With this article I will try to clarify whatÂ self-reflexive video gamesÂ are and why I consider them useful instruments for promoting a more mature and diverse approach to game design. As a researcher and game designer, I have recently developed an experimental,Â self-reflexive video gameÂ titledÂ Necessary EvilÂ (http://evil.gua-le-ni.com) that will be utilized as an example of the kind of games that I will hopefully succeed in encapsulating in the following pages. With a little help from Jorge Luis Borges, I will argue that the whimsical gameplay ofÂ self-reflexive video gamesÂ interactively materializes the conventionality and the limitations of the way in which we currently understand and design video games. In other words, in this article I will propose an understanding ofÂ self-reflexive video gamesÂ as playable forms of critical thought.
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine essayist and poet who, in his work, often presented imaginative alternatives to the conventionally rational way in which we make sense of our world. For example, in a short story written between 1937 and 1952, Borges informed his readers that âa certain Chinese encyclopediaâ featured a very unusual way of categorizing fauna. In the fabulous taxonomy of that fictional encyclopaedia the animals are in fact divided into the following categories:
â(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.âÂ [i]
I believe it is evident that there is a vertiginous difference between how the Chinese encyclopaedia catalogues beasts and the way in which modern science goes about the same task. The coherence and the stability of the hierarchical organization of animals based on their class, order and genus is ridiculed in Borgesâs work by the subjective, accidental and paradoxically self-inclusive qualities of his unthinkable taxonomy.
Roughly seventy years after the Chinese encyclopedia, experimental game developer Stephen Gillmurphy proposed an intriguing perspective on what games are. His classification is as bizarre and disquieting as Borgesâs. On his website,Â Gillmurphy claimed that
âA game is some combination of the following indivisable [sic] elements:
- red key
- score thing
- magic doorâÂ [ii]Â Â
If Borgesâs classification can be understood as a reaction against the univocal and conventional worldview offered by scientism, then we can interpret Gillmurphyâs definition as an improbable alternative to the clumsy formalism of some academic analyses of games [iii]. Both are similarly broken, exhilarating and dysfunctional, and cannot be mistaken for actual attempts to establish a more encompassing theory or a better definition of something. Borgesâs and Gillmurphyâs world-views do not present themselves as new foundations for how we are to think about the world or about games, but â with their exotic charm â bring to the fore the conventionality and limitations of how we currently think about them. Their use of text congeals a certain form of critical thought.
As anticipated in the introductory lines, the focus to this article areÂ self-reflexive video gamesÂ and their use. The literary preamble above was useful to build my argument via a process of analogy. Focusing our attention onÂ self-reflexive video games, I believe it is now necessary to attempt a definition of what such video games are.
Self-reflexive video gamesÂ are games that do not treat the experience of gameplay as their ultimate goal (they are not first and foremost entertainment products). Their gameplay is, instead, chiefly instrumental to conveying certain messages or raise awareness about something. In the specific case ofÂ self-reflexive video games, their often uncouth gameplay serves the goal of bringing into question and demystifying aspects of the way in which we currently understand and design video games.
Similarly to what was observed when discussing Borgesâs and Gillmurphyâs categorizations,Â self-reflexive video gamesÂ do not present themselves as examples of new and more desirable perspectives for game design. According to most formal definitions, in fact, they are barely games at all: often, critical video games have no winning conditions, are frequently roughly executed, short-lived and deliberately annoying. Instead of being the heralds of the future of our understanding of the medium,Â self-reflexive video gamesÂ could be more suitably understood as materialized, interactive critical thought.
Frequently cited examples of critical,Â âself-reflexive video gamesâÂ are:
I believe in the relevance and necessity for game development to take a critical stance that is not only directed outwards, that is to say towards situations the world outside of video games (for example in the case of political issues, different forms of social discrimination, the inner functioning of capitalism,Â et cetera), but also directed inwards at the very way in which we are using our medium. Together with my friend and colleague Dino Dini (www.dinodini.com), we too pursued a reflection on the expressive potential of video games through video games themselves. Â In a few days, uncomfortably squeezed between our teaching duties and other personal game development engagements, we managed to put together an experimentalÂ self-reflexiveÂ video gameÂ titledÂ Necessary EvilÂ (http://evil.gua-le-ni.com). Our game tries to let the unquestioned player-centrism of contemporary game development emerge from its annoying, instrumental gameplay [iv].
Necessary EvilÂ pursues this purpose by giving the player control over a lowly evil minion, a marginal character that traditionally plays a functional role in the process of the main characterâŚ Only in our game the main character, around which the game world and its narration revolve around, is a non-playing one. Impersonating a marginal character, the playersâ possibility for interaction as well as the duration and the quality of their experience are necessarily limited and unsatisfactory. In other words, our gameÂ discloses for the players a world that, for once, is not build around them and their expectations.Â Necessary EvilÂ is free to play and a part of us cordially hopes that you do not enjoy it.
Warning: the following video is 12 minutes long and contains spoilers!
[i]Â This excerpt was taken from the short story titled âThe Analytical Language of John Wilkinsâ that was originally featured in Borgesâs collection titledÂ Other inquisitions 1937-1952. âThe Analytical Language of John Wilkinsâ is available online (both in the original Spanish version and in an English translation) asÂ Â http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/wilkins.html.
[ii]Â Gillmurphyâs humorous understanding of what a game is can be found atÂ http://harmonyzone.org/Videogames.html.
[iii]Â Another tongue-in-cheek take on the definitory anxiety of certain analytical approaches was offered, in a hilarious procedural fashion, by Paolo Pedercini (designer and activist ofÂ www.molleindustria.org) with his online game definition generator. The latter can be accessed atÂ http://www.gamedefinitions.com/.
[iv]Â Necessary EvilÂ was developed as a contribution to the panel âG|A|M|E on Games: the Meta-panelâ organized together withÂ www.gamejournal.itÂ for the 2013 DiGRA conference in Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.A.).