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In this featured blog, I will propose an understanding of self-reflexive video games as playable forms of critical thought and why I consider them useful instruments for promoting a more mature and diverse approach to game design.

Stefano Gualeni, Blogger

October 29, 2013

6 Min Read

With this article I will try to clarify what self-reflexive video games 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, self-reflexive video game titled Necessary Evil (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 of self-reflexive video games 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 of self-reflexive video games 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 ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia’ 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:

“(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.” [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 Borges’s 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 Borges’s. On his website, Gillmurphy claimed that

“A game is some combination of the following indivisable [sic] elements:

- skeleton

- red key

- score thing

- magic door” [ii]  

If Borges’s classification can be understood as a reaction against the univocal and conventional worldview offered by scientism, then we can interpret Gillmurphy’s 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. Borges’s and Gillmurphy’s world-views do not present themselves as new foundations for how we are to think about the world or about games, but – with their exotic charm – 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 are self-reflexive video games and their use. The literary preamble above was useful to build my argument via a process of analogy. Focusing our attention on self-reflexive video games, I believe it is now necessary to attempt a definition of what such video games are.

Self-reflexive video games 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 of 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 Borges’s and Gillmurphy’s categorizations, self-reflexive video games 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, self-reflexive video games could be more suitably understood as materialized, interactive critical thought.

Frequently cited examples of critical, ‘self-reflexive video games’ are:

  • Chiku’s unfair-platformer-saga Syobon Action (http://syobonaction.com), which derides our blind acceptance of the design conventions of side-scrolling platforming video games,

  • Ian Bogost’s sarcastic social-game Cow Clicker (http://www.bogost.com/blog/cow_clicker_1.shtml), that famously reflected on the triviality of Facebook games and on the conditioning techniques at the basis of their design, and

  • Failnaut’s trivial RPG Grindstar (http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/605910), which reveals, through its tedious and labour-like gameplay, the meaninglessness of grinding.

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, 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.  In a few days, uncomfortably squeezed between our teaching duties and other personal game development engagements, we managed to put together an experimental self-reflexive video game titled Necessary Evil (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 Evil 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 character… 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 players’ possibility for interaction as well as the duration and the quality of their experience are necessarily limited and unsatisfactory. In other words, our game discloses for the players a world that, for once, is not build around them and their expectations. Necessary Evil 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] This excerpt was taken from the short story titled ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ that was originally featured in Borges’s collection titled Other inquisitions 1937-1952. ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’ is available online (both in the original Spanish version and in an English translation) as  http://www.crockford.com/wrrrld/wilkins.html.

[ii] Gillmurphy’s humorous understanding of what a game is can be found at http://harmonyzone.org/Videogames.html.

[iii] 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 of www.molleindustria.org) with his online game definition generator. The latter can be accessed at http://www.gamedefinitions.com/.

[iv] Necessary Evil was developed as a contribution to the panel ‘G|A|M|E on Games: the Meta-panel’ organized together with www.gamejournal.it for the 2013 DiGRA conference in Atlanta, Georgia (U.S.A.).

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Stefano Gualeni


Trained as an architect, Stefano Gualeni is an Italian game designer who is best known for designing and writing 'Tony Tough, the Night of Roasted Moths' and 'Tony Tough 2: A Rake's Progress'. Currently busy finishing his Ph.D. in Philosophy, Stefano is a lecturer in game-design and game studies at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. When time allows, he works as a columnist and game design consultant. For his complete ludography and list of publications, visit: http://stefano.gua-le-ni.com

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