A Hugo Award for Best Game or Interactive Experience

[This guest post proposes adding a category to the Hugo Awards.]

By Ira Alexandre:  Thirteen years ago, in 2006, there was a trial attempt at a “Best Interactive Video Game” Hugo category. Then, as now, hundreds of WSFS members were also creating and playing analog games, telling stories by touch and by chance, by word and by wit. These experiences were excluded from this award entirely. Since then, we have entered the age of Steam, YouTube, and Twitch, mobile games and the indie explosion. The tools to breathe life into the branching paths of an interactive novel have never been more accessible and sophisticated. We need an award that recognizes the proliferation of games, platforms, creators, and users in the thirteen years since the video game award was last trialed.

It is time for all types of games and interactive media to be recognized in our community. It is time for an inclusive games Hugo Award.

I know we’ve tried this before, but a lot has changed – including what is actually being proposed. In addition to the 2006 trial category attempt, there was also a petition in 2015 to get MidAmeriCon II to run a Best Video Game category. There’s two major ways my proposal is different: it’s not just for video games, and it addresses the issue of modifications (DLC, expansions, fan mods, etc.).

Here’s what I’m proposing, and I’ve put together roughly 100 pages of data, arguments, and case by case analysis to back it up:

3.3.X: Best Game or Interactive Experience.

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.

With this proposed definition, I want to:

  • Name games specifically. Let’s keep it grounded, translatable, and accessible to international audiences.
  • Leave room for all the other amazing things that can be achieved with interactivity.
  • Acknowledge and engage with the uniquely modification-heavy nature of games. We’re taking advantage of the concept of “substantially modified,” already present in the Best Related Work Category.

This approach opens up the category to a ton of content that WSFS members are demonstrably interested in, judging by the amount of Worldcon programming that’s devoted to games. My proposal includes a Proof of Interest section covering the growth in games programming since 2006 as well as showing WSFS members writing about, playing, and creating games. Between WorldCon 64 — the year of the 2006 attempt — and WorldCon 76 last year, there have been 353 gaming panels, presentations, scheduled gaming sessions, and other gaming-related program items at WorldCons. The percentage of Worldcon programming that’s devoted to games has tripled since 2006, with some cons having as much as 6-9% of their entire program devoted to games, up from less than 1% when the category was last trialled.

Not only has interest grown, but games as a medium have changed and matured immensely. Indie and mobile games have taken off and now form the majority of the market, and the distribution platform of Steam has made gaming more accessible than ever.  There’s plenty of games – not just good but great games – to nominate every year, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to nominate and vote. It’s not a solid wall of expensive AAAs and even more expensive consoles. Analog games are often collectively owned, with one playable set shared among several people. Prose interactive fiction is often low-cost or even free. Indie games, playable on run-of-the-mill PCs and phones, are doing a ton of the heavy lifting in terms of quality and interesting SFF work, and they cost about as much as a hardcover novel or even an ebook novella. For those who can’t or don’t want to play the games, guided game tours like Let’s Plays or “movie versions” of games abound on YouTube and Twitch (I moderated a panel on this very thing at WisCon). Existing WSFS gamers already own or buy the platform and materials in numbers large enough to nominate, and becoming an informed voter ranges from cheap to free.

But aside from the growing interest and accessibility, games are also just not well served by the current category structure.  Games simply do not fit in Best Dramatic Presentation or Best Related Work, where they’re currently eligible. In the BDP categories, not only are games competing with big budget films and TV series, but they also have to be sorted by runtime, which most games don’t even have. More importantly, putting them in either category ignores the unique nature of interactive storytelling that blends narrative and play.

It doesn’t matter if it’s audiovisual, analog, immersive, or prose. If it’s interactive, it’s made differently, it’s crafted differently. We approach the work in a different way; we shape it even as it shapes our experience. This unifying element of all interactive experiences – of this utterly unique way to convey a story, a world, an idea – deserves to be recognized.

