notgames: notagoodidea


Tale of Tales, the Belgian couple behind experimental games like Endless Forest, The Graveyard, The Path and now Bientôt l'été, are known for their artistic, dreamlike games. In August 2011, they helped curate a small exhibition accompanying the Cologne Games Lab. The show included games experiments like Dear Esther, Kairo, Trauma as well as Amnesia and Tale of Tales' own titles and offered a unique glimpse into a creative games underground. 

The motto and title of the exhibition, and of the games shown in it, was "notgames".  And that's a problem.

"notgames" is a concept put forward by Tale of Tales’ Michaël Samyn in 2010. was meant "as a gathering place for developers who wish to explore the potential of videogames as a creative medium, beyond the confines of conventional game design". The sites' tagline reads:

"This is an exploration of what’s moving and enchanting and fascinating in software applications, videogames and procedural arts, beyond the amusement offered by obeying rules and receiving rewards."

The term "notgames" robs the whole medium of its avantgarde.

It's an understandable notion: Games, in their audience's minds as well as in those of the general public, are entertainment first and foremost. Their most important goal is in offering "fun" to their players, and the mainstream's triple-A titles go to great lengths to provide that "fun" by creating enjoyable challenges, in recent years more and more often by opening up to casual gamers, by removing barriers, by concentrating on the tried and true formulas known to work and rake in the dollars.

By coining a definition like "notgames", Tale of Tales - and many likeminded games creators - distanced themselves from this commercial, mainstream world of games as pure entertainment products. The games collected in the exhibition are different, that's for sure: They concentrate on atmosphere, explore new areas in narration and gameplay and experiment with aesthetics rarely used in the rest of the medium. 

But - and that's the reason for my rejection of the term - by claiming that these games, these bold experiments, are by their very definition not part of the medium games anymore, the proponents of the term "notgames" rob their whole medium of its avantgarde and effectively turn their backs in resignation. That's a strange and premature surrender, given that the medium itself is young and in constant transformation, and, even worse, it doesn't help in changing gaming's struggle with adolescence.

612Dear Esther

It's easy to see where this resignation came from. Mainstream gamers and their notoriously vocal trolling community must surely have dismissed many of the games on the "notgames" list as just that: not games. No achievements, no multiplayer, no thrilling escapism and, most importantly, no "fun", that basic ingredient all mainstream gamers feel entitled to in their games. If these people can't be convinced to reconsider their set notions of what a game is allowed to be like, why not just defiantly accept their ignorance and stick with their judgment?

Of course, there's another, completely different crowd involved in the self-inflicted exclusion of "notgames" from games in general, and it's safe to say that their opinions mattered just as much in this regard: The art crowd - traditional and multimedia artists, art critics, academics, curators and art lovers - is still notoriously unconvinced of gaming's potential to even be art, even if the MoMA's recent inclusion of games into its collection should remedy some of that. By ostentatiously excluding themselves from games, "notgames'" creators can claim a respectable distance to a medium that's generally perceived as inferior to most respected arts.

It's a route that's completely opposed to other great experimental artists' approach to the exact same dilemma.

So there's the two frontlines that experimental gamesmakers like Tale of Tales face: On the one hand, a mainstream audience familiar with the medium, but unconvinced of or unprepared to cope with these experiments' merits; and an art crowd, unfamiliar with and sceptical of gaming but charmed by this "new" way of making interactive art.

Of course, it's both these crowds that are addressed by calling these experimental, lovely games "notgames". Unfortunately, it's also a slightly cowardly route to take, and in addition: It's a route that's completely opposed to other great experimental artists' approach to the exact same dilemma, who realized that inclusion, not exclusion, was the way to go forward.


When John Cage confronted his audience with four and a half minutes of silence in his seminal piece "4.33", he boldly challenged his contemporaries' idea of music as a whole. Of course he didn't claim to be making "notmusic"; it was the very inclusion of this experiment into contemporary music that made an impact.

When Marcel Duchamp insisted that his famous sculpture "Fountain" - a porcelain urinal hung upside down and signed with a mock name - be included in an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, he helped in revolutionizing modern art and art theory.

When James Joyce and William Burroughs, both experimental authors of exquisite boldness, published their revolutionary work, they matter-of-factly insisted that their works were "novels", i.e. within the limits of literature, even though their work revolutionized and cannibalized most of the novels that had come before.

The titles collected under the term "notgames" are not "notgames". They are games.

