Shareware games (c. 1990)
Indie games (c. 2002)
Queer games (c. 2012)
“What’s your aesthetic” is a question I fucking hate and refuse to answer at this point, so don’t even bother.
It isn’t because I don’t have preferences when it comes to style or formal expression or genre, but because when that question is asked of me I don’t think I’m being asked to answer on the matter of taste. I read it instead as a question of prescription. I’m being asked to speak for an entire creative and intellectual movement, and of a vast and diverse class of artists all of whom contribute a voice and style of their own to the craft of game-making. I’m being asked, often by peers, often self-identifying as “indie”, to commodify what I see not as a shelf of products but as a means of production and a motivating ethos that ought to underpin that broad network of individual and collaborative creation. I’m asked to provide a digestible, identifiable, categorizable sensibility that encompasses these works to which we may apply a buzzword. Altgames, perhaps. But it could be anything.
I don’t deny that the term has its use nor do I resist the plain fact that whatever slogans and icons and labels we attach to this artistic movement, that is very much what it is (why should it not be? Why should we be so different from any other artform in that way?). And it’s been building for a long time. It’s had many different names, come in many different manifestations, and burnt out or become co-opted one way or another. I’ve written as much and still this idea persists that anyone “owns the revolution”, or that anyone has a foremost right to the legacy of gaming’s radical history. It’s a cumulative effort; often it’s a sandcastle built with the grains of modest decisions and acts, however grandiloquent in rhetoric and intractable in ambition, and unable to resist the tide of systemic forces that flatten and reabsorb it.
You can argue over some of the dates I’ve provided above. Certainly that short timeline reduces a messy 15-year-plus chunk of creation into a clean series of little pinpoints. All movements and cultural phenomena and sets of aesthetics we understand as experimental, as ostensibly anti-capitalist, as effectively “do-it-yourself”, all indicative of an evolving ethos. Arguably, there was a time when all games were essentially “indie games” cobbled together in a dorm room or a garage like so many grunge bands. The very first videogames, as Nick Dyer-Witheford’s and Grieg de Peuter’s Games of Empire outlined in 2009, were developed as tiny rebellions by MIT nerds against the military-industrial applications for which their computer software was developed. (Spacewar!, for context, was developed in 1962). Yet they were absorbed into corporate entertainment and recapitulated the very state interests they were created to ridicule and reject only a few years later, and have arguably remained that way ever since—at least at their most lucrative and/or visible.
There’s always been this push-and-pull between games-as-art-objects and games-as-commodities; it’s built right into their DNA. (Other artforms struggle with this conflict, no doubt, but for the purposes of argument our focus is on the peculiar conspicuousness of it in the games industry.) There’s obviously a legacy for expressive experimentation and left-radicalism in games, and it isn’t even that hard to find, at least in remnants and artefacts. But the lack of cohesive historicity at an institutional level—Robert Yang, for instance, points out that “art games” have long existed but have been “erased” from the official canon of videogames—reveals itself in the bizarre, often contradictory evolution of that DNA.
These movements are each waves of a similar kind of disatisfaction, a similar kind of disillusionment with the internal mechanisms of the games industry. They each mutate, dissolve, get subsumed into industry labour and marketing machinery, and after the mid-90s this process appears to have become more accelerated. Because these movements never seem to really resolve the broader problems they seek to address—or whose solutions may themselves contain unintended negative consequences—or because they never really extended into the realm of materialism, structuralism or politics beyond a meritocratic ethic of artistic purity (as in the case of “indie” writ large and the exploitative “passion industry” that feeds off it), gaming seems to require new collectives and initiatives and terms and hashtags every few years to reassert a desire for alterity. This is accentuated not just by gaming’s many layers of accumulated scar tissue but because of the new wounds formed on the surface.
