This is finally happening. It’s been brewing for some time: the scratchware manifesto, Porpentine’s ‘Creation under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution’, even the ‘Punks Not Dead’ column on RPS. The idea has been percolating through Twitter for a while, the proximate cause a relationship (let’s call it dialectical) with The Hashtag That Shall Not Be Named.
Not everyone is equally optimistic. I feel this is a long-overdue development, but, in the interest of maintaining a keen pessimism of the intellect, I have to say: I can’t see how it’s economically sustainable. I could be wrong, but I doubt many creators will be able to even survive on this model. Of course, most ‘indies’ aren’t surviving anyway, and fleeing the ‘indie’ ghetto might be just what they need. But for those who do make it, questions will remain.
I say #altgames is ‘happening’ because it’s being promoted by Boing Boing and widely commented on and reported. Boing Boing is a site which is both well established and something of an artefact on today’s internet. Though I doubt the compensation keeps them in caviar and tailored suits, the site’s writers have ‘made it’ — they have established careers — so choosing to publish this manifesto is not just a gesture of editorial intent but a form of patronage. The same could be said of Rock, Paper, Shotgun‘s old columns on the incipient altgames scene.
This isn’t intended as a form of criticism — I’m not making accusations of ‘bias’ — it’s an observation about altgames’ role within the attention economy. This is not a punk-rock world of photocopied zines being passed from hand to hand — the internet killed that reality. Now, communication is so easy that it is simultaneously centralised. Being a writer for a popular blog is not necessarily a rewarding or glamorous occupation, but it does get your work read. Altgames are entering the broader web in a patron/client relationship with established but peripheral websites, with a business model which is likely to rely on private patronage and, if things go really well, on (an ever-shrinking, besieged pool of) grant money.
I don’t think any of this will stop altgames from being made. I don’t even think it will stop some of them from being popular. I look forward to the moment when some crazy altgame shatters everyone’s expectations and makes someone a mint in the process. But, when punk dies again in a flaming wreck, as it should and must, our new punks will be living in a world that is even more precarious and has vastly fewer social supports than the late ’70s, with their material survival a matter of quasi-charitable patronage or a day job that does what day jobs always do to artistic dreams, in a set of darkened rooms connected only by the internet. How our post-punks will deal with commercial pressures to conform, and how the rest will eat, I can only guess.