Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The California Problem

greetings! this is a very long post about video games and capitalism. feel free to take breaks if you need them. make sure to stick around till the end, if you can. plz enjoy. and support me on patreon if you like (and read this post on patreon here for free if you don't like orange). i have a new indie music-related podcast, by the way, in case you're interested in checking it out. anyway......

- liz

"If silicon is prone to make your dreams come true
You could probably say the same thing about nightmares too"

- from 'The Future of History' by Tropical Fuck Storm 


the 0th Indie Game Jam

almost exactly 10 years ago, i made an account on Twitter to promote a fake game called "Gloomp!"


at the risk of over-explaining a not particularly deep joke, the idea was a spoof on a lot of games that were getting attention at the time, particularly mobile games. it seemed like there was an industry-wide belief that the growth of mobile and casual games could lead to a profound shift in how the public experienced and thought about games, especially among many influential game academics and industry figures. the surprise success of mobile games like Canabalt or Spelltower by new independent developers came along in this wave of games that were reaching increasingly larger audiences, breaking out of the usual demographics of console and PC gamers. 
this ran concurrently to a lot of growth happening in the tech industry at the time (i.e. the arrival of the iPhone, iTunes and digital downloads), as video games often do. many people around the industry saw this new direction as a way out of the current depressing path much of the video game industry had been on. (this optimism, of course, ended up being short lived due to large mobile companies quickly consolidating and pushing the quirky indies out of the space and the sad state of preservation of software on mobile platforms.)

whenever any space experiences a new wave of financial success and public scrutiny unlike anything else that came before it, it leads to a lot of industry hype and speculation. the shift from 2D to 3D development as the norm in the mid-90's was a massive sea change that transformed the video game industry in profound ways. the onset of the internet and its increasingly large role in society and culture of the last thirty years is one of the most consequential events to happen in the past century. drastic shifts in technology that alter modes of being are not new. the endless supply of new products that dramatically change how we construct ourselves around them is one of the primary features of capitalism.

all of this is to say, i wasn't particularly sold on this new wave of excitement towards mobile and casual games at the time. to me what felt particularly strange was the intensity of the rhetoric around a certain subset of games, especially when placed in tandem with how tiny and narrowly focused the insights it felt like you could glean from each of these things as experiences was. mobile games like Canabalt were fun byte-sized little action stories that brought back some of the artistry of vintage coin-op arcade games. 

social games that involved more human interaction like JS Joust could get crowds of people interacting with each other in ways often lacking in a space that mostly involves being sedentary for long periods of time (though the critique re: JS Joust was often that you could easily win if you were bigger/had longer arms). there are events focused on physical play like Come Out And Play that still attract a lot of attention and i can imagine will continue to do so as more people lack real-life communal spaces to gather together in. though the kinds of games they feature have never escaped being performed in very specific events and settings. some of which, like in school gym class or mandated corporate team-building exercises, feel pretty far from some of the grandiose theorizing about transforming society through play.

the main point was that these weren't new things at all. they were heavily informed by a fascination with the often underappreciated artistry of mechanically simple 80's video games and the hippie-infused New Games movement of the 70's. twenty- and thirty-year nostalgia cycles dominate so much cultural movement and are not a new phenomenon, of course. but this movement was deeply infused with an increasingly powerful streak of hyper-individualism pushed by the tech industry, which gave all of the rhetoric a special intensity. ever since the 90's, an increasing amount of power and money was being offloaded from other parts of society and onto tech industry entrepreneurs drowning in piles of cash. this only became more prevalent in wake of the Great Recession, which the tech industry seemed almost unscathed by. if you were in any space even vaguely tangential to technology at the time (which game development certainly was), it was completely impossible to escape the overwhelming predominance and full-throated embrace of this rhetoric. the tech industry had been fully empowered by the world to enact its beliefs on a massive scale.

allow me here to quote at length from a very influential (and prescient) critical piece about the tech industry by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron from 1995 called "The Californian Ideology" (emphasis in bold is mine):

"the Californian ideology has emerged from this unexpected collision of right-wing neo-liberalism, counter- culture radicalism and technological determinism - a hybrid ideology with all its ambiguities and contradictions intact. These contradictions are most pronounced in the opposing visions of the future which it holds simultaneously.

On the one side, the anti-corporate purity of the New Left has been preserved by the advocates of the 'virtual community'... Community activists will increasingly use hypermedia to replace corporate capitalism and big government with a hi-tech 'gift economy' in which information is freely exchanged between participants.... Despite the frenzied commercial and political involvement in building the 'information superhighway', direct democracy within the electronic agora will inevitably triumph over its corporate and bureaucratic enemies.

