Games Will Eat Themselves

by G. Christopher Williams

5 August 2015

As you might imagine, the first thing that you will want to do when “not playing” There Is No Game is to try to play it. In other words, the first thing that you will want to do is break the rules of the game.
 

If you haven’t ever not played There Is No Game, I would recommend not clicking on this link to not play that non-game, as this article will slightly spoil There Is No Game. Oh, it will also kind of spoil the Sesame Street Little Golden Book classic The Monster at the End of this Book.

It is no surprise to me that There Is No Game was the winner of the recent DeceptionJam sponsored by Scirra, the maker of a game development program called Construct 2. The rules of this GameJam were to create a game using Construct 2 that presented the theme of “deception” in some fun and engaging way. There Is No Game seems like it had to be a shoe in for the top prize, as it is a clever and witty little “non-game.”
  
The instructions for “not playing” There Is No Game are simple:

There is no game. There is nothing to do.
Do not click or tap anywhere. Really. DO NOT CLICK OR TAP ANYWHERE.
Do not laugh as there is nothing to laugh about.

Don’t try to use your computer mouse.
Don’t try to touch your mobile screen.

As you might imagine, the first thing that you will want to do when “not playing” There Is No Game is to try to play it. In other words, the first thing that you will want to do is break the rules of the game.

This places There Is No Game in a long line of games that ask questions about our relationship to systems of rules and how much we can or should defy the authoritarian structure of games (as such structure is always governed by rules—that is what makes a game, well, a game after all). There are some exceptionally well known games of this sort that come down on various sides of the issue of whether we can defy the authoritarian “voice” of the game, like Portal, Bioshock, and The Stanley Parable to name a few, as well as some lesser known (but I think equally interesting) examples of such a concern, like Loved and Alphaland. However, There Is No Game reminds me less of these particular games and more of the classic picture book for children, The Monster at the End of This Book.

The Monster at the End of This Book features our pal, the lovable, furry old Grover, from Sesame Street. The book is less like a straightforward story than most children’s books, since what happens in the book is that after Grover announces that there is a monster at the end of the book that you are reading, he then begs you to not turn each page as doing so will bring us ever closer to the monster at the end of the book. With each page, Grover grows more desperate to stop the reader from reaching the end of the book, constructing barriers and barricades in the illustrations in order to prevent the reader from turning to the next page and the next and the next.

If you have never read this book to a child, I highly recommend that you do so because the pleasure that a kid receives from “reading” this book is infectious. When I read this book to my daughters when they were little, they would giggle with glee at Grover’s more and more desperate pleas to not reach the end of the book. They would cackle in delight as they turned each page aggressively in order to “tear” through Grover’s defenses. It is a book that in part operates on the knowledge that there is a pleasure in defying what you have been told you are supposed to do, that there is a pleasure in defying the authorial voice that normally creates the rules (the authority) of narrative.

In this sense, The Monster at the End of This Book may have more in common with the medium of video games than with the medium of books. It is experienced as an interactive text, rather than as a more typically passive reading experience, which simply asks you to drink in the details of what is being told to you, not actively teasing you to defy what you have been told.

This same expectation that you will want to interact with a game world when you play There Is No Game is how the game creates much of its pleasure as an experience and much of its humor. There are other jokes in the game, including a variation on a joke that has been rehashed one too many times in video games, “The cake is a lie,” that, nevertheless, made me laugh out loud. And after all, that There Is No Game references Portal seems apt given how that is a game, too, about defying the “guiding voice” that we too often easily obey in games.

There is no truly serious effort to examine the tension that exists between the authoritarian nature of the system of a game and the player’s freedom to do what they like (as is found in the previously mentioned games like Portal or The Stanley Parable) in some thoughtful or profound way in There Is No Game. While both of those games actually are often funny, they still seem to intend to provoke some thought about the nature of freedom and the nature of authority. However, There Is No Game merely uses this tension for the sake of laughs, for the sake of amusing its audience, and for the sake of giving the player that giggle of pleasure when they know that they are supposedly transgressing the rules. It is a game, much like the book The Monster at the End of this Book, that reminds us that “being a little naughty” in the face of authoritarianism can be a relief, a pleasure, and even a joy.

If Portal, Bioshock, The Stanley Parable, Loved, and Alphaland treat their subject matter of authority and obedience, freedom and the defiance of rules with at least some degree of seriousness and profundity, it is refreshing sometimes to simply have a laugh at the seeming certitude and smug nature of authority and authoritarianism.

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