Indie Game Studies workshop

Ruffino, Paolo (2018) Indie Game Studies workshop. In: Indie Game Studies workshop, 24 July 2018, Universita di Torino, Italy.

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At DiGRA 2013 (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA), the Indie Game Studies panel and dedicated issue of the journal Loading…, curated by Prof Bart Simon, brought the emerging forms of independent game development to the attention of game scholars (Parker 2014). Five years later, the indie scene has become richer and varied, and has been adapting to mutating contexts of production and distribution. Festivals, incubators for start-ups and small companies, workshops and mentoring schemes, have been proliferating in the USA, Canada, Australia, Northern Europe, and the United Kingdom. Numerous independent companies have been founded in the geographical areas where the video game industry was already solid, and a significant presence is establishing in parts of the world that have been traditionally distant from the main hubs of video game development.

While the differences (economic, managerial, ideological) with the mainstream productions have always been contested, the recent proliferation of independent companies has further confused the boundaries that appeared to separate the independent territories from the ‘official’ video game industry. In 2013 the trade association TIGA estimated that in the United Kingdom ‘83% of all studios that started up in 2011 and 2012 were independent (as opposed to publisher owned)’ (TIGA 2013). It has been estimated that, in 2014, 95% of video game companies in the United Kingdom were micro or small businesses, according to NESTA (2014) and the British government ( 2014). In Australia, independent companies now form the ‘backbone’ of game development (Apperley and Golding 2015, 61; Banks and Cunningham 2016). In 2013, a survey involving 2,500 North American game developers revealed that 53% of them identified as ‘indie’ (GDC 2013), and a subsequent survey by IGDA revealed that 48% of US game developers self-identified as independent (IGDA 2014). Independence is no longer a marginal or alternative mode of production, if it ever was, but the most common type of organization within the video game industry. It appears that almost every game developer is now partially or temporarily ‘indie’ within their career, and the trend is expected to grow, consistently with the recent developments of the cinema, music, and fashion industries (Hesmondhalgh 2013, McRobbie 2016).

The workshop will explore the current state, meanings, and values associated with independence in video game culture, through a series of contributions and findings that analyse the domain from different perspectives, disciplines and geographical specificities. What is at stake, in 2018, when making claims of autonomy, self-management, and creative control? Are indie games helping improve the diversity deficit in game makers and audiences? Is there still room for independence, in a production context where short-term contracts, individualism, and financial risks are considered necessary to be involved in game development?

The workshop picks up where the 2013 DiGRA panel left off, bringing together the most current research and theorizing on the topic of “indie game studies.” Speakers, including some of from the original panel in Atlanta, will present and compare research in a series of short (approx. 15 minutes) presentations. The presentation will culminate in a discussion, to which participants will be invited to contribute, identifying patterns, controversies and gaps, with a view toward continuing towards further collaboration, research, publication and dissemination.

Speakers’ contributions:

Indie Game Studies – 5 years later
Paolo Ruffino (Lecturer in Media Studies, University of Lincoln, UK)

Ruffino will introduce the workshop. Drawing on Felan Parker’s proposal of ‘indie game studies’, the workshop gathers some of the international scholars who are currently doing research on independent game development (Parker 2014). This presentation looks at the various approaches to the study of independence. It also questions the reasons for doing research on this topic in this particular historical moment, while developers are starting to organise in local/global unions and networks of mutual assistance. It also draws on regionally specific studies regarding the meaning and values of independence, with a view on mapping the contemporary topics and questions of academic research in the field.

Game Production Studies: Theory, Method and Practice
Casey O’Donnell (Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University, USA)

Dr. O'Donnell's addition to this workshop is rooted in a deep interest and care for game production studies, beginning with his early dissertation work with AAA game developers and subsequently working in a variety of fields doing research on game production in the educational, crowdsourcing and "indie" communities. O'Donnell's focus will be on the theories, methods and practices of performing indie game production studies. Game Production Studies explore the wide array of processes, practices, texts, technologies and aspects that take place in and surrounding the game production process. This process is often referred to generally as "game development," which while rooted in the practice of making games actually constitutes a wide variety of tasks, disciplinary perspectives, processes, people and institutions.

