the Tragedy of Idealism! ahh!
There is a lot of guilt in the indie games milieu around being "a good boss", "running a radical studio and empowering marginalized voices", and also "making art that is meaningful" and being "politically engaged". This guilt exemplifies the class character of the indie milieu and its contradictions, and takes various forms depending on the level of political education of each and everyone.
The solutions proposed to that guilt are often superficial solutions that attempt to preserve the industry's relations of production - because the vast majority of people in the indie scene either directly benefit from this organization of production, or believe they do (ideology, baby).
This is visible both in transparently contradictory posts about "running a company ethically", but also and more worryingly in posts that posit the indie games scene(s) (or a subset of it) as a moral response to the evils of AAA.
I do not have a concise definition of idealism at hand so i will write my own here, that i am using within the context of this article:
Idealism is a framework that attempts to solve moral contradictions at an epidermic level in the Realm of Ideas, without digging down into the material conditions and the organization of productive forces that give rise to the ideological framework.
Simply put, idealism is here opposed to materialism. As a good marxist dialectician i consider ideology and the material structure to be engaged in constant mutual shaping, and i do not want to discount ideas wholesale - but any attempt at analyzing political/moral conundrums in only the ideal sphere is bound to fail.
Idealism is sometimes hypocrisy from agents who want to undercut genuine challenges to the current power structure of society, sometimes it is a naive failure of analysis - but importantly, both are related! We are not free agents and we are often hypocritical without realizing it ourselves (what ideology does to a mf). In truth, idealism is the default framework of analysis in use in capitalist/liberal society, and we are all drowning in it.
Idealism leads to shortcomings of analysis that turn an attempt to respond to injustice into a moral summersault, that twists one's preferred place in the industry into a virtuous horizon. It's kinda weird!
in response to (a small part of) Deadgames and Alivegames
A lot of these thoughts were kicked into gear and crystallized after i read Deadgames and Alivegames, a post by Melos Han-Tani. So i will start this post with a critique of his - and in particular a few of the points in it. I hope it's not weird to kick off my blogging antics with a response to other blogs? I definitely recommend reading Melos' post in full, it makes a lot of very sharp observation.
(Prelude to the critique: this is a much more interesting and researched text than a lot of what we usually see from the scene, and i think it makes a lot of very good points that i agree with. If anything it is a lot more interesting to critique because it makes so many accurate observations, which become entry points for further discussion - i wouldn't have been able to articulate any of this without the post as a starting point. In other words: this isn't a takedown.)
My central critique of the text would be that while it identifies issues with the contemporary industry of games, it stops short of connecting those moral qualms to relations of production; instead it observes the indie games paradigm of gamemaking and asks whether it could exist without / outside of the broader apparatus of the AAA industry, or replace it. I think it is shortsighted, and we need to interrogate the place of indies in the broad economy of games - which our livelihood depends on. I want first to address what i see as a failure to reckon with the artificial division of creative and non-creative labor which is central to the indie gamedev ideology, and then to talk some more about the whole "relations of productions are the source of the issue" quip.
- The mystifying category of the "artist" doesn't acknowledge its existence as a product of specific class & production intersections + contradictions. "The Artist" as an idea distorts the way this category feeds into the reproduction of exploitation along lines of class, race, gender etc. (who has access to the resources and circumstances of becoming an artist, to be produced into an artist as opposed to a worker?). The distinction between "creative" VS "craft-worker" ("exécutant"?) is part of that dynamic as well, because it remains attached to the idea that some kinds of labor are more artistic than others and seems to locate that difference in an essential quality rather than one enforced by power in the workplace/industry.
- To put this in more concrete terms: this is a critical piece of the puzzle when we think of the labor that goes into maintaining on one hand the material infrastructure that enables the artists (tools, platforms, devices); and on the other that which allows their work to remain perene (archiving, documentation, curation; as well as in-production management, translation, porting). How is it that the labor of The Artist, The Creator is seen more highly than that of people who allow him to exist at all? Isn't the "Alive" artist codependent on the "Dead" engine developer, the curator, etc?
- This isn't something that is explicitly in the text, but i thought of it after mulling over what i perceived as a hint of hypocrisy (that Melos acknowledges) where the tools that allow us to do these Pure, Creative, Intellectual, Raw and Emotional pieces of art are themselves part of this production process - he talks about Unity as an example and a decisive factor in being able to do 3D games, but i wanna extend that argument to the entire hardware ecosystem of modern computing. This is also another reason why personally i just want to tear down the "artist" as a distinct category of worker whose work is somehow more pure than other workers'.