The list goes on. Experimental artists in every field were constantly challenged by conservative nay-sayers claiming that this or that piece of experimental art is "not music", "not art", "not literature"; by self-confidently claiming their spaces inside of their respective media, these artists helped expand the boundaries of their art and of art as a whole. 

In all of these cases, the creators defended their works' obvious right to be part of their media, to be included, no matter how experimental their approach. By using the term "notgames" for an experimental avantgarde, the rest of games is automatically judged and damned to artistic stagnation. I don't want that.

To be clear: I am in no way questioning these "notgames'" relevance, but an unfortunate, defensive and resignative terminology.  The titles collected under the term "notgames" are not "notgames". They are games. I'd even say they are among the most important games, games that expand our understanding of what games can be, of what might be in store for gaming as an art and as an entertainment.

Games evolve, and that's why they desperately need "notgames" to be games, as part of a rich and varied medium. It's time to come out of the defense.

Other Englsih articles on VGT can be found here.



Thank you for this article. Some intriguing thoughts in here. I agree that in an ideal world, we should accept "NotGames" as something that enrichens our understanding of games.

However, we do not live in such a world. The analogy to the world of music and literature is missing an important detail. Games culture is deeply entrenched as a insular, niche ghetto. There is significant resistance from within the gaming community to accept experimental games. Tale of Tales have been trying for many years to brand their creations as games. They earned nothing but abuse and criticism. On the other hand, as you mentioned, games themselves carry a certain stigma among the more mainstream audience they aspire to appeal to.

None of these were problems Duchamp and Joyce had to deal with. They released their exprimental works to an audience already accustomed to approach the material in an analytical way.

Also, unlike Tale of Tales, the works of Duchamp and Joyce didn't aim at colonizing the strange new space they occupied. Duchamp's aim was not to make urinal art. He did not create urinal art pieces for the rest of his life. 
John Cage didn't create even more musc made of silence. The examples were one-off provocations meant to inspire a discussion exactly BECAUSE they challenge our notions of what they were labeled at. We don't listen to silent music on a regular basis today.

A more fitting analogy would be American comic books. They too were created as an entertainment medium for adolescents. They transcented this notion by re-inventing themselves under the term "Graphic Novels".

The goal of NotGames is to create a safe space to do experiemental work in. A lable the game culture and the manstream culture are more comfortable with. It's not cowardice. It's a bridge to close the huge gap that keps the medium trapped. Don't get hung up on the name. The term "NotGames" is exactly the kind of provocation you are looking for. We all know that we owe our heritage to games. And we all hope that with time, the gap will close and the bridge will be no longer needed.


Thanks for your thoughts. Of course I understand the motivations for labelling, and I can't argue with your counterponts. Maybe it's even a bit unfair of me to interpret this as cowardice, but it is surely a sign of resignation in the face of opposition to seek exclusion. I agree that this opposition can't be overcome by the artists alone, and that's why I, many other critical and intelligent writers far more talented than myself, and also the public buying games like Dear Esther, Journey and hopefully Bientôt l'èté, also strive for recognition of these games AS GAMES. 

Following your last paragraph, my being provoked by the label signals a step in the right direction; towards a future where the label is obsolete. As I wrote: It's time to come out of the defence. Voluntarily excluding innovation from the medium by this negative label seems to be a step in the wrong direction.

[...] 2x notgames-Kritik, im Frühjahr auf Deutsch, kürzlich auf Englisch [...]

Well, when it comes to music, I guess you don't need an "extreme" example like "4:33" by John Cage. Just go back 20 years and look at techno music: Some famous example would be the "Just Isn't Music"-sublabel by Coldcut, rooting back to an ignorant guy who dismissed their music as: not music! The gap between innovative art and public acceptance is a problem every avantgarde artist has to deal with all the time. Backing off, as Rainer writes, doesn't solve anything.

You mentioned comics and graphic novels: to this day, I don't get what this is about. Is "comic" a bad term again, after all these decades have passed? It's a regression, really. But I guess a graphic novel is supposed to have some other aesthetic than a traditional comic? Whatever that means ... It just doesn't make sense.

[...] over on Video Game Tourism, Rainer Sigl criticizes the developers’ adoption of the term “notgames,” suggesting it rejects such works’ position as avant-garde. The comments below the article are [...]

Please don't get to hung up on this word. It's only supposed to inspire creators. It was never meant as the name of a category. It is the name of an approach to design instead.

