Am I a Zinester?

In an article in The Escapist, Anna Anthropy talks about how the makers of big commercial video games can't take any artistic risks and are thus doomed to make more or less the same game forever; and how we are currently seeing the "rise of the video game zinesters", that is, single, non-professional people who are making video games and giving them away for free just because they do wish to take artistic risks and make themselves heard. Anna Anthropy has chosen me and my game The Baron as poster childs for this movement, which is of course very kind of her and much appreciated.

I doubt that it is an honour I really deserve. As Jason Dyer points out, it is hardly new that people use interactive fiction to produce very individual works that would never make the cut as commercial products. Indeed, I think it is accurate to say that of games like Photopia, Galatea and Shade had not existed, I would not have been intrigued by IF and I would never have written The Baron.

I also doubt that we are accurately described as "zinesters". I'm basing myself on the Wikipedia definition here, since I did not previously know this word, but it seems as if zinesters are people who publish their work in very small, often hand-made editions, for the perusal of a small group of individuals. This does not seem to me a useful term to apply to works that are distributed digitally through open-to-all server like the IF Archive. There is nothing inherent in our publishing methods that stops our works from being downloaded and read a million times.

But this criticism aside, I very much agree with Anna Anthropy's sentiments, and especially with the link she sees between making interesting, innovative, risky, artistic, relevant games and not having to earn money doing so. Not having to earn money: of course people could still actually make money out of their games, and that wouldn't hurt their artistic value. It's just that when you know you have to earn at least X with this game (or otherwise your company will go bankrupt, or you yourself will not be able to pay the rent) that art must be compromised and that it may seem a much better idea to make a game about shooting space aliens than about the moral options left to someone who recognises the monstrous within himself.

Still - more independent designers making games for money might not be such a bad thing either. A one-man commerical project can take more risks than a 200-man commercial project, even if it can take less risks than a one-man non-commercial project. And since commercial projects might be able to ensure better resources for quality control, and so on, they might actually produce very interesting and very good works. So I don't want to say that "non-commercial" is the only way to go; but it is certainly a way along which we can expect much interesting work being done. And we, as the IF community, are certainly moving along this way and benefitting from it.

Which leads me to my final point: the obsession with money as validation that seems to be pervasive in the gaming culture. I noticed this when I was involved in making indepent pen & paper RPGs at The Forge: it often seemed that people only started taking a game really serious once it was for sale, while freely distributed games were not taken quite as seriously. Some people even had an argument against selling games cheaply: "If you think it's good, show so in your price!" This baffled me, and still baffles me.

But it's no different among people who are interested in computer games. Read the reactions on the Escapist forum, and especially this one:

Games like The Baron just don't seem feasible to me. Games are an escape from reality. Something like that makes us deal with problems in the real world. We should do this, of course, but games like that aren't going to sell as well as drugged up space marines shooting dildos out of rocket launchers. It's a simple fact of right now. Maybe in the future, the small niche of cultured gamers (Not me, I love gore and blood and I want to kill sexy space aliens.) will gather and make a game that will reset the bar for video games. Until then, we'll just have to play our Halo and love it (We do, right?).
In what possible sense can The Baron not be feasible? It exists, which should make all questions of its feasibility totally moot, shouldn't it? Unless, that is, you believe that a game only really exists when it's earning people money, and that it exists more the more money it generates. But that's just bizarre. The Baron is no less real than Grand Theft Auto IV; it's no less feasible; it is out there and you can play it.

And its author doesn't care at all that it's not generating money for him. That too shouldn't be such a hard concept to grasp. My entire computer runs on software that people have made without expecting to get paid for it. Why would games be any different?

So let's drop once and for all the idea that a game is only real if people buy it; or that interactive fiction (say) will only have become a valid medium again when people are making money selling IF. That's just nonsense. Interactive fiction will be a valid medium when people are making great works in it, and whether these are published for a fee or distributed for free doesn't make a whit of difference.


  1. Just on the obsession with money - it might be two things blended together.

    For example, imagine that I would not let you have a copy of my game, unless you had written me a short poem. I think my game is valuable enough it needs an exchange of something else that is valuable.

    See, it doesn't have to be about money. It can just be about an exchange of value for value. But totally granted, it does gravitate to money alot, as if money is the only valuable commodity one can value ones own game in.


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