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  • 'Indieology': Indies in the Boston Area

    - Khadeja Merenkov
  •  [Khadeja Merenkov, a graduate student at Lesley University, shares her detailed study on the lives and careers of indie game development in and around Boston, Massachusetts.]

    [Editor's note: All participant and studio names in this article are pseudonyms. Any resemblance to other persons or companies is entirely coincidental.]


    "Maybe you can start teaching [laughs] indie-ology or some shit once you've [snorts] picked all of our brains apart. [...] Yeah, no shit I'd attend the class!" - Jacko (September 2011)

    I am, first and foremost, a writer. Most writers can tell you that writing starts with reading. As a child, I adored the world that was placed before me in the form of words, and inspiration built a home in my mind, encouraging me to create new characters and worlds of my own. Obviously, learning to read did not happen in a single moment of epiphany à la the Prophet Muhammad's first revelation at Mount Hira.

    I learned to read when I was a tiny girl in front of a screen playing Reader Rabbit's Ready for Letters (the Learning Company, 1991) and the Super Solvers (1989 and 1993) games. I can write because video games taught me how to read. I therefore owe video games my ability to further my passion - and therefore, much happiness in my life. My love for video games has not stopped with the educational sort for I have been playing games since then. It is a huge part of my social life, relationships, and everyday actions. It due to this very narrative that I chose to interview, observe and research independent game developers - known globally as indies - working and residing in the Boston area for my ethnographic study.

    Ontological Concept of Culture

    "Duality is important - making games that are not only what we want but what our players want." - Game developer, during a presentation (September 2011)

    "Branch said frankly that he is the only one who can make the games he wants to play." - Field notes (June 2011)

    Culture is a fluid concept, so looking at indies as a culture of practice is paramount to understanding them as a community. Like any other community, indie game developers are made up of complex individuals with multiple roles and a diversity of opinions.

    First of all, I am using Strauss and Quinn's (1997) theory of culture, specifically with regard to frames. Independent game developers operate on their own cultural schemas - cognitive webs of meaning - that are durable, passed down over time, and thematic. They have motivation to keep these shared schemas active (Strauss and Quinn, 1997) because they need this knowledge for their personal and professional fulfillment. Furthermore, the frames that they work with are those that people outside of the community do not have experience with. Tannen (1993) writes:

    The interactive notion of frame, then, refers to a sense of what activity is being engaged in, behave in interaction, frames emerge in and are constituted by verbal and nonverbal interaction. (Tannen and Wallat, 1993, p. 60)

    Based on this definition, I can safely say that in the company of others from the indie game developer community, verbal and non-verbal interaction is based on specific frames. It is important to not only look at what they talk about, but how they talk about what connects them.

    As with all communities, indies share behavior as well as knowledge. Beyond their specific technical proficiencies, there are obvious schemas of how to market themselves to others when they need work, how to talk about games, give feedback about games in progress, and (most importantly to my research): what it means to be an "indie" in the first place. However, we cannot forget that individual opinion varies due to many factors, including past experience. This is incredibly important to remember while studying any group of people with some cohesive quality.

    Going even further, it is obvious that indie game developers make up a community of practice. "Communities of practice are not formal structures, such as departments or project teams. Instead, they are informal entities, which exist in the minds of their members, and are glued together by the connections the members have with each other, and by their specific shared problems or areas of interest" (Ardichvili et al, 2003). The community is loosely structured - however, it definitely exists. Making video games is what makes them a cohesive community.

    There is another theory applicable to indie game developers, that of speech communities. Gumperz writes about a "human aggregate" that I find relates directly to indies. The human aggregate is made up of members who are from different backgrounds of age, gender, ethnicity, etc. but share "common norms and aspirations" (Patrick, 1999). The community does not depend on demographical characteristics to define them, although I found that to individuals, those characteristics are important.

    With these three concepts in mind, I have a full framework to use - but we need more than ways to describe the community. We need to understand indies as they portray themselves, above any other existing interpretations. This is what taking on an ontological point of view is about - using theories with which we can truly unpack the data I get by interviewing and observing. I used two ontological concepts: Ortner's agency (1999) and Rosaldo's comparison (in Ortner, 1999).

    Ortner defines agency in two ways: first, "agency is that which is made or denied, expanded or contracted, in the exercise of power;" second, "agency represents the pressures of desires and understandings and intentions on cultural constructions." (Ortner, 1999, p. 147). It concerns giving power to one's culture. When someone commits an act of agency, they separating themselves from other groups that fall under the same socially constructed umbrella.