Nadav Lipkin (Assistant Professor of Media, Communication and Technology at La Roche College, Pittsburgh, PA, USA)

In his 2013 article for Loading…, Lipkin went about defining independent games. A fear at the heart of that discussion was that larger corporations would co-opt the indie movement by producing games that look indie without being independent from dominant production practices. Since then, subsequent research suggests a different concern is perhaps more worthy of examination. For this workshop, Lipkin will discuss the Indiepocalypse and focus on how the biggest threat to independents is not the mainstream but each other. Overproduction, a glamorization of insecure and unpaid labor, and mainstream distribution partners (especially Steam) who have contradictory financial interests need to be better understood. By examining these conditions, Lipkin intends to connect the games industry more closely to examinations of other creative industries plagued by similarly poor labor and economic conditions.

Some notes on the indiefication of game development
Olli Sotamaa (Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Game Lab, School of Information Sciences at University of Tampere, Finland)

This presentation will draw on my study of the Finnish game development scene that has been going on for almost a decade now. While Finland arguably is a small node in the global circuits of game production, well known hit games like Rovio’s Angry Birds and Supercell’s Clash of Clans have attracted attention worldwide. Following Garda & Grabarczyk (2016), I consider it important to highlight how the notions of independent games are always connected to given time and place. Accordingly, I examine how independence and ‘indie’ get a particular meaning in a North-European game development scene defined by small domestic market and early focus on mobile games.

Drawing from diverse examples ranging from Housemarque, an independent studio founded in 1995 and a nominee for the Best Indie Studio in Develop Awards 2018, to Arvi Teikari, the designer of IGF 2018 winner Baba is You, this presentation explores the different understandings of indie in an environment that has never hosted a strong AAA industry. As at least some of the game development practices look increasingly similar, it is clear that we need to take a closer look at the production networks (Tyni 2017) and cultural intermediaries (Parker, Whitson & Simon 2018) and explore how they differ between individual games and companies.

The other side of the spectrum – how indies saved VR
Paweł Grabarczyk (Post-Doc at ITU Copenhagen, Denmark)

As has been pointed out (Juul 2015, Garda & Grabarczyk 2016) pixel art and low (or at least relatively humble) production values have become the de facto aesthetic standard for contemporary independent games. Indie games can typically be run on modest computers as they do not require expensive graphics cards or fast processors. The result of this common association is that independent games with relatively high production values are sometimes dubbed as “AAA indie” (Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice can be a good example of this). Contrary to this VR technologies are typically associated with expensive, high end machines because they require both: the purchase of a relatively powerful computer and the purchase of the headset itself. On the face of it, VR games and indie aesthetics could not be further apart. It is thus very surprising that this expensive technology attracted a substantial number of independent developers (for example, there are currently 1864 games tagged as “independent” “VR” games on the Steam platform). More importantly, many of the most successful VR games belong to the indie category (Job Simulator, SuperHot VR, Beat Saber).

I believe that this phenomenon demands further study, because it escapes some of the existing classifications and conceptualizations of independent games market (the move from retro-aesthetics being the most obvious reason for this). I argue that there are three reasons why independent developers were attracted to VR platforms. The first reason is the move from pixel art to low poly art which has been visible in many recent games (and which made the transition from “flat” games to VR games possible). The second reason is the spirit of innovation which permeates both communities (indie developers and VR developers). The third, most intriguing factor is that VR games created an economic niche which resulted from the lack of so called “AAA” games being developed specifically for VR.

Dr Celia Pearce (Associate Professor of Game Design at Northeastern University, USA)

Over the past decade, indie games have grown at such a rapid rate that by 2014 roughly half of game developers identified as indie. This explosion is the outcome of a bottom-up, complex, emergent process representing the convergence of a variety of visible and invisible factors, including: emerging technologies, new publication and funding models, game academia, festivals and exhibitions, accessible creation tools, peer-learning and creative communities (e.g. game jams, co-working spaces), as well changes in government and popular perception of games. Project:INDIE is an initiative and consortium formed to develop an overview of the indie ecosystem, mapping the complex interrelationships and influences between its constituent parts. We will do this by aggregating existing research on indie games, identifying gaps and setting research agendas, and conducting comparative analysis on datasets from key players to understand the synergies between various contributing factors to the growth and commercial success of indie and artgames.

