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Good at Heart: In Defense of the Indie Community
by E McNeill on 05/14/13 07:47:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Last Friday, Penny Arcade Report posted an article that detailed the issues that indie dev Kurt Bieg had with the indie game community. It was pretty disheartening, especially since it clashed so vividly with my own experience. The indie community has been an enormously positive force in my life, and so, as before, I want to take a moment to defend it.

The latest in the misguided indie backlash

It’s not uncommon to feel some occasional frustration with the indie scene (see the annual rant session at GDC’s Indie Game Summit), but Kurt was unusually harsh in his condemnation. The article is full of quotes that paint the indie game community as an exclusive and disingenuous clique, motivated by an insular agenda, that despises the casual gamers who just play games for fun.

Kurt, in disgust, has decided to drop out of the indie community. This is a shame in itself. His game Circadia is exactly the sort of game I’d like to make someday, and he presented some interesting stuff in last year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop. The indie community is poorer without his voice and perspective.

Several prominent indies responded to the article. I collected part of the Twitter conversation. Some of the responses were defensive or lashed out, which I imagine didn’t do much to help change minds.

We can talk about this

Kurt’s two primary complaints are that the indie community is incestuous and anti-casual:

“Now indies make games for other indies, or for awards, or for kickstarters. Every game is the next greatest game forever and ever and ever, and honestly, I find myself mostly disappointed and uninspired when I play them.”

“Then I remembered the many conversations I had with game devs who hated casual gamers, hated those who played the ‘ville games, hated people like my wife, even though only a few decades ago we were in pizza shops dumping quarters in machines while people scoffed at us telling us we we’re wasting our money.”

I’m not privy to the “many conversations” that Kurt cites, but I’ve never personally heard indies speak ill of casual gamers. I’ve heard them complain about the design practices of casual game companies (Zynga etc.), but that’s not the same thing. When someone criticizes a cigarette company, does that mean they hate smokers? (No.) There are plenty of well-regarded hardcore or niche games in the indie scene, but there are casual games there, too. I wish Kurt would stick around to help advocate for more.

As for the “incestuous” claim, Kurt has a point; indies do tend to speak well of indie games. But that’s not evidence of an exclusive cabal with selfish motives. Usually, the main reason is that indies share the same interests and are genuinely enthusiastic about the same things. (That’s why they formed a community, after all.) In other cases, they’re choosing to be more forgiving of risky, experimental, limited-budget work. And in some cases, it’s just difficult for friends to criticize each other’s work in public. (Liz Ryerson has made this point too.)

But that’s not a good excuse, and I agree that more indie-to-indie criticism would be helpful. If conducted respectfully, we could get a lot out of it. You’re allowed to have your own thoughts, and others are free to disagree with you. Personally, I think that the 8-bit aesthetic is overused, and that grindy unlock mechanics (as in, say, Ridiculous Fishing) are distasteful, though I struggle to articulate why. Maybe I’ll give it a shot soon, and I’ll hear the other side’s perspective, and we’ll all be better off for it.

So Kurt is not wholly wrong in his complaints. But he’s not wholly right, either, and his frustrations stem from problems that can be worked out. A blanket condemnation of the indie community really isn’t justified.

Don’t gloss over the good

When talking about problems in the indie community, it’s easy to forget the good that indies have done. I experienced a lot of that good firsthand.

When I was a student, just getting seriously into game design, it was the lectures by indies Jon Blow and Chris Hecker that first introduced me to the concept of exploitative game design, and ultimately led me to understand design as something more than just a craft. Along with early indie games like Audiosurf and flOw and Everyday Shooter, they were the ones that first made me think that I could build personal, ambitious, meaningful games.

When I was making my first commercial indie game, I was inspired directly by Eufloria. I posted my game’s beta on an indie game forum. By chance, the co-creator of Eufloria, Alex May, saw it and critiqued it. His insight helped me make a better game, but more importantly, the mere fact that he noticed and responded was hugely encouraging. Later, around the time I released the game, I needed business advice. Kellee Santiago and Eddy Boxerman each spoke to me for over an hour, giving personalized guidance based on their own experience. Later, when I moved to a new city, Andy Schatz took the time (during crunch!) to meet with me and help me find the local indie community.

I’m leaving out a lot of details, of supportive online conversations, meetings at conferences, talks and videos and podcasts and blogs and articles that guided and motivated me. But my point is this: these people were celebrities in my eyes, and owed me nothing, yet they treated me with respect and generosity from the beginning, even though I was just another aspiring game dev.

Then there are the games themselves. There are too many great ones to name, but the last five indie games I’ve played are Fez, Monaco, Year Walk, Cart Life, and Howling Dogs. If you compare them, you'll find incredible variety between them in terms of mechanics, setting, tone, et cetera, and yet they’re all personal and successful in their own ways. Each one has inspired me to make better games, nudging me towards greater ambition. Even the ones that I didn’t like have taught me something.

This is all from one person’s perspective, but I’ve received so much support from the indie community that I can’t accept the picture that Kurt painted. I can’t believe that the indie community is insular, or exclusive, or disingenuous, or full of hatred.

I don’t know what Kurt saw that pushed him away, but based on what I have seen, it’s not all bad. Come back.

- @E_McNeill 


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Comments


Christer Kaitila
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Thanks for sharing a bit of the light! The internet often rewards negativity with RTs and shares, but posts about what is awesome just don't get high engagement. I also find that the indie gamedev community is predominantly super supportive, and kind-hearted. Sure, it is also admittedly a little incestuous, cliquey and at times highbrow hipster elite, but for all its minor faults, I still consider the indie gamedev "scene" a massive force for good in a large number of people's lives.

