Thursday, September 10, 2015

Videogames in the Hugo Awards

This post is not about nomination slates.

The recent excitement around the Hugos has led to record-breaking levels of public discussion and voting. That's good! It's also led to an early start to the "what's worth nominating next year?" discussions. Also good (and I've noted down some recommendations for my own to-read list). But that's not what this post is about either. This is a game blog, so we're going to talk about the possibility of a "Best Videogame" category for the Hugos.

To catch up: the Hugo Awards are the annual awards for best science fiction and fantasy of the year. They originated in 1953. There are a bunch of categories, including Novel, Short Story, Short Dramatic Presentation (TV episodes), and Long Dramatic Presentation (movies). But the categories have shifted over time; for example, a Graphic Story (comics) category was added in 2009.

So how about a videogame Hugo category? Many games are science fiction and fantasy. (I could argue that most videogames have at least some SF or fantasy elements.) (I could also argue that "sci-fi videogames" do not form a genre the way sci-fi books or movies do, but I won't get into that argument here.)

Looking back in history, I find that an "Interactive Video Game" category was experimentally added in 2006. It received very few nominations and the category was dropped before the final round.

But, I venture to say, times have changed and fandom has (slowly, cane-wavingly) changed too. Comics are in -- probably because lots more fans read comics. (I suspect this is because of web-comics.) Are games as widely appreciated by SF fandom? I'm sure they are, because the field of gaming has become so variegated and spread to so many audiences. Not everybody is playing Metal Gear Solid this week -- I'm not -- but an awful lot of people have played a casual web-game or an online board-game or some form of IF or an indie Steam game or, or, or... something.

So I'm willing to say it's time.

I've dipped into a discussion on this topic on Making Light (a fannish blog). (See comments 651, 652, 656, and various thereafter.) I also see that Eleri Hamilton, who I know from Myst fandom, is pulling together a proposal.

(This is not to say she's the only one pulling together a proposal! Fandom is large and I only see a few corners of it.)

Several other questions came up in the discussion. I'll summarize the answers I agree with; the ML thread contains longer and better-argued replies.

What do we call it?

I've seen "Videogame", "Video Game", "Interactive Media", "Interactive Story", "Interactive Experience", "Interactive Fiction". I lean towards "Videogame" just because everyone knows what that means. (Everyone then starts arguing about what it really means, but that's equally true of the other labels.)

How many categories?

Just one, to start with. Hugo categories are currently split by length (running time or word count), but the play time for a videogame is often ill-defined. Game industry awards are sometimes divided by game genre -- "best adventure game", "best shooter" and so on -- but asking a non-gaming-focussed fannish audience to do that is probably overkill. The genre labels have gotten fuzzy these days, anyhow. A single award category is simple; we can refine it later if desired.

Can videogames be nominated for Hugos right now?

Yes, kind of. Games are eligible for the "Dramatic Presentation" categories, if you're willing to pick a running time. However, those categories were meant for, and remain dominated by, TV and movies. The exceptions are stuff like audio plays and theatrical performances. Games, I snobbishly insist, are qualitatively different! I don't think it's a good comparison to put them up against non-interactive media.

There's also a "Related Work" category. Early on in this discussion, I thought it made sense to nominate games for "Related Work" and then move on to a permanent category if they did well. But this doesn't seem to be the way the Hugos work. The category is mostly used for non-fiction -- critical works about SF -- rather than as a "miscellaneous" or "uncategorizable" bin. Graphic novels were very rarely nominated for "Related Work" before the "Graphic Story" category appeared.

How does one go about proposing a Hugo category?

See Kevin Standlee's post from early this year. The short answer is, the Hugos are run according to the rules of the World Science Fiction Society, which can be amended by vote of attending Worldcon members. There's a procedure. It takes a couple of years; the system has lots of built-in hysteresis.

A worldcon committee may, if it wants, invent a one-time category without going through the whole voting thing. (This is how the 2006 "Interactive Video Game" category happened.) So this would be another way to try out the idea.

So what do we do?

Talk about whether it's a good idea. Come up with games that you think would be good nominees for next year. (That means games released in 2015, or which received significant expansions in 2015.) (For the record, Hadean Lands launched in October 2014. Sorry!)

Any proposal, whether to the Worldcon membership for a permanent category or to the Worldcon committee for a one-off, will need to argue two things: there are enough nominees each year for a good contest, and there is enough interest from fandom to get a lot of votes. That's what we have to establish.

What about the Sad Puppies thing?

Dammit I said this post wasn't about that.

Okay, yes. This is the year that a whole bunch of Hugo categories got No Award due to... well, I would say "due to a loophole in the nomination rules". I would also say "Remember Gamergate? Like that, but for science fiction fandom." I would also say "Dammit." The issue is not dead and will certainly infect the 2016 Hugos, although it's not clear if the results will be as severe. (A nominations rule change has been proposed, but that cannot take effect until 2017.)

So it would be bad if a videogame category was tried and then went to No Award because of this mess. However, this doesn't mean we should just drop the issue! To quote from my own reply on Making Light:'s awfully close to "be very very still and the assholes might not see you". I'm not interested in letting them dictate my goals that way.

Nor do I expect either the Puppies or Gamergate to die down of their own accord. They'll be "gone" when the world ignores them, which day will come sooner if fandom continues to create, promote, and discuss great SF. This means moving the conversation forward, not hiding from it.

