October 20, 2013 7:23 PM | Staff
Designer and author Anna Anthropy has been making free games almost for the entirety of her career.
While she's sold books -- democratic game-making manifesto Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, and saucy Choose Your Own Adventure story Star Wench -- she's never charged for digital work like Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars, Dys4ia, Triad and countless others.
Anthropy, whose work often explores themes of kink, identity and community, has decided to try a new approach: Her latest interactive story, a gleefully-childlike haunted house-themed Choose Your Own Adventure called a very very VERY scary house, is for sale on Gumroad for $2. It's not just an attempt to monetize her own work, but an experiment in disrupting elements of the traditional economy of art games.
Although crowdfunding, patronage and other non-traditional forms of fundraising for games and game creators are increasingly common in the digital age, some standards and expectations still persist -- more traditional independent developers are celebrated for bootstrapping and become "success stories" when they raise money, while others face criticism, a presumption they're "seeking handouts" when they dare to ask for some small amount of money for their work.
By placing her new Twine story, a very very VERY scary house, for sale, Anthropy hopes to encourage other artists and game makers to feel more comfortable trying to monetize their creations, even in some small way.
"No time like the present," Anthropy tells me of a complicated decision. "The truth is that I need money to pay rent and eat! Putting games behind paywalls is something I've been extremely wary about - the people I want my games to reach are the ones most marginalized within games culture as it stands, the ones with the least money and the least access."
She says for a while she's been able to keep Flash games free for players while still being paid, by selling them to sponsors, but the opportunity isn't there anymore: "That bubble's burst and I still have material needs, so this is an experiment with something more sustainable," she says.
She chose Gumroad, a platform that lets creators sell comics, zines, music and more directly to their audience, because she's seen other friends find success with it. Originally she thought of pricing a very very VERY scary house at $1, but was encouraged to try the $2 point by fellow game maker Merritt Kopas, who pointed out "the kind of person who won't buy it for two dollars is the same kind of person who won't buy it for one."
"I made a deal with her that I'd sell it for $2 if she sold her forthcoming twine game for the same amount," Anthropy says.
"Some people are better trained to navigate the channels of making money -- or even to just feel like they're entitled to make money -- than others," she says of why some types of games seeking money seem more controversial than others. "I see this pattern where white dudes' success at making money is celebrated, is the subject of movies... not unsurprisingly, these games are kind of conservative -- graphically-polished Super Mario Bros [-style] games."
"When a marginalized person asks for a little money for something that doesn't look like our idea of 'the polished commercial game,' though, they face a lot of hostility," she continues. "Most of my women friends are terrified to ask for even a little money for all of the unpaid work that they do."
In her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and in her lectures, Anthropy has played a forerunning role in advocating for the diversification of games through low-cost tools, encouraging those who might not have thought games were 'for them' to try self-expression and communication through the medium. But while new voices and new platforms in games are a valuable goal both for the medium and for those creators, it doesn't mean artists can't also seek money for their work, she says.
"We have this narrative that somehow art that comes from poverty or from suffering is more valuable, and that's bullshit - just a way that we justify exploiting artists," Anthropy says, pointing to the "forexposure_txt" Twitter account that's gained popularity by exposing the endless ways people try to manipulate artists, designers and filmmakers into working on their projects for free.
"People are actually being hurt by... the idea that if you do something because you care about it, you shouldn't expect to make money for it," she says. "I think people expect that I have tons of money because my games get lots of exposure and I go on tour all the time, but I couldn't make rent for half of last year. the kind of work I do for communities I care about, people expect for free."
A lot of people seem to feel that the desire to pursue and create games, or any type of expressive art, doesn't "entitle" one to a fulltime living. The word "entitle" feels tricky in this context, as does the prevailing idea that people who want to make art should always "just get a day job."
"It's really sad that so many people have internalized the capitalist myth that we don't deserve to be paid for work that doesn't alienate us - that any real artist should be prepared to get a day job they hate in order to make the art that they care about for free," says Anthropy. "The truth is that making art is work. It's labor. It takes time and energy. We're being asked to make a decision about whether we consider art to have value. Are we willing to compensate people for the work that they do to create things that enrich our lives?"
Existing channels like Kickstarter, Greenlight and patronage for popular artists tend to favor those who already know how to navigate them. "Kickstarter is for dudes who have been in the game industry for 15 years, have an old IP to cash in, and have a lot of experience pitching things for money," she says. "I remember [Deirdra 'Squinky' Kiai] talking about how hard it was to manage their Kickstarter campaign for Dominique Pamplemousse. Greenlight's model filters out anything that strays too far from the idea of a polished commercial game. Patreon is an option i'm going to try: hopefully, it'll allow me to still release games for free sometimes, but to receive something in exchange for them."
Anthropy recognizes she is lucky to be a prominent creator with much community support, and that being visible on social media necessarily helps anyone who wants to monetize projects. "But my hope is to at least create a precedent that'll make people feel comfortable asking for a couple bucks for a little Twine thing. Probably no one's going to get rich, but at least folks will be able to get something for all the work that they do."
I asked Anthropy about the response to her initiative so far, and what the reception has been like -- clearly we expect controversy when an artist, particularly a marginalized woman, asks for some small amount of money.
"Scroll down and read the comments on this piece," she predicts, "and you'll probably have your answer."
[Leigh Alexander wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]