Playdate & the LA Zine Fest, weird games, and what it means for “Playdate” to lose its name…

Playdate, now Playdate Pop Up, is a game showcase meets miniature event that runs as part of the LA zine fest. It’s been around for a few years now. It’s one of my favorite because of how low-key it is, and how it consistently showcases personal, niche, strange, weird, and wonderful games from a wide spectrum of devs. The games featured are feminist, queer, weird, and wonderfully experimental. It’s a beautiful fit for the zine crowd who are equally as feminist, queer, and weird.
It’s also an event run very resourcefully, and personally, since the organizers don’t make money from it. They don’t have sponsors. It’s all done for the love of it… as a lot of these events are.

Game events have a tendency to be a “bubble”. Even the more experimental ones, you are more likely to see that the audience is developers. Yes, there are fans, but the audience is usually very game-literate. What I find fascinating about what Playdate successfully did is introduce these weird and wonderful games to an audience that might not even know they exist, or that this type of “design language” is possible in games.
I love seeing the reactions. People are normally delighted that a game can even be this way. They don’t play games, but they sure love these.
It’s a wonderful test to see how a game holds up outside of the “game sphere”. Do people even get our design language? Do they care? Can these things reach “normal people” who don’t really care about games, or know about the world of alternatives out there?
Most of the crowd here MAYBE plays AAA games. More likely mobile. To literally everyone else outside of the game world (“normal people”, I call them) games are not exactly an art.
I mean, you really have to step outside of this space, and try to describe indie games to “non-game” folk to see exactly how much of a bubble this can be. Try saying “walking sim” to someone like this and they are disinterested because of the label, describe an “immersive world that you walk around in”, and they immediately are interested. It really shows how inaccessible some of our discourse makes us. I’m not dunking on the word “walking sim”, but I think these reactions are super fascinating.

Events like Playdate, that kind of have the courage to believe that anyone else can “get this stuff” are strangely encouraging. You watch people fumble with a controller, they might not get it, but they get into it, and love how unlike a game it is. I often wish that alt/experimental/art games could break out of the indie game sphere to enjoy that crowd more.
I think, in many ways, games can be a circle-jerk enforcing design mentalities that nobody else really cares about.

This year I showcased the Electric Zine Maker. It was absolutely fascinating to see. The age range that enjoyed it was wide. I’ve never seen so many people of varying age groups get into the same thing (software speaking). Old people, that clearly weren’t computer literate curiously engaged with it, and made a zine.
One person was super skeptical, and not used to “art tools proper”. They got into it quickly. They probably spent a good 30 minutes drawing and smudging panels, and then printed their first zine. When they were done they turned to me and said, “That was surprisingly therapeutic.”
Kids were, I think naturally, attracted to it and they probably monopolized (I use that word endearingly) the thing the longest.
Another interesting observation was how people loved the UI work. They got so excited about it. Enthusiastic remarks like “Oh my god this is so cute!” “This is adorable!”… Like it was a thing that made them want to work in it, and stay in it.
So there is a pretty big takeaway to all this

I got quite a bit of unwanted criticism from devs (other game designers) for the UI. Kind of along the lines of unwanted advice and lecturing me on how poor it is. It’s too busy or too colorful.
If I would have listened to that, it would not have had this powerful of an effect on the actual audience.
My takeaway: Listen to your audience, not your peers.
Playdate is precious to me because it allows me to see my work outside of the (for lack of a better term) indie game echochamber. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of designing your thing to impress your peers. That validation is extremely self defeating tho. It keeps your work niche. I think we should also have some level of consideration for people that would never play games in terms of what they think about what we are doing. It’s both humbling, and grounding.

Zinesters mixing with indies is kinda wonderful.

Why the passive aggressive shade throwing? Here’s the story, and what it means for an event like “Playdate” to lose its name.

This is NOT a criticism of anyone working at Panic, or what the company does. I do not have a problem with them.
What I do have a problem with is the person (or persons/leader) making these decisions, and the current elitist, exclusionary, tech-bro culture, behavior like this reenforces. Read it as that.

Last year I was one of the organizers for Playdate. That year we received an email from Panic basically telling us we can’t use the name anymore because it would be a shame if our event got confused with what they are doing. It came off as incredibly self-important. It left me thinking “Wow, what a dick move.”
This year Playdate (us, proper) got an email from their lawyer edit: it wasn’t a lawyer, it was the person that originally contacted us, saying that we can’t use our name anymore because Panic now owns the word “Playdate”. A simple Google search shows that there are quite a few events that use the word “Playdate” so I have to wonder if they got that too, or if that treatment was just extended to us.

