Dungeon Keeper may be a bad game, but it’s still a game

Reading this review of the new, free to play Dungeon Keeper mobile game in the Metro, I was struck by this quote:

We were going to refer to Dungeon Keeper as a non-game, but that’s not really accurate. It’s an anti-game. It is purposefully designed not to require thought, skill, or experimentation. Instead it rewards only money and, begrudgingly, patience.

And later, this:

But it doesn’t really matter what you play. Whether it’s the violent anarchy of GTA V, the dramatic splendour of The Last Of Us, or the joyful invention of Super Mario 3D World. Just play a video game, a real video game, and help stop these hateful anti-games from spreading their poison any further.

Specifically, I’m struck by the similarity in rhetoric used to attack Dungeon Keeper, and that used to attack other games – particularly Twine games, Gone Home, interactive fiction-ish games – based on their differences from “real video games”. The Metro’s far from the only place where this type of language crops up: just from a quick search, it’s in the comments on Pocket Gamer and Kotaku, and it comes up in Eurogamer’s review:

It’s always tempting to write this sort of free-to-play title off by saying it’s not really a game, and in a lot of ways it isn’t. But it’s Dungeon Keeper, and every now and then you see enough of that game to feel nostalgic, before it vanishes again behind a 24-hour cool down timer.

And there’s this from the Escapist:

I’m a big defender of most games – even ones I hate – when somebody says they’re “not a game.” The accusation of something not being a game is a blinkered and often weak form of noncommittal criticism. In the case of Dungeon Keeper, however, I can find no defense. It isn’t a game. It’s a cynically fabricated cash delivery system.

Exploitative game mechanics are still part of games. Games that cynically monetise the pants off their players are still games. We can’t No True Scotsman our way out of this one any more than we can those other games that most of the games community doesn’t like. “Not a game” is not a criticism, unless you think games can only be good.

Yes, Dungeon Keeper is a game. It’s OK to say it’s a bad game. It’s OK to say you don’t like time-gating and artificially preventing play and £69.99 consumable IAPs, it’s OK to say you don’t want to – or shouldn’t – pay for this kind of thing, it’s even OK to say it’s exploitative and unpleasant and that games like this are bad for their players and for the industry. It’s OK to be critical of a game while still acknowledging that it’s a game that can be, that is, played; it’s OK to say that games, this medium you love, are not always perfect and contain bad things and even do bad things, without needing to push those things outside the medium entirely. It’s astonishing how hard that seems to be for some mainstream games writers to do.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

17 thoughts on “Dungeon Keeper may be a bad game, but it’s still a game”

  1. So according to these “Rules”, games without a goal arent games either? Arguably, Minecraft only became a game a year or so ago, after making millions before it did so?

    I have to add to this, a lot of current reviewers “attack” a game by calling it a nongame.

    Sense it makes none.

  2. “mainstream games writers to do.” I used to watch EC until this one ep where they were really self glorifying the medium and it shocked me. It was the same sort of shock I got from this guy at the pub telling me quite seriously after I called it tad boring, “hey, this is my profession”. Something just kinda slapped me in the face almost froze me and I have never watched EC again. I think they need to bitch about life’s mechanics every once in awhile its DLC and subscriptions are abhorrent. Thats what bugged me about GG/ABC its just gotten so closeted its almost anti-gamer.

  3. As usual was compelled to give it a more thorough read. Just about all sites mentioned are ones I try to avoid and if approached its done with caution. RPS and Poly have good reviews or at least different opinions but neither have posted ones on DK (app) although Poly has an opinion piece and their site has a pretty solid community for a gaming site. Not much I can say really on this one you hit the nail on the head… it would of been nice if they used the term unethical game design, it seems to be becoming more relevant.

    There is some great quotes here but I think I will quote them instead because they’ve possibly lost me on this one: “It is purposefully designed not to require thought, skill, or experimentation”

    And further reading (the rhetoric) is actually kinda unnerving. Who are these Metro people.

  4. I’m not convinced. It’s not a logical argument that convinces people to consider Twine stories and GONE HOME as “games” – after all, they don’t much resemble anything else in the medium – but an emotional and moral one. We argue that expanding the definition of games is not just a social good but an aesthetic necessity, to avoid “games” becoming yet another adolescent cultural ghetto like “comic books.”