We want nothing more than to be recognized by the games community.

But not necessarily to serve as its avant-garde. We do not strive for exclusion, but there is an element in rejection in our efforts. We reject the notion that videogames should be games. We do not see "games" as a medium. We see "videogames" as a medium. And this medium is much larger than "games made for computers". It includes all art and entertainment made for computers. And this medium too is stuck with a name that is wrong.

But we tend to prefer discussing the work rather than its name.

Most of us are very perfectly happy using the word "game" for our work. We simply have a broad interpretation of what that word entails. This is not avant-gardist at all. The word game has always been very broad. It is only very recently, that it has been contracted to point exclusively to rigid formal mechanics, rules and challenges . We reject this. And yes, if those are games, than what we make is not games.

Hello Michael,

oh, but I'd say your work (and that of your fellow games creators) is without doubt "avant-garde" in a very positive, even literal sense. ToT scouts ahead, just like Jenovah Chen and Dan Pinchbeck, to experiment with all that's possible in games; this work, I'd say, IS avantgarde, with the mainstream comfortably sitting many steps behind. I'm not sure I understand why you reject the term here, as for me, it's not only a word of praise, but also one of promise.

I agree that discussion of the games is more important than terminology, but I was always unhappy with the term and, while understandable because of pressure or even derision from both gamers and arts, I always thought it belittled or denied that promise: That (video)games as a medium will take note what this avantgarde are doing, and incorporating these ideas back into the medium. As I wrote:

"... they are among the most important games, games that expand our understanding of what games can be, of what might be in store for gaming as an art and as an entertainment."

It's good to see you comment on this, as I'd suspected there was room for discussion, and even misunderstanding. By provocatively coining the term I guess you'd have to expect some opposition from exactly those people who are your audience; I count myself among them. ;-)

If creators of "notgames" are "rob their whole medium of its avantgarde and effectively turn their backs in resignation" then so is the director when he claims his work is not a play and the sculptor when he claims he did not make a painting. We operate within a language where terms have meanings and with every introduction of new concepts there is the question of whether it should be covered by a new term or if an old one should be expanded to encompass the new idea.

Although we often think of games as a modern medium it is one of our oldest and as such is well established and defined, if not formally then in some way intuitively. KT is therefore I oppose using the term for things that do not classically fall within the definition of game. While not about art but rather about programming, I still tend to agree with Dijkstra, to shroud a radical novelty in terms of metaphors and analogies serves only to lesser our understanding.

So how do we determine when we are working with a new medium and when we are pushing the boundaries of an old one? I have made things that I would never call games and I've never intended to be games, yet as they run on computers and produce graphics in an interactive experience others lump it with games. Had I made a painting with a lever besides it with which something in the portrayed scene could be modified no one would think to call that work a game. Why then are you insisting to judge my art as a game for the supposed "sin" of running on a computer?

"The motto and title of the exhibition, and of the games shown in it, was "notgames".  And that's a problem."


If I'm choosing activisim to change a situation, I'll gladly take the one that is about changing the situation, and not the one quibbling about unconventional "attitudes" etc. about those doing the much-needed change.

The majority of people of any medium are nt capable of talking about it in any other way than the conventional way, they are highly protective and don't want any bad mood or dissent. There is no room for discussion, there is only room for doing, and that is in going to a different room.

The terminology that is necessary for a change cannot be reasonably applied to over 99% of existing games, whcih is why discussion, and an exploration, would be euqivalent to educational courses and experimental thought on internent-community scale. It is pretty absurd, only results and dedicated developers will do.##

If you're talking about "serious" games, you're essentially talking about old-schoolers and PC-master race vs. console players. This is a hardened and bitter struggle in itself, anything else is essentially filed under "hipster" stuff, pretentiousness etc. That might even be fair enough to some extent, but there is no effective trend or room for discussion, as I have said. Nobody wants it, nobody understands it, yes the very medium itself seems to go against it.

[...] Leseempfehlung einschließlich der Kommentare. Hier geht’s zum [...]

[...] some of your pieces "not-games", I assume in reference to Tale of Tales' nomenclature. I have my problems with this definition, mainly because I'd argue that it's essential to include these experimental games in gaming, just [...]

[...] Begriff des "not-games", um die Brücke zwischen Spiel und Kunst zu schlagen - ich sehe das eher skeptisch.  Sehe ich richtig, dass dein Zugang hier quasi genau umgekehrt ist? Statt Spiele zur [...]

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