Thinking on Local Game Making Communities

Have you ever thought about what your local play and games culture is like? It might not be an intuitive question or process to find the answer, but through speaking in different cities and countries, I’ve found that locales have their own particular attitude towards games. This is particularly true for rise in recognition of non-video games as we move forward exploring (and rediscovering) the medium of play. My ultimate aim in bringing this up is a call for more localized recognition of game making and playing communities to resist the whitewashing dominant narratives we have today. I outlined what I think that narrative is last week, and now I want to muse about what I’ve noticed contributes to a play culture and what we benefit from being so community-specific.

I think my relationship with San Francisco’s scene provides both a good summary and starting point for examining what effects game making culture. Or, I should say there isn’t really one unified community like there is in other places, rather a bunch of small groups working on their own. This has to do with how the Bay Area works overall, that people tend to not spend much free time outside of work and their side projects, to which they often have many. It also has to do with some social dynamics between San Francisco, East Bay, and Silicon Valley, that is, it is rare people visit other areas on a whim and this is often because of classism and racism. Speaking broad strokes, most of our solo or small team developers live in the East Bay where it’s cheaper to live, and bigger teams or those who work for social and AAA gaming studios live in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It is hard to get people to cross the bay bridge, especially if they don’t go there for work. East Bay developers that come to mind are mostly known for challenging work in personal expression and radical activism, and a general anti-mainstream kind of development. Silicon Valley, by contrast, is a bastion for AAA development along with some social game companies in the city. San Francisco has the whole range of what usually goes under ‘indie,’ from small startups to Double Fine, and from what I can tell (it isn’t a whole cohesive scene yet) they are products of post-mainstream development. What’s often ignored is, for the lack of a better term, a public games scene, because they often don’t include video game technology in their games. They span from physical games, ARGs, theater games, big games, and so on. Basically, they tend to be multiplayer, quick, quirky, and outside. All of these borders, of course, are fuzzy and not absolute. GDC is the only event that would have a chance to have all these groups get together in one place to talk about games, but because it’s preoccupied being they world’s conference instead of San Francisco’s, it can’t serve this function. Most of these groups stay separated or are excluded, namely the public games people and those who can’t afford and don’t have the connections to attend. And I should also say this is only what I’ve observed and there are also less recognized or organized play spaces that I didn’t mention, such as sports culture. There is also something to be said about the media presence in the Bay Area, but I don’t exactly know what that might do here other than maybe emphasize the mainstream presence, though some do attend the smaller events.

Now that’s a lot despite being a bunch of generalizations, but it’ll be useful for comparisons. It’s possible that all of the Bay Area’s groups are just separate communities that should stay apart, but I think if we did gather, a culture and attitude would eventually crop up. One pattern for cross-pollination seems to me is the presence of games academia. Despite having some problems of its own, game programs tend to provide free neutral zones for all kinds of developers by hosting events while also bringing along a bit of their culture as well. I’m thinking of schools like NYU, Parsons, MIT, Copenhagen, USC. When I visited UCSC down in Santa Cruz, I asked Michael Mateus how he would sum up the culture of the program there. He said something along the lines of developing new technologies for innovative game making, especially when it comes to narrative. I noticed a lot of the students I spoke to were invested in exploring this potential, finding inspiration in projects like Mateus’ Facade to interactive fiction programs. Similar kinds of focuses exist at other schools, and they bleed into the local game making community, as they are also influenced by the outside. A cohesive group of indies supporting other indies is another site for community, usually in cities that don’t have a strong industry or academic presence. Austin, Toronto, and Melbourne come to mind, where I see developers with co-working spaces and a more relaxed culture that allows them to gather more frequently than in a place like San Francisco. Also, strangely enough, there are some media-led communities like what I witnessed in Amsterdam and heard about in Tokyo. There are other combinations and nothing is as simple as I put it here, but I think understanding how people gather can say something about the values of that particular community. San Francisco doesn’t have a strong presence of any of these things, mostly a little of everything, which might contribute to why we have such a disparate community.

Why go through all the trouble of pointing out the differences in these communities? Because I think it’s a good solution for some ground-level diversification of games as a whole. Instead of answering to some larger phenomena, like a neutral mainstream development, we can look at the people around us, the city and country we live in, and the spaces we inhabit for a source in identification. It would allow San Francisco to re-embrace its public games history and fold it into all the other game making going on, and also have cities that don’t have a strong consumer game development hub to gather and organize. We need more different events celebrating local culture rather than a few central ones. With diversity, we can see what is and isn’t general problems and attitudes in the medium overall. What’s front and center in my mind is my trip to GCAP in Australia, where I had a unanticipated culture shock when it came to game development. I learned more thoroughly of how the abandonment of American-based companies devastated Australian development, and now there is this survival, independent narrative. It was strange for me to hear most developers consider themselves indie despite making games that looked pretty mainstream to me. But to that community, industry is the United States, the unspoken center of video games. We hoard a lot of the resources and education, and our machinations have affected other countries. In a sense, game development and design as we know it might be American in itself, and whole other kinds of theory and practice would come out of (or probably already exist!) a focus on locality outside the US. I think there are some forms of this, like mainstream Japanese development style, Korean MMOs, Eastern European games. I am interested in having more international responsibility and respect seeing we have such a hold on games right now.

All of this doesn’t even tap into the play cultures of communities outside of game making. I’m sure there is research I can lookup for this, and will most likely do if I continue my education in games, but for now, I’m thinking of like east asian video game sports, lower socio-economic groupings around fighting games, dating sim otakus, sports in cultures that don’t have wide access to digital games, children’s games, etc. A connection with what the community is playing, even if it’s not video games, should also factor into this locality movement of game making. Or really, they should feed into each other, being community inspired games for the community, which can also be played by the world. Because, as a creator, what shapes you more than your surroundings? I can’t think of a better way games can contribute to culture as a whole as something else besides escape fantasies for dudes.

So this is a call for people to start thinking of their own community of game making and play, and how to distill that from just a general conceptualization of games. Mostly, some communities need to take responsibility for dominating discourse, and others need the resources and encouragement to have a voice of their own. I can’t possibly know everything about any community, even here for which I’ve only been present a year and a half. It’d be great if you all could write in on what you think defines your community, whether I listed it here or not. Ping me on Twitter (@xMattieBrice) or email (mattie.brice@gmail.com).

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