DisCon III have decided to use their discretionary power to include a one-off (for the time being) Best Video Game category for the 2021 Hugo Awards. Extensive coverage here http://file770.com/ready-nominator-one-best-video-game-special-hugo-award-category-announced-for-2021/
I wrote a post on the possibility way, way back in 2015 https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2015/06/23/a-hugo-for-games/ where I was thinking about ways of focusing the award on the narrative qualities and SFF elements. The Hugo Awards aren’t exclusively about stories but that’s the gravitational centre of them.
The Dragon Awards have been experimenting with game categories but notably that even taking into account the low profile of the Dragons in general, the game categories (that include separate categories for console, mobile, board and miscellaneous ‘Miniatures / Collectible Card / Role-Playing Game’) have an even lower profile. If I mention Wittgenstein at this point I may be falling into self-parody but ‘games’ are a paradigmatic example of things that clearly we recognise a common set of things but which defy easy categorisation by appeal to defining properties.
The SFWA’s Nebula Awards have taken a different tack and since 2018 has include an award for Best Game Writing. The emphasis on the writing aspect is apt for the Nebula’s which are a professional award by and for writers. Recognising that writing for games has become a long standing outlet for professional writers helps define (and professionalise) a sub-discipline rather than sub-genre of SFF writing. It has the added advantage on focusing the award on aspect of games that is comparable with other award categories in the Nebulas.
Last year, Ira Alexandre of Lady Business produced a deeply impressive report on a Hugo ‘Best Game’ proposal. I wrote about it here https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/07/06/looking-at-the-hugo-game-interactive-experience-proposal/ and that post contains links to surrounding coverage at the time. What impressed me at the time was the category definition. Finding a way to provide a focus for an award that didn’t limit the kinds of things that could be nominated is one of the big challenges and I think the report showed a way forward:
“Any work or substantial modification of a work (such as a game or interactive narrative, demonstration, or installation) first released to the public in the previous calendar year in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects in any medium where player/user choice, interaction, or participation significantly impacts the narrative, pacing, play, or experience of the work.”http://file770.com/a-hugo-award-for-best-game-or-interactive-experience/
DisCon has acknowledge Ira Alexandre’s work on this but has gone for a more conventional definition.
“An eligible work for the 2021 special Hugo award is any game or substantial modification of a game first released to the public on a major gaming platform in the previous calendar year in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects.http://file770.com/ready-nominator-one-best-video-game-special-hugo-award-category-announced-for-2021
For these purposes, a game is defined as a work wherein player choice, interaction, or participation significantly impacts the narrative, play, meaning, or experience. A major gaming platform means that the game is available on personal computers such as Windows, Mac, or Linux computers (including, but not limited to, via Steam, Epic, itch.io, browser, or direct download), iOS, Android, Switch, PlayStation, and/or Xbox systems.”
The language sounds precise but it qualifies what is eligible with further hard to define categories. A choose your own adventure book that you read on a Kindle App could (from a barrack room lawyer perspective) count as it has player choice and is available on most devices but doesn’t really quite fit with the spirit or title of the definition. That’s not a fatal flaw, after all the whole premise of the Hugo Awards rests on the nigh-impossible task of categorising what is science-fiction. The list of qualifiers though has an element of ‘eligible voters must reside in either Bortsworth, England, The United Kingdom, Europe or elsewhere in the World’.
But it is easy to get bogged down in what counts for an award. The Hugo nomination process has a clever algorithm for dealing with the question of what fits within family-resemblance-like categories defined intersubjectively across a community: ask a whole bunch of fans to pick what they think should go in the category and let them vote on it and over time you get to see what fits in that category. John Campbell’s quote that science fiction is “science fiction is what science-fiction editors publish” can be read as a tautology or as an insight into how socially defined categories work or as an expression of institutional power (or possibly all three) but also reflects how the Hugos can deal with these taxonomic dilemmas.
“Released to the public” is a different kind of can of worms. Games can have weird release dates. The video game I spent most time playing this year (aside from Minecraft) was Dragon Quest XI. The Japanese version was released in 2017, the international version was released in 2018, the version I played was released in 2019. Yet, localization releases offer no more substantial challenge to video game eligibility than translations of novels. The Three Body Problem was first released as a novel in 2008 and won a Hugo Award in 2015 based on its 2014 released English translation and everybody coped with that. ‘Substantial modification’ sensibly would cover translation into English but other modifications may defy easy ways of evaluating what is ‘substantial’.
Adam Whitehead has a handy run down of potentially eligible games at his blog https://thewertzone.blogspot.com/2020/11/hugo-awards-add-video-game-category-for.html
I’ve played exactly one of those (Animal Crossing: New Horizons) although I do have another downloaded but as yet unplayed on my Switch (Hades). Animal Crossing helps illustrate some of the scepticism I have about the category.
It’s a nice game and I know from social media that a lot of people with an interest in the Hugo Awards have played it. In the early days of Covid-19’s lockdowns, the game was something of a cultural moment, with people escaping from the fraught claustrophobia of the times into a gentle world of talking animals trading turnips. Is it eligible?
- Released March 2020 worldwide. Check.
- Available on Nintendo Switch – a major platform explicitly named in the definition. Check.
- Features talking animals in a semi-fantastical world. That’s definitely a fantasy sub-genre but even if everyone was just cartoonish-but-human avatars the ‘related subjects’ of “in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects” gives a lot of latitude. Check.
