The Bogeymen of the Indie Scene

Human beings have always been susceptible to bogeymen. It’s a lot easier to get angry at people instead of getting angry at systems. We are persons, so we seek to personify the world. Thunderbolts come from Zeus, pestilence comes from Yahweh and your indie game problems come from Jonathan Blow. You can’t block capitalism on Twitter, after all.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I care less and less for the “indie scene” and whatever other ways people have of erecting borders around themselves. I think this focus on scenes and cliques and identities and other increasingly fragmented echo chambers is not helpful to anyone; but I doubt it’s going away anytime soon. Nevertheless, let me invoke the wise words of William Blake – “When I tell any Truth it is not for the sake of Convincing those who do not know it but for the sake of defending those who Do” – and defend some bogeymen.

Let’s begin by saying I’m not putting myself above this. I attacked Raph Koster in Designing for Grace and I was completely wrong to do so. I thought Koster represented that awful reductionist school of thought that cannot see purpose for the medium except some kind of vaguely-defined “gameplay”. These people do exist. Some of them showed up to attack me with utterly nonsensical arguments later on, and I believe I was quite right to ban them. But I was wrong to count Koster among them; in his own words, he “takes grace for read.” Our disagreement, essentially, came down to that most pathetic of controversies, terminology. Joel Goodwin asked whether I basically wouldn’t be OK with Koster if he just used the term “mechanicsblob” instead of “games” – and he was right. Koster’s overly-specific definition of “game”, which he was using solely for his own analytical purposes, was pushing my buttons. But it was hardly a meaningful disagreement.

I was also – naturally – influenced by other indies, especially at a time when I wasn’t quite aware of how prone to turning people into bogeymen and getting upset over thin air the “radical” part of the indie scene was. A lot of people seemed to think Koster was the Antichrist, a man full of condescension and technical jargon, and that influenced my reading of his articles. But that’s not who Raph Koster is. I don’t always agree with him, I may even disagree with many of the fundamental aspects of his approach, but he’s not my enemy, or a bad guy, or anything other than just another person trying to contribute their best to the world.

And Jonathan Blow? If you believe what people have said about Jonathan Blow, he must be the chainsaw-toothed, kitten-eating Jerk King of White Privilege. And really, he’s not. Don’t get me wrong, he and I disagree about a lot of things. Does he have an attitude? Yeah. Do I? Yep. Do a lot of other people, many of them considered great and wonderful indie artists? Definitely. But why do some people get to be as impolite and aggressive as they want to be and are considered “cool” and “awesome” while Blow is the incarnation of evil smugness? Yes, he’s said things which I think are wrong. He’s also been a major champion of Michael Brough’s work, which most of us will agree is a very good thing. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything to suggest he’s anything other than genuinely dedicated to games as a form of art. If he occasionally expresses his dislike for something, is that really a reason to get so upset?

Look, I understand that emotions run high when so many people are trying to make a living off games and not everyone is equally successful. God knows I’m jealous of people whose work gets more attention than mine; we all believe in our work and can’t help but feel that it deserves more than it’s getting. And as I’ve made very clear in the debate about Greenlight, I don’t believe this has anything to do with quality – “just make a good game and you’ll be successful” is delusional bullshit.

But getting angry at individuals about systemic problems isn’t much of a solution, particularly when those individuals simply aren’t the representatives of the system we make them out to be. It’s easy to project all the things that piss us off about how the world is run onto individual people, and to thus distract ourselves from what’s actually wrong. Please note that I’m not saying there aren’t people who are just assholes. Of course there are. And sometimes it’s perfectly fine to speak out against someone instead of just ignoring them. But that’s not what is happening, is it? Because it’s become fashionable to search for bigotry everywhere, to try and find something to be outraged about in every statement. Everyone needs to be the victim and the righteous crusader, because that’s what gets you attention. So let us venture forth and slay the terrible bogeymen, like George Lucas, who ruined your childhood, and Jonathan Blow, who is personally coming to your house every night and oppressing you in your sleep.

Societies create bogeymen to distract themselves from the real problems they face. The world we live in is in pretty serious trouble, and whether people know it or not, every discussion between indie game developers is tinged by the anxieties and contradictions of late-stage capitalism. Money. Healthcare. The immense success of the few paraded before our eyes while so many fail. The desperate desire to succeed, to be able to make a living. The fear of never having that One Big Hit that we all know we’re dreaming about, not necessarily because we want the fame, but because then we might be able to stop worrying about the rent. Combine that with a culture that teaches us to always be on the lookout for the bad guy – and that applies as much to the social justice crowds looking for the next impure sinner as to the gamers looking for the next traitor – and you have a situation in which a lot of people are perpetually angry at trivial nonsense while the massive issues that touch everyone’s lives go ignored.

Obviously this is not unique to indie games. From celebrities like M. Night Shyamalan or George Lucas to political actors like Julian Assange to the horror stories of the Daily Mail about the Muslim father of fourteen who lives off the state by stealing the wheelie bins of the NHS with the help of urban foxes, we’re constantly bombarded with people to hate, with supervillains that will require the equivalent superhero to defeat. The actual villains, the ones who bomb and torture and impoverish, well, let’s not talk about politics. Much better to talk about emotions. Emotions sell. Did you hear what so-and-so said about so-and-so on Twitter? Outrageous!

It happened to me twice, with Raph Koster and Jonathan Blow, and in both cases I regret saying what I said. I don’t regret disagreeing and making my disagreement obvious, but I do regret letting myself get distracted from more serious issues by this pettiness. The Sturm und Drang of adolescent emotion is very captivating and may feel radical and revolutionary, but in the end it’s about as useful as acne and schoolyard fights. I think we could all do with a bit less emotion and a bit more intellect, with seeing ourselves in social and historical context instead of acting as if the high school of indie games was the world.

(Shh, Jonathan Blow is under your bed!)