New Hugo Award categories require a definition in Article 3 of the WSFS Constitution. We have split our definition into two parts so that “interactive work” can be defined first and excluded from intervening category definitions (the prose categories, Best Graphic Story, and both Best Dramatic Presentation categories) until we get to the new category.
3.2.5. An interactive work is
(1) a game, or
(2) a narrative or presentation in which active input or interactive play is an integral component of the work itself or where it impacts the outcome, narrative, or order of elements of the work itself in a non-trivial fashion, and
(3) is not ephemeral in the sense that the interactive elements of the work are accessible to participants through published or shareable artifacts, and the work is not an event requiring the participation of specific named persons.
3.3.10: Best Game or Interactive Work. Any interactive work or interactive substantial modification of a work in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects released to the public in the previous year and available for public participation in the interactive elements of the work in that year.
Considerations and Frequently Asked Questions
Medium Neutrality: Digital vs. Analog and Related Concerns
Why include all games and interactive works and not keep it to video/digital games?
Aside from valuing the spirit of an inclusive award in that we believe all interactive works have more in common with each other than they do with any given non-interactive work, a video/digital vs. other mediums divide is simply unenforceable and not futureproof.
As technology, gaming as a medium, and the culture around it all continue to evolve, the line between analog/physical/tabletop/etc. games and digital/video/electronic games continues to blur. Digital versions of analog games or even analog versions of digital games(1) continue to proliferate and there is no meaningful difference between interactive fiction released as a paper book(2) and the same story released as an app. Furthermore, interfaces and modes of interaction (e.g. VR and AR) are constantly changing, and many analog games now have integrated digital components. As WSFS members widely accept the lack of operative distinction between paper, ebook, and audiobook versions of a text for the purposes of a prose-based Hugo award, neither should we try to legislate the line between analog and digital interactive storytelling.
Finally, making a medium-neutral category eliminates the issue of what year a game is eligible in if it's released first in one medium and then another. Under the proposed definition, this transition can straightforwardly be regarded as similar to a port between different digital platforms and the game is only eligible in its original release year. (3)This eases the burden on Hugo Administrators.
Aren't analog/tabletop/board games at a disadvantage?
Frankly? Yes. But less so than they are with no games category at all. Analog games are currently eligible in Best Related Work (BRW), but there they are competing against an even wider field of wildly divergent interests and media and the WSFS voters that are invested in them. In a games category, the audience is more likely to be interested in games already and give an analog game a chance. It's also unrealistic to expect that, for example, a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons wouldn't be a very strong contender, or that games like Arkham Horror or Gloomhaven (which now has a digital edition) wouldn't have made a decent showing had the category existed in their years. Having an inclusive, medium-neutral Best Game or Interactive Work category gives analog games a better chance and actively recognizes their worth as a medium for interactive SF storytelling.
Won't this lock out everything that is not a digital AAA(4) title?
In terms of video games, extensive research into video game awards data reliably shows an even split between AAA and indie titles as finalists in all categories and even as Game of the Year winners. Even looking at the 2020 Best Video Game titles from DisCon III (awarded in 2021), the finalists comprised three AAA titles, two indie titles, and one free browser game,(5) with an indie title winning. This is very promising as a prognosis for how video games will fare.
For analog games, see the answer above. Interactive productions such as Sleep No More or Secret Cinema are currently eligible under the Best Dramatic Presentation categories, where it's very difficult for anything that is not a feature length film (BDP: Long Form) or a live action TV episode (BDP: Short Form) to win or even become a finalist. While it's difficult to say whether such productions would be better or worse off in a Best Game or Interactive Work category in terms of their chances of winning or becoming a finalist, it is our firm belief that placing them here acknowledges the most vital element of such presentations: the interactivity they are built around. We believe this shows a greater respect for the SF storytelling work such productions are doing.
