When I was younger, and just making the dangerous decision to forego financial security and become a journalist, I told my parents I wanted to be a video game journalist. It made sense to me at the time; I loved video games, and wasted most of my time playing them. But it’s more than that, because it represents something deeply personal for me. Being an only child means you spend a lot of time on your own, and a lot of that time you need inspiration to prevent going batshit crazy from boredom. Video games represented such an important spark to my own imagination; why not aim towards that in my career?
My parents were, understandably, horrified. Devote my life to the one obstacle to my intellectual development they can see? It didn’t make any sense. Luckily, being in the isolated expanse that is Western Australia, the whole music journalist angle was a tad more realistic. My parents were relatively happier with that, even if they were still concerned that my chosen career would lead to me getting run over by a tank or stabbed in a bar fight on a remote Pacific island.
I still love and play video games, mostly as a cathartic release and a time-waster, as I imagine most twenty-something gamers do. But I’ve always paid at least partial attention to how the video game industry has developed, because I think knowing the shit going on behind the scenes is one of the reasons I wanted to be a journo in the first place. The video game industry has faced golden highs and disastrous lows over its time – if you’ve never read about the giant landfill full of E.T cartridges, I suggest you do – but in recent years, it has become an increasingly fluid and unmeasurable entity, partly due to the growth of the indie sector and again partly to the ever-encroaching tendrils of the entertainment industry.
Today, it’s almost impossible to gauge how the industry will evolve day to day, thanks to that ever-scary exponential line of technology. Clans of players destroy thousands of dollars’ worth of capital in an MMORPG in a single day; a hacker calls in a bomb threat and the president of Sony Development has to turn his plane around. These are all real things, and they’re endemic of how the entertainment industry, the internet and a handful of outspoken indie video game developers are all crashing into each other right now.
Last week, those three forces combined in a most literal sense when an LA-based entertainment startup, 11 indie video game developers running the gamut of genres and a host of Youtube celebrities met in LA to film GAME_JAM, the most expensive game production ever. The startup up was Maker, a relatively new company with zero experience in video games; the developers were probably the best example of just how insular, sensitive and outspoken the game development community is. Thanks to the overbearing presence of a major sponsor and the unapologetic influence of Hollywood, the whole thing collapsed disastrously.
There’s plenty of literature on the event, including from the only journalist on hand to cover it. What is interesting is how this story exposes the indie development industry as relatively infant in a public sense; these 11 developers all knew each other, but were virtually unheard of outside this close-knit digital community. This is a creative form virtually untested in the media landscape. Well, until now.
If you think about indie game development in the way I do and the way I believe the developers do, the creative process involved is given enough attention and passion as any other form of art. Whether video games are art is an argument for another post; I, however, think they can be. In Leo Tolstoy’s self-explanatorily named What Is Art?, he sums it up thusly;
“Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external signs”
That, to me, is a pretty succinct statement on what indie video game developers are doing. Zoe Quinn, one of the more candid contestants involved in GAME_JAM, has her own blog, in which she details her experience. But on that blog she also details a lot of her other experiences in the industry, including weighty topics like sexism and depression. Oh, that’s right; she even made a game called Depression Quest, which has become the most salubrious issue in an industry that loves salubrious issues.
The fact that people like Quinn can make games like Depression Quest is what makes video games exciting for me. It’s an industry that’s only now coming into its own as a platform for creative individuals to express creative ideas. But, with a certain amount of bittersweetness, it’s also a rapidly growing business, with the technology and money involved in making video games rapidly outpacing many other industries. That’s why GAME_JAM is an example of what could happen to such a wholly untested medium. There’s no doubt that the industry will keep growing, and hopefully produce more jobs. It’ll be interesting to see which way it goes, and if there’s people willing to stand up for video games as an art form in the future.