An Inward Turn

Five or six years ago many critical conversations about game culture were focused on the place of video games in popular culture and their potential cultural value. Since then the Ebertian arguments and all of their variants have been dismantled (or at least superseded), culminating, perhaps, in the Smithsonian exhibit in 2012 which symbolically affirmed what game scholars, critical gamers, and designers have argued all along: games matter, they constitute an artistic tradition, and they are worthy of scholarship and critique. The shift over the last few years has been from justifying games in relation to popular culture and academic discourse, which in retrospect often reads as a kind of media-specific apologetic tradition, toward more self-criticism and experimentation. No longer consumed with issues of acknowledgement and legitimacy, critical gamers turn inward.

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Link turns inward

Of course many players are comfortable remaining vocal consumers and dedicated fans that aren’t really interested in anything more than what we might call “game culture plus” – more of the same, “but bigger, better.” There will always be the struggle with the regressive elements of game culture that lead to attacks on critical gamers like those suffered by Abbie Heppe for her 2010 review of Metroid Other M for G4, or the hate-tweeting (and more) that Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency weathered for producing her series critiquing the tired persistence of the “Damsel in Distress” trope in games. But there are some indications that things are moving in the right direction, and it feels less of a stretch to claim that we’re living through the birth pangs of some kind of Gamer Enlightenment.

Game Culture’s Age of Enlightenment?

Maybe. On the one hand, we have the rise of game studies literature (I take Steven Poole’s Trigger Happy published in 2000 as a convenient milestone), and courses on games. We also have new sites like KillScreen and emerging indie book publication enterprises like BossFightBooks. On the other hand, we still have things like persistent misogyny, as evidenced by the reactions to Julie Larson-Green recently being named head of Xbox and the Penny Arcade/PAX “Dickwolves” debacle. But we are also seeing more productive and probing panels like PAX 2013’s “Everything We Know is Sexist. Now What?,” DICE talks like David Cage’s “Peter Pan Syndrome: The Industry that Refused to Grow Up,” and lectures by independent game designers like Jonathan Blow’s “Video Games and the Human Condition.” There’s exploitative gamification, but there seems to be much more of this, and this.

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Hallmarks of progress?

Whatever you may think about the actual views expressed in these examples the simple fact of their existence is a sign of health and growth, of an emerging reflective spirit.

Indie Gaming Expressionism

One trend that has been maturing over the last decade consists in the foregrounding of expression and specific aesthetic experiences, or alternatively, the backgrounding of “fun” and canonical forms of challenge as primary design goals. In game studies it was Ian Bogost that best articulated this early on in the seminal text Unit Operations, arguing the inadequacy of “fun” as a primary concept in gameplay and design, and advancing one of the first sustained arguments for considering video games as expressive forms of media, and later as new forms of argument.

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While Bogost was primarily interested in developing a model of game criticism that could articulate and explore the expressive power of existing games, game designers like Anna Anthropy exemplify a new kind of expressionism in game making. Anthropy’s Dys4ia, Jason Rohrer’s Gravitation and Danny Ledonne’s Super Columbine Massacre RPG are a few examples of the increasing interest in emphasizing expressivity and new subjects of experience that have been un-or-underexplored in game form. Anthropy’s recent book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a helpful orienting monument in the expanding and diversifying landscape of indie game design. One particularly promising principle of Anthropy’s take on game culture is the imperative for diversity. There is also a general ambivalence to (or even flat out rejection of) the “mainstream” ecology: its economics, design practices, aesthetic values, and culture.

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Second Wave Indie-ism

I personally wonder if we’re experiencing the emergence of what we might later refer to as “second wave” indie gaming (SWIG). One way to make this idea intelligible is to consider the differences between early high profile commercial successes like those chronicled in Indie Game: The Movie and the many games now circulating online produced as personal experiments, game jam entries, artistic explorations, and so on. Merritt Kopas’s game curation project Forest Ambassador provides a nice window into SWIG.

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While independent game design, self-publishing and distribution, etc. have existed since the beginning of video games, there seems to be a growing spirit in indie game design that not only values independence from the economy of mainstream gaming, but also radical experimentation and focused attention to accessibility, underexplored social and aesthetic experiences, themes, and narratives. Periodizations and characterizations of phenomena like SWIG are always problematic and open to endless revision, but the discussions they provoke often help with understanding the past. Granting that a distinction between at least two waves of indie gaming is at least intelligible, What qualities would you ascribe to or associate with each? icon_comment.below

The Protestant Reformation of Game Culture

Five centuries ago Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses criticizing Catholic Church, contributing to a reformation of Christian culture that saw the explosion of new thinking about canonical ideas and practices. In 2013 it is hard to imagine coming to any consensus about a Martin Luther figure of contemporary game culture (though there’d surely be many candidates), but I wonder if a good stand-in would be the collective communications found in critical gamer blogs, vlogs, fan forums, game wikis, Let’s Play and game mod communities, to say nothing about the kinds of work going on in the margins (mostly) at universities and colleges pursuing game studies. Furthermore, if the primary enabling technology of The Reformation was the printing press, SWIG benefits from the proliferation of free or low-cost game tools and engines like Twine and Unity and the ethos of open source and online sharing cultures. All the game designers who share their techniques in using these new tools, all the artists, hackers, modders, and tutorial-makers who share their resources and generally shepherd newbies into making games participate in actions similar to Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

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A Gutenberg revolution for games

Better Game Culture

More people are making games, expressing ideas and communicating experiences through game media, and that is a good thing. One natural result of the phenomena outlined above is an increase in diversity: of games, voices, means of creation and communication. In my view, this is an integral part of achieving better game culture. But there is a lot more to rejoice and despair in, more work to be done.  We also need to continue developing and supporting better game criticism, focusing more on understanding individual games; we need improved game literacy, not just familiarity with conversational lingo and technical jargon but conceptual precision, critical curiosity and attentiveness, and critical play practices; we need to continue to chip away at agents and forces of monogameculture – promote more diversity in the mainstream industry, empower more indie creators.

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Double Pincer Attack!

In the following months the Critical Gaming Project will be featuring articles about better game culture: how and where it is emerging, strategies for advancing it, and tools for contributing. By years-end readers of articles in this series will have a nice collection of resources for inspiration and action.

Other articles in the series: 

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