even non-digital games such as boardgames or tabletop RPGs are allowed, provided that the author distributes all the necessary material for playing the game (e.g. cards, tokens and instructions in PDF format, or similar). If executable files are distributed, we strongly suggest that they are cross-platform compatible.
Submitted works must be playable without requiring users to buy additional material, licenses, etc. Submitted works cannot be “trial versions”, “shareware”, or feature “in-app purchases”.