A Spoonful of Sugar: Why Candy Jam Matters

Today’s the nominal, totally-not-strict deadline for Candy Jam, part online game jam, part act of civil disobedience. The jam, organized by game developers Caribou and UUAV, was put together in protest of the legalistic shenanigans of developer King, and has culminated in a delicious pile of satire and jocularity.

Before I start shining only praises upon the whole endeavour, I have to admit that I’m not sure what, if any, tangible consequences this jam will have. The rule was, participants must include the words “candy” or “saga” in their title, as well as other trademarked common words like “scroll” and “apple” for possible bonus points. With that, it was open season to make all sorts of games to reprove King’s unethical use of IP law.

I don’t know if Candy Jam will really end up sticking it to the legal system or the abusers of that system in a way that incurs practical ramifications—for example, a concerted effort to reform IP law along the lines of Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. It does, nonetheless, perform a philosophically and symbolically important act by demonstrating the absurdity of IP laws as they exist today and shares many of its principles with the Yale initiative. Going through the games listed on the site—and I encourage you to do the same, right now—I’m first struck by the variety. It’s a mixed bag. An assortment, if you will.

There’s a panoply of games that are wry, or heartfelt, or cute, or original, or incisive—all with “candy” and/or “saga” in the title. Bop along to a cheerful, punny arcade game like Mysterarts’s Candynsky, or go on an epic Twine adventure—er, saga—with Michael Brough’s Candy Quest 3: The Edge of Sweetness. Pelt a friend with candy in Spooky Star’s 2D fighter, Candy Fight Saga or bite into some surreal shit with 2gx’s Candy Candy Pizza Game Pancake Zone.

Some games are sweet and cute. Others are more explicitly satirical, from gentle, tongue-in-cheek ribbing to more biting ethical critiques to straight-up profanity-laced invective. Some games are just downright offensive and I’m looking at their eligibility a bit askance, wondering if there was any kind of vetting process. (Even if the dev did, technically, follow the one rule.) That aside, though, what Candy Jam demonstrates is the creative potential of even a single word depending on how it’s contextualized. What follows is an actualization of the fact that claiming legal ownership of common words is arbitrary and affords one corporate entity too much authoritative and legal power. It puts small creators at financial risk and compromises artistic freedom, something Erik Kain discusses in his Forbes piece covering King’s stymying of developer Stoic’s attempt to trademark The Banner Saga:

“King’s methods are far too blunt and expansive. Even long-shot trademarks on common words won’t stop competitors from mimicking King’s games, and responding by trademarking words is casting too wide a net that will ultimately only hurt honest game developers.”

King, a social game developer most associated with Facebook and their match-three clone game, Candy Crush Saga, has become the target of a firestorm of criticism for their applications to trademark common words “saga” and “candy” in both the US and EU. This maneuvering is ostensibly to protect their IP against a horde of clones—and surely there are many—trying to capitalize on the “candy-themed games that are pretty much Bejeweled” craze. At Polygon,Tracey Lien spoke to an attorney who explained that while it’s within King’s rights to apply for trademarking of a common noun, they can’t justifiably use the legal system to prohibit any and all uses of that word. But the practical—and tactical—benefits of holding a trademark may be more useful than the strict legal ones.

Really, King isn’t exactly innocent when it comes to cloning games. They even allegedly contracted developer Matt Porter, under false pretenses, to spitefully copy a Junkyard Sam game they failed to secure licensing for (later taking their clone down in response to rebuke). King has also enthusiastically engaged in dubious monetization strategies, and has, in at least 2 incidents, pursued small developers with cease-and-desist orders and legal oppositions to bar trademark applications in order to make examples of them. I’m totally speculating here, but I think the end game for King involves using their financial and legal muscle to intimidate other developers. It’s really only slightly more sophisticated than patent trolling, and is part of a demoralizingly common trend of large companies leveraging the IP laws tipped in favour of private enterprise to extend their brand’s territory and quash competition.

