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Posted by: Emilie | AUG-05-2019

Liz Ryerson has recently written a blog post about the current situation, and future potential, of videogame criticism, and artistic production within videogames. It’s a great read about the importance of writing about things and putting your work in context, not to try to contribute to the blockbuster-oriented online “discourse,” but more importantly to also preserve practices that are at the risk of disappearing. Specifically, she talks in one section about the role money, or at least the idea of money, plays in all of this. Responding to the latest Disney/Marvel/Overwatch whatever (as opposed to giving significant attention to anything else) is framed by many paying critical outlets for writing as a necessity, determined by the market of clicks. And this logic informs all sorts of ideas about cultural production, as a sort of indifferent shrug or position from which to scold those whose work doesn’t fit the available opportunities, and a sort of nihilistic-celebratory “get that money” to those whose work does. As Ryerson says:

“undoubtedly, public investment of resources away from the arts has been the biggest factor in making art communities increasingly just a space for the children of the wealthy and powerful. and it also contributed to this internalized guilt towards the idea of making art at all… if you're rich you get to think about concepts (at least to the extent that those concepts don't implicate you), but if you're poor you only ever get to think about the market. anything else is a ridiculous indulgence.”

Beyond criticism, this strand of barely-disguised capitalist realism also leaks into the conversations we have about getting paid for our work in general. As recent controversies/the eternal parade of postmortems and/or success stories have demonstrated, small scale game developers are offered a dubious menu of the latest faustian bargains to get paid for their work, especially if they’d like to devote full time work to the project or bring on additional artists, programmers, and so on. Many forms of commercial distribution require a concession to some sort of control over the end product, even if it’s not direct creative oversight; it could be required to use certain platforms or features, negotiated into a temporary or permanent exclusivity agreement, tied to some sort of DRM scheme or new hardware, etc. etc. The money is always “somewhere” so we can’t blame individuals who need that money from going “there,” right? Even if “there” has dubious implications for the accessibility or longevity of the work itself, or potentially negative effects on the always-failing health of the indie ecosystem…

I’m not really interested in criticizing individual decisions or attempting to draw a line between what trade offs are good, acceptable, or not good. Being critical of the general response to these bargains, in the form of “well be realistic, they have to get money somehow, it’s just good that they were able to get it” is often felt as being critical of that specific instance of “choice.” What matters to me more is that the larger issue of the orientation and goals of commercial funding of indie projects goes unquestioned here when every intervention is seen as a blessing. Can’t we ask what projects these investors tend to pursue, and why? What benefit do they foresee for their walled garden of content (console/storefront/platform/etc) in presenting this selection of independent production? In many cases, what is an opportunity for a few becomes an enclosure of possibility overall. Certain genres are canonized, and the bar for polish or claims of certain types of value and prestige is nudged higher, the latest dubiously desired industry “innovation” (who asked for game streaming?) is validated by its ability to gather a catalogue of interesting work, and workers.

Many of the independently-created games I love fall well outside the possibility of ever being successfully funded in this way, they’re often hard to crowdfund or even charge more than a few dollars for on an itch page, if anything. For people whose work is too “weird” or too “tiny” for these channels, the implication is they should change their practice or look somewhere else. Game Studies academia has its own, alternate funding requirements that seem to favour “games for change” type applications (with its own consequences I could easily write another post on), but the arts has a reputation still of being a bit more of a wild west, for people who are largely on the outside looking in. People pay money for X Y Z atrociously nonsensical thing there, so there’s probably a bit they can scrape together for you, seems to be the assumption.

Claire Bishop’s critique of arts funding within neoliberalism and the subsequent gutting of public funds at the mercy of, you guessed it, market logic, demonstrates that patterns of what types of artistic practice are funded and celebrated (in her case, examining participatory and social practice oriented art), still reveals a specific, financialized logic behind the idea of funding in the arts. Whether it’s to accumulate more capital at the top of major tech companies by expanding their portfolio of games on offer, or to aid in justifying public spending cuts and outsourcing of vital services like comprehensive mental health support (by arguing a bit of Bejeweled can take the edge off whatever ails you), or serving as a cushion in the fallout of these cuts through work which primarily “engages the public,” work which is funded, in any area, has to be presentable in a way which makes plain its role in this overall process. It can’t just exist for its own sake (at least if we're not Jeff Koons), be realistic!

