Following is the transcript of a talk I gave to the Interactive Media program at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. This talk goes over why uniqueness matters in a space like indie games. I discuss early internet and computer history, and why that history is something we can learn from to maintain the health and openness of the current “golden age” of the indie game space.
Hi everyone! My name is Nathalie and I go by alienmelon online and in my work.
I’m mostly known for games like “Everything is going to be OK“, Tetrageddon Games, or the Electric Zine Maker. Before all that, I was known for making this interactive poetry web experience called “BlueSuburbia” in which you explored poetry in this really richly animated world.
That last example is interesting to me because, even if that was 22 years ago, people still reach out to me about how much it meant to them…
Which brings me to the topic of this talk, “Your uniqueness is your strength”… at the time that I released BlueSuburbia many people did NOT get it. It got backlash, so on and so forth… but it also meant a lot to many more people.
I think it says a lot about some digital art that you created in Flash, some decades ago, no longer even available because of the death of that technology, that you still get emailed about porting it so that whoever can experience it again.
Here’s a recording of it, to give you an idea of how it once looked like…
And in terms of a more current web project that I did, also a relevant example to this talk is Tetrageddon Games, which I will quickly demo…
I recently relaunched this so it can live without Flash. It’s a game-like website, with lots of strange tangents and stories that you can uncover, and it’s built entirely with modern web standards.
To me, it was important to keep this website alive, and just as weird, because it’s a way of “keeping the dream alive”.
It pulls together all these elements, you can explore these different branches to this really weird fictional world that exists online, and it all kind of surrounds the games.
The website is just as much part of the games as the games are part of the site. It all builds on this world. So, when you download a game, you feel like you’re getting a relic from this strange space.
People appreciate it because it’s different, and I think that’s what makes all this so special…
All that said, a better more current example of my work, is my most recent project: The Electric Zine Maker.
I’ll demo some of it too…
A lot of people have said that the Electric Zine Maker has helped them through creative burnout, or writers block, so I think there’s power to building creative outlets that encourage a person to look at what they’re doing as playful.
Many of the tools in the art tool are silly, but there are a lot of functional ones too. You can import images, use any font on your drive… Everything serves to quickly and easily throw together a good looking zine, without having to really understand templates or zines.
You have the standard really functional tools, like importing images, text…
Then you have the more experimental glitch art tools that make all these computer aesthetics really accessible. Those were important because I wanted something where you could just click a bunch of buttons and it generates something beautiful looking.
In combination of all these different glitch tools you have this infinite set of randomly generated stuff you could create with it, so it’s kind of like you can co-author a zine with the computer. These tools help with the writer’s block because you can come into the program not really inspired to make anything and still make something lovely.
The other silly tools (like bacon, eggs, fluid dynamics…) all serve a purpose of letting you do a creative thing that’s really niche, but they’re customizable enough so you can still find use for them. They make you laugh because you are given this goofy thing to make something with, but you can invent a purpose for why to use it…
So, overall, all this creates a non-judgmental low-stakes space to explore your creative whims in.
There are a lot of other reasons for building unique software, tools, or games, that are completely reflective of your own values as a designer… For example, there’s no way that I could ever compete with Adobe’s tools, or other tools that have larger teams working on them. If I was to try to make something more “normal”, with that would come the expectations of normal. It would be expected to be super functional, bugs would be more pronounced, it would cary with it that established way of interfacing with software.
The fact that it’s different makes it stand out. It’s more interesting to people, and they engage with it in a way that’s unique to it. For what it might lack in being bug-free, or not high fidelity enough, and so on… it makes up for in all the other ways.
For example, before the pandemic, when I was showing this at the LA Zine Fest, a lot of people that were just passing by were instantly drawn to it because “oh my god this looks so cute!”
Things that are different stand out.
It gives people a new way of relating to being creative, different ways of viewing art, games, or any type of work… and that ends up being really special.
Don’t underestimate your own uniqueness! It’s an asset.
Overall, the Electric Zine Maker is a strong throwback to a period in computer culture when I think things were more interesting and open. I’ll go over that in a minute, but to me, work like this… work that is unique, special, comes with a strong voice of an individual, and just doesn’t conform to our view of software… is a way to keep the dream alive. Software and games are for everyone…
So, some personal history, and philosophy…
People often describe my work as being nostalgia or a throwback to the early web, which I find funny because I’ve been doing this stuff SINCE the early web. Today, this work is embraced as nostalgia. Back then, it was laughed at and very misunderstood… one of my favorite things about doing this for so long is that labels change with our sense of value for work like this.
I actually started as a net-artist in the late 90’s (kinda in the early 2000’s) and have been doing this type of work ever since. The way people perceive this kind of work has undergone a lot of changes in terms of general labels applied to it over the years. When I started, it was net-art, and then it was rich media experiences, or web experiences, then it became causal games, and now it’s just called “games”.