    Which is all to say that inclusion is not a logical process, but an entirely arbitrary one, driven by consensus. And I don’t see a campaign of angry tweets and hashtags to support the inclusion of so-called games that have no other purpose but separating a player from his or her money as quickly as possible. I think we can all feel comfortable drawing that line in the sand.

    1. Regardless of whether a big crowd of people is clamouring for their inclusion or not, excluding some games from the category of games because “core gamers” (whatever they are) don’t like them or want to play them is an illogical and incoherent line in the sand. It’s intellectually dishonest to argue for category expansion in one area and shrinkage in another purely on personal preference, and doubly so when the same formalist arguments that are utterly rejected in one area are relied upon for support in the other. “This cultural medium is inherently good, therefore this thing that is bad is not part of this medium” is not an argument that holds water in literature, film, or even comics, thankfully, and nor should it in games.

      1. I’m not arguing on behalf of “core gamers,” but rather for the value of cultural gatekeepers. Why doesn’t the New York Times review straight-to-DVD pornos in the Arts section? They certainly qualify as films in every formal category. Is it intellectually dishonest to exclude them from consideration? Or is more useful to say that that the Arts section is making a value judgement to exclude films from consideration that, like a toaster or coffee maker, fulfill a very specific commercial need?

        The point is that arts criticism has nothing to do with logic. We are always making arbitrary distinctions based on emotional and moral judgements — especially in literature and film — and often the formal argument follows from that. In the case of the infamous Twine game/not-game wars, it wasn’t a rational argument about semantics that won the day – it was a passionate group of partisans who pushed for expanding the category for the purpose of supporting makers and exposing their work to a larger audience.

        But I can’t imagine many people who will stand up and say, “I want the latest video slot machines to be reviewed in PC Gamer!” Nor should they. Yes, it’s an arbitrary moral argument to exclude them from consideration — and that’s OK.

        1. You’re shifting the goalposts quite a long way from where they started. I’m not arguing that Dungeon Keeper should or shouldn’t be reviewed, I’m arguing that if you’re going to review it, you can’t decide it’s not a game just because it’s blatantly commercial (not least because that should also exclude a whole bunch of other games from game-status). In the same way, if the NYT reviewed a straight-to-DVD porno, it would be utterly disingenuous for that review to say it wasn’t a film. If we were arguing for the rights of publications to exclude from consideration certain genres, I would be right there with you. But excluding genres from criticism is not the same thing as denying that they are genres at all, and then criticising them anyway.

          I’m still unconvinced that the argument for defining games to exclude Dungeon Keeper is anything but a thinly disguised value judgement aimed at keeping games as a category ‘pure’.

          1. The point of that example was to illustrate that in criticism we make value judgements all the time, and that in itself isn’t *necessarily* problematic. I would argue that a critic doesn’t really consider a porno as a film in any meaningful sense. (But sorry if that muddied the water.)

            When someone argues that a work is not a game, I wouldn’t say it is an attempt to create a “pure” category, but you are correct that it is an attempt to dismiss it from consideration. But you are equating a past attempt to dismiss marginalized voices with the current attempt to dismiss highly profitable, morally unsound practices.

            And given that the “game” category is arbitrarily chosen by consensus anyway, why shouldn’t we find another name for “devices that are designed to take your money as quickly as possible?” There is a reason that the people who design the LOST-themed video poker in Vegas don’t go to the same parties as the people who make GONE HOME.

          2. Ah, now we’re getting to a place where I think we probably agree a whole lot. Gambling games are still games but they’re a distinct genre within that, like sports games or collaborative storytelling games. I’m all for describing Dungeon Keeper as a commercial game, if that’s the right term. But it’s still a game. Interestingly I think the rhetoric comes from the same place as the desire to put distance between Gone Home and Lost-themed poker, and I think the way the critical conversation jumps to crowbar separation between gambling games and other video games often makes it basically impossible to talk intelligently about coercive mechanics and their impact on play & players – which is one reason why I wrote this post in the first place. As critics we absolutely should be able to critique mechanics of addiction and coercion in every kind of game.

            While I don’t mean to imply Twine games are in a similar category to Dungeon Keeper, the net effect is still to exclude criticism of, conversation around, and players of types of games that are seen as polluting/diluting videogames. Just like Farmville, “casual” games, etc. And it’s worth bearing in mind the way demographics for such games break down on gender and age lines, too – this might not be excluding marginalised creators but it’s certainly excluding marginalised players.

        2. I think you should read Robert Hughes Shock of the New its actually still a relevant study text. Because suggesting the NYT review pornos is wack.

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