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Our Immiscible Future
by Matthew Burns on 05/13/13 03:56:00 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.


[Originally posted at Magical Wasteland]

Here it is, I think: the moment the world of video games definitively chunked up into discrete groups and congealed. The emulsifier we used to have, this kind of shared sense of exploring a new medium, simply isn’t working any more. The space has grown too big, the number of participants intractable. We’ve been denying it for as long as we could, saying to ourselves and to gamers: don’t worry, good games are good games, no matter where they come from! Big triple-a developers and indies are great friends! Heavily systems-driven games and not-games can play together!

In fact this is not really true, not any longer.

I’ve commented to a few people that GDC this year reminded me of entering high school, and I didn’t mean this as a criticism, exactly. It was more that the feeling in the air reminded me of when the social structures of one’s classroom, amorphous through the elementary years, really start to become sharply defined– when you realize that hanging with a certain group means cutting yourself off from other groups, not because they implicitly hate each other, but because their world views are incompatible. 

There have long been “indie versus mainstream” arguments, of course, but they never really amounted to anything meaningful. Partially this is because indie itself is an overburdened word, used to describe twenty-person startups as much as a solitary dabbler. More importantly, while indie implies an absence of corporate funding and influence, indie certainly did not deny itself capitalist influence overall. The most famous indies are now self-made millionaires, and the definitively-titled Indie Game: The Movie celebrated this fact. Many of the developers today who self-identify as “indies” clearly hope to follow those footsteps precisely. 

Thus, if indies really did mean to break with the mainstream industry, they did so incompletely, and quickly began to recapitulate some of the structures and patterns that made the mainstream so undesirable in the first place. At the IGF awards, host Andy Schatz quipped that indies used to be The Clash but were now Green Day (and with the actual punk movement thoroughly digested and regurgitated in the form of lush coffee table books and a costume show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this comment was at once resonant and dismaying).

A new broadside against both this and the mainstream can be found in the form of what at least one person termed the “zinesters,” and in the last few weeks a loose, sloshing argument formed on blogs and social media about… well, it was difficult to determine exactly what it was all about. Part of my unease with that “formalists versus zinesters” “debate” was how unnecessary it seemed (beyond providing some personal edification to the instigators); it was as if a faculty member from Juilliard had expressed a desire for “a dialogue” with Sid Vicious about chord progressions. It’s not that these two don’t see eye to eye on matters of music theory, which is what the professor thinks, it’s that the punks have arrived on the scene with such a completely different set of values that they might as well be from different planets. 

There is also little fruit to be found in having a “dialogue,” I think, because it doesn’t seem particularly hard to see where the “zinesters” (if I must use that word) are coming from, and the idea that they need to explain themselves is confounding. This group consciously and deliberately rejects indie’s failed split from the mainstream and its poorly-concealed capitalist underpinnings, and instead upholds personal expression as the highest ideal, the only goal that matters. And in order to do that successfully, they must break off completely, not at a branch somewhere on the tree but at the very root of the established order. This cannot be papered over or explained away; no amount of hemming and hawing over the definition of the word “game” will fix the fact that there are games out there now that willfully abnegate other games.

That refutation is necessary and inevitable. It is both thrilling and, for me, tinged with a little sadness. The image of high school cliques I brought up earlier has negative connotations, and it would be understandable to wish that we could return to the prelapsarian niceness of thinking that everyone should hang out with everyone else. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all still be in this video game thing together, eventually agreeing on a universal definition of game, or art, or whatever else? But there is no going back. We try to come out of our teenage years with a slightly better sense of ourselves, but there is an element to defining the self that is made out of forsaking something else. That’s just something that happens as you grow up.

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Andy Schatz
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My Google Alert brought me here. Very interesting and entertainingly readable post! My perspective on the subject is that the industry (and that includes anyone who makes games, commercial or no) has become more of a continuum, with some AAA studios adopting practices explored by indies (THQ Humble Bundle), and indie studios exploring and conquering the big-budget or retail worlds (Journey, Minecraft). At the same time, indies are expanding and exploring even further downwards, toward more primal, less commercial games, than ever before. In some cases, those games are even finding unexpected commercial success (Cart Life) and in others, they are proving that the games really are the point, regardless of commercial potential (Dys4ia). My comments during the IGF were largely meant to recognize that indies can no longer draw a bright line around ourselves, defining us by what we're NOT. Sure, some of us have nothing in common with AAA studios, but both major cliques have collided and comingled such that it's even harder to define "indie" than it was 5 years ago, and it was already impossible back then!