The sort of speculative fiction storytelling that games can do is absolutely unique. There is no substitute for imagined planets you can actually explore, for time travel stories where you pick where and when to go, for being given the tools to make your own stories with your friends. Games are uniquely suited to push the limits of interactive worldbuilding (Microscope, Dragon Age, Dwarf Fortress), expand the ways we can tell stories (GRIS, Return of the Obra Dinn, Heaven’s Vault), and interrogate the natures of narrative and play themselves (BioShock, Braid, The Stanley Parable, Pandemic Legacy). There is simply nothing like this medium. There is SFF work only games can do.

WSFS members play games, write about games, make games, and are inspired by games. We have always been here. We have always gamed.

And as gamers, we understand that mods, analog or digital, pro or fan, are part of the game. Expansions, rereleases, editions, bundles. DLC, handmade cards, patches, fan mods, house rules. Part of the magic of games is that you can make them your own. Changes to the game can be experienced directly as part of it – not alongside, but during, the play. A truly inclusive game award must acknowledge game modifications. Including a substantial modifications clause in the award definition not only acknowledges the culture and reality of the gaming world, but also takes the burden off Hugo administrators during the nominations phase.

With a substantial modification clause, Hugo admins don’t have to legislate the common cases of expansive expansions, meaty DLC, and top-to-bottom remakes. These are part of modern gaming craft, and when they make a difference, they deserve to be acknowledged. And fans can tell what truly makes a difference. We are simply less likely to nominate mods that don’t have meaning when there’s so much fresh content to consider. By acknowledging this aspect of gaming culture, we honour the speculative fiction and fannish work being done without creating an undue burden on Hugo admins.

Whether you’re a gamer or not, this proposal is about you. It’s about what the speculative fiction work we as WSFS members choose to honour.

If you’re interested, please take this interest survey  – it does use Google sign-ins to enforce a single-vote policy. If you don’t have a Google account, please feel free to join the mailing list, tweet about it using #GamesHugo, email me at [email protected], or talk to me in person at Worldcon, where I will be at the Business Meeting.  I’ve made www.gameshugo.com as a central hub for this campaign.

If you’re not convinced, I invite you to read the full proposal, where I put forward full, detailed arguments, reams of data, and a dozen test cases: A Hugo Award for “Best Game or Interactive Experience”. There’s about 60 pages of arguments, examples, and narrative, about 40 pages of appendices, and a spreadsheet of hundreds of games, panels, and panelists. I’d love to hear feedback!

Thanks for your time!

— Ira Alexandre, (WSFS Member and Contributing Editor at Lady Business)

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25 thoughts on “A Hugo Award for Best Game or Interactive Experience

  1. It is probably time. This proposal presents Worldcon with an opportunity to invite a HUGE subset of FANS into the fold.

  2. Well, I support a category like this regardless, so I’m happy with a well thought-out structured approach to it.

  3. Ira has put an immense amount of work into this proposal, and I really appreciate their care and effort in doing so.

    I do not personally believe that the amount of participation in this category will be sufficient to make it viable at this time. I think that the nominations will be diffuse, among many titles and platforms, rather than producing a longlist of 15 strong candidates.

    However, I believe that Ira’s work deserves serious consideration by Worldcon members, and I encourage everyone to read the detailed document.

    Participation in surveys to promote something tend to be self-selecting for those who would participate in that thing. I encourage all of those who participate in the Hugo Awards process, whether they are gamers or not, to participate in the survey, to provide a more accurate perception of the demand for this category.

  4. Well, I’m intrigued. I’m not a gamer myself, but my husband is. I could see this getting me more interested in games and him more interested in the Hugos. 🙂