Daniel Cook
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Those inside a community rarely can understand the perspective of those outside of a community. They see the benefits and assume everyone else is in a similar position as themselves. Communities, by their very nature a bounded social systems. Norms and language start to form and some folks bounce off that wall. These are the basics of group psychology and you need to actively put substantial energy into bending them.

The boundaries between being in the group and out of the group are fuzzy and are almost always a matter of opinion. Immense efforts are spent policing these boundaries. The eternally popular question of "What is an indie" can be seen from the perspective of gatekeeping and rephrased as "Who is part of our friendly, helpful group? And who is not?"

The very interactions you personally find so affirming can come across as judgmental and distancing.

Example 1:
Inside the group, the inevitable chanted "Zynga insult" slipped into an article becomes a coded token "This is an ehtical group norm that we all share, yes?" Boo and hiss on cue. It is rote signalling like wearing a team baseball cap or gang colors.

Outside the group, it also can deliver the payload "Don't make games for 40+ women. People, like that silly wife who pay for F2P or casual games are manipulated suckers." (Have you seen various indie comments on F2P games? It is easy to interpret them as aggressively close minded. I see them more often than not as holy-than-thou attempts at preserving perceived group values.)

Example 2:
Inside the group, you give kind kudos to friends who obviously deserve a break. We are all indies, we are all suffering. All groups emphasize victim hood independent of their degree of being victims. It is a tactic that strengthens internal support.

Outside the group, those same kudos can feel like preferential treatment that an outsider will never benefit from. Especially when they are delivered from a position of obvious power...by someone with a hit game, a large public network, or spotlight access at industry events. The outsider doesn't know the 'right' people, they don't use the appropriately coded language.

So you end up with these interesting responses to the outsider who impinges upon the group:
- You can reject them. Ignoring minorities often makes them go away.
- You can attack them and hope you diminish them enough that their thought crime doesn't infect or harm 'your' group. The twitter comments you link to qualify.
- You can try to convert them. I'd classify this essay as such an attempt. "Join us"
- You can join them yourself if you find their arguments compelling
- You can attempt to find common ground, often in the process creating a 3rd group.

All the best,
Danc.

Aaron San Filippo
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Really great points - thanks for offering some perspective on that.

E McNeill
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Hi Danc,

I understand that you mean this to be taken as a dispassionate analysis of group psychology (right?), but I admit I'm feeling a lot of judgement. You offer the inside and outside views of two examples, but even the presumably-desirable "inside" views are negative, presented as hateful groupthink and overwrought victim-playing. You translate the disapproval of design techniques into disapproval of the players (a common, damaging, easy-to-make mistake that I hoped to refute in the original article). Not to mention the rhetoric of "policing boundaries", "thought crime", etc.

There do exist communities that are characterized by rigid, policed boundaries. There are also communities that are formed when people notice a natural cluster of like minds and draw a big, fuzzy line around them. The indie games community is very much the latter type. We have no membership cards, no gated clubs, not even an accepted definition. Individuals may disagree about who is indie and who is not, but it is impossible for someone to be evicted from the community. If you keep showing up to the conversation (here, on Twitter, on TIGsource, wherever), you're still part of it.

It is, however, possible for someone to decide to avoid the community of their own volition. That's what Kurt did, and since (I argue) the indie community is not as monolithic or bounded or hateful as he fears, it's a shame for him to put walls in place where none existed before. I'm not trying to convert him to the "indie" side; I'm trying to point out that "indie" still includes casual, self-critical, accepting voices. He doesn't need to change to be a part of the group.

My real worry, and the focus of my "backlash" posts, is that the indie community will have walls built around it from the outside, with people defining themselves in opposition to some imaginary set of flaws. People will start to deride and reject anything "indie" as too avant-garde or else too derivative, too elitist or else too lowbrow, too broadly-defined to mean anything or else too narrow and monolithic. "Indie" became cool, and now maybe we're on the other side of the hype curve. I just don't want to see the indie community wither, especially after I've seen the good that it can do.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

David Ngo
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Communities are great when they provide support, knowledge, etc. We should encourage communities based around ideas and shared goals.

But they are bad when they become a part of "identity" because they inherently mean they have to make an "us" vs "the others" distinction. Proclaiming I'm "an indie" always leads to issues of whether you actually belong or not. This isn't even really useful in my experience to make these distinctions. So let's all stop using it as a form of identification.

Treat people as individuals and games as individual products/experiences to critique and support. We'll all be better off for it.

Thomas Happ
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I think it's okay to dislike a community.

Michael Joseph
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Kurt is leaving the community by... continuing to make the types of games he wants to make regardless of what other people think?

That's like leaving the Atlantic Ocean for the Indian Ocean. (prevalence of pirates in one over the other notwithstanding)

Lance McKee
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E McNeill, I personally really liked this article - thanks for writing it. I don't know how much that's worth though, considering I don't have a complete knowledge of exactly the way humans work.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Michael Joseph
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a very neo-liberal sentiment.

Toby Grierson
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a hopelessly empty reply.

Simone Tanzi
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I don't really get it...
Bieg admits his wife played a game that really wasn't for her, and felt.... disgusted about it?
I do not play shooting games, they are not my cup of tea... I am not disgusted by them, they just does not appeal to me.
I have other games that I play and Enjoy, those are games that are made for me.
Indies are all about making games that major software houses do not. It shouldn't surprise that casual gaming is a bit lacking since it has so much space in the mainstream industry today.


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