a series of rants

i gave the following speech at the “indie games rant” session at gdc today, accompanied by these slides (left and right arrow keys to navigate). (thanks to radix for klik&play-to-flash conversion.)


i’m angry about too many things to pick a single theme for my rant, so i’m going to rant about a bunch of things.


first of all, the videogame isn’t a medium, it’s a form. it’s a form of games, which have been around for millenia. games are among the oldest cultural artifacts in existence.


we need to stop thinking that digital games are something different and seperate from all the other kinds of games that have been around us forever, like board games and card games and hide and seek. they aren’t. digital game design and non-digital game design have things to say to each other that we need to stop ignoring.


the problem with the term “artgame” is that when you declare a single game “art”, you’re drawing a distinction between it and the games that prefigured it. you’re declaring they’re not art. and there’s been art and craft in games for as long as people have been making creative decisions about them.


i’m uncomfortable with the “indie” label and the scenesterism it seems to engender. one of the things i hate about mainstream games is that its language and culture are designed to exclude people, and what i like about game creation outside the mainstream is that it can potentially include everyone.


there’s a concept in visual art called “outsider art,” a concept in music called “outsider music.” it refers to people who aren’t connected to an artistic field or its body of criticism but who create art anyway, an art that some consider to be more honest, more pure. i think games will come into their own when anyone can make a game as easily as one can type a short story or sing a song.


so we need more tools for people who aren’t programmers to make games with. game maker is a start, and it’s brought a lot of people into making games who wouldn’t otherwise be, but we aren’t quite there yet. i want to hear the voices of people who aren’t already entrenched in game culture.


i want to hear stories that are personal. i’m tired of epics, i’m tired of saving the world and i’m tired of masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies. if i’m tired of that shit, there’s no way it’s going to mean anything to a player.


storytelling in games does not mean cutscenes, and it does not mean reading pages and pages of static text. we have to learn to tell stories with rules, with design, and with play instead of aping other cultural forms.


when the paradigm of games shifted from the arcade to the home machine, what we largely lost was the videogame as a social experience. i think we need to examine how we can use social spaces like galleries as avenues for games as events, instead of assuming our players have no friends and would prefer to experience games at home, alone.


the mainstream games press is owned by the mainstream games industry. they’re pets. they’re given generous gifts and spend most of their time rewriting the press releases they’re handed. but what’s poisonous about the enthusiast press is that the model of writing they promote is:


the consumer review’s goal is to tell me whether or not i should buy a product, not to help me to better understand a work. a review isn’t criticism, and criticism is what videogames desperately need. it’s more valuable to be able to say “this game expresses this idea” than it is to say “this game has EYE-POPPING VISUALS.” we need to develop a critical vocabulary to talk about our games.


the other poisonous thing about the enthusiast press is the language it passes on to its readers, which is a language of marketers. games even outside the mainstream have a language which is intended not to communicate but to establish boundaries, to determine whether the listener is in on the joke. stop saying “EPIC.” stop saying “WIN.” stop saying “FAIL.”


i went to a game design school and one of the MANY problems i observed was that no one knew how to teach game design. we need to figure out how to talk about game design and level design if we don’t want to be endlessly re-solving the same problems.


the eighty-hour game is a dead end. a game that requires that much content requires a huge budget, and that means the game won’t make any money unless it’s a huge hit. which means games are designed to be all things to all people. and that leads to…


big-budget games have so many competing ideas that it’s impossible for any of them to come through clearly. games need to be designed by designers, not by marketers.


generally, achievements are used to artificially draw out the game. many contemporary games have little or no respect for the player’s time, and that’s something we need to change if we want people to play games who aren’t privileged kids with too much leisure time, and i think games deserve a more diverse audience.


and to conclude, my new game, REDDER, went online today. it’s at newgrounds.com and i know some of you have laptops with wifi. you could be playing it right now. do it.


49 thoughts on “a series of rants”

  1. I realize now that where I’ve been using the term “artgame”, I’ve really wanted to say “short story game”. I think this relates to your desire for more personal stories of a smaller scope. That’s not to say that a small game can’t have ideas bigger than the boundaries of a single play session, but blind ambition has been a growing problem with independent game designers. Anybody remember the klik scene of the 90s, with everybody trying their hardest to make games too big to finish? Lots of interesting ideas in this rant, and the KnP slides are a hoot.

