Indie Games and the Assertion of Value

A couple of weeks ago, Destructoid's Jim Sterling wrote an article in which he took issue with people who defend (bad) art games: McGarvey's comment ["I'll take a 'pretentious artsy-fartsy indie game' over creatively bankrupt bullshit any day'] was but one of many that shared similar sentiments, but it was a perfect snapshot of the big fallacy among those who stand up for art games—this idea that art games cannot be creatively bankrupt themselves, and that if you are against the indie crowd, you are against originality. This also leads onto a further incorrect but all-too common assumption—the idea that because something is innovative, it is automatically good.

He continues:

We seem to be stuck with this incredibly false idea that indie games = originality and AAA games = uncreative garbage. This is simply not true, and I think it allows indie developers to be incredibly lazy and slapdash with their ideas, safe in the knowledge that their game will get a free pass for innovation, when all they did was follow all the other indie games out there.

Sure, there are examples of beautifully crafted indie games which have helped to widen the means of expression of the medium. But I do believe that Sterling has a point: just because a game purports to be indie does not mean it is automatically good or innovative or some sort of contribution the industry was not able to make.

However, we are much more inclined to regard it as such. I believe the reason for this lies in differences in the attribution of value.

In relation to cinema, Tom O'Regan explains that national cinemas can be evaluated through a limited number of conceptual means. These include a relation with the dominant Hollywood cinema in which the national cinema is situated under the sign of culture and Hollywood under the sign of the profane economy; a division within the national cinema between its mainstream and its peripheral or independent cinemas; and a positive evaluation of Hollywood and its legacy in local markets, which simultaneously values and devalues the local national cinema.

Considering the distinctiveness of the game industry, there is no such thing as an explicit national game culture in the Western world (in the sense of a national cinema). It is a thoroughly international industry, a prime example of a globalized, post-fordist field that hardly knows any localism. However, indie games come close to it in the sense that they belong to a prestige "minor stream". As such, they are situated under the sign of culture.

They are products that were produced in response to the dominant international game culture and dominant industry patterns. They are akin to an international art cinema vehicle that is associated with cultural values—aesthetically and in the sense that they promise a game-making ecology separate from or to the side of the market; they stand opposed to an ecology which promises the utility of the market itself as the conferrer of value.

They might operate in a supranational space but like national cinemas are often attached to larger aesthetic movements and styles or the foregrounding of different agendas, be they related to minorities, environmental issues or other causes. As could be expected, such games find their greatest assertion of value in the festival circuit or on specialized blogs.

They are the games all the cool kids play. However, this does not tell us anything about their actual qualities.

What they do is help a certain milieu with its self-actualization. As something that claims to be counterculture, avant-garde, nonconformist, and edgy, these games dare to not submit themselves under the logic of the market as the conferrer of value. This makes them more "authentic" which in turn suits their players' narcissism way better than "creatively bankrupt mainstream bullshit".

These games contribute to their players' philosophy of life—the perfection of one's self—in two ways: they are "anti-barbaric" in the sense that they are constructed against the "popular", "low", "vulgar", and "common". Their distinctiveness lies in them being "contemplative" and involving reflection upon their object. This is more than just the crassness of Call of Duty.

At the same time, art games are anti-conventional. Not only do their players set themselves apart against the undeveloped and crude, but also against a standardized, deformed psyche which is not identical with itself—a psyche that is as standardized as the mainstream media it consumes. Art game players have a desired perception of themselves as people who are interesting, exciting, and unique. This narcissism tells them that there is nothing more important than oneself. This is a claim that is difficult to support by playing Halo.

By being anti-barbaric and anti-conventional, art games first of all contribute to the social distinction of their players and their self-perfection; this is their main project in a society in which even the most simple, mundane product becomes an "experience" that lets its consumers know just how unique they are. Your breakfast is not, say, bacon and eggs, but made up of some exotic European-style bread and coffee from a country no one has ever heard of but whose farmers are now better off not just because it's organic but also because of the fair trade, etc.

Does this mean it tastes automatically better than Starbucks? No, of course not. It's the same with indie games. Just because they derive their value from something different and therefore they make people feel better about themselves (as in more interesting and unique), this does not make them better games.

Of course these are extremes. It should be pointed out that, similar to the cinema, indie games' relationship to the mainstream is not clear cut as, for example, they are sometimes distributed via the platforms of the big three console manufacturers (Xbox Live, WiiWare, PlayStation Network), making for a fuzziness that is also characteristic of film.