Anyhow, the game-category discussion is probably going to take a while. A 2016 one-off category is possible but it's not the most likely path forward. So we should get the discussion rolling, and hopefully the 2017 nominations fix will be ratified and help stabilize things.

Time and bank balance permitting, I will be at the 2016 Worldcon (MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City). If I'm there, I'll be at the Business Meetings, which is where rule changes are debated and voted on. Let's see what we can do.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Janice M. Eisen (Sep 12, 2015 at 5:44 AM):

Dammit, I had a long response all ready based on my memories of the history of the Graphic Story Hugo, but before hitting "send" I thought, Gee, I'm on the Internet, so maybe I should check my facts first ... And of course, I had remembered it wrong. My excuses are that I was sidelined by illness for much of the last couple of decades, and even when I never missed a North American Worldcon, I wasn't a member of Business Meeting fandom. So I've rethought it completely after realizing my premise was wrong.

I remembered two things correctly: That Watchmen was the first graphic novel to win a Hugo, and that it did so in the committee's category for 1988, "Other Forms," which was widely believed to have been added just for that work. I was wrong in thinking that precedent had much to do with the Graphic Story Hugo, which is only a few years old. The question is why it took so long. Fannish inertia is part of it, but the Fancast category was added with much more alacrity.

I think that much of the problem — and this does get relevant soon, sorry — is that SF fans define the genre at least in part by what it's not. It's not monster movies, and it's not UFOlogy, and ... it's not comic books. Despite the long history of the intertwining of SF and comics, there was a lot of resistance to giving comics one of "our" awards.

As to games, I think in some ways it's a tougher task. Unlike comics, the gaming world has not had a significant overlap with SF fandom. (I am speaking about the communities here, not addressing the overlap of games with the genre.) Add to that the Gamergate/Puppy connection, and that's not a positive forecast.

In some ways, what gaming needs is to find its Watchmen — a work that is so transformative and brilliant that the Worldcon just has to give it an award. Failing that, if you can find, year after year, enough high-quality games with strong narrative elements that are clearly science fiction (preferably) or fantasy, make recommended lists and spread them around the corners of SF fandom where you hang out, then after a few years there might be a shot at getting a category. But it still won't be easy — there are still purists who think the Dramatic Presentation categories are illegitimate.

Andrew Plotkin (Sep 12, 2015 at 9:25 PM):

Thank you for the thoughtful reply!

Watchmen is both a good example and a terrible one. It was sui generis and required recognition, as you say. And then it was twenty years more before the Graphic Story category was established! There were a whole lot of comics which, well, "it's no Watchmen." (Pace Sandman, which, to be sure, eventually got a Hugo nom under Best Related Work.)

I don't want a games Hugo to follow that pattern. Naming a bunch of strong possibilities every year seems like a better option, really.

(I also suspect that gaming is already too large and too diverse for any single game to be its Watchmen. )

Molly (Sep 15, 2015 at 9:00 PM):

Apparently a petition has been started for this (File 770 link: ) Any thoughts on that?

Andrew Plotkin (Sep 16, 2015 at 10:27 AM):

Well, let's see. My first reaction is that petitions are a lousy medium -- in general, not just for this subject. They are not part of any existing conversation; "signing" is a button-push and doesn't represent any real involvement.

I am more interested in the 50-odd comments on the File770 page (but I haven't read them yet).

The text of the open letter is pretty much in accord with what I've said above. As I said, I'm a little leery of 2016 because EPH won't be in place, but I'd rather discuss that in the context of "People really want a videogame category, how do we go about it?" rather than "I oppose a videogame category in 2016." I support the idea and the details are worth discussing.

The proposal wording needs more explanation. Why "its story and/or gameplay controlled by that of a human player"? (I think this means "trailers and videos are not eligible", but this should be explained.) "Any console or mobile device" should also include general-purpose computers, or maybe it's unnecessary waffling. (Does a web game count as "released on computers"?)

"In its present interactive form" needs guidelines, too. Games undergo a lot of changes -- ports, translations, bug fixes, content updates, paid expansions, fan mods, sequels. What counts? (Off the cuff I'd say "content updates, paid expansions, fan mods, sequels". Plus translations on the same terms as other Hugo categories.)

Andrew Plotkin (Sep 16, 2015 at 11:54 PM):

The File770 thread turns out to be vociferous, polite, but generally skeptical of the idea.

Doing my best to summarize: the most common objection is that you want at least 25 "obviously potentially winning" candidates for a category every year. (So that that can be winnowed down to 5 nominees and then one winner.) Nobody has succeeded at naming that many solid SF/F games in a given year. (If you want to go for it, please do! Potentially possible with Twine in the mix.)

Other issues: excessive time and/or money cost to play through (some) games; not enough fans with the expertise to engage all the games; eligibility definition (ports? expansions?); whether to focus on narrative games, or perhaps on narrative in games.

(Someone also brought up the idea of nominating Sub-Q magazine, either as a zine or a related work. Not the same thing at all, but I like it.)

Douglas Knight (Sep 19, 2015 at 1:02 AM):

Science Made Stupid beat Watchmen by a couple of years, in the "Non-Fiction Book" category (even though it is fiction).

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