  2. So, on the Indie thing. If you want to complain because most “indie” devs are million $+ a year operations, fine. But not so sure I agree with your critique here. Exclusion is a good thing…

  3. I think I agree with most of this.

    I CERTAINLY agree that board, and story, games have a lot to teach computer games. They are certainly willing to LEARN from them.

    Two things though:
    First – the role of reviews. Yes, they are reviews. I want to know, basically “Do not waste your money/time on this”. That’s important.
    It’s not critique – but what the heck use are critics to anyone except universities?

    And second – you want a language of games AND you want people to stop using an exclusive clique language?
    That’s not very consistent of you.

    I’d also point to you at the periodic huge arguments about GNS and ‘the big model’ that rages on places like the-forge. A language doesn’t actually help people make games. It just helps people argue about games.

  4. Really clever rants. I wish I could be at San Francisco this year…

    You mention a very important topic for me : the respect of the player’s time. There’s some work to do here :)

  5. speaking out of my usual ironic pigscene context, i think you bring up a lot of great points here, but if we’re talking about getting personal, how about we stop talking about things so generally? how about we stop being afraid to target the “enthusiast press” and just name names outright? this is no longer a matter of ‘indie dave versus activigoliath.’ it’s clear from the yu coined phrase “new age” indie game that there exists a desire to maintain a division between what you rightly call “outside games” to what yu would call an indie game unquotationally. i feel that the biggest issue is that there exists a percieved “mecca” of indie games, and that it has become so ubiquitous with the phrase “independent gaming” that any pile of shit that gets sloshed around on it becomes, in a sense, the meter by which other “indie games” (quotationally) are meted. the first step to correcting all these issues is to sever the mainstream press’s reliance on tigsource as some sort of indie games epicenter. i remember even kotaku at one point used other sites (indygamer blog, even pigscene) as sources, and that it helped keep the phrase “independent games” from having the same negative connotation that the phrase “independent films” has now. please, one man’s opinion — and by extension, the opinions of (13 year old) others that one man agrees with, do not constitute the opinions of an entire movement of hopeful and daring developers. let’s at least make an effort to give others a shot?

    just a few names i can think of off the top of my head:


  6. yeah i was also curious about the achievements in REDDER like scattle said

    does newgrounds force games that go up on the main page to have achievements or did you have some other purpose for putting those achievements in?

  7. Nice thoughts indeed. I just don’t get how to look through the slides though. I only get a moving image, but i can’t navigate in any direction. Is there any magic involved?

  8. Maybe we can’t have something else that “this game has EYE-POPPING VISUALS.” because our form of games is called VIDEOGAMES.

    I think it’s crazy how it stays as the common way to describe computer/digital games. From the PC to the PS3 to arcade to the smartphone, everything’s a computer right? This is the medium. So why not call videogames -an inaccurate term for our form- computer games? Just wondering because it would be a good start to solve a lot of misunderstanding coming from the videogame term.

  9. Great piece.

    I remember an ancient interview with Romero where he stated that a first draft of the “Quake” design was just you vs. one monster.

    I want *that* game.

  10. Arthur: There’s also the entire rom hack community, who rarely get any press at all.

    And concerning “The Review”: It’s sad that the Games Quarter went kaput, would you ever consider starting up a similar site Anna? I love your level design lessons and wish there was more game criticism out there. I’d be happy to contribute, and I’m sure there are others out there who would as well.

  11. The thing that stood out most to me was your use of the verb “experience”:

    players… would prefer to experience games at home, alone.

    This, I think, is the foundation of what you’re trying to get across. One of the things holding back the progress you wish for is the trivialisation/ghettoisation of games. When we start thinking about “experiencing” games, rather than “playing” them, the scope widens.

  12. It is also possible to critique something while engaging in it out of necessity. For instance, I live in a sexist society, which I critique, but I don’t kill myself rather than be implicated in sexism.

  13. @Games Online: Let’s find an extension cord and drag our home computers out onto the street. Maybe take a couch and a beach umbrella, too. Best of both worlds.

  14. By definition, video games as a whole is a medium.(look it up) Almost anything can be considered a “form” when it’s in the proper context. Example: Games can be called a form of play. Play can be called a form of activity. Activity can be called a form of Action. Yes, video games are a subsection of games general. But it can be both a form and a medium.

