Indiepocalypse Now. MadMaxing Attention Economies In the Age of Cultural Overproduction.

This is the transcript of a keynote I gave at the 2017 Indiecade Europe festival in Paris. It is a sort of sequel of Toward Independence a micro-talk from 2012 about the challenges of independent game development.

Today I want to talk about a dilemma that all cultural producers are facing now.

In gaming circles it is referred as the Indiepocalypse.

How to deal with a saturated, financially unsustainable market for indie games?

How can we maximize the developers happiness without reducing the diversity of voices?

Disclaimer: This is a fake business talk, I don’t make commercial games and I’m not even good at selling my free stuff. But as a teacher I constantly have to think about what kind of markets and contexts my students will face when they graduate.

Let’s start with the good news.

We won. We won the battle that the previous generation started.

It was battle for the democratization of culture.

It was battle against the monopolies of culture, like the major television networks.

Videoartists and activists like Gene Youngblood back in the 1970 were imagining a democratic, interactive, noncommercial, videosphere that looked a bit like our internet, or youtube.

Visionaries like Ted Nelson imagined new form of texts that empowered the reader, like hypertexts and wikis.

They also advocated for the popularization of computing technologies. Personal computers as personal liberation.

The first book written about personal computer was a fanzine and had clenched fist on its cover.

The punk ethos of inclusivity spread well beyond rock and roll.

The famous call “learn 3 chords and start a band” became “hack a record player and be your own producer”, “find a photocopier and start your own magazine” and so on.

It was broad cultural shift that stimulated digital technologies and horizontal networks, and it was in turn accelerated by them.

A couple of decades later this shift started to affect the videogame world as well.

In 2000 you have the first call to arms for a revolution against the big game companies. Against their tyrannical publishers, their exploitative labor practices, their boring games that were starting to look all the same.

The same punk spirit of inclusivity and resourcefulness is echoed by the indie community, especially by the more radical alt-games and queer subset.

This is why we are here today. This is why Indiecade as festival exists.

Now, the bad news. But not really bad. This is a good problem to have.

When we democratize the means of production and distribution.

We should expect a proliferation of cultural producers and cultural products.

In the last couple of years people have been to talking about Indiepocalypse in relation to a series of pointers such as:

*The seemingly exponential increase in the number of releases.

*The decreasing sales and revenues, even when take into account quality and reviews.

*The disappointing commercial performance of some critically acclaimed, multi-year projects. The ones that apparently did everything right but still underperformed.

Now, nobody in the indie circles predicts the disappearance of independent development.

But everybody seems to agree that the independent market is getting more saturated, compared to the early years, say 2006-2012, the scenario depicted in Indie Game: the Movie.

It’s harder to make a living, or even to get people just pay attention to your games.

So it’s not an apocalypse, but more of a recession, a bubble, or a boom and bust cycle.

Or in economic terms it could be more similar to an overproduction crisis.

Overproduction, according to Marx, is one of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. It’s the cause of many crisis, like the Great Depression.

You have overproduction when more commodities are produced than can be profitably sold.

There’s too much investment, too many people trying to capture a share of the market.

Overproduction crisis are not new in games. When Pong became a fad, the market was flooded with pong clones.

In 1977 there were about 500 different pong consoles and the market crashed. Atari survived thanks to Space Invaders.

But it didn’t last long.

In 1983 the second crash hit North America. One of the main causes was the overproduction of software. Especially clones, sequels and bad licensed games like ET.

The crisis was epitomized by the dumping of tons of unsold Atari cartridges in a landfill in New Mexico. An urban legend that turned out to be true.

Of course there were many causes for this recession: in culture offer creates it own demand. And overproduction is not just the result of too many games.

But in this complex relationship between offer, demand, prices, investment cycles, markets, we know one thing for sure: When content is abundant, content becomes cheap, and the scarce resource becomes time.

Our capacity for consumption doesn't extend indefinitely. We have a limited cognitive capacity to process culture. And a limited free time to absorb time-based media.

Free time, at least in the US, didn’t change much in the last 15 years.

And this leisure time is contended by many industries.

Game makers are not only competing with each other, but also with TV, social media, and traditional social activities.

Some of the best minds of our generation are in the Silicon Valley right now working on systems to increase dependency and procrastination on their platforms.

All this is known as Attention Economy, but it’s more like Attention Warfare.

A war to capture every fragment of time, to capture eyeballs, as advertisers say.

To produce stories that hook you up for the longest time.

In the industry, you often hear that this is just how things are today.

You have to get better, louder and smarter at making and promoting your games.

