Games as Commentary: Reflections on an Indiecade East Panel

indiecade east

Medium Difficulty contributor Heather Hale was lucky enough to attend Indiecade East this year: the following is inspired by a particularly interesting panel.

Panelists: Dr. Ian Bogost is a scholar, author, and game designer. Simon Ferrari is a PhD student in the Digital Media department at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Paolo Pedercini is an Italian game developer, artist and educator. Richard Hofmeier is a Seattle artist. He designed the award winning retail simulation game, Cart Life. Heather Chaplin is a Brooklyn-based journalist and assistant professor at The New School.

“If you have something to say about the world, write a book, ” cited one of the panelists referring to Apple’s app store guidelines. Should games have an agenda? Should that agenda be reinforced by the creator or should meaning in games be left to interpretation? Videogames are a tricky medium when it comes to commentary, and at my first panel at indiecade East, the best conclusion I could come to is that there is no easy answer. The following is my reflection on the discussion.

The topic of storytelling in games was discussed at length, and how many mainstream games (Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dishonored) create a story that gives the player the veneer of control with the support of a visually immersive world and
complicated gameplay mechanics, but the truth of the matter is that these games are still severely limited in terms of actual control. Heather Chaplin spoke about how these games create, “the illusion of commentary” by giving us endings that are designed to be ambiguous. By shying away from taking a real stance with their storytelling, these kind of games end up giving us nothing concrete to take away. Although many indie games seem more limited in terms of game design, sometimes these limitations actually allow for a much more subjective experience for the player in my opinion.

Pixel art is an example of a popular style in indie games that can be misleading because of it’s “cartoony” aesthetic, when in truth, this simplified art style can allow players to project more of themselves into the game, and perhaps foster a more unique connection. To the world outside the wonderful niche group who play indie games, their sometimes quaint appearance, coupled with the misconception that “videogames are for kids” cause them to not be taken seriously. One speaker mentioned experience they had with their game being featured in a museum installation. Even though the game was in Latin, many museum goers thought of it would be a good exhibit for their children who obviously could not understand it. The designer seemed to feel he hadn’t accomplished what he wanted due to the fact that most people would not give the effort required to truly experience the game he had created. I think this fundamental concept is the biggest problem for any indie game with an agenda.

I believe that the challenging thing about videogames as an artistic medium is getting people to actually take the time to play. Asking people to do something is a weighty request in comparison to asking them to sit down and watch. Especially in the case of indie games, it’s difficult enough to have someone discover that a game exists, and an entirely different challenge to get them to actually play it. One speaker relayed how statistics show that Netflix viewers put mostly documentaries and art films on their instant queue, but more often watch light comedies and TV shows
instead. You know that once you force yourself to digest the less digestible works you’ll be better for it, but the trick is getting people to delve in, and it’s not an easy problem to solve.

As the discussion wound down, the group seems somewhat pessimistic about ever engaging a larger audience. A consensus is reached that most people are always going to want some kind of a narrative element in order to connect with any artistic
medium. Some expressed frustration at this notion, as indie games can be an incredible way to create a completely new and immersive experience. The question of whether games should have a message and whether that message should be reinforced by the designer was one that could not be answered. It’s easy to see both sides of the coin, the world of indie games allows you to shape a completely unique experience that doesn’t require explanation, and is sometimes stronger for it (such as in a game like Slave of God). But with this lack of primer for the audience, it’s difficult to get people to start, let alone stay long even to acheive what the designer had in mind. In my mind, these kind of games bleed into a territory that is more like looking at an abstract painting than watching a narrative film, and that is an amazing accomplishment for such a young medium, but as a young medium it is going to take some time for works like this to find their place in the world.

Games are such a multi-faceted medium, and with the growth of the indie games movement, I believe that it will only become more diverse over time. I think the best thing we can do is to never limit the way we look at games. As players, we should ingest every kind of game we can, and encourage game designers that the sky’s the limit. Luckily we live in an age where the power of the internet can make anything happen, and indie games are most certainly a favorite son of many of the most active and powerful internet communities, so it’s only a matter of time before they find the audience they seek.

(Image courtesy of Ars Technica)

About Heather Hale

Heather Hale is a graduate of the Masters in Cinema Studies at NYU.
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