Your background, where you are creatively coming from, can be one of your greatest assets as a game designer.
For example, people that come from music design these beautiful games where the driving design decisions are music based. People that come from animation makes games that rely on animation as the underlying design… You don’t have to come from a technical or game design background to make good games. Often, coming from another point of reference is really valuable.
So… For my own work it’s the internet and early computers that I draw from.
You could call that nostalgia, but to me it’s much more than that… It’s about keeping a type of philosophy alive.
Links in this slide:
– A short history of Flash & the forgotten Flash Website movement (when websites were “the new emerging artform”)
– The Flash game movement, my early Flash work, and how Flash games informed what we have in indie games today…
I actually remember a time when the internet was still new. I partly grew up WITHOUT it.
So my work often throws back to that internet era when everything was really new, exciting, and fueled with all sorts of interesting and amazing ideologies… like the dot-com boom and all that wild-west level type hope that people were throwing at the internet to see what it would become.
This is also the era when I think net-art, or any type of experimental art on the web that explored what art could be and what websites could be, was the most interesting.
There was this underlying hope, or kind of zeitgeist, that the internet was for everyone. It belonged to anyone that would register a domain and host any weird crazy website they could dream of. It was a space strongly powered “by the people”, and I think it’s really fascinating to look back at that time as a contrast to what we expect from the web now.
I know work like mine, or any type of work that throws back to the early internet, can be brushed off as “nostalgia” but there were things about it that were truly better, that I think we lost… like the belief that this space belongs to “everyone” and not just monopolies or corporations (like any running social media).
It’s kind of a creative mentality that I think is really important to hold onto because of how it translates to our perception of indiegames today.
Today, we view indiegames as a space that anyone can participate in. Just look at itch.io.
This space reminds me so much of the early web in terms of creative freedom.
You just make your thing, throw it out there, and see people enjoy it. Maybe you’ll even become a “success case”… even so, all the work is amazing and contributes to this beautifully creative space.
The early web had it’s problems, but I think concepts like usability, accessibility, standards, safety… were often weaponized against freedom of everyone’s participation.
With that I mean, narrowing the scope of what a website is, how things online should behave, where creative communities go, what type of art is allowed on the web… and using that as reasons to funnel everyone into certain use-cases or platforms.
For example, I’m often told that browsers are not a good place for running games and that browsers were never meant to run games. That, if you want to run a game somewhere, it should be on mobile or desktop. There was a time when such statements would have been laughed out of the room because people just expected casual games to work in browsers.
Today we expect our communities to be on Facebook, Twitter, or funneled through Discord, rather than online forums…
There’s a loss of access to information that takes place as a result of these (walled off, exclusive, closed off…) trends.
Online forums were parseable by Google. Knowledge shared on a blog or online forum is publicly available in a fairly permanent way (lasting as long as the life of the blog or forum), as well as snapshots being archived in places like the Internet Archive. That’s the “old” structure of the web.
Knowledge is not save-able, publicly accessible, or really available when it happens on Discord. It’s not permanent. It’s walled off. It’s almost useless to have valuable conversations on Twitter because of how poor the lifespan of information is there.
If you look at all these use-cases, they haven’t exactly made the internet more accessible, safe, open… or all the catchphrases used to describe what necessitated these changes on the web.
Reliance on social media, and apps, kinda broke a lot of that early philosophy that knowledge should be free and accessible to anyone.
Browser games once followed that same model: that games should be freely accessible to anyone.
The internet used to exist in the browser. Now most of “the internet” has been funneled through apps.
The bar for making these things, sharing information, hosting your own website, was raised to be a lot higher. I think it’s because those driving these decisions, and the idea of what benefits “everyone”, are these monolithic entities, or silicon valley startup culture, that have an invested interest in funneling people into their apps. These trends largely don’t exist to serve “the people”, the end user, or just the everyday creator.
Today’s internet is very different from then, not just functionally, but philosophically. It’s very uniform, and (in a lot of ways) no longer celebrates its differences. I think THAT philosophy is a really important one to learn from and work to maintain in your own relationship to technology.
This slide has a collection of interviews with Tim Berners-Lee (the person responsible for the internet), and this is good writing on all this if you’re interested in the history…
“This is for everyone.”
– Tim Berners-Lee
“At the time that seemed like a good idea, but it relied on it being managed benevolently.” Today, that benevolent management is no longer something that can be assumed.”
“But in the past decade, that trend has reversed: the rise of the app economy fundamentally bypasses the web, and all the principles associated with it, of openness, interoperability and ease of access.”
“The likes of Apple, Google and Amazon are starting to fragment the web to support their own technologies, products and corporate strategy. Is there anything that can be done to stop them?”
“…increasing numbers of people regard the online world as a landscape dominated by a few tech giants, thriving on a system of “surveillance capitalism””
Thing to observe from articles like these is how the shift from benevolent creators changed to exploitative creators (monopolies, and tech-bro culture).
