I’ve been writing a lot for I Search for Traps lately, but through my discussions of table-top RPGs I’ve come across an old question that I’ve encountered when I was studying the world of video games: What is a good game?
On the surface, it’s a simple question, but if you dig a bit deeper, you realize that it isn’t one with a simple answer.
When talking to game developers, “making a good game” is a goal that I often heard. However, difficulties appear when comes time to define, exactly, what a good game is. Part of the answers that I’ve gotten over the years involve terms like “fun,” “innovative,” “unique,” “trend-setting,” etc, which leads me to wonder what is the relationship between a “good game” and innovation.
Part of the problem in answering this simple question is that answers will be intensely personalized. One person’s criteria can be diametrically opposed to another’s, which makes any kind of metric difficult to pin down. If that’s the case, however, why do we keep talking about making or wanting good games, and using that concept as a classificatory category?
To be honest, I’m not really interested in defining a good game. Rather, I’m much more interested in why the discourse of “good games” keeps popping up over and over again in the strangest of places, each time with fairly similar characteristics, which indicates to me that the discourse of good games isn’t really about games at all. Rather, talking about good games appears to be a discussion of boundaries.
In 1999, Thomas Gieryn published Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, in which he lays out two very useful concepts to help us understand the formation of boundaries in any technical field: boundary work and epistemic authority.
Boundary work is fairly simple to understand; it’s essentially any type of work, politics, strategies, or tactics, deployed to delineate the limits of a particular area of discourse. The goal of boundary work is, ultimately, to delimit who possesses the epistemic authority to speak for a given group, industry, discipline, etc.
Epistemic authority is slightly more subtle. Similar to the Republican Roman concept of auctoritas, it encompasses things like belieavability, expertise, public trust, and social and cutural capital. Essentially, possessing epistemic authority allows a person to define the terms of engagement. Epistemic authority is what allows someone to speak for a particular discourse; if you ever hear someone speaking for a particular group or discipline, it’s because boundary work was done to provide that person with epistemic authority.
How do boundary work and epistemic authority tie in with video games? Let’s go back to the discourse of “good games.”
Commonly, where do we see the discourse of “good games” pop up? Typically, we see it in such places as game reviews, top ten lists, “best of” retrospectives. We also encounter it more subtly in the everyday habitus that surrounds video games.
The “good games” discourse is present when someone comments online on a piece of written games criticism; it’s present when someone’s views and opinions are dismissed unilaterally; it’s present when a developer says that someone has to make games for a particular – often marginalized – audience, implying that the developer would rather be making some other type of game in the first place; it’s present when we discuss video games as art.
In all these cases, talking about making good games isn’t really a discussion about making good games at all. If we examine the situations carefully, we realize that extensive boundary work is being done. This isn’t to say that anyone doing boundary work does so maliciously. Quite the contrary; often boundary work happens because we care deeply about the subject being discussed.
However, problems arise when boundary work becomes part of a disciplinary process, when boundary work is used as a tool for normalization and biopoliticization. Such deployments of boundary work almost invariably lead to resentment, marginalization, and exclusion.
Events in the last year within the world of video game journalism and criticism provide us with plenty of examples. The events surrounding Anita Sarkeesian and Gamergate are probably the most obvious, and in both cases boundary work – in the form of Youtube comments, forum posts, and various other marginalization tactics – were deployed to delimit who had and didn’t have the epistemic authority to define what constitutes a good game.
However, boundary work can also be more subtle. For example, game mechanics are also instances of boundary work. QTE mechanics tend to be more difficult for inexperienced players to master, thereby establishing a division where only long-time players are able to fully appreciate the “true,” good game experience. They’re the ones being vested with the epistemic authority to say that it’s okay for such mechanics to be part of games.
Here, it’s important to remember that epistemic authority is the key. We can discuss boundary work all we want, but if we forget that its ultimate goal is the creation of epistemic authority, then we’ll find ourselves stuck, both socially and analytically.
Where boundary work is divisive and exclusionary almost by design, epistemic authority is why such divisions and exclusions are cemented. It’s also why such divisions and exclusions can be erased.
Examples of this abound within the world of the public understanding of science and of scientific literacy. Example of the former include citizens acquiring the necessary understanding of scientific principles and practices to be able to converse intelligently with political discourses – such as in the case of grassroots air quality monitoring social movements. Examples of the latter include people such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and other scientific figures helping demystify science for a larger audience. The epistemic authority invested in scientific persons or scientific discourses allows for boundaries to be traversed.
Video games have not reached this point, yet. If anything, within the world of video games, epistemic authority comes first, and results in the creation of divisive boundaries. Rather, what we need is a new habitus where creating a boundary means creating an opportunity to learn from what is beyond said boundary, because it might have something valuable to teach.
What we need is a discourse of “good games” where games are good not because someone has to make games for marginalized audiences, but because someone does make games for marginalized audiences. Doing so will only make games better.