On the other hand, other West Coast ideologues have embraced the laissez faire ideology of their erstwhile conservative enemy...

In this version of the Californian Ideology, each member of the 'virtual class' is promised the opportunity to become a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Information technologies, so the argument goes, empower the individual, enhance personal freedom, and radically reduce the power of the nation-state. Existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software.... The free market is the sole mechanism capable of building the future and ensuring a full flowering of individual liberty within the electronic circuits of Jeffersonian cyberspace."

the piece then goes on to talk about how much Californian ideology came out of a massive amount of public money and government influence spent towards developing the internet. these tools were, of course, greatly dependent on labor exploitation and the suffering of others to build and maintain the technology necessary for this. but it set the stage for the all-encompassing fantasy of a new virtual frontier; a frontier that goes back to the original American founding myth of the frontier settlers of the west.

and that rhetoric of "the new frontier" and "the wild west" was inescapable at the time in the indie game development sphere. these were not the type of people who were particularly happy or even very conscious of being implicated in critiques of Californian Ideology. in a podcast episode i did in 2021 about this period of time in the space with games researcher (and friend) Alex Ross, he mentioned the influence of famous counter-culture huckster Stewart Brand, his Whole Earth Catalog, and the idea of the "cowboy nomad" on thoughts expressed by prominent indie game figures like Jason Rohrer or Jenova Chen at the time. they often spoke in romantic ways which conflated the idea of personal success with larger social success. these were developers envisioning themselves as wandering empowered tool-users, or anarchist squatters roaming the countryside and creating a space for everyone around to inhabit through their own personal achievement and self-belief. they were, to be fair, by far not the only people in the game industry who bought into these sorts of notions. this tweet from last year by game industry legend John Carmack is a perfect embodiment of this way of thinking for me:

so anyway, if you played Braid for the first time in 2009 thanks to a friend's recommendation and your interest was piqued by its novel use of time-manipulation, you might start looking for conference talks on game design to follow during this time period. and you might quickly notice that there was a lot of talk on short experimental games like Rod Humble's The Marriage or Jason Rohrer's Passage at the time. the dominant discourse around these works often revolved around their ability to demonstrate how you, as a designer, can Do Things With Video Games. their key insights were how they stripped games to their bare essential dynamics and expressed something deeper underneath. 

both of the above games were often tearfully presented by other developers at conferences as making meaningful and profound statements that changed the way they thought about video games at a fundamental level. they appeared like lightning rods for many game industry people that sent them into a tizzy about how they constructed their larger life and work. these games signaled that video games had arrived, that they mattered now, and that they were shedding themselves of their sordid past as violent shooter games and mere objects of "fun".

longtime game designer and Game Developers Conference founder Chris Crawford, while talking to Rohrer for the documentary Us and the Game Industry (which my aforementioned game researcher friend Alex Ross likened to "a Scientology recruitment video for the indie games industry" and you can currently watch for free on Roku afaik), said something related to this that i think about a lot:  

"game developers are very defensive about the sordid reputation they have. ...one reason is that games should form character, and build your body, and so forth - or, at least, they should be mentally like Chess: that's a respectable game! and video games don't have any of those traits. they're just fun, and nothing else. and there is a puritanical streak in American culture that says fun without any redeeming value is sordid"

i can only imagine this desire to escape the sordid reputation of games fed the aura of excitement that hovered around influential industry people so visibly buzzing about an extremely spare prototype involving growing and shrinking squares, or a tiny 8-bit walking simulator. i can't imagine this happening at any other point in the short history of video games. the mainstream industry was awash in the time with gritty military-themed first person shooters and bloated open-world games. development cycles of AAA games had become increasingly more expensive, high stakes, and stifling of innovation. 

the late 00's was also when i checked out of video games in general as a casual consumer, because it just felt to me like so many games were becoming more samey and bland in their design and going in the wrong direction. unbeknownst to me at the time, a growing crowd of influential people in the video game industry were vocally advocating for new forms of innovation to break the industry out of its stupor of derivativity. and parallel to that, the idea of the self-styled entrepreneur was growing in power in larger culture. so the tech industry was increasingly in an excellent place to help empower some new individuals to "disrupt" the space with innovation.

in general, in broader culture it felt like games wanted more and more to be taken seriously as consequential art, but also didn't want to have the same scrutiny level applied to them as other art.

