Friday, June 20, 2014

Indie Entitlement

while sitting in a decommissioned airplane in the middle of the Mojave desert in his film A Pervert's Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Zizek paraphrases German philosopher Walter Benjamin by saying that, as humans, we don't understand a culture when we're in the thick of it. only when we're made to see the waste, or the leftovers of a particular culture, do we get an intuition of what culture is about. Indie Game: The Movie is the waste of a culture - and it would be easy just to leave its world and its narratives behind. but i think it's more important than ever to go back and look at it in a slightly different, hopefully wiser light. it may seem presumptuous to be giving a post-mortem to something still so new, yet i believe it's fully appropriate for a culture that has moved and evolved so quickly.

about two years ago, this film - a documentary called Indie Game: The Movie was released - a movie that purported to humanize game-making by profiling a few creators' struggles making their games. two years later, its lasting impact can be best summarized by this tweet:

IG:TM was originally supposed to follow the indie scene at large as it was developing, between 2008-2010 - the culture of game jams and the IGF - but it ended up settling on a few stories for the sake of stronger storytelling. it kept the moniker Indie Game: The Movie in the transition from profiling the scene as a whole to a few subjects, despite following three of the most obviously high-profile games at the time. in my review from 2012 i made the point that by calling their film "Indie Game: The Movie" and then only following the most high-profile stories, the filmmakers were erasing the biggest swath of the truly interesting, risky stuff getting made in the independent game world. i'm not going to chalk this up to ignorance on their part - it was 100% a conscious choice of the filmmakers to follow the games with the highest commercial stakes, and it does a lot to give watching the movie a feeling like it's peddling "indie" success narratives.

as a story, and as a little capsule of cultural tourism, IG:TM provided a human enough portrait to get viewers who might otherwise think of game makers as Mountain Dew-swilling, Call of Duty playing manchildren to perhaps reconsider that image and see games as something that 'real people' make. most reviews at the time focused on this point, which is maybe is a testament to just how regressive image the games and nerd culture has in the larger cultural consciousness. for those involved in making games, it probably felt good to have their passions be legitimized by a very professional-looking production. more than a surface look at the film, however, leaves us with a bland, toothless, glorified advertisement that panders to both its audience and its subjects.

i would say Indie Game: The Movie was the final nail in the coffin that destroyed "indie". but on the ground level, the community has only continued to grow enormously since the time it came out. the only difference is that the stakes are higher now and there are more developers, more of whom are quickly finding that they're part of a much different world than the one described in Indie Game: The Movie. if "indie" has died, in its wake is the slow birth of videogames' conscience. and it's more apparent than ever that there are many people who are not recognized - because they're women, or people of color, or queer, or non-American, or don't know how to exploit marketing language and the culture of the IGF in the way successful indies have, or because the market is oversaturated. the indie game boom was no less reflection of the tech/start-up world's cocky white dude-exclusivity five years ago as it is now, it's just that there are more conflicting voices now to cast more shadows over the previous narratives. Indie Game: The Movie was always about "white dudes remaking Mario" (to quote Anna Anthropy), and it was always parroting a false narrative of success, the only difference is its become all the more obvious now by what's come after.

maybe that also explains why all of its subjects have since seemed to develop a more troubled and cantankerous relationship with the limelight and participation in the indie game world as a whole. Indie Game: The Movie created false expectations for success in many young viewers' minds, and ended up leaving its unwitting subjects looking ungrateful for not greeting that newfound fame and success with open arms. you will never see Jon Blow or Edmund McMillen or Phil Fish openly talking to fans or acquaintances at videogame conferences (if you see them all) like you might have seen at some point before. they're aware of all the resentment placed on them for the ones being profiled, and their walls are up much higher. they seem deeply uncomfortable with the social effect participating in the movie has had on their lives and how they're perceived in the indie world. this is becoming a common trend with newly successful young male game makers who don't have the mental or emotional capacity to handle all the sudden money and fame from having a commercially successful game.

