Video Game Hugo

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. 

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.”

http://file770.com/ready-nominator-one-best-video-game-special-hugo-award-category-announced-for-2021

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[1] 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.


[1] 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.

24 thoughts on “Video Game Hugo

  1. I’m wondering if the “substantial modification of a game” thing would cover things like long-running MMORPGs that offer regular content updates. I’m a regular player of Star Trek Online, for example, and it releases updated content pretty regularly – new “episodes”, improved versions of existing models, new combat scenarios and so forth. There’s been a fair amount of that sort of thing this year… and, of course, as a game adaptation of a long-running and popular SF franchise, it’s exactly the sort of game that might come to Hugo voters’ notice. On the other hand, though, the basic game engine is ten years old and looks it, so, considered purely as a video game, it’s not a front-runner for any awards in this day and age. But is that a factor we should consider, if we’re voting on an SF award? These are deep waters, Watson.

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    1. My first thought was Fallout 76. It’s been out a few years, but they dropped a huge piece of content on us in March/April that actually brought people to the Wasteland — the first year and a half, you had to follow the story via written and taped records left behind. Wastelanders (and to a lesser extent, Steel Dawn, which was just dropped on us this week) was a major change of the game. Would that count?

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  2. > downloaded but as yet unplayed on my Switch (Hades)

    You need to fix that asap 🙂 the storytelling is really well done, though you’ll have to enjoy the particular style of roguelike action combat that is the main loop

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  3. Animal Crossing: New Horizon is clearly good at bringing delight to a lot of people. But so is Settlers of Catan, and so is marijuana, and I wouldn’t want either of those to get Hugos, either.

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  4. So I’ve been (finally) writing up my CoNZealand con report and this caught my eye from the Games Hugo panel:

    Alexandre trusts Hugo voters; a Hugo would have to honor the combination of speculative and storytelling elements. Bolinger pointed out that it was important to consider the way the story is told through the gameplay, as in Pathologic 2, and Alexandre concurred that this one of the reasons that speculative and interactive fiction are uniquely suited for each other.

    I think “story told through the gameplay” is the key point here. There are lots of ways for games to convey story but for a Hugo, I’d want to see a story that’s being designed and told by the people who we’re handing the rockets to. A more open game (I haven’t played AC:NH but my impression is that it falls here) where the story you get is mostly just a function what the player puts into it wouldn’t, to me, be what I’m looking to award. I’m not quite sure how to put it but I think there is a fuzzy line that can be drawn between “this is mostly in the text” and “this isn’t in the text, but the game left me room to say that X is my character’s story”. And neither of these approaches to game design are wrong! But I think it makes more sense to give Hugos to the former.

    This is one reason, incidentally, why I’d have a hard time extending the award to TTRPGs — in most of the campaigns I’ve played in, the story was mostly driven by the DM and the players, with the RPG itself just being a framework, a setting, to hang it around. (And yes, obviously prewritten campaigns exist.)

    This is also one qualm, I think, I have with using fanfiction as a metric. It’s often easier to write fanfiction about a story that has a lot of holes in it, where you want something for the characters that isn’t (either explicity or implicitly) in the actual text. I’ve definitely seen people say “I loved this story and I have no urge to write fic for it because it already gave me everything I want out of it” — although this may be less so in games because of the essential interactive element.

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      1. I think it’s about storytelling but in the specific context of gaming I think how the story is told has to be given a significant amount of weight as well. One concept that applies is ludonarrative, or how well the game’s story is told through both the narrative parts and the actual gameplay. I want to look at just how well the gameplay conveys the story that other parts of the game are trying to tell, especially if the gameplay is notably innovative.

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  5. I am very curious to see how this goes. I don’t see myself participating unless I outsource that category to my partner (who doesn’t normally vote in the Hugos himself).

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  6. I think it’s worth a trial run, but to me it runs into the same problem as I have with the long form/short form Dramatic Presentation Hugos – these are awards for something that already has bigger and more important awards for those works, so what exactly are we adding by including them?

    There are a whole bunch of video game awards, to the extent that anyone cares about them. And to be honest I think consumers of video games care less about game awards than say consumers of books – which is largely a function of the fact that the winners of such awards tend to be AAA titles that people were already buying anyhow, or at most had heard of and waited for reviews rather than awards (another factor is that most games are bought around the time of release – with a few very notable exceptions – and so by the time awards come around, the time for purchase is pretty past).

    The thing I like the most about the Hugos is rewarding the best works, which also helps highlight those works to others searching for great works to catch up on. Does a video game hugo really do that? Not really in either way – it isn’t likely to highlight anything unknown, nor is it likely to really be worth much in recognition for its winner (it doesn’t help that the makers of the big titles likely to win, like with the dramatic presentation awards, are likely to be big companies rather than single authors).

