Congratulations, Indie Games! I have good news! The news is: you have already won the battle against AAA commercial games. On several very meaningful levels, the results of the struggle are obvious. You are victorious. It is time to wipe the froth off your beard, relax, and drink some delicious mead out of Bobby Kotick’s skull.
No, seriously. As of several years ago– although we didn’t all realize it at the time– indie games were already poised for a secret ninja-takeover of the hearts and minds of the world’s internet-literate youth, a campaign they continue to pursue, with great success, to this day. The most progressive and important modern art being created anywhere on the earth comes in the form of digital games, usually indie games: particularly, experimental ones which push at form and design standards. Because of the model under which indie game designers struggle, this groundbreaking art has been available, for free, to anyone and everyone who cares to access it.
Basically, for the first time in history (maybe? I’m willing to discuss this), almost the entire canon of the world’s newest and most important artistic movements are available for zero cost to anyone. So long as they have internet access (and unfortunately, in some cases, so long as they are fluent in English), people, particularly young people, can have a world-class artistic experience–on Kongregate or Newgrounds. Just like that. And if they choose to do some more exploring and dig up developers’ sites, they’ll have access to even more groundbreaking art. Usually for free.
This incredibly broad exposure was not part of the growth of arthouse cinema, western literature, or the static visual arts. Nearly all the major works of each of those mediums except maybe public statuary were at first restricted to people of certain education backgrounds or class origins. Internet is still limited to those who can afford it, and who can afford the leisure time to enjoy it, but that’s a lot of people. I suppose the closest we’ve ever come to this before was during the development of rock music as a new artistic movement, when radio made it available to people of all age groups and backgrounds– but even then, the kind of discussion and community involvement we’re able to have about indie games on the internet was impossible over the radio, even though adoption of the new movement was broader. With rock music, the music was also controlled by an industry; indie games, on the other hand, are often self-published and anti-industry, and there’s no barrier to artists entering the movement.
This all occurred to me when I decided, in desperation, to read through all of the comments on Newgrounds for Gregory Weir’s Looming, one of the best indie games I’ve recently played. See, I’d found all of the artifacts in less than an hour, but I’d spent an extra forty-five minutes wandering around Looming, with nothing to show for it. Finally, shamed, I decided to search the comments to see if anyone had put up some hints. Back then there were something like 100 of them. Now there are over 500, and the game has earned a large banner on Newgrounds’ front page. The game is getting massive exposure. Furthermore, when you read the comments–both supportive and frustrated, by those who felt moved by the experience and by those who didn’t get it–it’s obvious that this game is betting played by the whole of the basic Newgrounds cross-section. So, a lot of these players are very young. They’re excited and invigorated by the work they’ve just experienced, they’re eager to talk, and they’re young.
This, of course, is the key detail. See, my current internship in the office of a small Japanese-owned games publisher has given me information and perspectives about internet advertising and audience targeting which have been incredibly enlightening in the context of my background in games writing. Newgrounds is one of those sites which targets its advertisements at teenagers– often quite young teens. The people clicking on banner ads on Newgrounds– the people it knows it’s making money off of, and thus the demographic the whole site is geared towards– are in high school, or occasionally even younger. This meshes with my personal experience with Newgrounds: In early high school and late middle school, I remember spending at least an hour every weekday on that site. I haven’t yet heard the marketing team here at my internship talk about Kongregate, but I assume it covers at least part of a similar demographic.
So: an army of impressionable young people, internet-literate, at the stage in their lives where they are making incredibly important decisions about the kinds of things they want to dedicate their existences to, are accessing cutting-edge art on websites that present these works as normal, cool, and interesting. And these websites are encouraging kids to talk to each other about them. Most interesting about Weir’s game is that it includes developer’s notes for those who finish the game. This seems to have gone over enormously well with the Newgrounds crowd– I saw more than a few comments from players who felt like this helped them to ‘get’ the game, or made them more excited about it than they already were. So not only do we have young people talking about art with one another, now we’ve got the artist talking back to them. Which is, of course, fantastic, if you want to get kids excited about indie gaming.
Now, I know it’s not as utopian as I might be suggesting it is– Newgrounds is no place to access cutting-edge indie art games compared to, say, Play This Thing, which filters through everything and highlights the high-points. But it’s happening anyway. Indie games are snagging kids before they’re done with puberty. Indie games snagged me that way, too: as a young teen with no income, I adopted freeware games in late middle school as a way to entertain myself for free. I gradually began playing more and more ‘artsy’ games, so to speak. Discovering Cactus’s work for the first time was even more exciting than when I discovered funk and jazz, around the same time. It was like waking up.
Indie games can’t yet compete on an equal commercial plane with AAA games, largely because of the way they’re treated by the hype-dependent games journalism machine. But indie games were already winning the battle when it came to enlightening and engaging young people from a broad variety of backgrounds– players and nascent devs alike– even back when I started following freeware games in 2004. They’re winning even harder now. I predict further catastrophically magnificent world-devouring win from here on out, too. It’s like the indie games community on the internet is some vast, hulking, star-destroying insectoid brood mother, laying her egg-spawn in the millions of teens who access their work on Newgrounds and Kongregate every month. Someday, them eggs are gonna hatch.