In one of my previous columns (“Why We Need More Boring Games”), I imagined a continuum of video game expression, running from Casablanca on one end to the airline safety video on the other. I used this example to illustrate the wide range of topics that have been produced with moving images. I suggested that there are many spaces between those two extremes left unexplored in video games, especially around mundane experiences.
In reactions to that article, many readers assumed I was calling for more traditional games about boring topics. That is one possible conclusion. But another—the more important one—is that games should strive to serve more mundane purposes. The more things games can do, I reasoned, the more the general public will become accepting of, and interested in the medium in general.
One such purpose is education, a domain that has become connected almost exclusively to serious games. This is unfortunate because serious games proponents have also isolated their domain from commercial games, lording their “seriousness” over commercial games implied frivolity. Players and developers of commercial games have taken offense, noting that many ancient board games or modern commercial video games are serious in exactly the way the serious games community intends. This gripe is justified: declaring serious games a separate domain undermines and misinterprets the power of commercial games like Civilization.
But more often then not, the solution the game industry or game press suggests amounts to a similar isolationism. Consider Iron Forge CEO Matt Mihaly’s response to Peters’ Slate column:
I’m just going to refer to [games with a purpose other than entertainment] as Alternative Purpose Games (APGs) until I grow tired of having to explain what I mean every time I use the term. I think APG sums them up much more clearly than ‘Serious’ does when trying to distinguish between games whose purpose is entertainment and games whose purpose is something else.
Mihaly accommodates games with different possible purposes, but he can’t find a way to describe those purposes save “entertainment” and “other.” Just as the serious games community risks isolating and trivializing commercial games, so statements like this do the opposite.
Both of these strong positions on one or the other side of seriousness fail to admit that games might have different goals, forms, and styles based on the contexts of their conception and reception. When Peters or Mihaly complain about games like the ones I make, I treat part of their reaction as critique; I’m not so proud or foolish to claim that I have nothing to learn. But more and more, I hear less useful feedback and more wide-ranging reaction to the idea that games unlike Civ or World of WarCraft just don’t count as games at all.
Ironically, some of the games Peters and Mihaly lament bear striking resemblance to some very popular games of yesterday and today. After all, what makes Stone City so different from, say, Pressure Cooker or Tapper or Diner Dash? Are such games educational? Probably not. But they do simulate experiences that intrigue people.
Why should the restaurant service business be any less fascinating than world domination? Certainly most of us are far more likely to patronize, work at, or open a restaurant than we are to lead an entire society by godlike fiat.
Yet my critics allege that such games simply fail to function as games. Their accusations place the burden of proof on creators like me to prove that they are even worthy of the appellation. Show us, they charge, how this or that game conforms to our idea of what a game is and what a game does. It is not enough to demonstrate that people are in fact playing these games, or discussing them.
No, they must be judged as “good” or “bad” (and always one or the other) in the court of game fandom, or the game press, or the game trades. A MetaCritic rating might be best, but other quantitative measures are satisfactory. For example, Mihaly makes the absurd suggestion that the Alexa rank of my studio’s website somehow bears witness to the cultural relevance of its output.