While i'm at it with longform indie games subtweets, i want to address the socially constructed injonction to make political statements, to build games For Change, etc.
Personally i make games out of: vanity, kinetic / libidinal / sensory / (???) aspiration, manic episodes, and unfortunately to make money. I think it is crucial to be honest about our motivations and not try to spin them into moral tales. While my politics inform the games i make and i try to shine a critical light on and through my work, i do not set to deliver political statements in my art. And if i hope that my political education will shape the games i make and help open some doors to others, it is not what drives me to make art, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.
While "All Art Is Political" is a catchy slogan, i am not convinced of its utility as a framework. All culture is embedded with ideology - but that is not to say that it always articulates a coherent political project. To say "art is always political" is to suggest that all choices made in the creation process are political statements - such facile framings lead people to spin the surface qualities of artworks and games into political statements - the aesthetic treatment of animal crossing as radical praxis (belch). If there is a framework to analyze such choices, it is one that looks upon them in the broader context of historical production processes and culture; rather than an untethered political truth contained within the end result .
(as opposed to art as a statement delivery vessel, consider: art as a plane of exploration for topics that evade rational analysis, for ways of feeling that aren't about rationality. Art as primary reflective: it reflects the culture it emerges from, it reflects the preconceptions that its audience throws into it. Art as a prism that diffracts what goes through it and reveals depths within it - art in dialogue with its historical context and its audience)
This isn't to say noone should set out to deliver political teachings through the medium of games - like all media games can be a fertile tool to educate, articulate, mobilize etc. But such political games should generally be political from the get go, with a clear articulation of how the form and the political content respond to each other; and they should also be cognizant of the production and distribution systems they fit into (more on that below). If your motive and expertise lie in 2D platformers with a mechanical gimmick, i think it's good to remain cold-headed about your motivations for that and the scope of your work.
the neoliberal identity trap
I think this guilt is felt with particular intensity because of the paradigm of the neoliberal subject that we're all confronted to in the indie games hustle circuit:
Your work, your hobbies and interests, your passion, your leisure, your expertise, your body, your upbringings, your trauma, your idiosyncrasies, your interpersonal bonds should all overlap into one singular self identity, which becomes a brand. All your aspirations, political or otherwise, then become externalities to retrofit into your brand - your brand is gamedev but you want to fight climate change, hence you shoehorn climate struggle into the marios.
(i'd wager this paradigm of identity fits within a project of neoliberal individualization of the workforce - breaking up working class solidarity by turning all individuals into gig workers with entrepreneur dreams, entirely subsumed by work (the infamous hustle). the perfect neoliberal subject is one that is both a precarious proletarian and an aspiring entrepreneur participating with glee in their own market exploitation and in the evaporation of welfare and working class organizations+consciousness)
(there is much more to be said about the bastardizing influence of this phenomenon on identity and social bonds but that is beyond the scope of this post)
A lot of us right now feel a sense of political urgency because we’re in a time of global crisis. We want to do something, but what we know how to do is make pixels move on a computer screen. Within this individualistic framework of selfhood we're simmering in, collective avenues of direct political action are obfuscated in favor of the fantasy of making a change through your work as an individual within the existing system.
(in practice, if making games is your capitalist job there is a hard limit to the genuine political material you can communicate through it - and if you do, it'll likely be coopted.)
In addition, the framework of politics that is deployed in mainstream culture nowadays is rooted in the quest for moral absolution rather than any meaningful political analysis backed by rigorous political practice (by which i mean the immortal science of marxism-leninism).
Political points are often scored with various degrees of superficiality and hypocrisy to enhance the perceived value of the game and the clout of its creator (or at least the corporate entity that reaps the creator credits). One of the most egregious examples of this in the indie scene is probably ustwo games, a company that developed a game about sustainable hardware repairs published on apple devices with apple funding, and a game that posits itself as a meaningful individual-good-deeds-can-solve-the-climate-crisis game for change, where you play a young girl working really hard to do the work of gentrifiers on their behalf without interrogating any of the material drives behind destitution of remote communities and predatory development (oh but they plant trees or whatever). While the intentions of the workers behind those games might be laudable, and even if the games themselves had bulletproof politics, the company leadership is transparently using the appearance of political "engagement" as a selling point and a branding mechanism; while Apple, through lavish promotion and partnership (and funding!), uses these games to whitewash (wokewash?) its role in ecological devastation through extraction of rare minerals and campaigns against any kind of hardware sustainability. While i am taking one specific relatively well-known studio as an example here, this pattern is everywhere in the III-AA indie circuit and games academia.
