Who dares to support today’s independent game scene

(from the catalogue of the symposium – exhibitions Play Cultures, October 2007, Novi Sad)

Parasitism: relationship between two species of plants or animals in which one benefits at the expense of the other, sometimes without killing it. Parasitism is differentiated from parasitoidism, a relationship in which the host is always killed by the parasite;
(britannica)

Back to the end of nineties Anne Marie Schleiner set up one of the first and most interesting exhibitions in the field of game art. “Cracking the Maze” was an online exhibition with 15 downloadable patches and online games by artists. It was the era when Doom, Unreal and Half life had released their codes allowing artists for the first time to intervene, to hack and to change our perception of these gaming worlds. Schleiner and others characterized this first gaming scene of artists as a parasitic one because it was dependent on the commercial game platforms but at the same time it could infiltrate game culture and contribute to the formation of new configurations of game characters, gamespace and game play (Schleiner 1999).  The gaming practices of the artists could blur the distinction between cultural producer and consumer, between reader and writer, between artist and viewer, between game fan and game developer, between programmer and hacker.

Almost a decade later we observe that this statement still perfectly stands; it has actually been confirmed and it has been strengthened. The independent scene of our times has significantly grown: the form of works today may vary from stand alone applications and multiplayer online game, to game interfaces and installations, from machinimas to video game documentaries. The scene however is still a parasitic one. It is still being fed from the strong organism of the commercial games, using or being inspired by their platforms, their aesthetics and their game structures. It grows parallel to it and aims to criticize it, to reveal new aspects and even to reverse it. The games developed by artists offer new ways of play and understanding. They are cases of appropriation, of subversion, of “detournement” of the data given.

This parasitic process is not undertaken solely by artists. Since the 90’s a lot has changed. As videogames themselves have surpassed entertainment and have entered the fields of education, politics, advertisement and the military respectively, numerous independent creators of today tackle and pervade such areas, aiming to bring in new notions and points of view breaking down the mainstream propaganda and its stereotypes.

This artistic scene of video games has been compared to indie music, alternative cinema, non commercial literature, scenes that are characterised for their creativity and experimentation, and for the new elements they introduce for the development of new art forms (Morgana 2006). Independency in all areas presents difficulties in term of production, promotion and distribution and therefore leads to obvious questions:

– Who and how will support this independent game creation?
– What role the institutions have come to play and what stance are the creators to take towards them?
– Is the presentation of the new independent gaming scene one more excuse for an exhibition/ a show or can it become the motive for real social interaction?
– What are the problems that need to be faced and what solutions could be given?

Nowadays the number of game related events seems to grow continuously.
They vary from game festivals and game based exhibitions to open air game events, ludic performances and academic conferences. Parallel to those, the current new media festivals around the world more and more include games as an important part of their programme.

The various events may be independent initiatives taken by curators and artists of the field, or may be organised temporarily by institutions and centers. In any case, the organisers, need to face certain issues for their realisation, as it happens for only events; only that this time certain particularities seem to show up. These could be summarised around 3 main questions:

– Who would the participants be?
– Who would the sponsors be?
– Who would the visitors be?

The special feature of these events is that although they aim to map the gaming territories of our times, they do not follow and present the commercial game trends; instead, they keep their focus on the independent and artistic creation and they usually have an interdisciplinary approach. Artists and theorists from different fields who work on games are invited to share their thoughts and experiences in these game festivals and exhibitions, expressing the contemporary fusion of play in our everyday lives. However, this side is very much unknown to the wide public; it actually seems almost marginal. And this is where the difficulty and the challenge are found, to targeting the right audience and to approach the right sponsors.

Funding in the case of the independent game events presents particularities and misunderstandings related to the features of the mainstream commercial game scene. The state and institutional resources are difficult to approach; although these events present a more theoretical, alternative and cultural character, they still need to fight with the common prejudices regarding gaming. The organisers in order to counterbalance the arguments for the entertaining and commercial features of the videogames, they emphasize on the cultural and sociopolitical sides of the independent field. At the same time, the commercial game companies, realising this and knowing the power this medium has to present aesthetic merits and to convey social meanings, they are rather reluctant to these events; simply because their target audience, the videogame players would not be interested in them – “they have no such time to lose”. Therefore, not so many opportunities open up for the organisers; funding is considered successful if some support is gained partly from state funds and private companies adjoined possibly by the interest the embassies and institutions of several countries may show. Although, one should point out that even in this latter case, problems occur as the embassies do have their doubts when national issues and conflicts between countries are tackled in the agendas of some artistic video games.

