Indie Arcade at American Art: Five Questions with Chris Totten
December 4, 2014
Kaylin Lapan, public programs coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a game enthusiast, asks Chris Totten, Chair of the DC chapter of the Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA) and professor at American University's GameLab, about the changing environment of indie gaming, in anticipation of American Art's Indie Arcade on December 7th at 1-7 p.m. This event will include classic arcade machines supplied by MAGFest, game building workshops using Unity, Scratch and GameMaker, as well as indie games created by local developers from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington as part of IDGA.
Eye Level: What is an indie game? How is it different from any other game and when and how did the genre develop?
Chris Totten: "Indie" has become a very fluid term in the game industry. The "traditional" definition is a game created without the backing or funding of a major publisher. However, as some non-publisher-affiliated studios get bigger and create bigger projects the definition has focused more on small developers working within limited sources. My favorite definition of indie games is games developed with the support of collaborative communities of creators who meet either locally or on specific online forums. These developers function much like an art scene where they critique one another's work and share ideas. This allows them to challenge one another and push the creative envelope forward.
"Indie" has in a way always been part of the gaming landscape. Digital games in particular began as the work of individual creators trying things on computers. Even when video games became big business, groups of smaller developers still made games on computers like the Apple II and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Some of these efforts became famous such as Richard Garriot's Ultima or the Oliver Twins' Dizzy games.
Currently the game community doesn't quite know what to do with the term "indie" as it has become a sort of marketing buzzword that doesn't quite describe its userbase anymore. Popular "indie" games tend to be smaller entertainment games with styles unlike those in the big "triple-A" publisher markets. This is interesting because you're starting to see games from independent creators that are bending the rules of what games are supposed to do or be about. This includes biographical games, games about dealing with tragedies, medical illness, social norms, etc. In this way we're seeing a transformation from being like indie film or music (where the "indie" terminology comes from) to being more like art movements like those in the early 20th century. In this way it's important to have events like the one at the Smithsonian American Art Museum since it gives these developers an opportunity to connect with the public and solidify their place as art enclaves.
EL: Who can make video games? What steps should individuals take who are interested in learning how to develop video games?
CT: Everyone can make video games! No really. A boom of approachable tools released within the last decade has made it easier than ever to create video games. Even so, there exist a lot of barriers in how people perceive what games are supposed to be. On one hand we have really awesome and approachable tools like Unity, Construct 2, Game Maker, Pixel Press and others that make games easy to create. People need to get over the idea, though, that games need to be either very long or have really intensive visuals to be good games. Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure is a 10-15 minute adventure game created by a 5-year-old and her dad where the daughter did all the art in crayon then scanned it so her dad could make it move in the game. I made a game out of craft foam a few months back. Games can be made of just about anything visually since our computers can now display them. And can be as long as you feel like making them. So people shouldn't be afraid to experiment!
EL: Do you see differences between how younger and older generations use, view, and interact with video games? For example, someone who can't remember a time before Mario 64 and someone who saw the creation of Pong in the 1970s.
CT: The main difference I see is how older and younger players learn how to play games. Someone who grew up with Atari or the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) either learned how to play from the instruction book or by manipulating the controls to see what actions they had at their disposal. Today games provide a lot of that information for players through tutorials or other things so younger players are less prone to experimenting on their own. As a designer this worries me since there are fewer opportunities to create surprises or more seamless experiences if players expect the pause the game so information can be handed to them.
EL: Do video games offer different advantages and disadvantages from tabletop games?
CT: From a purely design standpoint I would say no. Game designers think of game design as universal, so many things that could occur in a video game could also be constructed onto paper. Complex video role-playing games, for example, developed as a genre on computers because designers wanted the computer to do math for them when they played Dungeons & Dragons. The advantages video games have are the aspects of immediate action and perspective, i.e. players get more immediate feedback for their actions and can see things from the first person, visually. The advantages that tabletop games have is that they (mostly) require multiple players to be interactive and that the tabletop market is less burdened by the limited topic areas that video games are (sci-fi, fantasy, and war games —all carried out in action gameplay). You could make a tabletop game about starting a colony (Settlers of Catan), managing railroads (Ticket to Ride), or supplying power to urban areas (Power Grid) and it can still become very popular. There are, though, a lot of tabletop games that feel like video games (Pixel Lincoln: The Deckbuilding Game and Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures) and lots of video games that feel like tabletop games (Civilization and FTL: Faster Than Light).
EL: Are video games art? Are some of them art, but not all?
CT: I think the answer to this question depends on what any given person's definition of art is. For myself, games are art where someone can explore ideas proposed by the designer and that games are the type of art that I do. I think if someone else wants to think of art as something where they have a singular message that is delivered with no audience interaction or choice then no, games are not art to that person.
The quest to make games broadly accepted as art, though, is problematic. It limits the other types of media that we compare it to. A lot of art isn't interactive. When it comes down to those types of debates I often say games are like design or architecture, as they are fields where the designer uses their craft to communicate with the end user. The user's use of the designed solution is meaningful in graphic design, architecture, food preparation, beer making, and things like that.
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