Ivory Caves and Crystal Towers

Academia, amirite? A question asked at Indiecade 2013(sponsored by Sony and Nintendo) seemed to be what role it has for indies in general. Frank Lantz(NYU) and Chris Hecker(Spy Party) debated whether game school is worth it. More directly, Colleen Macklin(New School) hosted an audience discussion “on the indie community and academia” , from which I stole the title. And this is far from the first time I’ve heard these discussions, from both indies and academics. So what are the issues with games academia? Why should indies/academics care?

nightgames party

Generally, ‘the academy’ is around because it has the freedom to focus on things that ‘the industry’ (indies) can’t or won’t. For example, these are real life talk titles from Digra, an academic games conference: “Ludo-Narratives vs the Meta-Chronotope”, ” Fragments of Hope: Abducted Reality Games as Collective Dreaming”, “The pretense awareness contexts and oscillating nature of coaching frames”. Mumblespeak aside, I don’t think anyone has a problem with this sort of thing, there’s plenty of valid research to be made, and every now and again, valid research trickles down to be used and analysed by the industry (Jane McGonigal’s work on gamification, for example)

Digra conference location, not at all symbolic

The possibly dangerous effect is the so-called ‘ivory tower’ problem. Where academic talk and projects become so high-minded and out of touch with developers that they lose relevance. The film, and to a lesser extent music, academies are decent examples of this. We’re lucky now, most respected academics are well versed in current games and trends. But we must be careful. This can only be prevented when academia listens to and includes the rest of the community. It’s easy to say you’re inclusive, but following through is a more difficult. Colleen Macklin’s talk was the most direct approach I’ve heard of, but 90% of those who spoke were current or ex grad students. Without the years of learning and practicing academic language, everyone else is disadvantaged when talking among the ‘learned’ class. Both Daphny David (I feel so fancy using her surname) and Mike Meyer are heavily involved in promoting and helping lesser-noticed parts of the community, yet they didn’t speak up during Colleen’s discussion. I can only speak to myself (disclaimer, I have a tertiary degree, but in the human language-less computer science), but I doubt I’m the only one with insecurities about speaking among the ‘grown-ups’ in this kind of setting, compounded when in front of a bunch of people. I, and others, could benefit from classical speaking skills, but like any foreign language, without being immersed in it regularly, it’s difficult to feel comfortable with it. For academics to really discuss what the rest of us feel, they have to reach out and engage with the community. And we can’t rely on a couple of ‘good guys’ to come down and listen, there has to be a real, sustained, formalised dialogue.

A more tangible problem is when academic interests match those of indies, most visibly when they produce games and conferences (like Indiecade!). This in itself is great, there’s space for a lot of work, especially when it comes from a different viewpoint. However, work made by the academy gets a benefit denied to garden variety indies, the name of an institution. Academic stuff is seen as representative, or at least automatically respected by the non-games media, and even within the game development community. This means that people lucky enough to get into schools have a higher chance of getting their work noticed, a higher chance of having discussions about it, a higher chance to sell copies, and so on. There’s a constant struggle among all indie developers to have their work dredged from the muck and noticed by the community, it doesn’t help to have a shiny plate of academic games at hand to be fawned over. Although an issue worldwide, the US has an extremely large problem with higher education being limited to higher classes. Few people can devote the huge amounts of time and money to spend years studying without a job and with no guarantee of paying work afterwards. Combined with the far from equal distribution of wealth to racial and sexual minorities, and you end up reinforcing the pretty terrible representation of minorities in the indie game community.

So what can be done to help? Press is extremely important, since it often acts as a bridge between academics and the community. Respected (and new!) sites need to make sure space is given to non-academics (freeindiegam.es is a great example). And academics need to read and play work on these sites. Burning down the capitalist structures around higher education would be great, but for now, institutions need to open as many opportunities as possible to those who can’t afford the sticker price. Make sure more schools are founded and maintained with the idea openness (Colleen Macklin gave an example of a new school in Brooklyn whose name escapes me…)  Academics need to be willing to accept when they aren’t really listening (check who you follow and read). Non-academics need to stop hating ‘the academy’, since it does do good and has good people doing good work. Hate the process and situation that it finds itself in, and those fighting progress.