  5. I’m really impressed by the amount of work that’s gone into this. I read the fuller document with quite a few questions in my mind and they had already been covered in there.
    I play a fair amount of PC games, albeit usually more cooperative multiplayer with friends than the sort of single player narrative games that are likely to pop up in in this sort of category, and also lots of trpg’s, so I think I’m at least on the fringes of the target audience for this, but I’m currently unconvinced.
    The Nebula award for game writing debuted this year, and while it’s got a different focus to this I didn’t think it was particularly successful. To me, the win for Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch smacked of the most accessible finalist winning. I say accessible because games are badly fragmented, across game systems (PC, PS, XBox, mobile OS’s, etc etc) and entire formats – electronic v pen and paper versions – and the interest will be equally split. It seems to me that at the Nebulas the one that everyone could sit and access with an hour or two of watching is the one that most people were able to form an opinion on.
    People certainly aren’t going to buy a new game system to try a Hugo finalist, and so the voting will probably be too far skewed by pure popularity not critical judgement.
    That said, I think there’s a lot of merit in the idea of trying to better recognise a popular medium. I think the best way forward is to try and persuade a Worldcon to trial the category with a special award, and see what comes out in practice.

  6. I am against the proposal, but enormously impressed by the work behind it.

    I do play both board games, role playing games and video games, but do not think I could ever judge a winner between different nominees in such a broad category. It might mean that I would have to buy a new console, then the game for it, then a board game on top of that and then another game…

    It would be too an expensive category for me to think I could judge fairly in it. Even worse than best series.

  7. @Hampus

    But people are more than happy to vote for best novel (or other categories) even if they haven’t read all the nominees. Even if they have no intention of reading all the nominees. Even if they cannot access a nominee at all, Some people even encourage them to vote in those circumstances.

    So even if there is one or two games you cannot play I think it should be OK. After all there are plenty of BDP (Short) nominees I cannot access or do so in a timely manner. We are still on Season 2 of The Good Place in the UK on terrestrial TV for example. The Expanse similarly was inaccessible to me until it moved to a platform I had access to.

  8. Andyl:

    That may be true for some people. But that doesn’t mean that I’m happy to vote in that way or that I’m happy that others do it. BDP Short is a category that I don’t vote in myself.

  9. I am a gamer down to my socks, but I’m still iffy on this one for sheer time investment. I love gaming, I’ve dabbled in creating it, I would love to shower things like Hatoful Boyfriend or DA: I or Horizon Zero Dawn with awards to show my appreciation…but. But, but, but. I’ve been playing Breath of the Wild lately, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’ve already put in more time than would be required to read every novel, novella, and short story combined. It’s this whole other hobby.

    That being said, it’s a case where I’d genuinely be happy to be wrong. I’d love to see it work, I’m just not sure how to MAKE it work.

  10. FYI, this proposal has not yet been officially submitted to the business meeting. Ira, if/when it’s ready, please send your proposed amendment to [email protected]. Thank you.

  11. @andyl:

    But people are more than happy to vote for best novel (or other categories) even if they haven’t read all the nominees. Even if they have no intention of reading all the nominees.

    Any statistics (rather than anecdotes) to back up the significance of that claim? (Personal anecdote: aside from the Puppy year, the only year I voted on an individual-nominations category without reading/seeing everything in it was 2004 — I despised Hominids and was not going to waste my time with Humans, which I’m amused to see placed last of the tangible works.)

    Even if they cannot access a nominee at all, Some people even encourage them to vote in those circumstances.

    Yes, and some people are Puppies; that doesn’t mean they should be listened to.
    I’m not taking a position on the award itself; there’s a lot to digest here. But ISTM that your reasoning is specious, if not outright damaging both to the prospects for this award and to the Hugos in general.

  12. As someone whose writing background is in indie narrative games, I’m excited to see this proposal, even as I share some of the above concerns.

  13. The chart showing the worldcons identified as worldcon 74, 75, etc., confuses the issue. It would have been far easier to identify the conventions by their year, esp. because until a couple of years ago, worldcons weren’t identified by just numbers.

  14. I’m excited about a potential Games category! I consider myself gaming-adjacent (I work in the industry & play video games and board games but it’s not my primary fandom) and I know I could nominate and vote in this category, which is more than I can say for Best Editor SF/LF or Best Series.

    @chip I would fascinated to see any data on the subject if it exists, but in the absence of actual evidence the most likely hypothesis is that not everyone engages with the awards in the exact same way. FWIW, I’ve definitely never read/seen every single thing on the ballot before voting.

  15. @Chip

    It is my recollection that is the standard advice given here and elsewhere.

