September 2, 2012 10:00 AM | Staff
Rare cases such as molleindustria, Anna Anthropy or Jonas Kyratzes aside, indie games, despite being generally free
of any creative control, seem to restrain themselves and avoid tackling social or political issues, in stark contrast to indie films or music.
Does that have to do with developers being afraid to speak their mind or with the fact that they simply only care to make escapist games? Why aren't indie games more connected to everyday issues? Could they actually matter as a form of popular expression? Should they? How could they?
Our monthly series of having the IndieGames editorial team tackle important, relevant issues continues.
Danny Cowan: It all depends on whether you're aiming for commercial success, I suppose. If you make something that's too personal, or something that approaches a controversial topic, you've pretty much damned yourself to a niche audience.
That's not a bad thing, though. Some of the most memorable indie games I've played are ones that tell a personal story, or are designed to shock the audience. If you tackle a social or political issue within a game, though, you really have to know what you're doing. It's not something that can be taken lightly, and the difficulty involved might be what's scaring away indie developers.
There's a lot of untapped potential in this niche, for sure, and the few high-profile indie games that do challenge established boundaries for content are certainly impactful, if not commercially viable. If you have a story you want to tell -- and you're not going to go broke doing it -- then tell it, dammit.
Cassandra Khaw: Are developers censoring themselves? I don't know. It'd be kind of presumptous to speak for others but it certainly feels like this might be the case for some. There IS a noticeable lack of games that address more 'sensitive' topics.
Nonetheless, it's understandable. Sensitive topics are deemed sensitive for a reason. One false move and you might find yourself on the receiving end of a considerable amount of hate. I can see why some would rather not take that risk. Additionally, I think it's also partially related to the fact that there are a lot of other stories left to be told, stories that will not necessarily upset anyone.
All said and done, however, I do think there should be more games that deal with real-life issues. Films and books are great but video games are rather uniquely suited for the task of making people understand what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. If there's any medium capable of making a message hit home, it's probably this one.
John Polson:When I was young, I didn't recognize the pattern Donkey Kong and other games might instill: the guy always saves the girl. While a few big mainstream games have female leads, other than Aquaria, no other Humble-level games do.
The same could be said about almost every other issue or topic in big indie games: they're just not there. The games certainly seem a bit censored. And if these developers are in fact independent and had any message to convey in the first place, then I would conclude they are censoring themselves.
But what's a dev to do? Console, iOS, and digital platforms that offer cash flow have all these censoring rules to follow. Yet, many games don't even try to bring to light important issues or to suggest subtly a new way of thinking.
Games with messages need not fall in the newsgames, art or experimental categories to do more than entertain. Music and film do so while maintaining their pop, rock, horror, thriller tropes, why can't an RPG or FPS?
If not explicit, developers could build messages into their mechanics. Why do I lose points when I spout hate language, cause violence, or act in a way that would oppress minority rights? The player may then think the rules of this game make sense in a larger context, too.
Maybe indie developers aren't totally to blame. The industry celebrates graphics, gameplay, and just about everything else more than writing. But that's a defeatist attitude. Indies can make the industry notice their writing, just as they made the industry notice their games not too long ago.
Maybe all this is a grown-up problem that indie devs "as a scene" haven't matured enough to handle, as it seems to be the case with their AAA counterparts. However, maybe it's time that we started letting developers know it's fine to make a mature game. This industry seems to want to keep us plugged into games 24-7. How's about some sustenance to keep our minds healthy and expanding, learning about what's going on outside the world we're constantly plugged into?
Konstantinos Dimopoulos:(Gnome)As with any societal phenomenon (yes, indie games are one of those) answers can never be simple or straightforward, even when something is obvious. Sadly the fact that the vast majority of indie devs are ignoring what's happening in the real world, misrepresenting it according to mainstream standards or sticking to strictly personal and escapist themes is more than obvious. And very odd. Or is it?
Now, I won't claim there can be a definitive answer as to why indies make the games they make and that these are totally unconnected to what's happening around us, but I feel that the main reasons have something to do with the following:
a) Many developers come from a purely technical background and have never been exposed to quality literature or cinema. They live in the mainstream and their major points of artistic and/or expressive reference are connected to gaming. We thus get more Mario inspirations than Citizen Kane influences.
b) Many developers are both from the West and privileged and as such don't really care about the actual problems of this world. A brief look at the games of the latest Arab Jam we presented should convince you that some people do think very differently indeed.
c) Many developers are simply afraid to voice their opinions to a predominantly white, male, privileged audience for fear or losing fame and/or money. They do thus prefer censoring themselves more than risking anything.
d) Post-modernism: the plague that has systematically been attempting to crush logical and political thought under a mountain of subjectivist garbage and personal readings for the past 30 years.
e) The fact that game design is widely considered as something very close to engineering. Something which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with ideas, problems, hopes or beauty.
I could of course go on, but I won't. I'm sure everyone gets the main idea. In a nutshell, I simply cannot consider games as being "just games", just as I can't look at books as "just books" or movies as "just movies". I do on the other hand believe that games can and actually should tackle social issues and anxieties. Jonas Kyratzes, Molleindustria and Anna Anthropy should be joined by dozens more creators and maybe, just maybe, the world will be a better place for (almost) everyone.
Do you have a question that you'd like the IndieGames editors to tackle? Email EIC John Polson at johnpolsonfl at gmail dot com. [photo source]