(to add insult to injury, Apple also routinely uses such darling games (including some i have worked on) to change the public's perception of the platform: by forefronting these slick, arty premium games in its announcements and communication material, it presents a palatable cachet that dissimulates the reality of the app store's economy, where games with predatory mechanics and addictive in-app-purchase monetization models generate the vast majority of the money)
((a much broader point could be made here about soft power as a very flexible tool that we have very little agency over as artists - the CIA funded western artists during the cold war in an attempt to compete with a very lively USSR art production, and made no qualms about funding left-leaning american artists in that process! their bottom line was for art with international cultural cachet to be made within their realm, so that they could lean on its influence. i'd argue corporations, especially tech platforms, rely on the same mechanisms nowadays))
the media apparatus or the dreaded Discourse
The media and criticism apparatus is another arm of this phenomenon - and in this i include the entire social media ecosystem of devs selling their hustle brands. Devs and outlets leverage shallow political analysis based on facile frameworks (does game X get topic Y Right or Wrong? is it Problematic? is it Non-Violent? does it REPRESENT?? etc) while artists whose work isn't outwardly political might attempt to spin them into political statements to be able to partake, or develop secondary exposure guilt (i am making my little marios but the DISCOURSE is about political indie games, i feel bad). On the other hand, some will argue that a true radical game cannot be made through capitalist production processes (arguably true), and therefore call for gamedevs to make truly radical games: with no funding, with no IP/fully open source, not sold on the market. Such morality calls directed at people who make a living by selling games and also intend for people to play their games and have built a sense of their craft among a community of peers that is inseparable from the market are trite nonsense (imo!), and themselves a form of DISCOURSE that is more concerned with abstract morality posturing than the articulation of a political project with concrete impact and actionable steps.
What's more, it might in fact lead to less active political engagement if playing these 'political experiences' becomes a relief mechanism to people with an oppressor complex (playing queer games as the start and end point of cishet allyship to queer struggle, or somesuch). I a reminded of so-called empathy games, which Lana Polansky has written about for Rhizome (part 1 - part 2).
Let us look at some of the characteristics of the aforementioned DISCOURSE:
- THE DISCOURSE: circular narratives of self-justification, leverages political-ness of games for purposes of enhancing their perceived value as products
- THE DISCOURSE: bad, fake, exploitative, mostly about inflating one's own social capital through moral superiority narratives
- THE DISCOURSE: elevates inoffensive media, rejects divisive or protean media that doesn't fit its superficial analysis frameworks
- THE DISCOURSE: obfuscates relations of productions and ramifications of industry by looking at artworks as products, spontaneous self-contained abstract statement containers
- THE DISCOURSE: a tool for posturing, not for genuine exploration or communication - enhanced greatly by social media, social capital power relations
- THE DISCOURSE: posits the realm of opinions as the only political arena, does not lead to material change or move people into action
- THE DISCOURSE: no one of us is free from it, it is a framework of interaction that mediates our online (and increasingly offline) existences. i am doing it right now! Oh Shit, Oh Crap!!
We shall be cognizant of the ever-looming shadow of THE DISCOURSE, which compromises us all, and attempt to mitigate its influence without giving in to delusions of freedom from its grasp until our conditions of existence and survival are revolutionized.
In all, and at the risk of being controversial, i want to ask the question of whether the instinct to do politics through games, or develop political games; might not only be misdirected but in fact often counterproductive. There are many avenues for political motion that exist outside of one's artistic practice, whether they concern the realm of art production (unionizing, organizing, etc) or broader social movements; many of those organizations and movements already exist and have members with infinitely more experience in the realm of politics than the average indie circuit game developer. While the role of the arts in opening horizons, education, inspiration, etc. is not one i wish to downplay, i think it is important to ask the question of whether making a given game or art piece with a political message is the most impactful way one can participate to the struggle, and whether it will effect meaningful change or simply act as a pacifying agent for a privileged class with a guilt complex.
Organize, educate yourself, wage struggle outside of games! Don't shoehorn politics into your marios!! They're marios!!!!
 on the question of the relationship of politics to aesthetics, and the rebuke of aesthetics as inherent carriers of political values (no single aesthetic possesses politics in its essence, all aesthetics can be leveraged by political currents), the seminal text remains the epilogue of Walter Benjamin's work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction:
(arguably you might read this as a rebuke of the argument i'm otherwise making in this post? i don't think they're antithetical depending on what politicizing art entails in practice, but what can i say i'm a man of many contradictions)
- discussion on this topic on the IWG forum, where i first put some of those thoughts in writing and which included v good answers from other members
- old attempt at organizing these thoughts and a few others in Domino by candle