On Video Game Manifestos

If we’re talking about manifestos in a very broad sense, as a statement of a group’s goals or agenda or worldview, then they can be found throughout history as far back as you care to look. They are often associated with political statements – as in, for instance, the Communist Manifesto. In the art world, manifestos are especially associated with the avant garde in the first half of the twentieth century, who – honestly just wouldn’t shut up about them. The Futurists had a bunch of manifestos (including, obviously, the Futurist Manifesto), the Vorticists had BLAST, the Surrealists had some, the Constructivists – you couldn’t swing a cat in the 1910s and ’20s without hitting some fucking European with an avant garde manifesto. And there are some pretty clear indicators as to why all these manifestos slithered out of that period’s artistic soup. It was the beginning of the modern world, a new era in history. Queen Victoria died in 1901, the Second Industrial Revolution was underway – things were changing. Of course it came out in the art. The Futurists were inspired by modern inventions like the car and the airplane – and not just inspired, but driven to write their manifestos – these declarative, bold statements, assertions of the brave new world bursting out of the stuffy heritage of the past.

More recently, with the emergence of video games as a new media form, we’ve seen another whole slate of manifestos. The Game Studies journal has its very proud opening editorial – “2001 can be seen as the Year One of Computer Game Studies as an emerging, viable, international, academic field” – but it lacks some of the punch of BLAST. Different writers and game developers have their own quasi-manifestos, even if they don’t necessarily call them that – for instance, I’ve written before about Ian Bogost, a relatively major figure in Game Studies who’s currently writing broadsides for the Atlantic – pieces with titles like ‘Video Games Are Better Without Stories’. I wrote about that article back in 2019, with some hesitation over the fact that this academic figure was writing what amounted to a hot take opinion piece. It was hard to judge how to respond. Should you take the idea seriously or write it off as entertainment? The ideas and arguments weren’t rigorous enough for the first option, and yet there were too many references to specific academic texts to treat it as idle fun. It occupied this uncomfortable place where it wasn’t properly one thing or the other – and I wasn’t totally sure how to read it.

A compounding issue in making that sort of judgement is the element of cultural cringe around video games. There’s this really strongly developed sense of inauthenticity, of being not good enough to engage with serious aesthetic ideas. I mean – the idea of Computer Game Studies is inherently kinda funny, right. It’s a juxtaposition of dumb toys and hefty intellectual labour – a tension that comics, for example, only really escaped by rebranding as graphic novels. That’s a tension that video games are still struggling with. We discussed it last week with Stacks, and how video games almost have these competing impulses towards being high and low art. I think Stacks has found an interesting way to resolve that tension, but for other games, or for gaming culture more broadly – it’s maybe a little more troubled. High and low art, and the interpretive frameworks and common reference points and attitudes that accompany them, often crash into each other, pulling games out of their contexts and almost violently reinterpreting them. High-concept games like Heavy Rain are mocked for being “unintentionally hilarious“, while Tetris is elevated to “a perfect enactment of the over-tasked lives of Americans in the 1990s” (Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck).

So how does this tension shape video game manifestos? Well, I was browsing through the back-catalogue of Torfi, the guy who made Stacks, and stumbled across his “personal game making manifesto”, Never Apologize. I realised it was submitted as part of a manifesto jam back in 2018, and – let’s just look at some of these for a bit. Never Apologize is a good place to start – it definitely has BLAST energy, which you want. It features a division between statements about what your attitude should be when you make games (“Don’t ask for permission – nobody can give it to you”), and then principles of game design (“Rewards are harmful – they replace play with conditioning”). ‘Play’ in this instance is not meant in the competitive sense (like how we play rugby or chess); it’s more the loose, self-directed, idle sense (like playing make-believe). Torfi correctly notes that rewards, and more broadly the win/loss structure, condition players, pushing them towards specific types of optimal play, and by necessity discouraging free play. Torfi obviously thinks that free play is better than competitive play – we saw that in his game Stacks, which is obviously not competitive. It’s a space where you can play around, mess about a little. The manifesto therefore articulates the design principles that Torfi uses to make games.

