In a recent talk at the University of Victoria, I argued that a creator’s decision to produce a game – rather than work in a more conventional medium – immediately reduces the potential audience for their work.
That might be kind of a controversial statement, but my brief experience in making digital games has led me to believe that games as a medium present a number of unique barriers to access. Worse, these barriers are experienced differentially across social categories like race, class, ability, and gender. Insofar as digital games remain a primarily straight white male coded space, creating a game rather than producing work in an alternate form disproportionately cuts out people of color, women, queer people, many people with disabilities, and lower-income people.
At the same time that I recognize the deep exclusions built into the culture around digital games, I see important, affirming work being done by a wide range of people, including many who do not fit the historical profile of a game designer. My project forest ambassador is one attempt to reconcile these two patterns through the deliberate curation of games that fit the criteria of being free, short, and requiring little prior background with games and no special equipment. Here I want to talk a little about the rationale behind the site and how I see it fitting into a broader project of shifting games culture.
Free & Fast
The first criterion I decided on for the site is that all games appearing on it have to be free. The two dominant mainstream models of games are in-store or online $30-60 purchases and mobile app downloads, which are often relatively cheap but require an expensive smartphone, or else are dependent on continuing microtransactions. Class is a barrier to digital games culture, and one that is only recently starting to be discussed in mainstream conversations about games culture.
The second criterion – that games be relatively brief – represents a deliberate attempt to showcase tightly-composed experiences that respect the player’s time. Like money, time is a unequally distributed resource, and choosing games that are mostly under five minutes means that the maximum number of people will be able to play them. The free and fast criteria also work together to provide a counterpoint to the ideas that games must either be slow and long-lasting or even never-ending (the mobile model) or else massive, “immersive” worlds that demand extreme investments of time in order to receive any real kind of satisfaction from the experience (the AAA blockbuster model).
Ultimately, games as mainstream publics know them are expensive distractions, either for short bursts of play or in long day-burning sessions. If games in this understanding are the equivalent of either a crossword puzzle or a Hollywood action movie, then games I post at forest ambassador might be likened to poems, short stories, songs, or comic strips.
Many of us working in games sometimes seem to forget the power that brief experiences can hold, or the dilution that can result from stretching a core idea out into a 20+ hour product. A game can do a lot in five minutes. Something like 10 Seconds in Hell or Ladylike is an intense, emotional experience, a piece like Asphyx or Player 2 can push you to consider your relationship to your body or other people, and a game like Ultimate Flirt-Off or Tiny Sorceress can actually make you laugh – yes, videogames do have the capacity for real humor.
With the site gaining in popularity, I’ve been thinking about how I might want to use it to support creators offering games under “pay-what-you-want” models. So far, I haven’t posted these kinds of games because I’m hesitant to implicitly encourage anyone to pay nothing for them, even when their creators allow this. Part of making games culture better for me includes encouraging small creators to think of their work as deserving of compensation and then compensating them for it, so I’m thinking more about how I might be able to use forest ambassador to benefit people who are making their games available under this kind of model.
No Skills & No Controllers
Time and money represent relatively obvious barriers to participation in digital games. But there are subtler forces that keep people from playing games or even being able to conceive of games as something “for them.” Most obviously, the kinds of literacies and knowledges required to play many contemporary games are far more demanding than those that those of earlier games.
Jesper Juul discusses the historical aggregation of gaming conventions in his book A Casual Revolution, where he remarks that mainstream games have increased in complexity since the earliest arcade machines to the point that even the most basic, taken-for-granted facts about them present nearly-insurmountable barriers to their enjoyment by anyone who didn’t grow up playing them. Two examples here include the ubiquity of alienating control interfaces with multiple buttons, triggers, control sticks, and so forth; and one of the most basic play skills in many contemporary games: navigating a fictional three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional plane of a television screen.
For players who grew up with controllers and experienced the shift from two-dimensional platformers (which themselves present dexterity challenges that should not be understated) to three-dimensional worlds, these aspects of games are an accepted, naturalized state of affairs. For those who did not, they are often encountered as evidence that they are “not good at games” or even as hostile reminders that digital play is not a space that welcomes them.
This is a problem because it means that the population of people who play games changes relatively slowly. This dynamic fits into a feedback loop with the kinds of games that get produced and expectations around who will play them, producing an often violently exclusionary culture around digital play.
For this reason it’s important to me to highlight games that don’t assume that the player is familiar with 20-odd years of videogame norms. Many works created in Twine fit this requirement exceedingly well, because their interface is so similar to that of a webpage – works like Player 2 and SABBAT could not be more different, but are both very easy to pick up and experience. However, I see a lot of interesting work being done outside of this kind of format too. Simply because genres like first-person perspective games are traditionally very difficult to get into doesn’t mean I want to avoid them entirely. Games like Room of 1000 Snakes and Reveal are first-person games but eliminate the twitch gameplay often associated with the genre, leading to experiences that may have a slight learning curve but can nonetheless be interesting to engage with even for players with no background with first-person games.
The Disloyal Ambassador
These are the things I’ve tried to consider in creating and maintaining forest ambassador. But behind them is a bigger idea, one that isn’t stated on the site but that I try to keep in mind at all times. It goes like this: even though forest ambassador is about bringing games to people who might not otherwise play them (the site’s current tagline is “introducing videogames”) and even though I have a history of engagement with digital games, I try to avoid positioning myself as rehabilitating games’ public image. The distinction might not seem obvious, so I’ll try to explain.
I see valuable and exciting work already being done in games, by which I mean work that might be of interest to people outside of games purely for its own value, rather than for the cultural currency of being a videogame about a particular topic. With forest ambassador, my goal is to seek out this work wherever I can find it and to gather it up in my hands and offer it to people who might never otherwise notice it. This sometimes means providing some context on genres, similar works, the author’s background, and so forth. But it doesn’t mean that my goal is to use these games to put a new face on games culture, or to get outsiders “into” games broadly.
If we want to make games culture better, we should recognize that there are very good reasons why so many people aren’t into it: there are monetary, time, and skill barriers at work which help maintain things as they have been. We need to remember that people don’t owe anything to the history of digital games, to the aggregated conventions built up around them, to other people who have been into games for longer than them. We need to be willing to examine the things that we too often take for granted about digital games and if necessary, abandon or radically alter them.
In that sense, forest ambassador isn’t about creating a better games culture at all. In its own small way, it’s about finding the interesting, valuable, and beautiful seeds within a confusing and sometimes menacing space and spreading them widely in the hopes that the boundary between the forest and everything else gets a little harder to draw.