Everybody has a chance to be famous for 15 minutes. Many will sell 15 copies and disappear. It’s the survival of the fittest.

I have many issues with this darwinistic view.

First, it is likely to penalize developers with less means and less privilege: people who can’t risk hundreds of thousand of dollars for a game project, or invest years in polishing or marketing a product.

Those who don’t have the education, the social capital, the connection needed to succeed because they can’t afford a conference ticket, or because they don’t live in north America or northern Europe.

Increasing the diversity of voices, especially from marginalized backgrounds is the reason we advocated for an independent culture in the first place. We cannot lose that.

Second problem, related to the first: this scenario gives immense power to filters and gatekeepers.

That’s how Google accumulates power, by providing a way to navigate through an excess of information.

Today one employee at Apple, Valve, Sony or Microsoft can basically determine the success or failure of a company with one click, by featuring a title.

That is not good. That is not a position of independence for game makers.

And it’s not likely to change because Apple, Valve, Sony or Microsoft make money from every aspiring developer. They are fine with saturated markets. They make you pay to become a developer, and they take a cut whether you are making a profit or not.

I want to propose a series of possibly deranged ways to address the problem cultural overproduction.

They are not solutions, but ways to shift the framing of this dilemma

and introduce new dimensions. They are an invite to rethink how, why, and for whom we make games.

First approach: Increase the leisure time.

The elegance of the 8 hour work day slogan (and the rise of consumerism) trapped us in this ridiculous idea that one third of our life needs to be sacrificed to the gods of production.

In 1953 Guy Debord, the situationist theorist, painted this graffiti here in Paris.

The slogan reads “Ne travaillez jamais”, that is “Never Work.”

The slogan anticipated the program of the countercultures of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was not about better wages, it was a rebellion against work itself. Especially the alienated work of factories and offices.

A slogan like this may seem absurd in European countries where youth unemployment is at an all time high (over 30% all the way up to 50%).

But with different intensities capitalism has always produced masses of overworked and masses of unemployed.

In our microcosm this translates to players who don’t have much money to buy games and players who don’t have much time to play games.

So we should read the slogan as a call for a rebalancing of work time.

Work less, employ everybody.

While keeping an eye on the utopian goal of the end of work via full automation.

In all capitalist economies, work time decreases as productivity increases. So we should welcome all the innovations that increase productivity per capita.

The key is to make sure that the benefits of an increased productivity are distributed fairly, and don’t go only to the bosses, or to whoever control robots and artificial intelligence.

The Universal Basic Income is a possible tool to enact that redistribution

Decoupling income from work.

(In the graph here we can see how the US are about as productive as many European countries even if Americans work longer hours. That’s what happens when you have weak unions and no leftist parties)

In the graph we can see that there’s a lot of potential time to liberate in developing countries. Which takes me to next approach…

New Markets. Historically, dominant countries looked for new markets to absorb their surplus - and to extract natural resources. That’s how capitalism expanded to encompass the whole world.

This expansion has been pursued aggressively like the opening of the Japan’s market in 1853. Japan was an isolationist country until the United States showed up with gunships in Tokyo’s harbor. They basically said: start importing our extra stuff or we’ll shoot at you.

In the second part of the 20th century this expansion happened through the imposition of free trade agreements, or the expansion of trade zones like the EU.

But now that the markets have been globalized maybe there is a less imperialist, less extractivist, approach to the pursuit of new gamers.

(Here you see Syrian kids playing American games in which you shoot middle eastern terrorists that look like them, that’s fucked up).

Another way could be: collaborating with developers in emerging economies. Instead of treating India or the Middle East as a countries to outsource production and market our very Western games. We can establish partnership and exchanges.

We can learn what makes a game appealing in another country, exchange know how and resources.

Indies can do well in non-western markets because in emerging economies the hardware is a big limit. AAA companies are forced to chase the latest generation of hardware to please western consumers, but small indie games can more easily target slower or less connected machines.

Next approach: expanding the sphere of play.

The idea of playing video games while having sex is kind of ridiculous. But I think it’s mostly because it’s ergonomically awkward. There may be some weird prototypes but there are no games nor game machines specifically conceived for that.

If you can come up with games to be played while having sex, you may create a new niche, a new genre, maybe a new industry.

The history of videogames is an history of conquest. A conquest of new places in our everyday lives.

Games were born in closed research laboratories. They were made and played almost in secret because that’s not what computers were meant for.

Then they moved to penny arcades and amusement parks capturing time previously devoted to mechanical entertainment.

