Self-reflexive video games are games that do not treat the experience of gameplay as their ultimate goal (they are not first and foremost entertainment products). Their gameplay is, instead, chiefly instrumental to conveying certain messages or raise awareness about something. In the specific case of self-reflexive video games, their often uncouth gameplay serves the goal of bringing into question and demystifying aspects of the way in which we currently understand and design video games.
Similarly to what was observed when discussing Borges’s and Gillmurphy’s categorizations, self-reflexive video games do not present themselves as examples of new and more desirable perspectives for game design. According to most formal definitions, in fact, they are barely games at all: often, critical video games have no winning conditions, are frequently roughly executed, short-lived and deliberately annoying. Instead of being the heralds of the future of our understanding of the medium, self-reflexive video games could be more suitably understood as critical thought materialized in the form of gameplay.
Frequently cited examples of critical, ‘self-reflexive video games’ are:
Chiku’s unfair-platformer-saga Syobon Action (http://syobonaction.com), which derides our blind acceptance of the design conventions of side-scrolling platforming video games,
Ian Bogost’s sarcastic social-game Cow Clicker (http://www.bogost.com/blog/cow_clicker_1.shtml), that famously reflected on the triviality of Facebook games and on the conditioning techniques at the basis of their design, and
Failnaut’s trivial RPG Grindstar (http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/605910), which reveals, through its tedious and labour-like gameplay, the meaninglessness of grinding.
I believe in the relevance and necessity for game development to take a critical stance that is not only directed outwards, that is to say towards situations the world outside of video games (for example in the case of political issues, different forms of social discrimination, the inner functioning of capitalism, et cetera), but also…