    Analog and digital games are separate. Mainly because the experience of the player is greatly altered when the player can actually see fantasy. Most analog games require imagination. To play an analog game, you must invest your interest into it in order to get enjoyment out of it. Whereas digital games require little to no investment to get equal or greater enjoyment. They have instant appeal. The reason they’re separate is because games, as a medium, can offer much more than analog ever can.

    The arcade is the perfect illustration of how analog and digital have separated. The arcade used to be a place of social gatherings. Back when games were simple, they felt like analog. The resolutions were low, the designs crude, and the complexity to a minimum. Those factors forced players to use their imaginations. Invest their interest. But as the systems became more complex, better designed, highly defined, so did the players become less invested.

    Even with that said, digital and analog are not completely separate. Still, as the digital medium grows, it will eventually detach from analog. The term “video games” is a bit archaic. Because it doesn’t accurately define the medium. The medium is the digital space where in games are played. Not the games themselves. Through technology, the gap between reality and the digital space will come a lot closer together. Just think of what the future holds. Analog could never cross those bounds.

    Sorry for the long comment. I like you bits about story telling and getting personal.

  15. Great post! I think you really brought a lot of issues to the point. As somebody who is getting into game design now, this is great stuff to think about, and I think it’s people like me, without a big game design background who can make the difference, take things from a different perspective.

  16. Responded on my blog that I never updated, making this like the only post there for now. Apologies in advance if it sounds like I’m being an asshole, I just wanted to give my perspective on the matters you talked about here. Link is in my name.

    Also excuse the lack of, well, pretty much anything on the blog, I’m only using it because it’s the only place I could put something like this. I made it for a college report a while ago and it’s just kind of still here.

  17. enough rhetoric. pretty sick of games are this and that ( medium, form, etc, is just a matter of linguistic (also pointless )) games are games. (slightly agree with almost everything )now I’ll go and make a game.
    (I would use metaphors to express my point better but I’m kind of tired) thanks

  18. I disagree with almost everything you’ve said here, though ironically I think we’re on the same side. I too like to see art and creativity and storytelling in games, but I don’t think that’s something that’s really lacking. There are plenty of wonderful games being released that suit me just fine. And I don’t think there’s any need to give “everybody” the ability to make games, and yes there’s a hint of selfishness in there because the fewer developers there are out there the more special I am. But also I simply think games are something that should be difficult to create, because they are such a highly sophisticated form of art. Short stories and songs and such have always been created by solitary artists because they’re so basic and fundamental, but games include songs and they include stories and many other things that take a lot of time, talent, and work. And why should people who aren’t programmers be given the opportunity to program? Do you think there should be a handy dandy tool for people who know nothing of music theory to compose symphonies, or for people who aren’t architects to design buildings?

    And electronic games are so totally different from non-electronic games that I see no problem in calling it a medium. You don’t get a composer for a board game. You don’t get an animator for a sport. Video games combine so many different artistic elements in a way that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

    The purpose of achievements is to appeal to both “casual” and “core” gamers. Some people like to just play through the game while others like to accomplish the harder tasks. Also achievements greatly improve replay value. Yes, this can all be seen as a cheap attempt to make games sell, but being artistic and making money don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and if you’re telling me to make less money for the sake of art then shame on you.

    But I definitely agree that game design itself isn’t taught very well. But then again, a lot of game design is just about having the knack for it.

  19. hey i’m really insecure about myself as a game designer AND about the worth of videogames compared to other modern media

    shit shit what should i do


    take that roger ebert

    and to kill TWO AWFUL BIRDS with one FUCKING MORONIC STONE i’m going to just decide that because of that they should be always be exactly as difficult to make as they are now because I’M SELFISH AND INSECURE AND I KNOW IT YET I’M STILL HITTING SUBMIT LIKE A TOTAL DUMBASS

    wait i’ll have to totally ignore all history of the practical relationship between art/media and technology to do that I DUNNO SHOULD I? I GUESS SO

    REPLAY VALUE oh boy i’ve got my head so far up igngaf’s ass i can’t tell the difference between the two they’ve fused into one PERFECT BEING

    guess you just gotta have that KNACK for game design to come up with stuff this good

  20. dess what happened, your comments section used to mostly involve people who could read and think at above a 7th grade level


  21. Probably one of the more thought provoking rants of that session; I really enjoyed it. I was trying to make an audio recording of it to play for my colleagues, but ran out of space, so thanks for posting it.
    Side note; I liked how Daph was catching all of the cards you were throwing over your shoulder; a small thing but it added some flourish to the presentation which was nice.