- The other agents of the entire distribution and curation circuits around games could also be "Alive" if they, too, were able to labour outside of profit injunctions. But this presupposes the replacement of capitalist economy with another mode of production, or at least an independence of the entire games circuit from it, which isn't really what Melos' text is hinting at (understandably). So i feel like this focus on making Alivegames within the existing production infrastructure of the industry is akin to trying to elevate the artist with the privilege of Expression and Creativity, while not interrogating why other workers in the circuit are not allowed the same privilege, nor crucially how the artist's position in the circuit forms a mechanism that both reflects and reinforces power dynamics (primarily class, as coconstituted and informed by all axes of marginalization).
On relations of productions and scaling:
- An analysis that doesn't follow the trail to relations of productions leads to specific shortsightedness about what games are - the historical form they take, which is primarily defined by market forces and the commodity form. The bizarre argument that a novel is "worse" if more people are involved in its writing - which itself comes from an assumption about the novel-form that doesn't reckon with the format's emergence as a result of specific historical publishing paradigms - falls apart as soon as we look at collaborative text writing of the kind that has existed (crucially, mostly outside of the purview of the market) since forever and exploded when the internet became a mainstream tool for mass collaboration. Besides, it is strange to pick the novel as the analogous example to games here, when that argument simply doesn't hold if we are to swap it for other artforms that are arguably closer to games in their form and structure such as theater.
- (and if we limit ourselves to the kind of auteur-games that are implicitly the topic of the original post, then the argument becomes tautology: the reason these games are better with smaller teams is because their format emerged from small teams, and solidified around a befitting paradigm of production-distribution-consumption. think of the way that music can exist both as smallband track record and orchestra performance - two very different forms that both respond to different production and consumption contexts)
- Another aspect of this shortsightedness is seeing scaling up in pure quantitative terms, rather than thinking of the shape that scaling up takes - which is again fostered by relations of production. It is always possible to collaborate in a mutually enriching fashion where artists build something collaboratively and in dialogue, but that has an impact on the form of the art-object(s) that emerge from these productive interactions. The market forces require games to fit within a prescribed commodity-product form, which forecloses the possibility of open dialogue and meandering during production, or flexibility in the final outcome of production.
- Within this commodity production context, it is possible to collaborate as relative equals among few people who all have a dedicated purview in development (the designer, the programmer, the artist, the audio designer - a delineation of responsibilities based on skillset). However, when you reach a team size in the double digits, a very different kind of labour division enters the stage where the granularity of the tasks means that you either need pure leadership roles that do not do production but only decision and coordination; or you need each segment of production to be able to function without constant oversight by making sure they apply industry standards so that they can be interchanged like cogs. All big productions leverage both those solutions to make it possible to see it through, but that process definitely leads to both smallboss tyranny and a taming of all the creative intentions at the origin of the project as they pass through formulaic production stages that force all games to look similar to one another.
- What is described in the text as a "desire" for profit and scale is really an obligation, it can't be meaningfully confronted in the realm of pure idea - ideology and desire is its coating, but its essence is economy. It is an easy mistake to make as idealism is the primary analysis lens of our contemporary culture (not by accident but by design) - i have myself made this mistake many times before on similar questions.
- To be fair with Melos' argument, this ill-conceived desire for scale is absolutely something that i routinely observe in the milieu of indie entrepreneurialism. I vehemently agree that we should talk down the prestige that comes with "scoping up" in the minds of the III/AA strata, and i have often expressed the same frustration at both friends and past bosses (quaint). At the same time the forces of market competition enforce this phenomenon, so if we are to take a stand against it without attacking the foundation of capitalist production of the arts, our only possible position is that of parasitism where we try and find a little loophole in which to survive as long as you can, but it's neither sustainable nor transformative.
- In other words, the argument made in this part of the text (on teams scaling up as a negative force in the development of games) is empirically and logically true if we restrain the argument to the current organization of the III-AA games circuit. In this limited context i agree with the point wholeheartedly, but i worry about making it into a horizon-manifesto declaration.
