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.