For those that do not know, Panic recently launched a boutique game-toy device for art games. It’s touted as “weird”, making games “weird”, and experimental, etc… I do not have the heart to link to the Kotaku, et all, articles.
I have big issues with this marketing because of the bullying done in this case.

We’ve been calling ourselves Playdate for years. To me this is akin to King owning the word “candy” and arbitrarily enforcing that ownership. If you are truly a celebration of “weird” you will recognize and respect the “weird” culture that you are functioning in. This behavior is “paving over” rather than being part of it.
It’s incredibly tech-bro and I have to wonder if tech-bros can even help themselves at this point. An event like Playdate (us, proper) is hardly a threat to Playdate (game-toy). We are literally the culture that your advertising is supposedly touting (“weird”, experimental). You come in, take these ideas, mentalities, philosophies, register it, own it, and bully the people that broke that ground for you.
To any boy-genius in this industry, I make this point:
Your sense of self-importance does not equate an actual contribution.

Playdate (us, proper) is small, and makes 0 money. The organizers even lose money on it just to keep it running because they believe in what it represents. We cannot fight this. Panic can easily sue us into oblivion. If it were up to me, however, I would fight it even if it meant being obliterated because I am tired of seeing this happen.
The tech sphere is cruel to those that are “different”, and notorious for pushing out those that laid the groundwork, just to make money and “own” whatever they function in. To me, this represents that happening in games.
It’s a spectacular example of the tech bro mentality moving into a space and unnecessarily asserting themselves with ownership and hype.

This Month’s Critical Distance roundup put how I feel about the ongoing hype of the Playdate (game-toy) into words PERFECTLY. I quote:

“Also, this game boy with a crank was announced, drew headlines from across the tech sphere, and promptly got flak for having a roster of developers that’s pretty white and male. Again, I’m looking forward to ongoing conversations on who “gets” to be quirky in games, who “gets” to take risks–but also on whom the burden falls to be and do these things.”

This post is a conversation about who gets to be quirky in games, and who gets to take risks, AND to whom the burden falls to be and do these things…

It’s easy to dismiss the criticism this toy is getting by saying people just want to throw flak at something new… or that they are jealous at success. If you think this, you sincerely need to step back and think about your privilege. That is invalidating to the culture it is now stepping over. It’s the same as thinking you can’t hire diversity because diversity keeps turning down your job offers without examining why that might be. What about you is prompting that?

To me this behavior reinforces that inequality. It asserts the bro-boy-genius culture, while taking a weird type of credit for what it is now moving into. You didn’t invent art-games or “weird” games or the platform for them.

I’ll take my games and what I have had to go through in this industry as an example… I pride myself in making experimental work. I get very little, if nothing in return. It makes no money. I realize I could if I were more opportunistic, smart, backstabbing, indifferent to others, etc… Why do I use those words? When I started working in games I was hell of taken advantage of. It was a great introduction to what “needs to get done” to make something “successful”. I’m tired of writing about my experiences because it was incredibly abusive, and my story is easy to find, so I won’t repeat it here.
When I went off to do my own thing, it was (still is) extremely difficult to deal with the harassment, stalking, threats, etc… that “being different” in games entails. Yes, you can say my work is successful. I view that success largely as part of efforts from game journalists who believe in this type of work and write about me, the fans that love this type of work, and organizers of events such as Fantastic Arcade, A MAZE, that believe in this type of work enough to give it a home to be celebrated in. We all, ranging from devs, to critics, to event organizers of this “weird game space” sacrifice a lot to be here. We work very hard to assert it, collectively, as a thing to respect and even admire. It’s not on you to come in, take the labels, and “own” rights to the ground we all broke.
Your product is not more important than a small event like Playdate. A small event like Playdate is extremely necessary to breaking ground. Instead of bullying it might be better to actually help, participate, and be open to functioning AS PART OF this space instead of owning things.

One last point to make… I am tired of people “in charge”, that make these decisions, saying “Well, that’s just how business works”. No it does not. It works however you conduct your business. Capitalism is eating the world because people that could actually do something better (people with privilege and resources) are too selfish to challenge that, or actually try to do things different. This is like any man saying “Well, that’s just how men are.” (I’m equally as tired of hearing that). There’s a point where the world is so fucked up that maybe you should stop doing what everyone else is doing and actually try to work toward a positive change rather than not questioning why this behavior is the problem.

That’s my take on “who gets to be different” in games.

UPDATE January 29 2020:

Playdate Pop Up has posted a public statement about moving forward, here.