    Vote for the ones you have read.

    Obviously you don’t vote for the stuff you haven’t experienced, but if you haven’t watched a couple of the BDP nominees then you shouldn’t feel like you are doing something bad if you vote for the ones you have watched / listened to.

    For example in 2006 how many of the voters had seen the full set of the BDP short nominees – which included the 2005 Hugo Ceremony opening speech and a play performed at Interaction? I am pretty sure if I only voted when I had read/seen every nominee I would have never voted in the BDP short category.

  16. If this proposal fails, it won’t be because Ira hasn’t put in the work. I share a lot of the reservations.

    I will note the expense of the games need not be a barrier entirely. Let’s Play videos can help sample the flavour of a game enough to see if it would be something you’d play yourself without putting out the money. I personally have no interest in watching someone else video tape their play through of a game, not least because because my video-watching time is fairly limited and I struggle to keep up with good tv shows when the kids aren’t hogging it — but I would sample a let’s play video (or two, by very different players)to assess a game for a Hugo before I would buy a game to do the same. I probably wouldn’t pick my winners based just on someone else’s video, but it could help me identify the candidates I don’t want to have win, and who I could stick in fourth place downward, which is half of the field.

  17. I like it … but I’m more of a strategy gamer who hits escape to bypass the cut scenes. So I wouldn’t play, or vote for, the kind of narrative games that would probably rule this category.

    Had an interesting discussion about this at Baycon. For me, gaming is (aside from being a manual dexterity workout machine) creative, either explicitly as in creating houses in The Sims or implicitly, as in performing my various WoW characters. When WoW tries to drag my mature character into a cut scene where she’s referred to as “youngster” or something along those lines, it breaks immersion hard, to the point of being rage-inducing. It’s like I’m drawing a picture and somebody comes over to shove me aside and start doodling on my canvas while telling me I’m doing it all wrong.

    Sometimes I just want to be an elderly troll or a sociopathic goblin or a dyxlexic zombie for a while, without the game constantly butting in to remind me it wants me to be somebody else’s idea of a protagonist.

  18. I like the concept, here. I agree that it’s well past time for a game category (or categories), but I’m really REALLY not a fan of digital/video games being lumped into the same category as analog/tabletop games.

    Video games are self-contained. The game itself tightly constrains what the players’ options are. Many games are good at concealing these limitations, but they still exist. The Fable series was fantastic and fun, but at the end of the day, when you weren’t following one of the game’s branching story paths, you were just fighting random foes. Players had no agency to change the story. And the same applies for pretty much every video game out there, from Legend of Zelda to Dragon Age: Inquisition. Even mods (like we see in Skyrim can’t change the core story of the game.

    Analog games are, realistically, more of a toolkit that GMs and players use to cooperatively share a storytelling experience. The initial story is set by the GM, but it’s entirely possible that the players will change the focus of the story. Sometimes in astounding ways. This varies by game, of course, because there are tabletop games that restrict player choice (Parsely springs to mind, here).

    Video games can be enjoyed solo. And often are. Tabletop roleplaying games cannot be played solo – they are an inherently social activity. While I can read 13th Age on my own, that’s not play. There is a difference between reading a game and playing it.

  19. Now that people have had the opportunity to read the supporting documents and consider this proposal, I have a few things to add.

    Not every type of SFF work needs a Hugo category. That doesn’t mean that proposals for new categories should be discounted out-of-hand.

    The question is whether a given Hugo category would have enough interest among people who nominate for the Hugos for them to generate a longlist of 15 strong candidates.

    I’m not convinced that there is that kind of interest among Hugo nominators for a game category. There have been discussions on File 770 where even avid gamers have admitted that they didn’t think a strong longlist was available in most years.

    Petition Started for Video Game Hugo

    Potential Video Game Hugo Nominees

    A video game category was trialled in 2006 but had to be cancelled due to an insufficiently-strong shortlist.

    While Ira’s supporting document is impressive, at least 43 of the 117 pages are what I would consider to be “padding”. This is the information about other Game Awards, their structure, and the games which they have recognised (that data having been duplicated in the lists of possible strong finalists for a Hugo category, had it existed in previous years).