Even if I lost any sleep over King’s rightful concern about clones of a game it already cloned, it’s evident that the over-application of IP rights puts someone like DFKimera, who made A Children’s Candy Saga for the jam, at an unfair risk. What if DFKimera decided to monetize their little game about a child facing his nighttime fears of monsters in order to get to some candy? (In fact, you can choose to support this and many other games submitted to the jam.) What if they released the game as a mobile app? What if it became popular? Even though A Children’s Candy Saga bears no stylistic, thematic or mechanical resemblance to Candy Crush Saga, might King consider them a potential threat and pursue them over a word in their title? The current fiasco with Stoic and The Banner Saga is a precedent that at least raises reasonable doubt.

It’s not just that these games represent a diversity of ideas, contexts, tools and skills. Nor is it just that they make glaringly obvious the importance of fair use. It’s also, I think, important to take away the understanding that King has no real bone to pick with them on aesthetic or design terms. King cites the anxiety that consumers, seeing the word “candy” or “saga” might get confused into thinking a third party is somehow affiliated with their brand. But seeing all these very different games side-by-side on the Candy Jam site makes it crystal clear that brand confusion over a single word is unlikely. That being said, the concerns of these games, be it to poke fun, get creative, make a point or all three, were made with different preoccupations than the kinds of games that may be considered misleading or confusing clones—which will exist whether or not they have “candy” in the title. This, again, makes King’s claims seem all the more suspicious and opportunistic. They appear to be tactical strikes to keep developers from horning in on a cornered market, teasing bankruptcy before developers who can’t afford legal aid.

It’s valuable to keep that in mind before you judge some of the submissions for more embittered or caustic overtones. Many games, creative and clever in their own right, are more about pointed satire than exploring artistic potential—though I think almost all the games are done in a satirical vein. Candy Crush Clicker Saga by fayte0618, for instance, is a succinct parody of clicker games, using the genre to illustrate the laziness and greed of mining a brand for profit while exerting very little creative energy to back it up with an original product.

I think this King’s Candy menu screen more or less represents the Candy Jam mission statement.

A personal favourite is The Copyright Saga; Candifying Classics by MagicSheep Games. This pared down HTML game recreates classic games like Snake and Pong by gradually adding “candy” skins to them as you earn points, until they’re “candified” enough to be shippable as supposedly original games. Simple though it may be, it elegantly and clearly spells out King’s own hypocrisy. Another, King’s Candy: Saga at the Edge of Greed by Team Lich Hunt, personifies King as a vain and indulgent monarch that munches on candy pouring from above. It’s an “Emperor Has No Clothes” moral delivered in a cartoonishly embellished package and, I think, rendered more potent because it clones other arcade games in which the player catches things falling from the sky.

Perhaps one of the most creative and thoughtful games to come out of the jam is Candy Number Crunch Saga by Cary Walkin, in which you play a stock trader investing in King’s immensely successful IPO in the “not too distant future.” It runs in Microsoft Excel workbook and is made entirely of macros that calculate stock transactions, run a real-time stock ticker and trigger news events that affect the stock price. It reduces King’s entire approach to game development and monetization into a spreadsheet, a cynical ploy to corner and maintain a hold on mobile and social gaming through the systemic means afforded them. It’s a cold, calculating game embodying a cold, calculating and ethically questionable business strategy.

I don’t know by what measure we would call Candy Jam a success. But to me, it’s served at least three powerful and necessary purposes. First of all, it helped crystallize the absurdity of IP laws as they currently exist and the need for reform to prevent large companies from using trademarks as a cudgel to bully smaller ones. Secondly, it served as a creative and satirical outlet that, for once, punched up instead of down. Videogames have a checkered, regrettable relationship with the concept of satire. Candy Jam, of all things, stands as a largely positive example of how to execute satire effectively in games. Finally, it illustrated the power of communicative openness over reactionary, cynical protectionism. Candy Jam—any jam, really—is a testament to what many artists can do with one concept, the sagas that are possible as long as the roads are open for us to embark on them.