Yesterday, the Rotting Cartridge ran a piece explaining why they believe the judging process for the Independent Games Festival is broken, based on their experiences with a game they submitted to the festival, Kale in Dinoland. During the course of that article, they reprinted a piece of private correspondence from the IGF’s organizers and saw the lack of attention their magnum opus (a monochromatic Game Boy-style platformer) received as evidence that the festival is a corrupt and contemptible institution. Jenn Frank was not amused.
My friend was right when he warned me not to get so agitated. “It’s scene drama,” he told me. He is correct. This is a load of scene drama. There is nothing I hate more. It’s all gossip and disingenuous bullshit, and it only happens when somebody’s pride is wounded.
I have been privy to scene drama, not only in videogames, but among otherwise-wonderful poetry communities, among fiction writing majors, theater schmoes, whoever. Oh: I forgot elementary school. Your diva act in a cripplingly small pond is soooooo charming. I used to make a joke in fiction writing workshop in undergrad: “Boy! I’m glad I didn’t major in theater; those people are so catty!” It was a great way to call off the hounds, you know? My classmates received my point and they laughed. Back then, I liked being liked. Who cares.
I really hate to suggest it, but maybe the problem was your game
The Independent Games Festival (IGF) has been drawing drama since it started 14 years ago. Someone’s game didn’t get the exposure they expected – it happens every single year. “The system is broken,” somebody says, every single year. Your “indie” “game” requires exposure. Not enough judges played it, gave it a fair shake, in time for IGF, you’ve decided. These judges didn’t spend enough time with your masterpiece of ingenuity. Fine.
I have not-played my lion’s share of games. I will cop to it.
But I also think I was a great judge. Every game I did play, I gave tons of critique (here, read some). I tried to be open about why I scored whatever game the way I did, without ever divulging my actual scoring rubric. Time restraints permitting, I gave my all. I also signed my shit. Why would I not stand by my opinion?
Did I play every game? No. Absolutely not.
Why would I ever skip a game, you wonder. Easy answer: shit was broke. For whatever reason, it wouldn’t install. If your complaint is every freaking judge passed your game over, I don’t know, maybe contemplate the circumstances? Like, I really hate to suggest it, but maybe the problem was your game?
Oh, sure, sometimes the problem was a lack of clarity: maybe a game’s instructions were poorly translated, say. Or maybe a dev inexplicably uploaded 30 versions of a game to the FTP server, and here I am, scanning file timestamps and frowning, trying to figure out which set of files is my set of correct files and now I am computer-sciencing my way into your game. Still, I hustled through, because I was totally committed.
The rest of the time, though, I was looking at a C++ runtime error that halted my install. Hello, goodbye. I’m sorry. I’m just sorry.
I am supposed to report that, you know. As a judge. That is the system. That is how the system is supposed to work. But did I always? When it is zero hour and I am cramming games (hi, I’m a human), the final hour feels like a bad time to suddenly announce shit won’t install. Yeah, sure, the “system is totally broken.” Here’s why: your game is broken and I don’t want to say so.
Boy, howdy, I should’ve. And why tell the people in charge of IGF? I ought to have come directly to you: “Hello, I tried on four different computers and your shit doesn’t load. See whether this error is reproducible, and see you next year, when your shit freaking works.”
I am irate. I am irate because I tried so hard for some of you. No, I tried hard for all of you.
I began reviewing for Electronic Gaming Monthly in 2005, and I will admit right now that I got that gig because I was rocking a modded PlayStation 2 at home. I received games in the mail and at zero hour – because I am Generation Y, and we love pressure! – I would drop those little asset discs into my modded PS2 and see how I fared.
In the history of my whole entire life, one game didn’t run. I notified my higher-ups as fast as I could. There was plenty of time for somebody else to review, in that single case, thank God.
Do I have tons of integrity? Oh, who knows. Two times I was accused of “not finishing a game.” I remember how those went down, too: I hit a game-breaking glitch and I was totally done. Hello, goodbye.
It’s about respect. I have a limited amount of time – we are all dying, here – and I don’t purport to be punctual, I don’t purport to live up to every expectation but, by God, I try to give you the time. I’ve spoken, lengthily, on my insistence on trying so, so hard to not be an asshole. (Search Infinite Lives for “asshole” – you’ll locate these spare instances of ethics.)
Find me a better system. If you think IGF judging “doesn’t work,” find me a better system, where the finest minds, the best writers and developers, are critiquing your work in a meaningful way. Really! I mean it! Find me a better one and I will lay off. I’ll just go. In fact, I’ll never write about videogames again. I’m not kidding: this is the plan.