all of this applied even more to the indie space, which was growing in prominence and influence thanks to the breakout success of games like Braid and the sudden monumental juggernaut of Minecraft. to anyone who gleefully espoused the value of some formative indie works, you likely never were allowed to stop for very long to interrogate what questions the themes of games like Passage or The Marriage presented, and what they may say about troubling dynamics in gendered relationships. they were more just signifiers that represented that the possibility of deeper expression was there, and should be taken seriously and given more scrutiny. but the moment you applied more scrutiny and started to ask questions about the themes in the work, that was often handwoven off as irrelevant to the point at hand (which was, again, that Videogames Have Arrived). 

this always begged the question for me (a question which remains unanswered): why is the vessel for this new wave of serious important experimental art games that are poised to transform the industry seemingly all about failing or dysfunctional marriages? the unintentionally funny jankfest Façade from around the same period, co-authored by future military contractor Andrew Stern, was another notable example. and what's the deal with the oddly large number of games featuring dead wives, for that matter?

basically - even if you were willing to ignore how much this space was soaked thru with romanticized hyper-libertarian beliefs about cowboy nomads empowered by the tech industry, it was hard to ignore the implications of the themes that kept popping up within a lot of creative works. Rohrer's game The Castle Doctrine (based of a famous right-wing ideology about 'standing your ground'/property defense) was a particularly notorious example that Rohrer doubled down on in a bizarre post about self-defense and that defense was backed up by many in the space - which felt especially egregious coming in the wake of public outcry around the Trayvon Martin murder. and, much less egregiously, other notable indie games like Dear Esther, embodied the dead wife/death of marriage trope so common to art games at that point in a commercially-facing, mainstream accessible way. my favorite response to this whole odd phenomenon is the satirical game "The Virtual Museum of Dead-Wifery" by Lilith and Zoë Sparks, by the way.

but, for me, this underlined the point that these games perhaps weren't, in a sense, actually about what they were about. they were containers signifying the capability of larger meaning that could theoretically exist. they were meaning machines capable of eliciting empathy (a rhetoric that got even more intense later on in the 2010's around VR), but exactly how that empathy manifested itself was a placeholder. if games were to have a greater purpose in society, they simply must be able to do this. that capability of evoking empathy and containing larger meaning mattered far more than what specifically was being expressed.

so in that case, even though i don't think most people either got the joke or thought it was as funny as me (shout-out to Kepa from Rocketcat Games for getting on the train though), my fake game Gloomp! was a stand-in, for me, which represented the ideal form of art within the commercial indie game space of the time: an entity that is both transformative but also empty, without any particular meaning assigned to it. a squishy container for the over-romanticized ideal of transformative or meaningful 'play' that was poised to take over the space around it, but didn't correspond to anything in particular or make a statement about anything in particular. an object that signified importance in some kind of vague, market-friendly way, by virtue of simply being in the space at that particular time and place. a response to games like flOw that were so focused on the act of expression without having much of any interest in what, exactly, was being expressed. a perfect commodity, basically.

like most things, "Gloomp!" was an inconsequential one-off joke that was quickly abandoned. the era of games it's meant to skewer is, more or less, over by now. the joke's not very funny anymore, if it ever was. Ian Bogost's "Cow Clicker" sort of did another version of that anyway. 

networks of wealthy indie and ex-industry figures who popped up in the wake of the indie games boom i.e. The Indie Fund which chose projects and entrepreneurial new personalities to elevate based via whispery connections of private mailing lists and secret forums and reflected the interests of influential people in the space, were once incredibly important. the tech industry broadly never really got behind funding the game industry outside of whenever it needed to drum up a wave of hype around some new tech i.e. in the big VR push of the mid to late 2010's or the great NFT and AI debacles of the past couple years. so the funding was usually left towards other sources.

so now things in the space have given way to one increasingly dominated by indie publishers and acquisitions by larger companies, which are both basically replicating what happened to the game industry in the 90's. the same sort of creativity-stifling forces all those early indies were fighting against in the 00's are back in a different form. and there has been an increasing amount of discontent with the shoddy deals many of indie publishers are reportedly giving indie developers as well. so this totalizing fantasy of transforming a space forever thru 'Meaningful Play' may still exist in places like games academia, but in the commercial industry they have mostly given away to the hardened faux-wisdom of what i often semi-disparagingly call "The Industry Realist" (a term which i think i borrowed from Emilie Reed).