I’ve compared video games to DIY punk several times in the past few months, and it’s long past time for me to expand upon what that means to me. Rock Paper Shotgun have been running an excellent interview series with various important figures in the movement, specifically focusing on the punk rock analogy. While I would definitely recommend reading them – Anna Anthropy and thecatamites are as close as you can get to authorities on such a distributed movement – the author focuses far too closely on reductive clichés about the punk attitude, rather than the day-to-day artistic ethics of punk and their political ramifications.
When I talk about punk gaming, I’m positing the DIY gaming movement as a literal extension and evolution of where punk trailed off towards the end of riot grrrl and late hardcore. For a history of the riot grrrl movement, I would recommend picking up a copy of Girls To The Front by Sara Marcus, and reading outwards from there. To summarise multiple books’ worth of writing in a few sentences, though, riot grrrl combined the DIY aesthetic of 80s hardcore punk with radical third-wave feminism. The riot grrrls were all about safe spaces and inclusivity, which served to open up the hyper-masculine hardcore scene to a broader audience, while also introducing a generation of young people to the basics of feminism.
The movement was dogged by pressures both internal and external, though; the media mis-represented it as a fashion trend first and foremost, downplaying the political elements, and issues of white-, able- and cis- privilege were divisive within meetings (as documented in Girls To The Front). The most significant aspect of riot grrrl, in my opinion, is the merging of a DIY attitude with an intersectional view of oppression and self-affirmation.
Creating a cultural product alone or with only a small group of people and self-distributing is itself a radical act. It disrupts the hegemony of whichever institution currently dominates the production of said medium – whether that be a record label or a game publisher – and questions the authority of accepted game design practices. There’s also an implicit challenge; if we can do it, these games say, why the hell can’t you? As many of these designers release their games for free or through unconventional sales models such as kickstarters and pay-what-you-want schemes, there’s a clear critique of capitalism embedded in their production. Culture is a democratic project, not something which is dictated to us by corporate interests and bought for $60 a pop.
Punk gaming is not necessarily angry in tone, nor does it always engage with politics in obvious ways. Space Funeral doesn’t bombard you with anti-capitalist tracts, and there’s a certain affection to the way it parodies JRPG clichés. The same goes for many of the games in the Pirate Kart – scrappy and often bug-ridden, they are the gaming equivalent of a homemade demo recorded in a dank basement and distributed with via zines. The texts are always political, however, as radical expressions of self-affirmation against an industry dedicated to homogenisation. Space Funeral is unique, personal and quirky in ways which could never be expressed in a game designed by committee, as is every game in the Pirate Kart.
Foregrounding independent production and minority viewpoints picks up almost exactly where riot grrrl left off. There’s an emphasis on the plurality of perspectives which are being entirely ignored in mainstream gaming, and in finding ways to express those perspectives which do not follow the ‘accepted rules’ of game design. Every aspect of gaming is being experimented with, deconstructed, re-interpreted and remixed in ways which can be thoughtful, witty, angry and moving all at once.*
I would condone using the punk label to describe the gaming underground today, but journalists who want to write about it need to make sure they aren’t simply re-hashing the tired ‘angry teenagers in anarchist jackets’ trope. To talk about punk purely in terms of visual style and generic anti-authoritarianism is to miss the point in an obvious, lazy and reductive fashion.
Punk is the politics of rebellion through radical self-affirmation, community-spirited inclusiveness, the re-appraisal of accepted knowledge and the rejection of central authority. DIY Gaming is an extension of that spirit applied to a new medium, and it’s something we should all be a part of.**
For further reading, I’d strongly suggest reading Anna Anthropy’s blog archives and picking up a copy of her new book when it’s released. It’s likely to be far more in-depth than what I’ve written here, for fairly obvious reasons.
As an aside, I want to acknowledge the irony of citing three white men in the same paragraph I talk about a ‘multiplicity of viewpoints’, but they are some of my favourite games which have seen individual release. If there’s one defining text of the movement so far, I would say it’s the IGF Pirate Kart, although I’m far from the authority on the matter. Edit: Scratch this, I’ve altered the links to represent a more diverse selection of games. For the record, they originally linked to Terry Cavanagh’s At A Distance, Cactus’s Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf, Anna Anthrophy’s Savagery and Jason Rohrer’s Passage.
** I plan to make a game of my own at some point in the near future, before someone calls me out for this. I realise that I am, in fact, the worst.