Why Games DIY Shouldn’t Stop at the Digital

Recently, the nominees for IndieCade’s festival went up, and as it usually happens around the time judging results are out for any contest, there was a lot of disappointment and worries about the kind of forces that play out behind closed doors when awarding certain works and artists as exemplary for our community. Having judged games for three years, I’m interested in both what are games that I would never see except when submitted to a contest, as well as how games are changing by what is nominated for awards. I was disappointed this year to see many people I knew of not make it in, though I figured after the past three years of scrappy expressive games, these might be seen as a fad or, more likely, there’s just a whole lot of them now. Less than half of the nominated games this year are single player digital games that don’t include special equipment like VR headsets or unique peripherals, and the more expressive/socially conscious games that were nominated take place more in other forms than just digital. I think this shows an understanding of play and games expanding, and what’s interesting isn’t constrained to the digital, or at least, how we understand digital development as ultimately too narrow for us to explore a whole lot until more technology becomes accessible to DIY makers.

As a result of the growing presence and acceptance of games that came out of the resurgent DIY ethos, more mainstream and conventional games and audiences edged toward incorporating certain aspects into larger culture. This lead to more games about personal experiences, feelings in general, and politics where there were higher budgets and access to technologies most of the people using DIY tools don’t have. Now that it’s ‘okay’ to have these qualities, they are going to be adopted and eventually be as typical as other aspects in games. In general, this is a good thing, the only catch is now games that rest on those qualities and push boundaries in other manners will be seen as one-note or pedestrian because now similar games with more appealing audio/visuals that access and money can get. While this doesn’t matter to people who are using DIY tools for freeware zine-like purposes, these past few years we’ve seen a hard sell on trying to get a more diverse range of creators in games by appealing to the access these tools give, but not having a lasting value attached to the games produced by them. The other route, through various STEM initiatives, aims to integrate marginalized people into a system that changes only as much as it absolutely has to instead of embracing new ideas of production value. That doesn’t mean that minoritized people shouldn’t be doing STEM training and doing their thing in the industry, rather that all that went on from 2011-2014 will be seen as just an isolated wave and games as a whole will go back to requiring a certain level of refinement that comes with a barrier DIY enthusiasts advocated against.

It’s true that video games are the most visible of game genres right now, but choosing your medium based just on current visibility isn’t a very strong reason, see fuck video games and see fuck video games even more. This doesn’t mean we need to fully abandon digital game making tools, rather take another look at the ethos and reflect on how this isn’t just about accessible digital tools, but accessible tools of any sort to make games. Expressive games associated with DIY games tend to be about life, typically shedding light on how a particular, seemingly benign part of culture effects a marginalized person in damaging ways. There is game design to be implemented in our daily lives, or in structured performances, or with common object. This was the idea behind my game EAT, which was an expression about a facet of my life and also of a frustration that I had to somehow move into traditional game development. If more people looked into how to create expressive play situations with little or no materials and/or tech, that also expands the amount of mixed media pieces that become available when they reintegrate digital tools into their practice. It’s possible all of this is really intense projection, because this is the part of the journey I’m on with my work.

There are also ideological reasons to crack open populist game development to more than digital experiences. In particular is changing the distinct absence of physical embodiment in our expressions of experience, which defaults to normative bodies and their volitions. I can see critical engagement with the violence placed upon actual people against the romanticized violence practiced in digital spaces. Even that, space, is so vital to engage with, like taking dynamics of social media and casting it upon bodies and objects to challenge preconceptions about online harassment being any less valid than any other. Or more importantly, to stress that many of the experiences we express are lived and not in the safe space that digital games promise. When expressions of life situations got packaged into ‘empathy games,’ it turned connections between people into consumable products, poised to be replicated and made into just another genre to create fan culture around. There needs to be pushback against thinking that people can be explained through instrumental game mechanics, and using the body, even in relationship to technology, is a powerful way to combat that.

The less material requirements we have for designing play experiences, the less likely power can be exerted by those with more access to those materials. I feel like this is an important aspect of DIY culture in games that isn’t pushed all the way: we took up tools that didn’t force us to have any particular specialized knowledge to use, and we can continue to explore this line of thinking past digital games. Again, this isn’t to completely forsake digital creation, but to create diversity in the kinds of experiences we’re using by having even more tools with even lower barriers for entry. There’s a precedent in this in activist art stemming from marginalized peoples’ calls to action and demonstrations when they are largely kept out of galleries and other legitimized institutions. I feel like in our bid to mix things up with games, there needs to be enough push and pull between assimilation and upheaval, and since games are so prone to the forces of commercialism, we should be weary of practicing exclusively in ways easily co-opted by the systems we aim to resist.

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