As the longest running indie video game showcase, the Independent Games Festival (IGF) is approaching its 20th anniversary. As IGF chairwoman Kelly Wallick said, “I see the IGF as facilitating a yearly conversation about what it means to be an independent developer.” These annual “conversations” carry significant material and symbolic weight and are mediated through corporate commodity chains, privileged social networks, and hostile cultural fields. During this milestone for the organization and following an eruption of social violence in 2014 targeting women in the industry, it is worth reflecting on how this influential intermediary has shaped discourses around indie games.
At the 2016 IGF Awards, Microsoft awarded eight participants of The Girls Make Games program the Rising Star Award. As the young girl developers stood on stage (setting a record for the most girls or women to appear on the IGF stage) they appeared humbled and expressed hope about their futures in game development. The program founder pleaded with audience members to welcome girls into the community, “I urge everyone here to just kind of extend a hand out. That’s all you need to do...” Framed as medium cheerleaders rather than industry players, these girls reinscribe boundaries of belonging and request inclusion on the terms of goodwill rather than merit.
That same year, Tracy Fullerton, Director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, was granted GDC’s Ambassador Award. Developer Jenova Chen playfully introduced Fullerton by presenting her impressive 25 year “resume” by unrolling a long piece of paper across the stage. In her acceptance speech, she warmly reflected on her experience of the community stating, “It is full of such love and passion...and all the good things in life.” While Fullerton’s presence symbolizes a commitment to diversity, her role as “ambassador” positively bridges the cultural divide and eschews her ability to directly acknowledge the tensions in the industry.
Such practices construct a fantasy indie community that is free from abuse and inequality. These highly visible “diversity initiatives” champion evolving the medium over protecting girls and women who are rendered metrics of this progress. While I am not suggesting that including girls and honoring women should be avoided, I am suggesting that the terms of these inclusions be carefully considered and analyzed. As we approach another season of “conversations” about what it means to be an indie developer, it is important to listen for the terms of inclusion, belonging, and acceptance.