So that’s one use of a manifesto – and plenty of other creators use the same approach. Heather ‘Flowers’ Robertson has the Meatpunk Manifesto, outlining the principles behind their game Extreme Meatpunks Forever, which we touched on briefly when we were talking about A Normal Lost Phone. Bruno Dias has a manifesto (Don’t Be Cool) – we talked previously about his game Voyageur, and how it relates text and gameplay – and again, it’s interesting to read his manifesto and think back to his game and go ohh as things start to line up. All of these examples are in the same manifesto ballpark – they’re all about individual creators reflecting on their individual game-making processes. In the humblest instances, creators just speak to personal preference – like when Torfi says he prefers free play over competition, or when the Manifesto for Gentle Games tells us to “make games with unimportant decisions”. Crucially, nobody in this category really argues that one approach is inherently better than the other, or that everybody needs to make games in that way. It’s largely just personal preference. The Gentle Games manifesto even says that explicitly, opening with the note “I don’t think all games should be like this”. At the other end of the spectrum, however, we have game-making process as political agenda – both in terms of the content of games and in the conditions of how they’re made. We see these approaches both in the Meatpunk Manifesto (“art is political, don’t let your art get coopted by fascists … if there aren’t lesbians then you’re probably doing it wrong”), and in Don’t Be Cool (“Examine the conditions of how your game gets made first before you concern yourself with its subject matter”). They’re a little more raucous, a little more politically engaged – there’s more at stake, which is sort of what you want from a manifesto.

And yet despite these boisterous political statements, the manifestos still feature quite a complicated relationship with the concept of authenticity. The Meatpunk Manifesto has this really specific performative overenthusiasm, the sort of thing you’d find on 2010s Tumblr – which is not a criticism, right, it’s just a style. It’s informal, playful, it’s meant to communicate this sense of being overwhelmed by your own emotional response to the things that you care about (“bodies are fucked up. they are so fucked up. but they also kind of rule???????”). The Secret Languages manifesto has similar themes of emotional response as an indicator of genuine human connection to art (“You feel like you’ll explode if you don’t talk about it with someone”), and Dias talks about vulnerability and openness as appropriate emotional states from which to build:

“Be warm. Warmth: Vulnerability instead of distance, kindness instead of cruelty, acceptance instead of exclusion, equality instead of hierarchy, gentle instead of harsh, earnest instead of performative.”

That last contrast really explicitly speaks to this idea of authenticity. Dias tells us to be real as opposed to fake, genuine as opposed to performative – but he doesn’t say real or genuine, he says earnest. Doing something ‘in earnest’ means doing it sincerely, but it also suggests intensity, zeal, or passion. It suggests commitment and drive, enthusiasm. The Meatpunk Manifesto is earnest, with its seven question marks at the end of a sentence. Other manifestos equally encourage passion and enthusiasm, at times explicitly casting it in opposition to making games that are quote-unquote good. In Hills to die on, we’re told “Make art, not products. Make imperfect things and release them anyway.” Imperfection enables rather than inhibits art. Perfection isn’t explicitly associated with products, with inauthentic consumer capitalism, but at the very least it’s suspicious.

In terms of the tension between high and low art, then, these manifestos seem to lean towards the low. Rough-edged and unfiltered enthusiasm is seen as a marker of authenticity, of success. It’s the Romantic ideal of the untutored genius, of Robert Burns, of art as a natural spilling over of the molten core of the self. At worst, this approach can cause us to mistake gross sentimentality for deep, complex emotion (there are still too many games where the point is wow, wasn’t childhood great), but it also offers some interesting forms of resistance to the problem of cultural cringe. These manifestos tether the validity of artistic expression to the inherent dignity of human life: they say that our art is valuable because we are valuable. The sense of inherent dignity also runs counter to the inferiority or insufficiency attached to cultural cringe. If dignity means that we shouldn’t be ashamed of who we are, then we also shouldn’t be ashamed of the things we create, as they flow directly from our inner wellspring. Where the avant garde manifestos of the early 20th century ushered in a new world, these video game manifestos remind us that the world is forever discovered anew by every soul that comes into it.

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