We do acknowledge that it is likely that purely-prose interactive fiction that otherwise would have been considered under the prose categories is likely to be at a disadvantage compared to how a breakthrough interactive prose title might have fared in those categories today. However, we maintain that acknowledging the essential interactive nature of these titles is important, and such titles hold the potential for crossover appeal and cross-pollination between gamers who are likely to be interested in such titles and prose readers who may follow the title to its new home and vote there.
The older Best Game or Interactive Experience report has a section demonstrating a likely longlist for a medium-neutral games category for 2018 based on thorough research of video game, analog game, RPG, and interactive fiction award data.
Would a medium-neutral award create such a broad spread that nominees cannot effectively be compared or get enough votes?
There are two parts to address: Comparing disparate works and having such a broad field that no productive consensus can be reached in terms of too wide a spread of votes.
We currently compare wildly different works in Best Related Work (BRW) and it seems reasonable to break away some items from that category that can coherently and meaningfully be grouped together. Furthermore, even in the category many games are currently eligible in (Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form) they are very difficult to compare against the usual movies or TV seasons that populate the category, for reasons of length, mode of consumption/delivery, and likely audience. We maintain that most games are more like each other in their approach to storytelling and audience engagement than they are like any other type of work, and that it's more straightforward to compare very different types of games than trying to compare, for example, a deeply nonlinear game like Outer Wilds to a movie or a translation of Beowulf, as opposed to comparing it to a completely linear game such as The Last of Us. Outliers from this paradigm, such as Dictionary of the Khazars or Sleep No More, would also be outliers in the current categories, but their dedication to interactive storytelling must be acknowledged as central to the intent of the work.
In terms of a lack of consensus, our research has shown that within each most common genre of games (video, analog, and interactive fiction) there is a strong drive towards consensus on what the "best games" of any given year are. Each year, across the five most major video game awards, about two dozen games are finalists in at least 5 categories (out of over 100 titles that are finalists in just one or more categories). These top two dozen games consistently take home 60% of the total possible honours every year. In the prime tabletop RPG award, fewer than 10 games out of roughly 50 finalists take home ~35% of possible honours. Hundreds of interactive fiction games are produced each year, but honours and awards consistently cluster around roughly half a dozen top titles. Within the gaming community there is a strong consensus around the best in the field in any given year, and putting these titles in a category together gives them the best chance to be honoured among a community of their peers.
Accessibility: Ability, Finances, Time, Voter Packet, and More
I'm still not comfortable with the idea of watching playthroughs for Hugo voting. Can you go into more detail on why you think that would work?
Isn't the financial barrier to entry for such a category too high? What about platform exclusives?
There are many options for accessing games and even platforms cheaply or for free. Many community centres and libraries loan video games, analog games, or even gaming systems or equipment (this last generally for in-library use only). Many platforms also have game passes which will commonly include eligible or finalist titles. These models operate similarly to borrowing books (rather than buying them) or using streaming services for TV series (rather than buying box sets). Buying every novel you want to read as a Hugo voter is expensive, but borrowing them is so normal that we don't comment on it at all. Lending games is becoming more and more common as more libraries and other institutions continue to acknowledge the place of games in our media landscape and as an aspect of cultural and media literacy. Furthermore, for finalist titles, we have already demonstrated with the 2021 DisCon III discretionary Best Video Game category that the Hugo Voter Packet successfully increases the accessibility of finalist video game titles.
Even outside such models, the reality of being a WSFS member interested in games is that most of us already own the equipment or know someone who does. Most analog titles only require a single copy among a group of players (single-player analog titles tend to be less expensive). Most WSFS members interested in digital games own at least one platform capable of running them, such as their personal computer. While many modern digital titles require a significant amount of processing power, most also include settings to lower the threshold and still allow for the intended experience of the work. Most games either start as PC titles or get a PC port either within the same calendar year or within a timeframe in which Hugo voters can evaluate them.