For example, companies that build AI also build racist AI because the developers themselves are that way. The group (or person) that made a thing reflects their own values, and subconscious biases, in that.
Biases built into the platforms we use, and who these biases prefer is something we constantly see manifesting itself in harmful ways. Like the hate raids happening on Twitch now. How Facebook doesn’t act on things like fake news, death threats, or serious harassment, but it will ban someone for saying “lol, America is stupid” because that violates their terms… I mention that because it happened to my sister, but she constantly reports obviously violent accounts and gets told that those don’t violate any terms. We see this stuff all the time, or experience it, especially if you’re from a marginalized background…
Who do you alienate when you build your thing?
That’s a really important thing to acknowledge when engaging with any technology or art, especially technology that requires you to invest so much of your time and energy into it (like Twitter).
I feel like, because there was such a change in the internet from the underlying forces being “good” and having a benevolent vision for (and of) humanity, to one of Silicon Valley level tech bros exploiting technology- is what changed a lot of this landscape.
For example, I remember a lot of big arguments that came from professionals at the time, arguing for why subscription based software is a great idea.
The most popular view was that “if your work is good enough then it will make plenty of money to pay for itself…”
Such mindsets did a lot of harm when applying that to our relationship to technology and the tools we need.
Just the idea that “money” is the driving value for anything introduces issues of classism, elitism, and an exclusionary culture, all of which predicates who is allowed to be part of a space.
The underlying message basically was that “if you’re not making money, then you’re just not good enough and shouldn’t be doing this anyway…”
Think of how that alienates low-income folk, students, artists, or people who create things in which the priority is not money but anything that leans into more of a benevolent nature.
This is kind of the constant battle between open source vs. large companies (tech monoliths) exploiting open source.
I really believe, if we want independent software, the humanitarian relevance of technology, even independent games… to have a future we need to separate it (and all its concepts) from the driving values of Silicon Valley.
We have to constantly question these values, because they inevitably turn into gatekeeping and other insidious behavior.
All the philosophies of elitism, classism… that pretty much drive technology today (like just the buzzword concept of “disruption”) is not sustainable.
Our view of success itself is not sustainable.
For example, the way this applies to the indie game space is how there’s this unnecessary distinction between “hobbyist” and “professional”. These labels quickly become superficial and imposed.
By these values a “hobbyist” is just a “professional” that’s not making enough money to be viewed as important (or valuable to a space).
Our indie game space is seeing this amazing boom of monumental creative freedom. See all the things constantly coming up on itch.io, or how people complain that there are too many good indie games on Steam. The amount of things that are being released is almost like a waterfall. There’s so much!
That’s amazing and shouldn’t be taken for granted.
I think we’re in the “golden era” of indie games.
It’s important to note that, at the start of this boom, many called it the “indiepocalypse” because there were too many games and it was harder to make money from games…
The driving point here is that capitalism’s view of “apocalypse” is actually a golden age for everyone else (the hobbyists, new comers, and artists…)
If a space is truly open, it embraces uniqueness. With that, you have to surrender capitalist values so that inclusivity can thrive.
The lifecycle of tech dictates that once a very free and growing thriving space becomes established enough it will attract people with a financial interest in controlling that, so they can most financially benefit from it.
For example, we should learn from how the web used to be, and how corporations transformed that freedom, channeling everyone into these controlled environments or platforms.
I believe that, as developers, designers, artists… just people participating in this space, we have a responsibility to maintain this creative freedom and all the welcoming principles of it.
To boil it down even more, maintain what makes this entire space and creative movement special.
We should celebrate everyone’s ability to make unique work.
You know, keep games weird!
I don’t know how any of you quantify success, or value. That is different from person to person, and the metric should be different.
I do think that projects, things you create, that have a different type of goal (other than making money) tend to naturally be more successful. I think things like money, or even acclaim, can tend to be very self-destructive incentives.
Something like the Electric Zine Maker was made to make zine making accessible, and help people have access to something that’s fun and re-energizing.
Especially in the current climate that the world is in, things like this generally give people hope. Given the scope, it has done fairly well for itself and won awards.
Other projects of mine like “Everything is going to be OK” and Tetrageddon Games, won awards. Both were at IGF and one of them won there.
When I made them I didn’t set out with the intention to win, or even make something successful. I made them both for very specific reasons, because I either thought it would bring joy to people, or have a healing aspect to it that the world needed.
The sustainability of success, and our classic models for measuring success (like how much money a thing makes, how much reach it has, how many awards…), isn’t something that everyone gets.
I think we should rethink our metrics for success and encourage new ways of viewing that.
Success is inclusive, it’s welcoming, it’s accessible to everyone, it’s unique and celebrates all that uniqueness… If we could get away from our archaic classist driven capitalist models of success, maybe we can make sure that this indiegame “boom” can live longer than the Internet’s golden age.
To me, success is when you can make a space better, because you are here and being true to what you want to create…