these lingering sour feelings after IG:TM's success recently popped up again in a video on youtube which purports to undergo a deep cultural analysis of "indie celebrity" titled "This Is Phil Fish". among the points made in the video is that Phil's behavior didn't change from being a poster on the tigsource forums when Fez began development to when it became popular, but his level of exposure did. because of his cockiness, and the seeming disproportionate level of focus on his project with a catchy technical gimmick and flashy pixel art, "we" made our image of him into an annoying entitled brat through our own preconceptions, and the expectations for celebrities and their behavior. if Phil had stayed a bro who stayed inside the lines of acceptable behavior, he'd probably be worshiped as an indie hero (maybe more like Edmund McMillen). instead, people see him as a spoiled, pretentious jerk and left him death threats when he decided to cancel Fez 2. the video attempts to provide a complex portrait of internet "indie" celebrity through his situation, but inevitably paints Phil as a hapless, naive victim who was unwittingly thrust into this role of celebrity without his consent. it says that we put him there because he seemed to perfectly embody the type of ugly entitlement we don't like to see made visible.

this analysis is interesting, and i can't lie and say that under the hatred of Fish isn't some of the rabid xenophobia and anti-intellectualism that sits deep in the heart of fan culture. but the video also makes some serious presumptions. first of all, we don't know how much of willing participant Fish was or wasn't in courting this role of "indie celebrity". celebrity is often thrust on people, but that doesn't also mean that they don't also court it. the only person who knows what was going on in Phil's head is Phil, and i'm not really interested in speculating either way, particularly because it seems to be participating in the same kind of martyring process the video is attempting to critique. besides, i've heard enough that isn't public knowledge to not think very fondly of Fish's behavior for multiple reasons. but even that isn't important beyond the individuals involved, which is why i'm not even particularly interested in using him as the subject for this detailed analysis. there are several other people who are way more unjustly demonized, namely Anita fucking Sarkeesian, for one.

game developers come from nerd culture, often growing up seeing themselves as losers and outsiders. because they're afraid of being undesirable grotesque manchildren media has made them fear they are, they continue to believe themselves to be the victims. this fear blinds them into adulthood from seeing their newfound privilege and when and how they're participating as a part of the established dominant culture. in 2013, Hotline Miami developer Cactus told me to give him a blowjob when i (quite sincerely) asked him if he wanted a hug because he was upset he didn't win at IGF 2013. he said he thought he was going to win the Grand Prize "just like Fez", which won the year before. he later apologized to me in an email after i tweeted what he said publicly, and said he was upset at me for the tone in a review i wrote of his game (despite that we had had a very civil email exchange about the review before i met him at the IGF) and that he was very drunk and having a bad week. i more or less dropped it after he apologized, but still keep coming back to the level of entitlement in his behavior. i believe he felt he was owed the award because of HLM's commercial success, and because of his ubiquity for several years in the indie scene. HLM was a resounding success, yet he acted like i had overstepped some serious boundary for writing one negative review. and i just still can't wrap my fucking head around that.

just the same, this situation leads me to believe Phil also thought he was entitled to the 2012 IGF grand prize, because he believed in the narrative that was being painted for him. and when there was backlash when he won, he very much tried everything he could paint himself as a victim in the midst of this instead of trying to reach some awareness about what was happening or why other people were upset. an analysis is only so true as the agenda you enter into it with. he might have been an unwitting participant in his own demonization, but that doesn't mean he didn't come into it with a great deal of entitlement. yes, there is a certain kind of pomposity and grandiosity to his manner which often gets read as "pretentious" and pushes the xenophobic anti-intellectual gamer contingent's buttons super hard down to 'attack dog' mode. when this happens, it can seem weird and arbitrary and not fair. but they are also responding to a kind of entitlement that is, at the end of the day, very real.

maybe people view "indie" as entitled because it is entitled?