    Indeed, I would say that this information is actually evidence that a gaming category would not be viable for the Hugo Awards. As Eric R Franklin has noted, different types of games have widely-differing primary characteristics. This is why all of the various gaming awards have gotten so granular.

    Ennie Awards – 26 categories
    Origin Awards – 8 categories
    BAFTA Game Awards – 17 categories
    D.I.C.E. Awards – 23 categories
    The Game Awards – 24 categories
    Golden Geek Awards – 34 categories
    As d’Or Prix – 5 categories
    XYZZY Awards – 13 categories
    Game Developers Choice Awards – 10 categories
    (and this is not even all of the gaming awards)

    There is clearly a demand among gamers for game awards, and for them to recognise those widely-differing characteristics. This is not the same thing as a demand for a game award among Hugo nominators.

    One of the ways that a need for a Hugo category has been identified in the past is that a lot of nominators are attempting to “shoehorn” works into categories where they don’t really fit.

    But apart from the games which made the Hugo ballot in Dramatic Presentation categories 2016 because of Puppy slating, there have been no games appearing on any of the Hugo longlists — despite the fact that Hugo nominators now know that Hugo Administrators would allow games in the DP categories.

    And while there are ways that Hugo voters, once presented with a shortlist, can attempt to evaluate those games, the problem is going to be with having enough Hugo nominators converge on a strong list of candidates across a broad range of video games on different platforms combined with board games, role-playing games, and interactive text games — rather than a wide array of games, each of which gets only a few nominations.

  20. @Eric

    You are just considering video games (well even then only some video games) and tabletop RPGs. There are also strategy board games – things like Terraforming Mars of a few years ago or On Mars (due to be delivered later this year) which would also be eligible. These have some of the same attributes as video games with respect to tightly constrained options. Indeed of the four analog games that Jo mentions in the document only one is a tabletop RPG.

    When it comes to tabletop RPGs some people do indeed play them solo (no I don’t get it either – but then I don’t have to) using various approaches like Mythic. Also RPGs are mostly reliant on the GM and players for play-experience – a poor GM/players can spoil a great game, a great GM/players can make a poor game seem wonderful.

  21. I also think there is a big difference between having game programming at a con and having a large enough group that consistently tries out new stuff. As an example, when I nominated to the Hugos the first year, I had read perhaps 100 books and of those maybe two were what I thought as award worthy. An ordinary year I buy perhaps three computer games, and at most one tabletop RPG or boardgame.

    So while I might have fun watching a panel, I absolutely do no not have enough knowledge about the new stuff for the year to really nominate.

    So the big question for me isn’t how many new good games there are or how many people who play games or how many panels there are. The big question is how many people that consistently try out the new stuff. That apart from my previous worry about the cost to evaluate the games.

  22. @Hampus

    I am a bigger games consumer than you – although I buy very few video games a year, I do buy a lot of analog games.

    I think that just in tabletop games I could probably put together a list of 5 worthy (to my tastes anyway) games every year. Some years I might be able to add an interactive fiction game. I am pretty sure someone who was into video games more than me would be able to come up with 5 or more games per year too. In fact I could probably name one video game for this year – The Sinking City – and I am not even a video gamer.

    So I think there should be enough people who do play enough new games and will nominate. Whether the final nominee list will encourage other members to try those games and vote I don’t know.

  23. @andyl: I deliberately left board games out in my post – Board games (with very few exceptions) don’t have the same kind of writing as RPGs and video games. It’s possible to recognize good rules design (Terraforming Mars is solid), but the rules don’t tell a story and there isn’t enough flavor text in the game to really generate a full setting.

    I buy an average of four board (or card) games per month. More during the summer convention season. I buy an average of one RPG every two months. I’m very much in the target audience for this sort of award. I just don’t see them all existing under the same Hugo. And – honestly – I don’t see many board or card games that are realistically good candidates for this sort of award, because the writing style for a board game is so very different from that of an RPG (especially one with an included/integrated setting) or a video game.

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