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  7. There’s also the cost and time factor.

    If you really work hard at it, you can read all the written works nominated for a Hugo (yay packet) and watch all the TV/movies. Libraries and streaming can make up for gaps that the packet doesn’t fill, like the movies, TV, and entire novels. You could binge all the movies in one day and all the TV the next at minimal expense — particularly if (in normal times) you’d already seen some of the movies and TV.

    But video games are often 60 hours each. At maximum, the 6 movies would take you 18 hours and the TV shows about 6-7. You’re done with those categories in 25 hours just by sitting on your couch and a modest investment. Finishing 6 AAA games takes at least 360 hours of paying close attention and doing things, and longer if you die and have to back up to a saved spot or do all the side missions. Sandbox games go on forever.

    Video games cost a lot more, take a lot more time, and are much much harder. You can read or listen to books as you have a minute, almost anywhere. You can stream a half-hour TV show while you’re waiting for someone to finish the errand you drove them to, or read a couple of short stories.

    But it’s highly impractical to buy all the consoles, all the games, and play all the games. And so many people are completely physically unable to play video games. Blind? Have Parkinson’s? Just slow to push the right button? Video games are not for you. Too poor to buy the latest console and new games? Sorry. Are just not about to buy ALL the consoles and ALL the games and play so much? Nope.

    I don’t think it’s going to have a lot of take-up. It’s only liable to work as a one-off category. The numbers every year are pretty low for some of the categories already — they had to eliminate the “must get at least 5%” rule.

    And who actually gets to keep the shiny rocket(s)?

    As Sam Goldwyn (probably) said, “Include me out”.

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    1. My issue with video games is motion sickness. Doesn’t matter how flat or cartoony the graphics are. Any sense of movement and blech. I don’t usually have any trouble with other video, and I can read while riding in a car with zero problems. Wasn’t really much of an issue when I was younger, but in the last 10 years or so forget it.

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      1. Oof, yes. I can still read in a car, but some video games (particularly on a big screen) and most 3D movies make me queasy. It’s hard to aim when you’re trying not to lose your lunch. And forget about headset VR, that’s hork city no matter how simple the graphics — the movement on the screen is still not synced up to the speed that physics actually goes. Every so often they announce “3D games with no motion sickness!” and nope. My inner ear begs to differ. Render faster, boys.

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      2. My partner is pretty much the opposite of me. He was an early adopter of VR and can play until the headset gets uncomfortable rather than feeling queasy. He can’t read in a car though. So that’s my super power! I remember the first time someone mentioned not being able to read in a car to me, I was like “What? Why!?”

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    2. ^ Echoing LT’s excellent points. It boils down to cost and access; I think at this point it’s still not a feasible award for the Hugos. I’d love to be proven wrong; games have evolved so much in the last 30 or so years and they’re really maturing and coming into their own as a storytelling medium, but I still just don’t quite see it happening.

      Plus there’s potential for endless bickering about “substantive changes” as we each try to shoehorn in our favourite game based on some DLC or patch that was released in the following year etc (I for one will be putting down Fire Emblem: Three Houses and/or Fire Emblem: Three Houses – Cindered Shadows if I decide to join for nominations/voting in the Hugos next year!)

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      1. Yes, where does “substantive changes” draw the line?

        With TV, each episode is a discrete, self-contained whole, even though it obviously builds on the previous ones and leads into the next. As is each movie, even when they’re all a part of one story like LOTR. Or even like Marvel movies — “The Avengers” won even though it was I don’t remember which of the series. Same for books — the later volumes of a series are always eligible for awards and that’s fine.

        Obviously Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3 are entirely different games, even if you’re the same character and your earlier choices determine the way the later games go. And Assassin’s Creed 1-N, of course.

        Is the line a hard one that it’s got to be that obviously new (what in the olden days would have come in an entirely new box/disc; that would have made it clearer)? How big or long does the DLC content need to be to count?

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      2. I can tell you what will happen, assuming that there are enough nominations to make the category viable (of which I’m skeptical).

        There will be things nominated which are not first-release but are “enhanced” or “expanded”, and there will be protests lodged by fans who think that one or more of the finalists is not eligible (and is no doubt knocking their own favorite off the ballot), and the Hugo Administrators are going to have to do a bunch of research in order to make decisions, and they are absolutely going to hate that.

        To me, that’s one of the biggest flaws with this category — the lines between “eligible” and “not eligible” are going to be way fuzzier than with any other category, and it is going to be a major pain in the ass.

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      3. Yes, this was my thought. I really wonder how well Hugo admin will be able to make the calls on this. But I guess we won’t know how it might go unless it’s tried.

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