  22. ^^ Dess, do you agree with this guy? Better yet, are you this guy?

    Yes, I am insecure about myself in that I don’t want my profession to dwindle or become obsolete. And yes, I do disagree with what Roger Ebert has said about video games not being art, but didn’t Dess just say, and I quote:

    the problem with the term “artgame” is that when you declare a single game “art”, you’re drawing a distinction between it and the games that prefigured it. you’re declaring they’re not art. and there’s been art and craft in games for as long as people have been making creative decisions about them.


    Games are much much easier to make now than they have been, and I am very grateful that Flash has allowed the independent game developer to flourish. And there are easier ways yet to make games, though I haven’t actually those programs like game maker or rpg maker. How easy to make do you want games to be? And what about what I said in my post about other arts and professions you don’t expect to be easy?

    I don’t even know what you’re trying to say about replay value. What is it about what I said that you find so offensive? Can somebody explain this to me?

  23. “Do you think there should be a handy dandy tool for people who know nothing of music theory to compose symphonies, or for people who aren’t architects to design buildings?”

    Yes. Very much.

    Would you take away compilers and support libraries? Should only people who understand the assembly code be able allowed to code? You’ve draw an arbitrary line.

  24. I wouldn’t trust a building built by an amateur. Would you trust a doctor or a pilot who had no training?

    Here’s the deal. You already don’t need to know anything about programming at all to make a game. You can get someone to program it for you. It’s called collaboration.

    I’m not suggesting taking anything away, nor am I suggesting things shouldn’t be made easier yet. All I’m saying is that programming should be done by programmers. Is that so unreasonable?

  25. Remember that time they made Youtube, then they had to cancel the Oscars because Hollywood decided to stop making movies?


  27. Someone needs to put together a method of game creation that doesn’t require any motivation. Then everyone will create art all the time, and they won’t even have to want to.

  28. The issue with game maker tools isn’t, I don’t think, that we all want to protect our jobs by having the funding withdrawn for the Universal EZ-Game-Maker 4000, but that there are just practical issues with game makers in general.

    I too would love to have a magic wishing computer that would make games for me without any work on my part. I hate working and would prefer to do as little of it as possible. But the fact is, there’s already a gradient of development platforms out there from C++ with OpenGL etc. to GUI game makers.

    The real problem here is that more options equals more complexity. Programming in general is a non-trivial task, and if you want a development platform that gives you the flexibility to make creative decisions it is going to be complicated. Now, good headway has already been made in giving people the option to have that trade-off between functionality and simplicity — you don’t have to make games in assembler anymore — but if you want the functionality, you’re just going to have to deal with the complexity or get someone else to deal with it for you. If I knew a way around that, I wouldn’t have put almost nine months into coding my current project. Targeted game makers already exist. General purpose game makers probably can’t be done without strong AI or something equivalently science-fiction-ish.

  29. The stuff about ‘reviews aren’t criticism and vice-versa’ baffles me. It’s a fundamental lack of imagination/thought from someone who should probably know better.

    The joy of words is that they’re quite flexible. You just pour them into the page and they do the job the writer wants. The joy of working with words, whether offline or in print, is that the only thing stopping you making those words happen is the limits of your own talent.

    So, ya know. Shush.

    Also… “the mainstream games press is owned by the mainstream games industry. they’re pets. they’re given generous gifts and spend most of their time rewriting the press releases they’re handed.”

    … Fuck off.




    the enthusiast press

  31. I do disagree about achievements. In some situations, they can be nice ways to introduce meta-game challenges. Like, off the top of my head… completing a campaign in Left 4 Dead 2 using only a melee weapon. It wouldn’t make sense to reward that kind of behaviour in the context of the game, but achievements give an established framework for designers to throw down weird gauntlets, and reward the players who pick them up.

    Gamerscores are a different matter.

    Also, the ‘new arcade’ thing is something I’ve thought about before. I talked to some friends a couple of years ago about renting some space and putting on an event at the London Games Festival, but when we sat down to think about it we couldn’t really think of a game project that would benefit from having a bunch of random people come in off the street and stand in the same room together. It’s a very different kind of context to conventional gaming.

