A Uniform Rebellion

Thoughts on the culture of "indie."

By: Lana Polansky

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Indie


One of the things I love most about indie video game communities is the diversity. The inclusive, nurturing, amicable environments have this profound capacity for encouraging discussion and inspiring everyone from amateurs to acolytes to participate in a more positive version of the culture surrounding the medium. I cherish these things. I cherish many of the people I’ve met, games I’ve played, and things I’ve personally been inspired to do, through my own associations with independent and alternative game-making. I value these ideals that indie gaming represents for me so much that I feel like I must address its failings at sometimes living up to them. I don’t expect this to be a good way to make friends.

Everything the mainstream represents—corporate cronyism, a lack of creativity and innovation, pandering to demographics, convention and formula—seem to find offsetting principles at work in much of the “indie” scene: originality, creative and cultural diversity, artistic integrity and authenticity, a refusal to bow to market pressure. To a large extent, I believe the coalescing of independent creative communities do bring these fruits to bear. As Anna Anthropy discussed in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, it’s almost a mathematical inevitability that allowing more people from a greater variety of backgrounds to share their voices will naturally engender a deeper creative pool from which to draw. The democratization of creativity is and always has been the greatest way to harness the potential of its power.

But there’s a problem inherent in ‘sloganeering’ these ideals. There’s a problem in positioning the “indie scene” as something evenly opposed to mainstream gaming. The first, as far as I can see, is that “indieness” is far from a homogenous term. There’s been discussion here and there about what we mean by “indie”—does it simply refer to the lack of a publisher? Does it imply some adherence to a concept of anti-corporate integrity? Does it pride itself on knowledge of the arcane or the obscure—and does it hold that against people who don’t know of those same things? Does it have a uniform? Is it donning plaid, bearded, bespectacled, white, male?

There is no one “indie” scene, or community, or niche, or clique, and it’s dangerous to think of the surrounding culture of indie games as some kind of hivemind or special club. This is an attitude seen among those who wish to malign indie creations with nebulously and dubiously employed words like “pretentious.” But to some extent, the relationship with “indie” as a kind of badge representing an equally nebulous set of standards can infect these communities. As all sub- or counter-cultures are wont to do when gathering around an identity based on shared interests or values, indie gaming can engender cliques which protect and restrict who can be a part of them.

This kind of protection actually stifles that process of democratization Anthropy talked about by encouraging, often subtly, an implied conformity and uniformity of beliefs. This attitude is, on the other hand, totalitarian, and aims to impose strictures and standards on those entering the community. This attitude is an affectation of integrity that forces us to ask ourselves if what we say, make, do or even look like aligns with the ideology established by that niche or group. This breeds complacency and it shrinks the potential for diversity. In many ways that are reflective of the systems found in the mainstream, indie communities run a serious risk of becoming what they tend to try to eschew.

Cherry-picking specific examples of these kinds of social dynamics has me staring down not only the possible loss of friends, but career suicide. But it is interesting to go to an event, for instance, that is ostensibly all about the sharing and discussion of works or ideas, and witness myself and others coagulating into comfortable little subgroups like something out of a high school dance. I respect that to some degree this is bound to happen—of course people gravitate to other people they know—but these niches form isolating islands that aren’t very welcoming to those wading the seas outside of them. Being alone or with few others at an event like this is has the side-effect of making one feel like an infiltrator.

Within indie communities—at least, from my own experience—the majority group members tend to reflect dominant classes in the mainstream gaming industry, and for that matter, the rest of society: typically, young, white, straight adult males with college-level education (or some configuration of these traits.) While this is in and of itself only a reflection of what’s typical in our wider culture, it also tells us something about where access lies and the degree of diversity one is actually likely to find. There is, like in mainstream culture, a knowledge barrier. There is, still, the tendency to create cults of personality around people that reflect those dominant classes. There is still the work of creating truly inclusive, truly diverse and accepting environments. This can’t really be accomplished on just ideological terms, by clinging to certain ideals. This can only be done actively, through examination and demonstration of these ideals on a personal and community basis.

And often enough, it is. The Pixelles Game Incubator, for example, was something that was inspiring enough to remind me of why I continue to care about indie communities in my city or anywhere. The program, coordinated by Tanya Short and Rebecca Cohen Palacios, included 10 women who, over six weeks, became first-time game-makers. No prior skill required. The games were then showcased at an event which prioritized a low barrier of entry and the celebration of new ideas from a commonly marginalized group. During her introduction speech, Short noted that the women were given very little advice on how to create their games or use their tools, to avoid the accidental colonization of design ideas or create unwanted influence. There was no conceptual echo chamber; all 10 games were vastly different from one another. There was camaraderie, warmth, and pride, but also a free-flow of ideas and an openness to the unconventional. I was so inspired that when I got home, I immediately downloaded Stencyl.

I realize that to some extent, I’m imposing my own set of values and ideals onto whatever I think “indie” means. But without getting caught up in ill-defined notions of authenticity, or integrity, or originality that don’t even begin to deconstruct how enmeshed “indie” as a label is with prevailing, questionable social or economic systems, those of us within “indie” communities can still do more to ensure whatever principles we do have possess credibility through examination with a critical eye. We keep ideas diverse, and communities diverse, as long as we keep discussion diverse.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Culture Editorial Indie

About the Author:
Lana Polansky is a game critic and writer peddling her wares at Kill Screen, Gameranx, Medium Difficulty and here at Bit Creature. Also, a ludonarrative disco-dancer.

One Response to “A Uniform Rebellion”

  1. Ethan Gach

    “As all sub- or counter-cultures are wont to do when gathering around an identity based on shared interests or values, indie gaming can engender cliques which protect and restrict who can be a part of them.”

    Are there ways then in which “indie culture,” as nebulous as it is, is more cliquish and restrictive than other cultural groups? Or are you saying that it’s just as limited as the culture it’s breaking from, and necessarily so (in which case these tendencies couldn’t be reformed–only recognized and taken into account)?

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

The Latest:

  • Originals

    Swan Song

    This is a tough one to write. For those of you who know me, in person, by my writing, or…

  • Originals

    The Fool and the Villain, Part II

    (Warning: In Second Life, pixelated tits and dicks abound. Abandon all hope, all ye who enter this article at work.)…

  • Commentary

    The Edge Of The Ocean

    The problem is to plot the map. My sense of geography is spotted with black holes. There’s the Chinatown and…

  • Originals

    Play Everything

    Play everything. No, I’m serious, play everything. Play that game of hopscotch those kids drew up on the sidewalk with…

  • Commentary

    Genre In Question

    Why are there so few video game comedies? At least twice in the past year I’ve bumped into conversations trying…