Or maybe, for a second, don’t be. Capitalism both requires and manufactures its own crises, but academia, indie games, and art are three areas which seem to be presently, especially vulnerable to and deep in this sort of crisis. As positions that appear to offer an opportunity to “make it” as a full-time writer, artist, developer, critic, etc. become increasingly precarious, increasingly rare, and require more fundamental compromises, the field begins to look more and more like a pyramid scheme. Maybe it becomes more useful to analyse as one, and the problems of the occasional individual or small team having to compromise or “sell out” to pursue their work becomes, statistically, a rarity. Studies of Multi-Level Marketing programs shows that between 74% and 99% of the people involved are losing money or only just breaking even. But a pyramid relies on its lowest levels much more than the middle or top.

The majority of critical work, of game development work, of artistic work, is not being done in the context of commercial deals or full-time positions. The majority of us are lucky to make a few bucks every so often, doing the work we do. But we are just as vital to the overall field of cultural production as the few success stories, without the numbers of us that exist they wouldn’t have a context to exist in (and to so often draw from, with or without credit). Brendan Keogh observes that a variety of informal and non-commercial practices related to videogames are not separate or marginal to the “aggressively formalised” industry that is often conflated with “videogames” in general, but constitute a broad field in which the industry is embedded. I would go one step further and say that history demonstrates that without these informal cultures both originating and maintaining much of what becomes formalized game production, without past and ongoing informal practices, the formal games industry would very quickly be unable to exist; if these practices had never existed the industry would have never even emerged. To me, this is being realistic. Without a surplus of devalued art there is no multimillion-dollar art, without a sea of unknowns there is no concept of prestige or quality. This is the mirror image of Hito Steyerl’s observation that, the more unpaid interns there are, the more expensive the art is.

From this perspective, you could argue that attempting to scale a few levels of the pyramid actually weakens your position if we decide to “be realistic” but change our demands and change our perception of what labour in artistic and cultural spheres looks like, which is to change what seems worthy of renumeration and funding to us and why. The international feminist movement Wages For Housework, while not yet securing the goal it takes its name from, sparked a reconsideration of the ideology behind wage-worthy labour, drawing attention to how domestic tasks are just as productive and vital to the functions of capitalism as those more commonly considered “jobs.” Domestic labour is often framed as something that is done out of passion and love, and therefore does not need renumeration or is even “tainted” by becoming a wage-making line of work. This is how our engagement with culture, at multiple levels, from hobbyist creation, commentary, solo artistic practice, to more formalized industry roles, is also framed, to our detriment. Demanding a world without CEOs or venture capital, where experimentation and failure, lively criticism and true mass creation are funded without justification or ROIs, but simply because culture is the activity that importantly makes life interesting may seem unrealistic in the immediate sense, but to me it’s an important vision to hold on to if we want to keep a realistic view of what (and where) most of the culture actually is.

To say you “value” small games and the communities making them, sharing them, talking about them has become a bit of a refrain in many areas of videogame development, commentary and culture, but what would asserting this value actually look like in practice, for those of us who are tired of being told we are “valuable” without getting paid? Giving a bit of airtime opportunity to a few more people or creating a few more opportunities where some creators can potentially position themselves to grab a temporarily sustaining commission or precarious industry job no longer seems like enough. Practical organization and theorization of the industry and culture around it needs to shift its perspective away from there simply being more and different hoops to jump through. To even have a chance of getting out of this cycle we will have to try organizational structures, interventions and approaches to creation that a mindset married to the idea of “earning it” or “making it,” as currently enforced by the bargains we have to make to survive, can only find unrealistic.