That said, platform-exclusive titles must be acknowledged as a barrier to entry, particularly in platform turnover years where playing a well-received Hugo-eligible title in the year of its eligibility may require spending hundreds of dollars on the newly-released platform atop the ~$60 required to purchase the title itself, and libraries or other lending systems may not have them in stock or may have a very long holds list. However, this also makes the category in some ways self-selecting, in that if a title makes itself difficult to access, it is less likely to be played by WSFS members. In the sense that we are a fan award, the accessibility of a title to the average SF fan matters and has always mattered in every category. Linguistic, financial, and geographical considerations have always affected how WSFS members vote, and many deserving eligible works across categories (e.g. live theatrical productions such as Hadestown) are unlikely to build up the necessary voter base to become a finalist, let alone to win the award.
Most games are significantly longer than works in any current category. Is that asking too much of voters?
While estimates vary widely due to the difficulty of collecting self-publishing statistics, even pegging a conservative 600,000 English-language books published each year gives more than an order of magnitude difference relative to the roughly 10,000 video games published each year. Simply put, games are longer, but there are fewer of them and evaluating a representative slice of the prose publishing market is not a significantly smaller time commitment than evaluating a representative slice of the video gaming market. Challenges to read 100 books a year are common, while even avid gamers typically complete at most a couple dozen new releases in a given year.(6) According to How Long to Beat, the average playthrough length across the 50.3K game titles they have statistics on is 18.6 hours. An average reader reads about 300 words per minute, taking 2.75 hours to read 100 pages. Playing 12 games (twice as much as populating a Hugo category in the nomination stage) takes 223 hours on average, while reading 24 novels of a typical length for adult readers (a conservative 2 books a month for a year and assuming 400 pages on average) takes 264 hours. We firmly believe that the time commitment at the nomination stage, following typical media consumer patterns, is comparable.
At the finalist stage we must be inclusive both of WSFS members who already game and of non-gaming WSFS members who are invested in evaluating as many of the Hugo finalists as possible in a given year. At this stage, there are multiple factors in play (see above Q&As). Evaluating the story and craft of a typical game in a short amount of time is difficult, and even "movie versions" of games (a popular style of YouTube video that shows all cutscenes, major dialogue, and sometimes significant battles while cutting out the majority of the gameplay) are often at least the length of a typical novel read. At this stage, we must defer, as we so often do, to the Hugo Voter Packet — see below.
How would a Hugo Voter Packet in this category work?
We've already successfully done it! Each Worldcon decides whether and how it will offer a packet. Where there is a packet, it is up to individual creators or their representatives to decide how they'd like to be represented in the packet. For single-work categories such as Best Novel, some creators will opt to include the entire work while others will include an excerpt or summary. The experience of the 2021 DisCon III discretionary Best Video Game category is instructive. Three of the six finalists made full game codes available for their game, and between 100-200 Worldcon members requested at least one code. Two of the remaining games worked with Worldcon staff to provide representative promotional material that would help voters understand and evaluate the game. For analog games or other interactive works there are undeniable complications vis-a-vis a Hugo Voter Packet, but these are not unlike a number of Best Related Work finalists that can only be experienced secondhand.
In such a format, as a fan award, we must take into account both creator intent and accessibility. Creators who choose to make their work inaccessible or less accessible for our members are making a choice relative to our long history as a fan award and how they regard the fan community. While the aim of the Hugo Awards is to reward the best work in speculative fiction in a given year, this drive is inextricable from our identity as a democratic fan award, as opposed to a juried professional award (for example).
The Wording: The Category Title, Substantial Modifications, and the Genre Requirement
Aren't most games speculative? Why the genre specification?
What makes a game speculative is a notably blurrier boundary than in any other medium. Some of the most innovative speculative fiction work being done in the genre revolves around exposing or surfacing the gameplay mechanics behind otherwise non-speculative stories in a form of medium-awareness unique to interactive works. (Stranger Than Fiction and Free Guy convey some of this aspect in non-interactive works.) Determining what makes a speculative game, where in most cases the base conceit is inhabiting and actually acting on the world in a body, time, and place that is not your own — rather than observing someone doing the same — can be complex.
