Gaming the System: meet the new indie developers changing the game

·6-min read
Indie gaming is changing the game - illustration by Lydia Silver for ES magazine (illustration by Lydia Silver for ES magazine)
Indie gaming is changing the game - illustration by Lydia Silver for ES magazine (illustration by Lydia Silver for ES magazine)

While many might write off gaming as a mindless source of entertainment — the preserve of nerdy subcultures and darkened bedrooms — in 2022, video games are now not only mainstream, they’re the apex of culture. With an astonishing three billion people worldwide describing themselves as gamers, the swelling industry is worth an estimated $300 billion. But it is not just the big developers of top sellers such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty reaping the rewards; now an influx of indie developers is sparking a reinvention of the medium to make the physical world a better place, too.

‘There’s been a monopoly on who makes games for so long,’ says Angela Washko, 36, a feminist media artist who released the critically acclaimed video game, The Game: The Game, in 2016. It’s a dating simulator enabling players to ‘learn’ about the practices of several problematic seduction coaches. ‘The resources required to make a triple-A, large-scale game have created an exclusionary culture towards women, people of colour and members of the queer community. As a result, a market for more experimental games has exploded alongside an appreciation for why they’re important.’

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, a Black trans artist and video game developer working between London and Berlin, agrees. ‘When I was younger, pretty much all of the games had a theme of “man you control, who would kill other men, add some more violence and then you win”.’ The 29-year-old is the brains behind She Keeps Me Damn Alive, an immersive point-and-shoot-style arcade game that positions the audience at the heart of a situation demanding a reflection, an action and ultimately a stance to protect the lives of Black trans people.

‘I chose that medium because I was very bored and disillusioned by how the artwork functioned at the time. You could consume as much as you wanted from this piece of work and give it nothing,’ she continues. ‘It felt like these big, political art pieces were trying to say or give so much and the audience were giving them five seconds of time and no space in their actual life.’

Both Brathwaite-Shirley and Washko represent the next gen of alt-programmers who are using video games as an artistic medium to present important, marginalised stories. What’s more, they’re part of a rapidly growing scene. According to a 2022 study by trade association TIGA, in the UK alone 557 new studios were started between April 2020 and December 2021. This represents a huge spike from the 229 founded between November 2019 to April 2020. Furthermore, even though most indie developers are bedroom programmers who don’t always formally declare as companies, the number of verifiable British developers increased from 1,041 in April 2020 to 1,528 by the end of 2021.

Well-known film critic Roger Ebert once said that ‘video games can never be art’, arguing that video games are meant to be won, whereas art is meant to be experienced. It’s a statement reminiscent of the parental lectures we all received growing up: video games will rot your brain, incubate violence and turn the youth into zombified couch potatoes — or something to that effect. To cultivate the mind truly we must devote our leisure time to reading literature, viewing critically acclaimed films and visiting art galleries.

‘I think video games are the most powerful medium because they expand on the Shakespearian prose approach, which is where somebody is observing two people having a conversation in their common tongue, so it feels like an internal dialogue,’ says Thomas Webb, creator of webb.game, a metaverse-accessible ‘massively multi-player online role-playing game’ (MMORPG). ‘This is a powerful storytelling method that the Ancient Greeks used in mythology to teach people how to act in society. In video games it’s a step further because the player takes on the role of the character and with modern video games like Wolf Among Us, the player actually decides the fate of the game.’ The London programmer’s game has engines enabling players to tell their own stories and blockchain governance so they can vote on the future of the game.

The power of video games derives from them being the first form of media that is truly dynamic and interactive. Traditional media, such as books, movies and music are defined as being consumptive since they are unchanged by their consumers — everyone who reads a book reads the same story and gets the same ending. What video games do differently is react to the user; as individuals play a game, the game changes. So, contrary to what Ebert would have had you believe, games do in fact provide experience. And with the explosion of alternative voices entering the space, many are heralding it as a truly radical avenue that can teach others about different cultures and practices.

Washko took The Game: The Game on the indie game festival circuit in 2018 and saw the responses first-hand. Most poignantly she witnessed straight men identify behaviours these pick-up artists were doing that they were subconsciously doing themselves, but didn’t realise might be perceived as dangerous or contributing to a non-consensual culture. ‘The possibility for really putting players into experiences, immersing them in a world, visually and in terms of narrative, is a really significant way of telling stories,’ says Washko.

Brathwaite-Shirley agrees: ‘Even though interactive video games are my main medium, I say the audience is my medium because I want to affect how they leave, enter and sit in particular spaces.’ She believes it’s better to get people to engage with the particular subject on an individual level rather than a grand level. This changed how players viewed She Keeps Me Damn Alive because they left thinking about themselves and about the decisions they made in their lives and in the game.

‘I hope video games will do a better job of teaching younger generations about their cultural differences by enabling them to understand one another better,’ says Webb.

Let’s be real — there’s still a long way to go. Triple-A studios such as Electronic Arts, Rockstar Games and Epic Games dominate the industry, with the majority helmed by men and riddled with accusations of staff mistreatment. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing recently filed a lawsuit against Blizzard due to its sexist ‘frat boy’ culture that ‘paid women less than men despite women doing substantially similar work, assigned women to lower-level jobs and promoted them at slower rates than men’.

However, the appreciation for the booming indie industry is promising. So, too, is the uptick in tutorials, software and support for outsiders that is leading to more people breaking into it. What’s more, the appetite for nuanced stories has already infiltrated the mainstream, with blockbuster games such as The Last of Us centring queer love stories. Gaming is set only to explode further in the coming decades, bringing with it this scene and its utopian ideals.