What You’re Saying When You Say “Just Make Games”

A common advice for aspiring independent game developers I heard at (really great) IndieCade 2013 was “just make games.” Although it sounds reasonable enough and can be sound advice for some people, it has quite a few problems embedded in it.

When you say “just make games” you are making a few assumptions: Access to the tools for making games; Access to a community to share work with, get feedback from, and engage in active learning; Available time and resources to go through the learning process, not to mention actually make the work; An expectation that, if all the previous hurdles are overcome, the work will be accepted by the established community or enough peers to generate positive reinforcement, either in the shape of resources or peer recognition. For some folks those assumptions are justified, for most of us they are not.

This “just make games” attitude benefits only those with enough privilege to meet all of the above requirements, or a select few who “get lucky” or work hard enough to overcome those barriers, which in itself is a particular form of socio-economic Darwinism that privileged folks don’t need to participate in.

Those barriers are multiplicative: There are many free tools for digital game-making today but those run on computers, which cost money. A huge part of the population is not comfortable using computers to produce work and is told this is an identity flaw. There is a vibrant community around indie games today, but access to the community is usually barred by entrance costs to conferences or previous game work, which are in turn barred by the above-mentioned hurdles. If the game gets made, there is an established literacy around video games, specially in the independent “scene,” that excludes certain kinds of games and creators. Even if the game does gain some recognition, a lot of them are put in categories that are themselves forms of exclusion. There is also, as in any art form, certain modes and aesthetics that become in vogue from time to time, and those stem from an already established privileged history, which further excludes outsiders.

Artist and game maker Shawn Alexander Allen pointed out in his talk “How Urban Black and Latino Cultures Can Be the Next Frontier for Indie Games” that the defining documentary of the independent games scene, Indie Game: The Movie, features only white male developers talking about their platformers. He made the connection between genre diversity and community diversity by comparing the games art form to hip-hop, and how the latter was able to stay relevant and “take over the world” because it’s an empowering and inclusive art form. Concurrent with his session, and in the adjacent tent, was the “Breaking Into The Industry” session, which was just one of a few scheduling ironies during this year’s IndieCade.

In “Finding Our Voice as Latin American Game Developers,” Hector Padilla, Vander Caballero, and Fernando Ramallo each tried to define what it means to be a Latin American game developer in a community that has so few of us. During the session it became clear that the issues Latin American game developers have to struggle with, even from a game design and artistic standpoint, are mostly absent for white American developers. A good part of the session was a conversation about the usage of iconic cultural imagery in our games, how it affects the games perception by players and media, and issues around cultural appropriation. Vander Caballero brought up the pain that is embedded in a lot of Latin American culture that stems from centuries of colonization, and how writers like Gabriel García-Márquez developed a technique (magical realism) to talk about those tragedies in a way readers could digest, while making the implicit point of how deeply embedded in the colonial past (and present) they are.

Cecily Carver of Dames Making Games, a Toronto-based “educational feminist organization dedicated to supporting Dames interested in creating games,” highlighted the issues they face when engaging in the process. Both organizers and creators need to navigate an established mode of game making that was created and popularized mainly by straight white men to serve their particular needs, one that does not always facilitate the creative endeavors of other folks.

These are just some of the issues some of us have to grapple with while trying to engage and participate in this culture. They are multiplicative issues that compound on one another for different people. They are often opaque to privileged folks, or are read as compartmentalized categories. But even when identified and understood, the community still has difficulty engaging with them in a horizontal manner. None of the speakers I named above were at IndieCade asking for help or begging for recognition, yet a lot of the interactions with the audience demonstrated that the indie “scene” has yet to internalize the concept that the push for diversity and inclusion is beneficial to the art form as a whole and not just the rest of us asking to join your party.

I want to make something clear: I believe making games is hard for everyone and the “just make games” advice does not attempt to diffuse that fact, it comes from the knowledge that practice is the best form of learning, and often the process of making a game unlocks other possibility spaces, such as community engagement and access to resources. It is an honest attempt by Good People to share what has worked for them. But the assumptions implicit in this advice come from the ability of the privileged to normalize their personal situation. For some of us the advice is a veiled taunt, a challenge to the “other” to “catch up” and make their presence felt or the establishment will carry on without them. For others it is a direct form of exclusion. And an art form that closes itself off from the realities of the world it’s embedded in is likely to stagnate and become irrelevant. I don’t think any of us want to see that.

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