However, even under a relatively conservative definition of what makes a game speculative,(7) our research has shown that most major video game award finalists and 47%-90% of category winners are speculative (2018 data, deemed representative) are speculative. While this percentage drops somewhat for analog games and interactive fiction, speculative elements continue to dominate as top performers in any given type of interactive work. The genre specification is intended to provide guidance to voters in the same manner it does in categories such as Best Dramatic Presentation (LF or SF) and Best Related Work. The Games Hugo campaign as a whole espouses a "trust the voters" philosophy that has to date served WSFS well in rewarding the best work in the genre and its surrounding fandom and culture. We believe Hugo voters will, in good faith, be more likely to nominate titles the rest of the community recognizes as speculative.
What makes a "substantial modification"? What about DLC, expansions, ports, rereleases, and adaptations?
The "substantial modification" language is borrowed from similar language in Best Related Work, where it has functioned successfully for years. In the world of games, acknowledging game modifications, expansions, and other secondary material is essential to the nature of the medium and its surrounding culture. This is a deeply ingrained aspect of both digital and analog gaming, and many releases in a given year add on to preexisting base games. While one might imagine that this places a burden on Hugo Administrators, it actually makes Hugo Administration more straightforward if we trust the voters. Hugo Admins do not have to decide if any given release is sufficiently "standalone" relative to its parent title, and voters are simply less likely to nominate modifications that are less substantial, e.g. it's safe to say that a DLC with extensive new missions and story is more likely to be nominated than a pack of new outfits. Moreover, the modification itself must be interactive, so this straightforwardly excludes releases such as trailers, movies, or prose story additions, or adaptations like Arcane: League of Legends.
Ports and rereleases are also more straightforward than they appear — even in translation between mediums rather than between different digital platforms — and rely in large part on transparent creator intent. The goal for most ports is to give as similar a gameplay experience as possible between platforms, while rereleases tend to be transparent about their intent, e.g. simply making an older game available on newer platforms vs. updating graphics but nothing else vs. introducing entirely new gameplay paradigms such as in Final Fantasy XII: Zodiac Age. We again trust the voters to engage with creator intent and the spirit of the category.
This is a very different definition from the 2021 trial. Shouldn't we trial this version as well?
We don't think that's necessary.
After years of research, we believe we have substantively proven that WSFS members are interested in games and that a Best Game or Interactive Work category is not only viable, but necessary to reflect modern SF and WSFS culture. Expanding the definition will only include more works and attract more votes and voters. With video games alone, 956 voters (40.5%) cast ballots in this category, and at the nominations phase the spread between the most-nominated work and the cutoff for the shortlist was very similar to Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form and outperformed many categories, such as Best Graphic Story and most of the artist, editor, and fan categories. This is already a healthy and viable category, and we have already addressed all the issues with works other than video games that would qualify for this category.
What's up with the "specific named persons" clause?
With both FIYAHCON and CoNZealand Fringe being finalists in 2021 (in Best Related Work), we have to take seriously the possibility that conventions will continue to be nominated. But, unlike grouping analog games, video games, interactive fiction, etc. together, this is clearly outside the intent of a Best Game or Interactive Work award. It can be argued that conventions are "interactive works" with, say, the programming being the "narrative" of the convention and you, the player, affecting your own experience of the narrative by interacting with the available options in a way that's pretty similar to something like Sleep No More. Likewise, a con's programming or runbook could be considered a non-ephemeral artifact that lets anyone else "play" the con, similar to how the Critical Role D&D expansion books let others play through their own Critical Role stories.
However, conventions are set apart by specifying named persons as part of the experience, such as Guests of Honour, specific panelists, creators doing meetups, etc. Running a con from the same runbook or program but with an entirely different "cast" creates a wildly different experience in a way that different cast members doing roles in Sleep No More does not. Likewise, making a movie or most any type of creative work is a collaborative and interactive process in which the decisions of multiple people affect the final product. However, not only is this process generally not open to the public (nor, often, taking place in the year of release), but requires specific named persons: that particular director, these particular actors, etc. In this way, the process of making Black Mirror: Bandersnatch would not have qualified, while the actual interactive film itself would have. The interactive elements of the experience do not depend on a specific actor playing any given part. The same logic applies to interactive improv as the experience is dependent entirely on the specific performer's responses to the audience.
