A few months ago I was asking readers a question: what tools are we missing? Answers by and large proved elusive, but in the mean time I realized there is another: what can we learn about making games from using our tools for other kinds of creative work?
I don't just mean serious games, either. That's still thinking in narrow terms. The idea that anything interactive on the computer must be a game is how we ended up with the word "game" being used for all kinds of works that really aren't, but we never found a better way to describe them, and then it stuck. And I'll be the first to defend that particular linguistic development, but language does shape our expectations.
My favorite example is perhaps not the best, because it's still a game, just... well, you'll see. After trying and failing multiple times to make something with Twine, I turned to one that was already finished: Tales of Space and Magic, my first and so far only tabletop RPG. It's a linear text, as they usually are, but easily split into small passages, and with a wealth of cross-references. The latter are implicit in the PDF edition, but that changed quickly once I started the conversion process. In retrospect, Tweego would have made more sense, but doing it in Twine proper allowed me to visualize the resulting structure and gain insight into my own writing.
The result, available at textadventures.co.uk, came out better than it had any right to be; amusingly, one player asked how they're supposed to play this particular game. To be honest the text does assume readers are familiar with the genre, and only teaches how to play (freeform style) in the final chapters. Still I remain convinced the confusion was mostly due to what people have been conditioned to expect from the format.
The same conditioning is likely why I'm yet to see another attempt like this. Even though it makes a lot of sense, and plenty of people read tabletop RPGs in formats other than PDF (or paper for that matter). Oh, there was at some point a wizard made in Twine to help beginners choose a game-making tool. That's something I guess. Twine has also been used as a prototyping tool and dialog editor for games in other formats, but that's different from using it for a finished work of a different nature altogether.
Other engines are more flexible than they appear, too. Around the time I was working on my (never completed) visual novel Before the Faire, there was a flood of little educational apps for kids coming to the market. I'd look at them and think how easily they could have been done in Ren'Py. Or for that matter to use the same for college course material. Especially the kind that consists mostly of graphical slides.
Which, of course, is exactly what the Ren'Py tutorial does. The official one that ships in the development kit. Obvious in retrospect, isn't it?
One reason why this doesn't happen more often is that we're not used to learning being interactive or fun, except maybe at very young ages where it pretty much has to be. Allow older students initiative and agency? Perish the thought! Strangely enough, plenty of teachers know better. The Logo programming language was created for this exact purpose: exploratory learning. And while it's long out of fashion, it was successfully used for decades. Its spirit now lives in the Processing family of languages.
Interactivity is used for a lot of things these days, such as data visualization, and game-making tools are already here, honed by decades of practice. We game developers have much to offer the world, and in turn the world can supply us with fresh ideas. Already there is a subgenre of walking simulators that take place in virtual museums; some are even collaborative projects showing submitted art. (Funny how that happened while digital renditions of, say, the Louvre never took off like "experts" predicted.)
Speaking of art: in recent years, people have taken to showcasing the beauty of videogames by putting together maps from the screens of classic games. This artist took it a step further. After my first Bitsy game got little attention, I used the map editor Tiled to make an actual art piece inspired by it, by literally painting with tiles from the public domain Dungeon Crawl set. Which, as the name implies, were also designed for games. The result, called Lonely Palace, is one of my best appreciated works on DeviantArt. Talk about taking the ancient art of the mosaic and giving it a new dimension.
Ironically, I'm yet to do the same with my own ASCII Mapper, even after stating it could also be used for art. Did use it for a game though. And more famous tools like REXPaint have been used for both as a matter of fact.
One more thing: all this talk of tools almost caused me to forget another trend. Up until a few years ago, not a month seemed to pass without the press announcing another cool use for Minecraft, that most discussed videogame. People used it to recreate, in exquisite detail, famous locales from the fictional Hogwarts to the entirety of Denmark, at a scale of 1:1, straight from topographic survey data. Funny how we stopped hearing of things like that after Minecraft was bought by Microsoft. Now the technology for "cube worlds" is commonplace, countless clones exist, some even open source, but the spark could never be recaptured. Maybe those experiments didn't lead to much in the end. It would be good to know for sure, though, if it was more than simply the vagaries of fashion.
To be fair, I'm still burnt out on making games, and only recovered from fiction writing burnout a couple of months ago. I also find it much easier to write nonfiction as a general rule. But listen to writers and game developers alike, the most common complaint is, they don't know what to work on next. If you feel like everything's been said and done by now, maybe look outside the narrow confines of your creative field. It doesn't have to be a sudden change: my plans for later this year involve at least one walking simulator. But change it has to be, lest we all turn into broken records.
And yes, more work on new and improved tools is also in order. Tools designed right from the start for making more than just games. But as it turns out, those we have right now may be good enough for a lot more than we tend to think of. It's our imagination that was bound for the longest time by increasingly ossified notions of what digital media are good for.
It doesn't have to be art, either. Meaningful, maybe.