"This Is Phil Fish", in its inert, smug navel-gazing, merely reflects back the entitlement of the indie world. in the end it offers no particularly controversial or new insights about celebrity culture, but creates a sense of being a relevant and no-holds-barred commentary to those who are intimately aware of the subject matter. it attempts to exonerate Phil Fish to a lot of the young white dudes who are involved in the indie game community and probably want to identify with Fish. they see his case as "fascinating" and are much more ready and willing to accept that they might have made a snap judgment when they can see their subject as just a misunderstood one of their own. maybe they even want to fantasize about themselves as a rich and famous white dude game dev that people talk about, even if an infamous one. just the same, they are much more willing to relate themselves to a person like Cactus when he makes a poor lapse in judgment, because he is one them. but this sudden well of empathy seems to dry up once it's applied to an outsider like Sarkeesian.

in a sphere of entitlement, people involved are not able to see how their actions reflect their privilege or adds to the oppression of the dominant culture around them, and only take criticisms to their behaviors as bitterness or personal attacks. the indie community is a serious cross-section of haves and have nots, and what discussions are and aren't happening in the open often reflects this. 

in general, the way a discussion is framed - and especially what doesn't get talked about openly in the major public sphere reflects the values our culture. outcry about the lack of women at the recent E3 from sites like Polygon appear to be a clear sign of progress in a historically extremely retrogressive industry, but leave behind a lot in their discussion. while more diversity is obviously a good thing, it's a very small victory when the industry as a whole relies on rapid turnover to keep itself going, and generally is known for bad ethical decisions, both in how employees are often treated and in the lowest common denominator content of games they make. if the industry can't even bother to treat any of its workers well, why would more women and queer people and people of color want to enter it? when most AAA games reflect hyper-imperialist values, why would more marginalized people want representation in them?

in indie games, even what's seen as an "experimental" game also reflects a huge gap between what's actually happening and what's being openly recognized by the culture at large. Aevee Bee and Lana Polansky made the point on a IndiE3 panel about experimental games this past weekend that a lot of smaller-scale experimental game developers either don't have the resources, don't have the ability, or don't have the desire to exploit the kind of marketing tools necessary to sell their games to a wider audience of gamers. a lot of them, therefore, get thrown under the bus and erased by narratives of what's happening in a larger indie culture that's looking more for the more glamorized Indie Game: The Movie-style games. this has absolutely nothing to do with whether what smaller-scale devs make is somehow more or less interesting idea-wise at all, just that it's less marketable.

and in a time where there are more women and people of color making games than ever, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC this past March had a total of 1 woman (Auriea Harvey from Tale of Tales) and a vast majority of white people (a notable exception being Mahdi Bahrami, an Iranian developer who was a hold-over from a previous year's submission because of visa issues and, again, Auriea Harvey). this is out of a speaker list of over 20 people. a vast majority of the games either relied on some sort of simple technological "hook" or more larger-scale complicated technical systems. somehow, Harmonix and Double Fine were part of the panel. the smaller scale experimental "narrative" games like Passage or Gravitation mentioned as a signpost on the EGW submission form seem to have been slowly phased out and replaced by a place to start the hype machine on the next sexy, marketable gimmick. this cult of marketability defines the EGW now, and makes it seem a lot more like the breeding ground for The Next Braid than any relevant cross-section of experimental games.

i guess you could say the business focus is no big surprise, as the EGW is held at one of world's biggest videogame business conferences. but then why choose to get upset at AAA's lack of representation and not upset at the lack of representation in experimental games? shouldn't recognition of marginalized ideas and concepts be what experimental gameplay is about? isn't it even vastly more important that marginalized devs who have way less opportunities for exposure be recognized? shouldn't we be holding Robin Hunicke, the organizer, accountable for this stuff, and not give her a pass just because she's a woman?

the point is, there are implicit agendas in place behind what things are and aren't openly criticized. those agendas often aren't consciously being enacted, but their being unconscious makes their effects no less real or serious. and a lot of what gets unsaid reflects a culture defined by privilege-blindness. making these criticisms openly is the sign of a community with a healthy panoply of voices. and yet i see a troubling lack of people on the inside who are any willing to undertake any kind of criticism of them. people continually call for diversity and then continually stop listening when diverse voices start speaking. either you speak out and get ignored or become silent and be part of the establishment. when i've heard from so many people participating in the indie game world who have misgivings and come to me and tell me how much they are deathly afraid to talk openly about their misgivings without seriously hurting a friend's feelings and losing a friendship or that saying the wrong thing that will ruin their career, then that's a pretty clear sign there is a stagnant culture. fear of losing friendships and social support is without a doubt the strongest and most effective motivator for maintaining the status quo. all of this make the "indie" world a place rife with paranoia and insecurity, one often masked by an awkward gushing surface congeniality.

the bottom of indie culture seems like it's bound to drop out any time soon, it's just a matter of when and how hard. and when it does, who will be there to build something more durable?