Then you have game consoles that interfaced with tv screens. In doing so

penetrated a crucial battlefield for the attention economy: the living room.

Videogames became domestic and possibly for the whole family.

Contemporary consoles are even trying to replace television entirely, by integrating tv-on-demand services.

Atari made the first popular cabinets and consoles and they understood the importance of capturing new basins of free time.

They tried to put cabinets in train stations, and even in doctors and veterinaries’ waiting rooms - claiming they would calm down children.

Manufacturers of home computers competed with consoles by marketing them as more than videogame machines.

Something you can do your homeworks or your accounting with. In doing so they conquered the studio, the bedroom, the desk.

Worktime and playtime started to become more intertwined.

But it’s only with the popularity of the handheld devices, and smartphones later, that the possibility of playing literally anywhere and any time became real.

You could play with the gameboy while traveling, instead of talking with your family.

You could play in private even when you didn’t have access to a television.

You can play while on a romantic date and after sex.

You will want to play instead of comforting a crying friend.

Or instead of talking to your incarcerated girlfriend

This is a real ad for the GB advance, by the way.

Of course these ads are humorous exaggerations, but they reveal what the game industry fantasizes: to colonize every moment of our lives.

This issue of context is what the VR industry can’t quite figure out.

Where does VR live?

Where is it acceptable to be blindfolded and vulnerable?

Does the key demographic of urban twenty-somethings have access to a room that can be turned into a VR playground?

And how does the daily ritual of gearing up for VR look like?

In other words we have to ask ourselves: what are the spaces and situations that can still be conquered by play?

For example: Americans spend 290 hours a year driving. A lot of this partial attention is occupied by radio and podcasts, which don’t require eyeballs.

But it’s likely that self driving cars, by freeing the driver’s hands, will turn into mobile hubs for general digital consumption. Including games.

And maybe some games work better than others on cars

Capitalism disrupted agrarian routines, it erased the difference between day and night with factory shifts.

The last frontier is sleep. We spend one third of our lives sleeping, and when we sleep we can’t consume or produce.

Jonathan Crary, in his book 24/7 looks at the techniques developed by the military to reduce sleep in pilots and astronauts.

He anticipates that soon they will contaminate civilian life, in the attempt to create the sleepless consumer or the sleepless worker. The omnipresence of portable screens and push notification is a move in that direction - you may have been jolted awake by a twitter notification from the side of the planed before.

Can play conquer the frontier of sleep first?

Smart devices are already starting to move into the bedroom and extract value from sleep, by monitoring and optimizing sleep cycles.

So it’s not a big leap.

Can we make games that can be played while sleeping?

Can we make games that affect dreams?

Perhaps games are already expanding into that territory.

Social games like Farmville were born in symbiosis with social media and introduced a background type of play, in which game-time blends with life time.

Power players, or Social media addicts, have to schedule their days according to the crop scheduling. They are always playing.

Can games fragment and fractalize our everyday life even further, in order to extract more play time from a limited attention?

Idle games like cookie clicker or Neko Atsune, or pervasive games like pokemon GO add a layer of play that doesn’t require constant full attention.

The classic antagonist of play is work. But as we now games find their way into the workplace or in the school’s classroom.

This project is called “Can’t you see I’m busy”. It’s a collection of games meant to be secretly played at work. They look like ordinary applications like Word or Excel so your boss doesn’t notice them.

It’s a satirical project that aspires to steal paid hours away from capitalism.

But it’s also an interesting proposition: how do you design games that can be safely and effectively played while working?

New Gamers.

It’s hard to quantify gamers, because so many people play casually but don’t identify as such.

In the United States, where data is regularly collected, about 40% of people play games for at least 3 hours a week. It’s a lot but also not.

We can flip the problem and say: this is not a saturation issue, we just make games that 60% of the people don’t want to play

I couldn’t find any research on why people DON’T play games or why people play less games as they age (somebody should really collect that data).

But anecdotally I’d argue that when you are young, you generally have less money to spend on games and more free time.

This relationship inverts as you age: you start working or having a family, purchasing games may not a be big problem but finding 60 hours to play Final Fantasy gets harder.

The gamers with a lot of time to spend are also the ones who have time to complain when games are too short and leave bad reviews or ask for refunds when they don’t get the quantitative value they expect.

So AAA game companies tend to pander to these gamers.

I think indies are more likely to make titles for the other kind of gamer. The gamer who values their time more.

So another approach to this apparent saturation is pushing for a shift in the expected playtime per dollar ratio.

This expectation is culturally constructed, we can change it through discourse.