Independent game industry in Melbourne, Australia
Dr Brendan Keogh (Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Australia)

Like other countries beyond North America and Japan, Australia has an emerging, grassroots videogame industry consisting primarily of small teams of independent studios creating original IP in precarious conditions. In Australia, this independent game industry has centred on Melbourne, Victoria, where state funding and the support of institutions such as the State Library of Victoria and the Australian Centre of the Moving Image have encouraged the growth of a robust and diverse ecology of videogame makers. Crucially, within this ecology are two interlocking but distinct independent scenes with different practices and approaches. This talk will present preliminary findings from interview research conducted with 40 videogame makers and cultural institutions in Melbourne to highlight the specific tensions, experiences, skills, and identities across these two Melbourne indie game scenes to draw attention to the need to account for a variety of scales of formal and informal creative labour practices within local videogame development fields.


Paweł Grabarczyk is a post-doc researcher at IT University of Copenhagen and adjunct professor at University of Lodz. His research focuses mostly on the boundaries between philosophy and game studies: specifically philosophy of language (ontology of games and conceptual analysis) and philosophy of mind (forms of representation in games and virtual reality). He is also interested in the study of modern and historical trends in games (indie games, shareware games) and demoscene. He is the president of Centre for Philosophical Research and an editor-in-chief of Replay: The Polish Journal of Game Studies.

Brendan Keogh is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Fellow currently conducting research into Australian videogame makers and skills transfer. He is the author of A Play of Bodies: How We Perceive Videogames and Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops The Line.

Nadav Lipkin is an Assistant Professor of Media, Communication and Technology at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. His dissertation, “Agents at work: Decision making capacity and creative labor in network society,” explores agency for creative professionals through a cross-industry analysis and a case study of the independent game development community in New York City. His research focuses on independent media production both in and beyond the games industry. Currently, he is examining the responses of YouTube content producers to changes in the platform’s content policies.

Casey O'Donnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University. His research examines the creative collaborative work of videogame design and development. This research examines the cultural and collaborative dynamics that occur in both professional "AAA" organizations and formal and informal "independent" game development communities. His first book, "Developer's Dilemma" is published by MIT Press. Casey is an active game developer, releasing "Osy," in 2011, "Against the Gradient," in 2012, "GLITcH" in 2013 and "Kerem B’Yavneh," in 2016. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Celia Pearce is an award-winning game designer, researcher, writer and curator. She currently holds a position as Associate Professor of Game Design at Northeastern University. She is the author or co-author of numerous of books and papers, including Communities of Play (MIT Press), Ethnography and Virtual Worlds (Princeton) and IndieCade@10: A Decade of Innovation (CMU ETC Press-In Progress), which chronicles the history of IndieCade, the festival she co-founded. Her recent game credits include Fracture, co-designed for the Blinks Platform, and eBee, which won the 2016 award for Innovation in Tabletop Game Design at Boston Festival of Indie Games.

Paolo Ruffino is Lecturer in Media Studies at University of Lincoln, UK, and artist with the collective IOCOSE. Ruffino is the author of Future Gaming: Creative Interventions in Video Game Culture (Goldsmiths and MIT Press), and editor and co-author of numerous publications on games cultures, gamification, and game art. He has been researching in the areas of digital culture, media and cultural studies, media art, and semiotics. Ruffino is President of DiGRA Italia and board member of British DiGRA.

Olli Sotamaa is an Associate Professor of game cultures studies at the University of Tampere. His publications cover co-production, user-generated content, game industry analysis & game studies methods. Sotamaa is the co-director of University of Tampere Game Research Lab and a team leader at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies (2018-2025). His current research interests include game production studies, creative labour and game policy.


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Keywords:Game Studies, Video Game Culture, Media production, Creative industries
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P310 Media Production
P Mass Communications and Documentation > P300 Media studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Media)
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ID Code:32835
Deposited On:07 Aug 2018 13:47

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