  1. What exists as 'indie' right now (Indie Game Movie II: The Orphans Of Derek Yu) is a gathering of four or five (maybe more) communities that try to be understanding at the best of times but are in essence too strong-willed to fully agree. With the big men taking on the 'indie' word, these groups are likely to grasp for separate identities.

  2. "when most AAA games reflect hyper-imperialist values, why would more marginalized people want representation in them?"

    To expand on this, most people focus on "AAA" because it's easy. What makes games like Braid, etc. so attractive is that they more closely resemble "AAA" games from a marketing standpoint. There will never be an indie revolution, in terms of representation or anything else, if we keep looking to big studios for answers. One wonders if video games could ever have something comparable to the renegade filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s who upended the traditional Hollywood system. Those filmmakers had to have an audience willing to support and critique them. As of right now, the more renegade developers generally do not have such an audience.

    1. I see it more as technology reviving certain aspects of the medium. It's less an indie 'revolution' than an indie revival. In the early days of personal computers, they were not a mass market item, and games represented a niche audience. A lot of it was sold inexpensively via mail-order or catalog, not mass-market shrink-wrap retail. Dev teams were small or literally one-person shops. Auteurship was a key factor in marketing (Sid Meier, Roberta Williams, Jordan Mechner, Brenda Romero, Lord British, etc... )
      As gaming became mainstream, a lot of that got lost as what became AAA game development required larger and larger teams, not just for game dev itself, but building internal toolchains, developing engines, shaders, secondary teams for cinematics, mocap, audio, voice... If there was a Hollywood analogy, it's more like it jumped straight from Charlie Chaplin into the post-Star Wars summer-blockbuster special-effects market, where a movie has to open huge to make back its development costs.
      It's striking to recognize that Hollywood titans like Lucas, Spielberg, Scorcese, De Palma and others all started out together as an indie filmmaking clique straight out of USC/UCLA film school. Their first movies didn't get wide distribution, but it built their reputations as interesting people with something to say.
      Today, indie game devs have communication + marketing tools that work at scale (social media), distribution systems that work at scale (Steam and the various platform app stores), back-end systems that work at scale (AWS, Heroku, various cloud platforms), a ton of development libraries and tools so you don't have to write everything by hand in Assembler. In many ways they have the best of both worlds: the freedom of the early PC gaming era to stay small and write auteur games, and the ability to reach a vast potential audience. I suppose, as well, being indie means you don't need to please shareholders, your financial ambitions can be more modest, and you can trade things off for better work-life balance.
      The barriers for curious audiences are lower, as well. It's easy to download and try an opinionated, experiential game like Loved, or experiments like Stranded. There are more channels devoted to covering indie games, more people spreading news via word of mouth, more game jams and meetups to bring people into the fold.
      It doesn't have to be a revolution; we don't have to "topple" Ubisoft in order for indie developers to succeed. It just shows that there is an untapped market that was waiting for, or didn't know they wanted, something new. The successes of Fez, Flower, Journey, etc. proves that good experiences - even relatively "pure" experiences where it's not about scores, leaderboards or blowing things up - can win no matter where they come from.

    2. You make a lot of fair observations. At the same time, so what if a good experience "can win"? A good experience can also lose. An artist "with something to say" needs more than technology and the promise of progressivism. An artist needs active support and criticism, and while many people might want something different (something "indie"), the discussion tends to center on "AAA." It's as simple as this: some indie games are doing things that people want, but those games aren't getting much attention. A lot of this oversight is due to the fact that not all good experiences get coverage from the built-in hype machine. More than anything, I'm asking audiences to look beyond the hype and the obvious. You might say developers have all the technical tools they need, but you can't have a proper revival without sermons to the audience.