Raymond Ortgiesen
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I agree. Sid Vicious and a Philharmonic Orchestra were never meant to play on the same stage for the same people, despite the fact that they both are playing "great" music. Just because you work in the same medium doesn't mean you share the same ideals. If calls for diversification of game makers are successful, we will see even more fragmenting of designers in this way and that is a good thing: more types of game makers, more types of games.

Brian Bartram
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Video games are dead. Long live video games!

Scott Sheppard
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This comment is brilliant. I could think about it for days and never come so a solid conclusion of how I feel about it.

Thomas Happ
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I don't really understand what a zinester is. Are a lot of developers making zines?

Christian Nutt
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There's a tremendous amount of discussion of this that I'm sure you could find elsewhere. The term is generally used to speak of people in a loose collective who are making Twine games and other similar personal narrative-focused experiences, generally very personal ones. Notable names include Anna Anthropy (Dys4ia) and Porpentine (Howling Dogs).

That is an overview and necessarily simplified and potentially somewhat inaccurate.

Their movement has been the focal point of a lot of (unnecessary) debate about What Games Are over the last month or so, and you can see that reflected in a lot of blogs here and elsewhere. Michael Mateas even touched on the debate without mentioning the zinesters by name in his talk at IFOG that I attended last Friday.

Aaron San Filippo
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I've got to be honest: I don't really understand where the author's coming from, at all.

So - some academics and some "zinesters" have been arguing, and thus, there is an unsalvageable divide between "indies" and "mainstream"? Huh?

The fact that half the commenters here don't really even know what these terms are talking about should be telling.

In other words: just because one small subset of the game development world at large is at odds with another small subset, I don't see the need to dramatically declare that it's finally just time to call it quits and sit at our separate tables. For starters - where would you draw the line in the continuum between "indie" and "mainstream", or between "Zinester" and "Formalist"?

I think it's time we all realize that there's a lot more diversity in the world of games at large than the vocal minority of us who argue back and forth about definitions of games across blogs - and for the most part, that world at large is getting along as well as it ever has.

Kyle McBain
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Isn't that stating the obvious? I feel like this blog is full of analogy and generic as hell. So what if there is a divide in indies and those with corporate ties. We all know that and that is the way it is with everything. They are building games on different scales though which in turn makes them unique in their own right. So it's not really an issue. And what about the future?.... Didn't see anything in here about it except that indies aren't really indies.... but they are and we don't know what will happen. What!?

Michael Joseph
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I think if I were to paraphrase what Mr. Burns is talking about here (and correct me if i'm wrong), it would be ...

game developers who for example, profess to care about the truth, honesty and integrity of their craft more than the money and fame of commercial success are saying (without speaking the words) that fundamental and irreconcilable differences exist (in terms of ethics/morals/spirituality) between themselves and the other camps and it's time to acknowledge that reality aloud rather than stay silent and rely on the subtle implication to do all the "speaking."

Because without saying the words, that group just gets lumped together (by the media, by marketing depts, etc) with other developers who don't really share their values. That's not ok.

I think Mr. Burns is right. If one feels strongly about and subscribes to a unique and nuanced philosophy then they should declare it and evangelize it if they wish. People can disagree, but their right to believe what they want and to spread their particular brand of "gospel" as something of distinctive value should be respected.

Paul Laroquod
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Personal expression is great but without solid systematics to back it up they really aren't going to be impressing very many people for very long. So I predict not the death of the movement but rather its inevitable corruption on the altar of continued attention and success. After all, ultimately everybody has feelings to express, and the only thing that really makes one person's expression of their feelings more interesting than another's is in the quality of the execution. Attaining quality of execution will mean that devs as a pool will accrete techniques to which the new sub-community responds well, resulting in a series of generations of ever-complexifying rules and conventions, coming in waves, that eventually congeal into a new systematics. It's how we got here in the first place.

Still, there's no harm in giving the whole gauntlet another run, in an attempt to throw it all away and start from scratch, essentially. Thirty years down the road, we might end up with an interestingly different set of systematics come out of this movement. That is, if it can avoid drowning in self-indulgence as so many fledgling art movements tend to do.