I took Melos' text as an example because it's one of the things i've read that goes closest to this particular honeypot, and it makes a lot of excellent observations - it's a truly great text, and that's what makes it interesting to critique! But there are infinite examples of much more ludicrous posts from the indie entrepreneur circuit that fall into these shortcomings much more grotesquely: CEOS who discuss with guilt-laden tears how hard they're working to create studios that Empower Marginalized Voices and are Ran Ethically and in the Spirit of Equity (but not the actual material meaning of equity, apparently), lobby groups that pretend to represent the interests of artists whose exploitation they rely on for their very existence, the broad ideological fantasy of "indie games" as somehow distinct from AAA industry production and free from its rampant abuse, etc.
I see most of those as attempts by indies to retrofit the context of their own production, which they are attached to, into something Good and Utopian; to avoid the confrontation with their interests that a rigorous analysis of the root causes of the superficial topical issues of the industry would lead to.
The resistance to a proper analysis and conclusion to these questions is understandable if the question being asked is "what can i do now to make things better" - since digging down to the root causes will lead you to the framework of private property / IP, the commodity form and the capitalist organization of productive forces; none of which can be taken down immediately, and in the absence of a strong education of left organizing and any articulate socialist horizon. "We just need to end capitalism" is not an actionable answer without an articulate political project, and vastly overscopes the original question.
parasitism and utopianism
The question then is one of the scope of the proposed solution. Are we looking for ways to survive on the short term, or trying to build a liberatory future for all? Both these questions need rigorous answers, and they will be very different but concurrent ones.
While it is noble to look for survival solutions - for ways to live a fulfilling life under shitty conditions, which is what most indies-with-moral-qualms end up doing - i'd qualify those solutions as parasitic, the very opposite of utopian. They consist in attaching ourselves to the death machine of capitalist economy in a way that pains us the least, but they don't challenge this machine at all - at best, they temporarily divert some of its energy; at worst, they bind us into complicity.
I think it's important to resist the instinct to think of parasitic solutions as long-term answers to the manifold contradictions of our lives, but it is possible to think of them as stepping stones to a worthy future and as sand in the cogs of empire - a constantly evolving strategy for survival and sabotage of the death machine.
(They should also, crucially, be part of a constant practice of education: as compromised ideological agents, it is through concrete struggle that we will reshape our political frameworks and our hopes. In your head are two wolves; what is important is to feed the communist wolf so it can beat the liberal wolf to a pulp)
To come back to my eternal ramble about idealism in this industry, and people trying to "make it Good" without digging deep enough at the economic forces of production that shape it, and simply looking at their own individual position and how to make themselves feel good about their position:
Idealism expresses itself from the very root of these discussions - industry issues such as crunch, bloated production teams with unfulfilling roles, the bastardizing commercialization of the noncommercial (and its flipside, the constant erosion of the commercial/paracommercial fringes); all get discussed in terms of what people Want, what people Decided. In truth, noone is a free agent, and these decisions are thrusted upon us by market and production structures both visibly (when circumstances force us to take uncomfortable decisions) and, arguably more importantly, invisibly through the long term construction of aspirations that we think of as uncompromised wishes and wants when in reality they are shaped in their very essence by the ideological framework of capitalist society.
The issue with rejecting these short-term parasitic answers is that the only alternative then becomes: we need a world communist revolution and until then everything is a temporary pipe dream. It is certainly depressing! But i do find some solace in the idea of parasitism and "making things better locally" not as utopic horizons but as temporary relief + sand in the cogs of capitalism + a stepping stone for more revolutionary movements, a strategy for survival that doesn't itself have a utopian outcome, but allows us to work towards utopia (ie. organize, build working class power, challenge bourgeois rule, be a class traitor for all the little petty-bourgeois fuckers out there) in our remaining time. Let us also not think for one second that the indie games scene is wherefrom the revolutionary praxis of the future will emerge - if we are to set stepping stones, it will be so that when push comes to shove we are ready to join the momentum that emerges from the working class everywhere, and to quash the reactionary resistance that will inevitably come from our side.
It is maybe unfair to criticise everything i come across in terms of whether it is "a good roadmap to the world revolution", 'lol', but i do feel like there is a tension in that whole discourse between what Bad things people are responding to VS where they direct their criticisms.
I'd attribute it to a relative shallowness of the analysis of the material economic foundation of the industry, which is the driving force between the evolutions of both the industry and the artform, much moreso than pure ideas and opinions.