  3. I disagree with your premise. I enjoy AAA imperialist games prominent featuring iron sights made by young white American dudes as much as I do innovative text adventures made by Christine Love or a lovely digital wargame made by Tomislav Uzelac from Zagreb Croatia. You don't need to hate Phil Fish or participate with Sarkeesian's work to be a positive force in indie culture and not doing so doesn't make you a part of a sphere of entitlement.

    I hope I haven't offended anyone too much with what I said, and I hope you have a good day.

  4. as always, interesting post!
    I was going to leave a comment here but then I typed too much and it didn't fit. So I put the comment here:

  5. "I enjoy AAA imperialist games prominent featuring iron sights made by young white American dudes as much as I do innovative text adventures"

    Isn't that kinda the point? That middle class white dudes can do whatever they want without getting shit and snark, while other people get mocked just for standing there?

  6. That was a really interesting read, thank you for taking the considerable effort that must have been involved in writing it.

    I have to confess I'm genuinely perplexed by the "indie" moniker. There have always been game developers who create and innovate out of sheer passion and the enjoyment they get from doing so. The games were seldom created for commercial gain. We've existed since the first home computer, and I suspect will always do so. It's a culture I've been pleased to be involved in for decades, and I see no signs of its popularity waning - there's no "drop out" going to happen any time soon.

    But what you're describing in this post feels like something else entirely. A weird sub-culture that comes with the baggage of entitlement dragged behind it. Or worse. And it's not one I can identify with in any way either. The sooner the bottom drops out of that, the better.

    You rightly complain when the Experimental Gameplay Workshop has precious little going on in terms of experimentation or representation. But I suspect it's simply because those truly experimenting are highly unlikely to ever attend GDC anyway, a few factors spring to mind: (a) GDC is expensive. To get to, to attend, to stay at and expensive in terms of the time it takes to be there, time better spent on family vacation, etc (b) it's seen as an event to attend if game development is your profession (regardless if that's "indie" or AAA). For most devs I know they hold down regular day-jobs, quite often outside the realm of game development, or even IT at all (c) they do it for fun, enjoy the relative anonymity of the internet and don't care to socialise with others. I honestly believe these are the sorts of reasons the speaker list is so... conventional.

    Culture is a deep and fascinating subject area, but I do wonder if part of the issue is lumping "game development" under a single culture banner. The reality of what's out there is massively more fragmented, disparate and downright fascinating than that (and yes, I hope some parts of it die off soon!). But more power to those who uncover and write about it the deeper aspects of it, for they are many.

  7. btw the indie3 panel on experimental games (mentioned in the article) is recorded online: (panel starts ~44 mins in)

    (I missed it when it streamed so was happy to find it still accessible online!)

  8. Funny, Phil Fish is the only one I like of the three of them

  9. Indie = wealth enjoying itself through games/poses of pretend rebellion

    Symptomatic of the widening class divide at the turn of the 21st century.

    Anything resembling genuine "innovation" or "progress" will find no home among their sort. Who do you think funds their bloated conventions and award shows? Those who wish to actually "change things" in some way must find a truly independent, cost-effective means of publicizing themselves.

    You're completely correct on the Phil Fish video, but it does have something of a point in regards to people preferring to lash out at a designated chump rather than actually address structural issues in society. (The video itself is rather guilty of this, in how it sidesteps the real targets of digital disparagement, the ones who aren't male.)

  10. You write this post. Zach Gage makes a comment on it & is literally immediately offered a showcase at GDC off the back of it.

    I'm sorry where we talking about indie privilege?

  11. As someone who technically is an indie developer, I heavily agree on the "paranoia and insecurity masked by surface congeniality" thing. You're trying to get your game noticed, and getting it noticed depends on the goodwill of a whole bunch of people: indie devs further up the totem pole, the press, youtubers - and of course potential players. So the temptation to get with the program is huge.

    It's probably also a sad constant across different forms of expression: music, visual arts, etc. "Indie" artists get to merge into the mainstream exactly if they are not too different, or critical, or political.

    FWIW I parsed the Phil Fish video kind of differently. I didn't think it was trying to make excuses for Fish as much as show that he's become a convenient shorthand and source of endless "news".


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