Would playthroughs themselves qualify in this category? What about things like Critical Role and machinima(8)?
Isn't turning pages in a book interactive?
This is a bad-faith argument.
However, if you're truly curious about the justification or distinction: The WSFS membership has already agreed, per 3.2.6 in the WSFS Constitution, that turning pages in a paper book, scrolling through an ebook, or pressing play on an audiobook are not materially significant distinctions when approaching a prose work. The spirit of the prose categories is to recognize works where the only or primary medium of storytelling is words. Likewise, the spirit of a Best Game or Interactive Work category is to recognize the utterly unique nature of interactive storytelling, no matter the medium. The distinguishing and integral element of interactivity offers new ways to tell and consume stories, unmatched means for immersive worldbuilding and exploration of identity, and incomparable avenues for interrogating the nature of narrative and of play (see the relevant section of the previous version of this proposal for more details on each of these). Interactive works must be crafted with a particular and more flexible approach to storytelling than even the most nonlinear books or movies. We recognize intuitively that flipping to the end of the book before reading the rest or skipping scenes you don't want to watch in a movie do not materially alter the storytelling intent of the work. And, just as we recognize, in the Best Graphic Story category, that combining words and still images entails an entirely different type of storytelling from pure prose or from animated or live action presentations, we must acknowledge that interactivity entails a different type of storytelling worthy of its own category.
(1) Chess is one of the earliest examples of analog games gaining digital adaptations, but modern titles that have crossed the medium divide in either direction include the digital version of the fantasy card game Gloomhaven and League of Legends's card game adaptation, Runeterra. Moreover, platforms like BoardGameArena host numerous digital versions of popular board games.
(2) Commonly called "Choose Your Own Adventure" or CYOA novels, though the actual term is trademarked.
(3) Unless the jump across media also brings significant changes or additions to the story or gameplay paradigm other than those required to translate physical and digital gameplay elements, such as introducing physical dice rolls in place of computer-generated randomness. In this case it would be eligible again as a substantial modification. Likewise, if a game was first published in a language other than English, it will be eligible again if it is published in English in a later year (section 3.4.1 of the WSFS Constitution).
(4) A "AAA" or "Triple-A" title is colloquially used to mean big-budget games developed or commissioned by major studios or publishers. The distinction between AAA and non-AAA games is similar to the difference between major film studio releases and indie films, but at a notable remove from the difference between professionally published and self-published books. Indie games are a thriving sector of the market, but usually have smaller development and advertising budgets, often coupled with a more creative or non-traditional approach to aesthetics and gameplay. Wikipedia has further information.
(5) AAA: Animal Crossing, New Horizons (Nintendo), Final Fantasy VII: Remake (Square Enix), The Last of Us: Part II (Sony/Naughty Dog);
Indie: Hades (Supergiant), Spiritfarer (Thunder Lotus);
Free: Blaseball (The Game Band).
(6) Statistics are difficult to find and are skewed by professional gamers; this is an estimate compiled from a variety of sources.
(7) For the purposes of the cited research, titles had to include elements that would be regarded as bona fide speculative in other mediums, such as containing anthropomorphic or fantastical animals; taking place in the future or an alternate society; or having extraordinary or altered abilities beyond the usual flexibility of physics and generous regard as to how hardy human bodies are.
(8) Machinima, originally machinema, is a portmanteau of "machine" and "cinema". It refers to the practice of using real-time computer graphics such as in Halo or Second Life to record dramatic presentations, essentially outsourcing all or most of the work of rendering, animation, physics, etc. to the base game and producing a non-interactive transformative work based on the creators' script, premise, etc. Creators may contribute various assets or more complex modifications, such as outfits for the characters, level design, or new animations. Red vs. Blue is a popular entry in this genre. Wikipedia has more information on machinima.