Monday, March 16, 2015

#altgames is the no-fault divorce that indie games needs

I'm cautious. I've been watching #altgames from a distance. Quite a few years ago, Jim Rossignol said I was supposed to be part of an "alt mod" scene, but by then I was tapering off most of my work as a modder so I'm not sure if such a community ever really materialized anyway. I generally don't like labels with "alt" in them since the alt-ernative can be said to be anything, but I do like what TJ Thomas said at Indiecade East, and I like a lot of games that are "altgames", and I think much of my work shares whatever those altgames sensibilities are... so there's probably some kind of consensus, we just have to keep articulating it?

In my GDC 2015 diary, I confessed I felt disconnected from fellow indies who were concerned with running small businesses and contract negotiations. No one wants a civil war over what "indie" really means, or a witch hunt over who is authentically "indie" or whatever. We all have different relationships with games and that's okay as long as you're not promoting hate speech or something. At the same time, it's ridiculous to pretend that I'm not bored out of my mind during countless GDC conversation(s) lingering on advertising revenues and Indie Fund deals and sales figures, and then people get visibly annoyed with me when I don't say anything and check my phone instead. Where is the way out?

This morning, Zoe Quinn's altgames manifesto at Offworld really crystallized this for me:

#altgames can be the no-fault divorce that we need where we don't blame each other, where we even stay friends with contemporary indie games. We can still have dinner parties and share custody of the kids! However, we also have very different goals and concerns, so let's try not being married anymore, and maybe we'll all be happier for it.


"Isn't this just notgames with a different name?" I think notgames paved the way for a lot of this thinking, as did the Scratchware Manifesto, as has the past few thousand years of art. It's turtles all the way down. Altgames is about an "alternative" from contemporary mainstream indie game design practice and markets, and little of that history or infrastructure was there back in 2010. At the very least, we can ground altgames historically.

"This all happened 5 years ago already!" Do you have any idea how long 5 years is? At GDC 2010, Sony announced PS3 Move, Microsoft announced XNA 4.0, Valve decided to support OSX on Steam, and Indie Fund was just formed. That is like A MILLION INDIE YEARS ago. So much has changed since then. Now who's being ahistorical?

"Actually, I said this like __ years ago." Thank you for your service. Now these are different people saying it differently, in a different situation, for a different purpose.

"So uh what exactly are the details / goals of this alternative?" In her essay, Quinn suggests some, but here's some that I particularly care about: (a) de-commercializing your general attitude toward games, (b) seeking alternate ways of paying your rent other than selling games on major platforms, (c) experimenting outside of traditional approaches to game mechanics loops and strategy, (d) championing of the short form and the political and the conceptual, (e) supporting new voices.

"I still like playing / making big games about shooting things, sold on Steam." Then do that! But try to keep your mind open to other games in other places too.

"What if I really like making long games or less political games, etc?" I think that's okay, I think the official Altgames Licensing Council* will still accept your membership application. It's not about meeting a quota. Or, feel free NOT to use the altgames label if you don't feel comfortable about it. No one is demanding that everyone identify under #altgames, right now it's mostly a place to help some people gather and see each other.

"Won't the altgames label just get co-opted and/or become meaningless?" Yeah, probably. That happened to "indie games" and it happened to "alternative music." When that time comes for altgames, we'll all be different people in different places, and the label will have served its purpose. Some people will stay with it, others will leave. Maybe it will come to mean something else? Hopefully it won't be a big deal.

"Labels are divisive. Why can't games just be games?" Because the project of celebrating diversity requires celebrating differences. Also, if games are art, then you should probably read what people have been saying about art for the past few thousand years. Turns out, people often don't agree about stuff!

* does not exist