Targeting the audience for these events is another perplex aim. As the sponsors from the commercial game industry believe, most of the gamers would not be interested in the experimentations and originalities coming from the artistic and the independent field where their beloved action gives its place to other merits and values. So would they be? In general, one can say that they are mostly young people 20 – 35 with an interest in technology. More specifically, most of them would be new media artists, designers, programmers as well as theorists and journalists focusing on new media. The “art world” and the “art crowd” is usually absent; they are hesitant towards games and new media in general as the multiplicity of technology and the popularity of video games put them off. Young students however from the arts and other disciplines do show an interest as a lot of them see video games as a vital element of their lives. And families also; a lot of young parents closer to the gaming mentality bring their children and play together with them. But still we need to point out that this does not reach the general audience…

Realising these difficulties in the different areas for the organisation for the events on game art and independent creation, what do we observe? A paradox really!

The events succeed in attracting the most emerging artists and theorists, in giving birth to fruitful discussions and meetings, in organising interesting exhibitions. An international fame is often created for some of them through very good critiques and impressions. The participants are enthusiastic as new networks of people are being built and a growing game scene is being empowered. But what does this mean locally? Attendance is poor in terms of a general public and moreover the local artists are absent. This is where the paradox stands; when we are talking of events that succeed internationally but fail locally. In reality that they can’t easily work as the core for the flourishing of a local game scene, nor do they  raise awareness to the local public on the issues of independent creation in gaming. But this means that their sustainability as well as their mission is dubious, and their role necessary needs to be re-examined.

Undoubtedly the contribution of these festivals is valuable as they do offer to artists platforms to present their work and to theorists new grounds to express their ideas. But on the other hand: Can they also support the creators and their projects? Can they commission works? Can they attract companies and sponsors that would visit the festival and meet the creators with the possibility of showing interest to distribute their work? If not, which are the organisations or institutions that could empower creation, production, support and distribution? Maybe the contribution from different people and different type of organisations can provide some answers.

Firstly, some other types of festivals, less “new media art oriented” can be efficient in supporting the independent game production. Festivals like the IGF and the Slamdance game festival offer grand prizes through their competitions and often open up opportunities for distribution and promotion.
Secondly, cultural centers can also play a significant role in the development of the independent scene. Luckily, more and more institutions realise the potentialities video games have as a medium and include videogames in their programmes.  The immediacy the videogames present is an invaluable tool for places of social interaction and education.
Furthermore, educational institutions have also contributed importantly in the empowerment of the gaming scene in the last decade. The growth of new game departments, and the emerging of a game theory sector especially has accredited the field with an academic and professional character that has empowered its merging with different disciplines.

While these endeavours may continuously strengthen, a big effort is still needed to reach out for a wider audience and to gain appreciation and support for the creators working on gaming platforms. So what can done in addition? What is missing? What can the cultural centers, curators, organisers and artists still do?
to encourage critical thinking and broaden the community of critical gamers; most people don’t have the information that would enable them to see the gaming worlds through different perspectives; to offer people information and data about how systems work and how the commercial factor is functioning.

to organise activities that involve the audience actively such as workshops and seminars; to encourage people becoming creators themselves, to see things from the inside.

To encourage and promote outreach activities that involve new audiences, immigrants and marginalised people; to use games as a platform for social change; to show this side as much as possible and support it through social programmes and funds.

For the institutions to trust the artists, build programs with them, commission projects, develop tools.

to invade the cities and organise activities in them; bring games closer to their people, to their everyday lives;

to use the open source to be the less dependent possible; trust the others; trust your network; share your knowledge

to take advantage of the interdisciplinary character often independent games have; to obtain funds from different programmes and institutions

to use guerrilla tactics; to distribute as much info as possible through networks and the internet.

The games built by artists and independent creators nowadays have a significant role to play in the future development of the medium. They propose new alternatives for the emerging digital realm we will be living in. The interdisciplinary character their works often have, the messages they convey, the novelties they introduce and the immediacy they present, are all elements that are worthy to pay attention to and to promote. On the other hand this powerful scene now being formed should stop being an exception in the entertaining field of the gaming industry, and therefore an excuse for the latter to keep its character intact (Samyn & Harvey 2006). Its potentialities and novelties introduced should be taken seriously under consideration for a development of the gaming field in different directions. The independent field needs to be strengthened. We don’t need to be led to parasitoidism and kill the commercial videogame scene to achieve this. But we do need to find ways to render the main scene more open to changes and to allow room for new options to be given to players, for more opportunities for creation, communication and critical thinking. Independent games can become the links between artists, audiences and institutions and most importantly, and they can re-introduce playing as a part of our everyday lives.

References
Morgana, Corrado, Critical Gaming, Game/Play, viewed 10 August 2006
http://blog.game-play.org.uk/files/GamePlay_Final.pdf

Samyn, Michael and Harvey, Auriea. Interview by Quaranta, Domenico. A game for pleasure Interview with Michael Samyn & Auriea Harvey in A minima. Viewed 10 July  2006 http://www.domenicoquaranta.net/taleoftales_eng.html

Schleiner, Anne-Marie. Cracking the Maze, Game Plug-ins and Patces as Hacker Art, Viewed 15 July 2005. http://switch.sjsu.edu/CrackingtheMaze/note.html

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