Monday, November 18, 2013

beyond "indie": a reprise

some two and a half years ago, Anna Anthropy wrote a post (and gave a micro-talk at GDC) titled "beyond indie". in it, she says:

"the indie label doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion except a needless sense of distance: calling a game an indie game or an author an indie developer just enforces the illusion that it’s an exclusive club, an inner circle to which most people aren’t admitted.

so my challenge to all of us is to stop thinking and talking in terms of indie games and indie developers, to get beyond the idea of an indie scene, to center the discussion on GAMES made by PEOPLE because there are going to be a whole lot more people making a whole lot more games and the indie label has become a moiety — a distinction we don’t need to make in an era where there’s no distinction between who can make videogames and who can’t."

there's still a lot of truth to Anna's words, but the usage of the term has also changed somewhat in the past couple years. the idea of "indie" implying a small handful of games made by an inner circle certainly very much applies to larger cultural representations like Indie Game: The Movie, or how a lot of the community around the IGF or IndieCade functions, but the label itself has also gained traction outside of those venues as a marketing term. most major games press has designated "indie" coverage now, and several "indie" games have gone on to be very successful in venues like Steam or The Humble Store. it's also the standard line parroted in the games press about next-gen consoles that Sony is "working with indies" in order to inject lifeblood into their current products, the PS4 and the Vita.

while the "indie" moniker has often been the subject of a lot of mockery (one example being the "Optimistic Indie" meme from 2011), it only seems to have gained greatly in usage and popularity since then. "indie games" now basically encompass anything and everything that isn't games made as part of the AAA development cycle. the popularity of things like Minecraft or Indie Game: The Movie means it's a moniker newer game developers readily desire to identify with because they want to be part of some scrappy cultural vanguard, either commercially or artistically (or both). but this also means that "indie" has become most readily identified with commercially successful developers working outside the AAA system, rather than the massive swath of interesting new games that have also been labeled "indie" but are seen as only as curiosities or failed experiments when evaluated on the terms of success dictated by the most culturally visible ones.

so while "indie" is still a derogatory term for a lot of self-identified "gamers" (search for "shitty indie game" on any major gaming website forum if you don't believe me), it's still very much growing as an established part of the industry. as if adding a nail in the coffin, a Sony spokesperson just this past week declared that "the Indie revolution is over" because Sony is now beginning to do what it needs to to adjust its old business models in order to more readily encompass indies as a viable part of the industry. Sony, of course, wouldn't have done this if they didn't see the writing on the wall. the industry has seen the success of "indie", in the midst of its own creative and financial stagnation, and is now readily attempting to co-opt it and pull it back into itself so that it can keep its machinery running.

but if the "indie revolution is over", what has been its lasting impact? has it been merely a way to inject lifeblood back into the industry by making smaller games more commercially viable, as Sony is trying to frame it? what about the legacy of the kinds of games that often appear on places like or forest ambassador? will they fall even further under the radar and have even less visibility once the industry fully co-opts "indie"?

i don't really know the answer to these questions. there at least seems to be more movement towards pushing beyond the idea of "indie" lately: there's Different Games, a conference run at NYU, that focuses on recognizing what we might think of as "unconventional" games, both digital and non-digital. as a name, i'm fond of "different games", if only as a meaningful but unspecific way to distinguish them from what normally gets labeled as a game, but it's lack of specificity means it's not particularly useful to be adapted as a widespread term. there's also the label "queer games", which was adapted to mean many different things by many of the speakers i saw at QGCon in Berkeley this past month. but "queer" obviously comes with a lot of baggage and implications as well. whatever the case, "indie" has proven itself to be an increasingly oppressive label that needs to be dropped.

the videogame industry is financially unstable and filled with deplorable labor practices and highly retrogressive values. becoming subsumed into the industry doesn't seem wise for either ideological or long-term financial reasons. i suggest we rescue what's worthwhile and get the hell out before the ship crashes and establish ourselves somewhere else. there are vast territories of the human experience that games can speak to, but these are rapidly narrowing with the widespread adaption of "indie" and all the implications that come with it. if we're at all concerned about the longevity of any of things done by game developers outside of the AAA system in the past five or so years, i believe we must drop any and all remaining identification with the label "indie" as soon as possible.