Rise of the Video Game Zinesters

Rise of the Video Game Zinesters felt prescient in a lot of ways. Although the relative surfeit of voices which aren’t white and male in the games industry as a whole persists, the ‘rise of indie games’ a few years after she wrote it did lead to a proliferation of perspectives, and much more accessible game production. However, I’m not sure if even the much-expanded model of indie production captures the spirit of zines she’s discussing. I think to some extent the move onto large platforms, most notably Steam, has expanded boundaries of commercial game-making, not as much the type of shareware that she’s discussing. Although there are still alternative distributors, like Itch.io, it’s hard to feel like perhaps something has been lost along the way.

I think her comparison to comics is telling. She rightly noted that there has historically been much more queer representation in that medium (TERF-iness of many of the creators aside). Independent comics have a long history, and the barrier to entry has historically been a lot lower. Since her article (although the shift was happening then as well) it feels as though more and more indie comics have been consolidated into labels like Image. Although there’s many more perspectives, and a wider range of creators, there’s a similar consolidation as in games.

To me, the closest equivalent to the small, free, indie games of ~2009, in the comics world, would be independent webcomics. Since then, they’ve become much more commercial ventures, with delivery vehicles like Webtoon that have creators pitch their work, and serialize it as part of a larger subscription service. While this is undoubtedly more accessible, it’s still hard to feel as though they haven’t been wrapped up into modern models of capitalist production, and in doing so shifted away from the zine spirit she describes. 

Although Scratch and Stencyl, two tools she suggests targeted towards young game developers, still exist, it feels like the space they used to occupy is now taken up by things like Roblox. Notoriously, although Roblox is framed as educational – and can be! – they also lock the children who create games on their platform into exploitative contracts. I think this tendency – for distribution to be more and more rolled into a handful of actors, and accessibility to be paired with corporate trappings/control – is one that’s certainly not unique to games, but does feel like a new barrier to the type of creation she describes. I think art for its own sake is still something that’s valuable, and which often comes into question.

All in all, this also made the article still feel very immediately relevant. Although the ‘games as art’ debate is (I think?) largely past, decoupling creation from capital and giving access to more voices still very much is. Reading through her guide to creating the basics of a game – putting together verbs and a small story – reminded me of the same processes I went through when I started playing around with Bitsy (https://ledoux.itch.io/bitsy) and other little, self-contained tools. I think there’s a lot of value to being able to create little, bite-size experiences, which only aspire to tell singular, very personal stories. I’ll absolutely try and make more wee games to send out, and make just for the sake of making them. Maybe e-greeting cards are passe, but perhaps little games wouldn’t be?

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