    During my research I noticed that my participants engage in agentic acts. They were interested in showing themselves as not only different from those who play games, but also AAA companies that make games. Members of the community, with their vast collection of differing ideas, needed to show that they were unique in how they wish to contribute to video game history. While interviewing Cricket, co-founder of Faraway Studios, at my dark basement apartment (November 15 2011), I witnessed a strong act of agency. We shared my hookah as we talked about the future of technology and the end of the world. Cricket's laidback attitude had always kept me comfortable from the moment I had first met him, on the balcony of the apartment Faraway Studios called home. That night, he was typically not wearing any shoes or socks, but "he spoke like a professor" (fieldnotes, November 15, 2011) and pleased me with his rambling speech. Though many thoughts seemed to converge at once, his words were wise and passionate.

    Within the conversation, Cricket made it clear that the word "game" did not work in his vocabulary. He "felt that the word ignored all the other connotations that were important - like experiences created by technology that would teach what he called ‘transitional skills.'" (interview notes, November 15, 2011). He went beyond the word "game" and instead seemed to prefer the word "technology" - referring to what he wanted to make as interactive experiences. Cricket had the intention to make more than instruments for pleasure. Though we sat together, chatting like old friends, he was emphatically taking a stand against a perceived notion of who game developers were and, more vitally, what they made. To Cricket, his creations were extremely important to him and his work identity. It became clear to me that each indie has their own notion about what games were, and that one should not take any term for granted. It was important for me to recognize when my participants committed agentic acts to acknowledge diversity of thought.

    As we can see from the above example, each indie has a personal outlook on who they are, what they do, and how it all ties together. Although they all have the aforementioned cultural schemas, the members of the community highlighted their variety during conversations I had with them individually and during field observations. The idea of comparison put forward by Rosaldo (in Ortner, 1999) is helpful because it allows me to fully embrace all of the diversity I observe during my research while still understanding the shared meanings that stretch across all of my data.

    At the core of Rosaldo's explanation of comparison is the following: "[...] each person [in a group] is an other among others. That is, nobody has a monopoly on truth. All knowledge is local, no matter what its pretensions." (Rosaldo, in Ortner, 1999). Instead of trying to create a larger definition that amalgamates all meanings of "indie," I believe it is important to allow multiple meanings to exist within the same group. Anything else would be, frankly, unfair.

    I attended a demo night at a Boston Indies event in downtown Boston on November 14, 2011. After the event, I left with two indies, Cordelia and Tyresias. Cordelia was one of the few females I had seen consistently, and Tyresias was an equally-visible organizer of a variety of indie-centered events. A friendly duo engaging in constant chatter, they let me tag along with them. I interviewed them on the car ride and while we were eating at a pizza place in Central Square, Cambridge. In the car, I asked the backs of Cordelia's and Tyresias' heads whether or not they felt that Boston Indies was welcoming to women. Cordelia's answer was that it definitely was, and "I got the impression that she thought that as more women entered the industry, more would come to events" (interview notes, November 14, 2011). The confidence in her voice struck me, especially since it was coupled with the concentration of driving her car. In a previous interview with her (April 18, 2011) she specifically stated that "technology lets people in, it doesn't keep them out."

    I also interviewed Champagne and Leon on the 5th of December over Skype. These indies are both extremely involved within the video game development community, especially online. Awkwardly hunched over a table in one of Lesley University's computer labs, I talked to them at length about gender issues. Champagne stated at one point that there were good reasons why few female indies were attending events. She described an experience where someone groped her at an indies event, Boston Post Mortem. "I sort of had the epiphany one day that no one walks around with their hand in the position you would need to accidentally cup my ass" (interview, December 5, 2011). Champagne's voice may have turned slightly robotic during her emphatic description due to my poor internet connection, but the recording of her voice was unable to take away her bubbly enthusiasm. Such unwelcome behavior did not daunt her - I have seen her at several different events. She even mentioned that besides some awkward encounters, she did feel safe. However, she insinuated later in the conversation that other women may fear such encounters and therefore avoid events where the majority of attendees were male, such as indie events, which usually take place at bars.

    Obviously, Champagne has an entirely different view than Cordelia about how welcoming indie events are to women. Each member of the community has had vastly singular life events that will affect them and their schemas. I believe that both indies have very valid views of the community and that both need to be seen together. This is why the concept of comparison is so essential. As I have stated before, indies are as incredibly complex as any other community.


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