People have no problem spending $15 dollars for a 90 minute long movie

or hundreds of dollars for a net few minutes of entertainment at Disneyland.

We can advocate for an appreciation of shorter but more meaningful, dense, intense experiences.

But what about more extreme demographics?

Minecraft was tremendously successful with children. Probably by accident: it’s toy like; it’s sort of took the space once occupied by LEGO (which became less and less open ended); it’s stylized, not very violent, and somewhat educational so parents liked it.

Minecraft in single player survival mode is based on archetypes that kids can relate with like the fear of darkness, the comfort of building little forts and shelters where you can hide from creepy monsters.

But how early can you start playing videogames? One year old?

Can you make videogames for the unborn?

Fetuses move, they react to external stimuli, we can track them with ultrasound…

You could make a co-op game played by fetuses and future moms.

What about video games for seniors?

The generation born after WWII, the Baby boomers, is retiring in droves.

This is likely to have a deep impact in the western economies, both in terms pensions and labor market. The Nursing industry is booming.

For gamemakers this is a major unlocking of free time.

But how do you make games that attract people who haven’t played videogames in their whole life?

The free 2 play scumbags are building empires by tricking your grandma into paying for virtual bullshit. They take advantage of a lower game literacy.

I think your grandma deserves more than casino games and manipulative free to play schemes.

It’s a fascinating design challenge.

A lot of assumptions about what videogames are would have to be questioned.

Like the literacy of standard controllers or the importance of eye hand coordination.

In this stock photo I find the smile-turning-into-awkward-grin quite amusing. But I’m exactly like that when I play Shadow of Mordor.

Here too indies have an advantage.

Because making games for elders would require rejecting many tropes that dominate AAA games.

It will require experimenting with new genres.

Devising alternative controllers (and we can learn a lot not just from alt.controller scene but also from research in human computer interaction for disabled people) but also accessible gameplays.

We may need to mine a different kind of nostalgia.

I challenge you to design games with your parents or grandparents.

Games that could speak to their condition. Games about being hospitalized, exiled in retirement homes, about losing agency as members of society.

What about people in prison? That’s a lot of free time.

It may require some lobbying to get games there. But books-for-prisoners programs already exist, and there are some boardgames and videogames even in Guantanamo.

What about animals? Animals play. Pets are always bored.

And there is already a genre of ipad games for pets.

They are kind of similar to early games for humans: twitch reaction, eye hand coordination. Can we push them further?

Can we make games that enable a human-non human interaction?

This project is called “Playing with pigs”. It’s a collaboration between some Dutch universities, independent gamemakers, and animal ethicists.

In the European Union, farm animals are required to have some kind of entertainment (they are usually simple toys like ropes they can chew), there is already a potential market.

What about videogames for plants?  

I believe the popularity of streaming, of esports, and let’s play videos is related to the issue of attention economy.

When you don’t have time to experience a game, you can at least watch a video or a livestream of it. It takes less attention, less time, an it producing the same sense of belonging to a community. Perhaps even more, because it’s social.

So maybe the next frontier is games that don’t need to be played.

Games you can watch while doing other things.

Games played by artificial intelligence for example (salty bet).

Or the mesmerizing self-playing games by Ian Cheng.

Or the incredible GTA mod - San Andreas Deer Cam by Brent Watanabe.

Perhaps the next stage of play is making artificial intelligences that play games for us.

That’s what Google and many AI researchers are already doing. Perhaps it will trickle down to amateur level soon.

Or this promising work in progress by artist and game designer Devine Lu Linvega.

My last proposition is even more fundamental.

We all know that not all culture is meant to be profitable. Culture has been produced industrially only in the last century.

And even in the modern era, many works we consider masterpieces were not commercially successful.

More importantly, an excess of culture is never a waste, like an excess of cars.

So perhaps the best solution doesn’t lie in the relationship between demand and offer. But in liberating games and all culture from the tyranny of the market.

There are many ways to move in that direction.

Public funding for games: considering culture as a common good.

Anything publicly funded can be offered for free. Like public television or publicly funded scientific research.

Bottom top patronage like Patreon. Patreon allows you to sustain artists you like beyond the act of selling and buying products.

Or to link back: A Universal Basic Income, a welfare state, and a reduction of the work time .

This would allow more time for self-motivated activities. Including making free culture.

Ultimately if we as a society determine that videogames are important, and access to culture is a right, then we can allocate resources to support a more or less diffuse production of games instead of leaving it dependent on the whims of an inefficient,

and exclusionary market.

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