Monday, March 13, 2017

Theorizing local games cultures in a post-TIGSource era

Colin Northway tweeted this about a week ago:

As Colin implies, I suspect there is actually no real equivalent of a central "cultural nexus" like TIGSource today. In fact, I've been in on the ground floor of several attempts to make new TIGSource-likes, such as Super Friendship Club and, and both of them eventually petered-out in the end for one reason or another. I'm still not sure why, but maybe it's possible that internet forums are a poor fit for what we need these days?

The indie games moment arrived, and has now stabilized into a satellite commercial industry of the game industry. We don't need a central place like TIGSource to imagine it or to advocate for indies to exist. Commercially indie showcase events like Day of the Devs, The MIX, and Indie Megabooth have been been running for a while and will probably keep running.

Today, what would be a public game organization's "mission" now? Everyone has so many different needs and concerns. It's kind of absurd that we even imagined one global "public" that TIGSource was supposed to serve? Local games community problems here in New York City are very different from local problems in, say, Pittsburgh or Capetown or Teheran or Shanghai. One single internet place cannot hope to address all of that.

Many local communities and friend groups have Slacks and chatrooms, but most of these are private and unlisted -- they don't have the "public" face that TIGSource provides / provided. What, are you going to invite Colin Northway to your Slack now? Even if he accepted the invitation, he likely wouldn't stay very long, because Slack requires constant (hourly? minute-by-minute?) engagement and labor to function as a community -- and it'd still be difficult for Colin to understand the tone of your Slack, or what it's really about.

To me, a public games culture should serve two functions: (1) help a local community cohere together, and (2) articulate that community's voice(s) and concerns to the rest of the world.

So that leads me to wonder, what if the internet isn't the answer here? Maybe we should focus our efforts off the internet.

I'm specifically omitting annual big events and amazing festivals from this analysis (Hand Eye Society has a great list of those) because I question whether these climactic celebrations (even the one that I curate in NYC) actually help for long-term community-making. Doesn't a once-a-year event still elevate games culture to a pedestal as a rare once-a-year thing? I'm also omitting hybrid co-working / advocacy spaces like Glitch City or GameNest, even though they do great public work they are also still primarily developer-facing co-working spaces.

Here's my argument for the work that a local games culture organization does:
  • more than just developer-facing networking events
  • not dependent on huge institutional sponsors ("independent" from commercial industry or academia) so that more people feel like it's for them (vs. for industry, for academics)
  • (ideally) official non-profit tax-exempt status
  • regular access to a venue, whether by having an understanding with a venue or ideally by operating a permanent space themselves
  • runs casual public-facing events several times a year, ideally once a month or once a week, that aims to regularly support and connect locals
And here's a few local games culture orgs and places that, to me, exemplify that pattern:
  • Juegos Rancheros (Austin, USA) is a long-time indie game culture institution, and to my knowledge, they still do an open social every month at The North Door. They punctuate each year with Fantastic Arcade as part of Fantastic Fest. Official non-profit.
  • Babycastles (New York City, USA) does local arts and music shows, as well as unique game installations about diverse themes, at a permanent venue (!) near Union Square. They do lots of different partnerships with local universities, museums, and artists around the city. Official non-profit.
  • Heart Projector (Vancouver, Canada) runs small pop-up curated shows, with guest curators selecting eclectic work and a great team of local volunteers making it happen. I even got to be one of their guest curators one time.
  • BAR SK (Melbourne, Australia) SK has a strong reputation for custom controllers and installations, and they opened up a permanent venue called BAR SK with frequent small shows and exhibitions rotating regularly. 
Again, I'm NOT saying Slacks are useless or big games events are useless, and I'm not saying TIGSource was useless. However, those things are kind of useless as a "cultural nexus" for the local public to feel like they're a community, and for outsiders to see and recognize that community.

I argue there should also be something that combines the casual everyday sociality of forums with the geographic focus of an event, and maybe these can emerge as our new "cultural nexus(es)" of games -- not one huge monolithic internet game culture, but instead a constellation of different local games cultures around the world.