There’s another problem and I’ll give it to you straight: I’m not nice. For awhile I had your tits snowed, but I really don’t care anymore. I’m not nice. I’m not kind. I don’t give a shit about you.
But guess who does care!
IGF chairperson Brandon Boyer, whose life mission it is to make sure people make and play shit that matters – he cares. That’s objective fact. Observe the man for five minutes and you’ll know whether or not he is sincere. Brandon was grandfathered into the way IGF works, and if you have shit to settle, how about not with Brandon.
And then there is the unsinkable Simon Carless. Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Simon, even though I’ve never met him. Not only is he sincere, he is hugely trusting. He let me guest-edit GameSetWatch once, and man, did readership flatline. I was terrible. I have been terrible at a lot of things, but this was my hugest failure. Carless was unflaggingly supportive because he believed in me anyway, and I have written lengthily already on how a great editor keeps you writing even when what you’re penning blows.
And when this hugely encouraging, slightly naive person sends you an earnest bit of correspondence, why would you ever reprint it, like some base gossip blog? What is the matter with you?
Like, if the goal is to drum up PR – even bad PR – great! I love a good ballgame! Because I’m a jerk!
But social machinations aside, why would you ever?
This is what I hear: “I want better people on my side. You’ve given me your all, and the best and the brightest, and I am going to take to the Internet and demand still better.”
I have bad news for you: you can’t do better.
I’m real sorry to make it so personal, in a way, but I have serious issues when people make shit personal, to the point of reprinting private correspondence. And again, I absolutely have a big mouth. I will anonymize and reprint absolutely anything. And if you can make me go “Whoa nelly!” you are totally in the wrong.
Yeah, I have a big problem here. I’d suggest that IGF go ahead and create a first round where every bad or broken game is cut from the get-go. But guess what? IGF already works that way. Here’s how you know it is working: nobody plays your game. That’s a fucking clue. Take the hint.
“Hey, Jenn, why are you so angry?” Someone asked me that. I’ll happily give you reasons.
One: we do not imperiously malign people who are already on our side. Even if there is a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line! There are so few people fighting for the underdogs and the otherized on this Earth, and make no mistake, I am not even one of them. It is not in my nature to pick any fights or take sides and when I see people fighting for something as frivolous as “games” – and how fucking dare you pick on a tiny cabinet of the only people who are willing to give art art’s due – I get very, very offended for the people who are doing the hard work I would not dare thinking of doing, and on your behalf.
Two: I am absolutely the judge these people are complaining about. And I have already walked away, but I will walk even farther, because I cannot even conceive of defending the likes of these people. I gave you my only human resource – time, because I sure don’t have money – and if you dare tell me I didn’t spend enough “time,” I only have an unkind gesture for you. That is my #1 Pet Peeve. We are all numbered; we are only here because we inexplicably believe games have the power to change art and literature and education and the world. So don’t you fucking dare.
Three: You made it personal.
If someone earnestly emails and says “how can I help” and you scoff and reprint it, I guarantee I will make it my life’s mission to never work with you. I will never. I will go out of my way to request that other people also not work with you, because I am not kind. I will out-vicious you, any day, anytime. Try me.
Because I have sent earnest emails, too, or earnest IMs, or I have made earnest phone calls, and if my investment is suddenly a joke to you? Really, get lost and choke. I have enough friends; your “art” doesn’t need to recover. I don’t care what you made: if you can’t accept my love and my respect, we are breaking up. That’s it, that’s all.
Four: Have you ever gone through a breakup?
I mean a really powerful breakup, here. I mean like when I was reluctant, but someone asked me to go all-in anyway, and so I agreed, and I gave him all my love and encouragement and everything that I had, and impossibly, he accused me of not caring enough – and then, in turns, of caring too much, depending. I was out of there so fast. Oh, my God, you have to.
Yes, I was irate. For a little while I was irate. I might still be bruised. You’re right, you’re right.
I am not pretending to be uninjured, or not defensive, or even remotely nice.
I am happy with publishing this and never reviewing a game ever again.
Finally – and this is enormously important to me – no flame can live in a vacuum. It is paramount that as many people see your art as possible. You make a game – I am not arguing this – so that people will play it. Or as my editor Stu reminded me, with the heart of a football coach and when I was feeling unsure, “I write so that others will read.” And that’s the reality: without an audience, your work is dead. “If a tree falls” and all that.
If you honestly feel that your flame is trapped in a vacuum, move on. Just go. There are other communities that will accept you, hopefully. Just go.
But why flog people who are genuinely creating a breathable environment for your work? Why bother?
Are you really so bored? Are you nine?
Create your own system. Make your own clubhouse. I dare you.