It means that the industry’s varied workforce skews young, with a tiny elite granted the golden ticket of success and the rest either slogging in increasing precarity or exhaustedly leaving the industry entirely to do something, anything else. It means that movements disperse and reform so quickly that building something stable becomes extremely difficult, well-nigh impossible, and some alignment or concession to that nefarious machinery seems inescapable. It means that those of us who achieve a level of security within the institutions of gaming culture, either commercial or academic, are by and large less likely to have an urgent stake in preserving anything other than an institutional account of things. It means that those of us who are young and impudent and paving our own path have to do a lot of extra work to learn, not just remember.
Some of those that are lucky and determined enough to find a comfortable niche in games, or at least some recognition, may have at one point been its discontents. The Scratchware Manifesto lists Will Wright and Richard Garriott as its DIY innovator heroes. In fact, with the exception of Dani Bunten, the Manifesto only recognizes cis white men now understood as some of gaming’s early patriarchs. It’s true, I find some familiarity with the mainly economic reality that the Manifesto describes in 2000, and the effect that that has on experimental games. But in retrospect I actually can’t relate to many of its proposed solutions, its political bluster about the “revolution”, or for that matter its convictions about what games are or who ought to be recognized for them.
And please, keep in mind, I was 9 when the Scratchware Manifesto was written.
Reading this now, at 23, I think the chief pitfall in this and many other cyberpunk, hacker and/or alternative gaming scenes is its scope. This language of taking down the industry is rampant, the stink of piss and vinegar overwhelmingly wafting off the page. It’s bizarrely fundamentalist, citing the Founding Fathers as its role models against the “vampiric” industry forces sucking its workers dry and zombifying them and turning its audiences into sheep and its workforce into cattle and other mixed metaphors I forget right now. I admire the passion here, but this is nonetheless written in a way that seems to misunderstand both the resources collectives of underclasses tend to have and the compromises for survival marginalized people tend to need to make. I would also love for the industry such as it is to either fall or be drastically changed, but for at least the former I don’t think it really needs my help and seems to be on its very own self-destructive path. (Although, the fact that the Manifesto lists the release of buggy games as a result of poor management of inflated workforces as a major problem in 2000 ought to be a red flag to us 15 years later.)
Right now, the immediate concern is finding ways to get people paid and recognized for their work—particularly marginalized people who are given fewer opportunities within the industry, and particularly when that work has difficulty finding a market in an industry that loves to erase or ignore its “fringe” history. Things have not gotten better to the point that a ragtag crew of DIY coders and writers and artists can dream about toppling the system. We ask instead for some fucking stability, and even that is earning sideward glances.
But there’s another pitfall here, one that shows up again and again in different permutations: the manifesto describes an aesthetic. It tries to be broad in terms of the “genre” a Scratchware game can take on, but it specifically describes, for instance, a high premium placed on “replayability,” and promises “professional”-level execution from very small teams or individuals. It even bothers to include a note about Scratchware games needing to be 2D more often than 3D, for the sake of simplicity (this was 5 years before Unity, however).
It’s peculiar because one thing “altgames” has in common with, say, “indie” or “queer games”, or even “AAA”, is that all these things are describing an actual process of production rather than the product itself. The resultant products retain the ideologies they were produced under, and certainly trend toward a certain set of aesthetics. But usually when we apply these labels what we’re talking about isn’t so much how a game looks or feels, but about the conditions under which the game was made and what that therefore implies about how it looks or feels. (Don’t forget the thinkpieces from 2 or 3 years ago plaintively asking, “What the hell does ‘indie’ mean anyway?”) Yet, for the most part, labels like “queer” and “indie” and “AAA” have become indelibly linked to aesthetic prescription. Even Tales of Tales’ “notgames”, which casts a pretty wide net in terms of games which reject prevailing design trends, is (perhaps unfairly) understood more for its ironic distance from the industry than for the games made under its banner.
These terms have, each in their way, come to occupy the perception of a brand: an easily consumable, fairly predictable and thus reproducible set of formal representations. I want to insist, however, that isn’t an indictment of any games or creators themselves, but an observation of how we compartmentalize games as products, and the hole that this leaves wide open in movements that wish to resist market co-option. As soft chambers writes of “empathy games”:
“soft chambers wishes to clarify that it is against the [sic] lingustic categorization of empathy games, rather than any games in particular themselves
what does ‘empathy games’ do?