  32. Love REDDER and your ideas about the game industry.

    However – would it hurt to use capital letters in your sentences?

  33. Why do you even care if the terms ‘indie’ and ‘artgames’ are used?
    Everything is eventually categorized
    and will be percieved in accordance to what they imply and how said implications are represented.
    Which is to say that you shouldn’t give a shit if people are using the terms ‘indie’ and ‘artgames’, because these terms will only be used in the mainstream to describe a certain type of game that corresponds with the way way ‘indie games’ and ‘artgames’ have been represented.
    Yes, these terms are exclusive, but they don’t stop you or your peers from making good games, and unless you really care that much about the mainstream perception of independent games (which I take it you don’t, considering how ‘anti-mainstream’ you are)why do you give a fuck whether these terms are used, or whether ‘the language of games’ is applied?
    Yes, it’s all marketing, but marketing is SUCCESSFUL.
    Do you want people to play your games?
    I’m sure you do, as does almost every game developer.
    So MARKET YOUR GAMES and PEOPLE WILL PLAY THEM. Yes it can create boundaries, but so does fucking everything.

  34. Just nodding basically all the way through!

    It probably doesn’t matter to you, but what you say could ALL apply to the ‘new form’ of table top roleplay, as well. It all applies to that as well! Amazing!

  35. On the topic of letting anyone make games, I thought this article about WarioWare D.I.Y. and “snapshot games” was appropriate. Maybe forcing limitations on authors is a good way to make game-making less intimidating? From personal experience, starting with an empty EXE or SWF leads to starting on overambitious clones of mainstream games and quitting at 7% completion.


  36. Alright, video games are a form. A subset of games, if you will.

    Videogames, however (just one word) are a medium (you could say computer software is the medium). They go beyond the boundary of games, since a videogame doesn’t necessarily have to be a game.

  37. Came here because I loved your retro games and found your posts quite interesting.

    Hmm, about games not being a medium..of course, the computer/laptop is the medium, but you can in a way call the game itself a medium aswell. A bit of a meta thing since the game conveys the ideas of the creator(s) The canvas is the medium of the painting, the painting is the medium of the artist

    Art games is a term used very loosely very often by a lot of people who aren’t that knowledgable about art. I don’t think you can declare a game artsy just because it has pretty visuals. That just makes the visuals artsy and not the game as a whole nor just because of the story, since literature is a form of art in and of itself.

    I am curious if you’ve read the article by Roger Ebert where he states that videogames will never be art?

  38. No, *thank* you Auntie Pixelante!

    Just about everything you said is pure truth!

    Individuality, fun, communication and creativity in games seem to be taking a back-seat to games that are just hyped to death, cloned, boring, and only encourage anti-social, hostile and an elitist attitude in players.

    These kinds of games that have no merit of any kind need to be harshly criticized, and called out for what they are: Pure Trash.

    Likewise, games that have at least some merit, or of great merit, should be recognized, and applauded for their achievements (Whoops, I let “achievements” slip out, hahaha…).

  39. zomggg dessgeega after having abandoned vidjagames for super long and especially the circles i used to frequent–where i saw you pretty often–scrolling through your website is a breath of fresh air, esp. this.

    YES to critiquing privilege & hyper-masculinity in games, YES to the queerest of queer agendas, YES to subtlety.

    it doesn’t matter to me that this post is old! i had to say that it made my day–night–at a point in time when the types of things i involve myself in tend to leave 0 time for gaming, and I honestly cringe at the idea of “coming back” to the community. i don’t know if i even could at this point, because of the endemic problems concerning white privilege/racial homogeneity, complete class blindness, and oppressive maleness. i must say that even some of my time spent in the sb irc channel as of late–on a lark–has been bizarre in that substantively it’s a situation i don’t think i’d ever want to put myself in voluntarily in “real life”: a room full of straight dudezz. “BROBOT!!!”

    this is why as of late i have begun to try and hock my old games desktop and in the meantime i am content to sit on my scaled-down ubuntu laptop playing old-ass adventure games by myself with no connection to the “community”.

    but your post at the very least gives me a glimmer of hope.

    anyway, i have to uh go to work in a few hours and look at an apartment and pretend to be suuuper happy about it so.


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