- “player choice, interaction, or participation significantly impacts the narrative, play, meaning, or experience”. There’s not much of a narrative but play and experience are definitely impacted by player choice. Check.
Add to the eligibility that the game was popular, well designed, generated lots of conversation and memes and hit multiple age demographics AND I know lots of people who discuss the Hugo Awards online were chatting about Animal Crossing and it is both a plausible and eligible nominee for this category.
And yet…I really can’t see why it should get a Hugo Award. I’ve nothing against the antics of Tom Nook’s property dealings but I wouldn’t nominate Animal Crossing or vote for it if it got nominated. Of course, if lots of Hugo voters think the same way, then it is a moot point. However, what I don’t have is a good sense of why I wouldn’t vote for it and that bugs me. I want to be able to analyse my choices and articulate them. In part I want to do that because maybe my “I wouldn’t vote for this” is just a snobby prejudice of “oh the Hugos are for proper stuff not cartoon raccoon-dogs convincing me to buy real estate”.
My gut feeling though is that Animal Crossing falls out of the domain of what I think should be within the Hugos. I don’t think that’s because of the cutesy aspects and I think it may lay more on the narrative aspects but also a broader question of influence. Here I know I’m on shaky ground because the game was a bit of a social phenomenon, so if anything it easily wins on “influence”. However, I feel with the other categories that aren’t the stories-in-written-form categories, there is a strong cross-medium influence in the categories in terms of their role and how people vote on them. I don’t mean in the sense that Doctor Who has spawned an awful lot of books but rather that films, TV shows, sci-fi/fantasy art etc cross fertilises with the core of stories.
That influence is not something that has always been captured at the time. I don’t think the importance of Avatar: The Last Air-Bender was fully grasped when it was first broadcast but I think now it is easy to see that it has helped shape contemporary fantasy writing in a way that is comparable to how Lord of the Rings shaped earlier writers. That sense of the Hugo Awards trying (not always with success) to capture the shape of the genre and its influences is both a reason for having a games category and a substantial challenge for such a category.
Can games even have that kind of influence? The question is barely worth asking when the influence of Dungeons and Dragons is undeniable and when LitRPG is a hefty sub-genre on Amazon. But how about video games? Is the influence still not more unidirectional? After all, looking at the Wertzone list there are a lot of entries that are derivative from other media (Spider-Man: Miles Morales), while others have spawned their own movies (e.g. World of WarCraft) they still seem to be more derivative than influential.
Counter to that I think there is a long history of games that have ideas so intriguing as to excite and inspire people to write and create. Aidan Moher’s long love letter to the classic video game Chrono Trigger is an excellent example of how games have depth that arise out of both narrative and gameplay.
“I arrived at school groggy-eyed from staying up all night slugging coffee and working on Chrono Trigger fanfic. (Don’t ask me why a 12 year old was allowed to drink coffee all night, ask my parents.) My grade seven teacher had told us to create a sequel to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic fantasy novel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Given that series’s multiverse milieu, it was a perfect opportunity to swiftly tilt myself onto Chrono Trigger’s unnamed planet. My story took place after the events of the classic Super Nintendo Japanese RPG’s best ending, and featured L’Engle’s characters teaming up with Chrono Trigger’s hero and anti-hero, Crono and Magus, in their search for Schala, the lost princess of Zeal. I handed the assignment over to Ms. Matthews with pride and aplomb, exited stage left to the bathroom, and promptly threw up my breakfast.”https://medium.com/insert-cartridge/timeless-the-history-of-chrono-trigger-375ce25b481e
Moher points to one of my favourite aspects of this game and a point that I think illustrates the combination of narrative, ideas, game play and puzzle solving:
‘“In this back half of the game,” said Kohler, “now that the player fully understands the mystery of the story and can therefore be let off the leash, we start to see the game play around a little bit more with the possibilities of time travel in storytelling.” He points to a subplot where the player must revive a forest by leaving a robotic character named Robo behind in 600 AD and retrieve him in 1000 AD. It’s a mere skip in the time-travelling Epoch for the party, but 400 years have passed for Robo.’
Hey, maybe I’m wrong about Animal Crossing. I can see there’s no end of fanfic about it and that’s sort of the kind of evidence for influence that’s relevant. Does it push the genre forward and outwards? Maybe it does. I guess what is missing is not the question of eligibility criteria but the kind of critical writing that deals with games as genre writing rather than primarily as games. And when I say that it is missing, I mean of course that it probably exists in huge quantities but I’m just not reading it or tuned into it. Rarely is something genuinely missing.
As always we return to the community dialogue: how we talk and discuss stories. A video game Hugo needs that kind of dialogue to be a success and having a Hugo Video Game category is a way of generating that dialogue.
In a comment to his post on the DisCon announcement, Mike Glyer said:
“Do Hugo voters bring a level of experience to this a category that matches their knowledge of text sff and art — will winning it be a meaningful honor?”http://file770.com/ready-nominator-one-best-video-game-special-hugo-award-category-announced-for-2021/comment-page-1/#comment-1237974
I think that is the central question. Put another way, what kind of conversation can we have about games that is both enlightening, related to other media and which can create a consensus of what we are looking for in games?
I guess there is only one way to find out.
 I had it in my head that it was Damon Knight who said that, so I googled ‘who said “science fiction is what science fiction editors publish”‘ and the second hit was this Hugosauriad https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/08/03/hugosauriad-3-4-in-the-late-cretaceous-by-connie-willis/ and I simply don’t trust the guy who wrote that as a source.