- it fixes the relationship between the player and the author
- it removes the potential for genuine connection or surprise
- it positions the player as a member of a privileged audience who will experience the difficult conditions of the worse-off author’s life as a demonstration of their tolerance or understanding
- it presupposes that all works are meant for a majority audience, rather than for an audience of persons like the author
- it reduces empathic connection to empathy tourism
soft chambers hastens to again point out that the problem usually lies in the framing and not the works themselves
soft chambers values empathy but knows that empathy is not a genre”
I’m not entirely sure how to manage this phenomenon, to keep my own work from the dissolution of meaning or to establish an enduring legacy that can withstand the inevitable diaspora. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how to fix capitalism. I’m not convinced that I or my peers will be “the ones” to bring about any “revolution” within games, nor am I convinced any singular type of game, or for that matter movement vision, is correct enough to single-handedly sow the seeds of utopia.
I must know my radical history with an unclouded vision rather than a spotty childhood nostalgia. I must know that means that behind me there is a legacy that I’m quickly becoming a part of. I must know that every point on that timeline existed to address contemporary problems which have since become the building blocks from which new problems have formed. I can see in the early aughts a kind of evangelism, for instance, toward digital distribution as a niche alternative to brick-and-mortar retail. In 2015, we live in a world in which digital distribution is not only the premier marketplace format, but often brings with it the dark side of obscured, un/underpaid labour, levels of abstraction on currency that conceal where profit moves, and a teeming glut of supply that makes it difficult for sellers with fewer resources to self-promote and reach an actual audience. The neoliberal posture of the sharing economy that the platform-holder has no responsibility to its users fails to acknowledge the ideologies inherent in the design of the platform, something which is as true on the internet as in any physical space.
But I digress.
What else can I do, besides knowing and respecting my legacies, my context, but also where I happen to diverge?
I suppose the other thing, probably the more important thing, is to keep in mind that I’m only a grain of sand on the wide and changeable beaches of culture. It’s for this reason that I refuse to contain altgames in any immediately satisfying way. Because it’s not the term I want to help sell. It’s not simply my own reputation I wish to elevate. The term must not precede the ideas, or for that matter the people working, often at dire social and economic disadvantage, to realize them. Or for that matter the people for whom the words and ideas are supposed to be of help.
Those ideas—sustainability, free association, redistribution of capital, support for small and experimental works, and the restoration of history and recognition toward those works and creators—have gone and will go by many names. The immediate needs and approaches change, but the principles still have need to carry over, and those names are their carriers.
In the spirit of this acknowledgement, I believe we need more “itch.io”s, more “@SupportAltGame”s, more “Arcade Review”s, more “Warp Door”s, more “Critical Distance”s, more “soft chambers”s, more “Midnight Resistance”s. A diversity of curation, distribution, development tools and guides, criticism and history which can support and represent a diversity of creators are of utmost importance. What is not of utmost importance is what they are broadly called.
I use the term “altgames” because it continues to be a useful way for myself and others to collect the work we do under a big umbrella. I use it because it makes it easy to point to a means of production, a process, a way to relate to my work and to my peers, although I can say without a doubt that the critical substance and political principles were present in the work long before the term existed, and will exist after. They germinated in my teen years playing freeware games because I couldn’t afford much else; they were watered by queer games and the proliferation of Twine, which showed me that I could make games; they’re in full bloom now that I can articulate a conceptual model of games in greater economic, political and expressive contexts. Altgames facilitates that, and that’s fine for now.
But use any term you wish. Use #indiedev if it works for you, or something else. Make up a word right now! Use it to help you pull resources and people closer to each other. Use it to build something. Use it to help with promotion, if you so choose. If your goals are in any way common to mine, then I have no interest in competing with you—if anything, I want to work with you. I don’t need to shout over you, or try to erase your differences, or impose upon your space. The intricate, microscopic beauty of a grain of sand stands independently of all others, but all of those grains together form a bed of seemingly endless depth, solid yet porous, cooled by the tide, always made hot in the beating sun.