Yeah, so, my name is Merritt Kopas and I've been in indie games for about three years. I live in Toronto and I'm 28.
I make games on my own, I release them on my own, and I release most of them for free and most of them are really small. And so that's the space that I've occupied for the last few years.
Tell me a little bit about Forest Ambassador.
Yeah, so Forest Ambassador is a site that I run that curates videogames and it has a really specific focus in that it's looking to grab games that are really short and are playable who don't have a couple of decades of experience of playing games. So you don't really need a lot of games literacy to play them.
It was started with the intention of creating a space for people who were maybe interested in games but sort of felt put off or intimidated by how technically complicated a lot of them today are.
Do you think you're executing successfully on your plan for Forest Ambassador?
Yeah, I mean, I think the site has been fairly successful. I'm concerned sometimes that regardless of how hard you try it is hard to break out of the bubble of games. I think sometimes games people think that we're a lot more influential or important than we are. I'm not sure whether the site is reaching people who are already in that space or whether it is really penetrating out beyond that bubble and getting to people who wouldn't otherwise see this stuff.
Tell me a little bit more about the bubbles and games thinking they are a little more influential than they really are.
Yeah, yeah. I think this can happen in any really small tightly knit community or network, but I see this dynamic where we've gotten more mainstream coverage of videogames over the last few years that isn't from a purely consumer standpoint or isn't from a purely moral panic standpoint. And so you have pieces in The Times and in The Guardian and you have more and more outlets starting to do games journalism and games criticism and treating the medium like any other medium like film or literature and I think what happens is that people start to think, "This is it. Games are the medium of the 21st century!"
Whether or not you believe that, I think there is this weird optimism within games that thinks we have a lot more influence than we really do. I think the majority of people's experiences with games are still Candy Crush on their phone or, like Tetris -- or they think of games as, like, Halo on. Most people aren't playing the indie darlings that are celebrated within the community of designers and enthusiasts. That stuff doesn't really reach out as far as people think that it does.
The relationship that people have with games outside of the community I think is still very different. I think it's still very much like a thing that you do on your phone while you're at the bus and not a meaningful experience you have.
Do you agree with me that, like, the "indie" space itself is also a nebulous thing?
Yeah, no, I totally agree that -- yeah, the indie space, that we use this word "indie" all the time and it's not really ever clear what that means and maybe it was more clear a few years ago.
[Laughs.] I mean, I so rarely use the word just to be able to talk about it.
Because it feels incredibly nebulous.
Yeah. It's like, what is that describing? Is that describing the Vlambeers of the world? The people who are doing successful, fairly traditional games? Is it describing Notch? Is it Jonathan Blow? Is it, like, women who are making games and releasing them for free? Like, the idea that all these people belong to the same community or label is just -- it erases so much. It just takes out all this diversity and renders it into this monolithic thing that is not really real. It also erases a lot of history, too, because people have been making games on their own for decades, right?
And we've just started using this term "indie" as this kind of brand that really just forgets all that history of homebrew and of hobbyists and all this stuff that people have been doing for so much longer than we tend to think.
Yeah, I mean, literally just before I hopped on Skype with you, someone who I interviewed before tweeted at both of us, "Well, why is indie bad now?"
I basically said what you said: It's not it's like a binary. It's not like it's bad. It's just short-sighted because the entire industry used to be "indie." It doesn't get much more indie than, like, going to Radio Shack with a plastic bag with diskettes and being like, "Can I, like, leave this here in case somebody might want it?"
[Laughs.] So, I guess as this term has taken hold, what does it seem to mean? You mentioned a bit, but what are all the ways you see it being refracted back to you? What are all the different interpretations you see?
Sure. I see it becoming a brand and I think this is a problem with any term that crystallizes and gains meaning, which is why artists have all always kept churning through those, right, because there's always the risk that it calcifies.** But with "indie" especially, it's been taken up the biggest corporations in games now to sort of signify this, like, alternative quality.
Like, you can go on any of the major games stores online, now, whether it's Sony's or Microsoft's or whatever and there's, like, an "indies" section. That, to me, is kind of strange in ways. [Laughs.] I mean, it's good for those folks who are getting paid through those outlets, but also presenting a very narrow slice of independent work as "indie." Again: just misrepresents what's going on there.
And also, I think the other effect it has is silencing those conversations about difference in that someone can always feel like, "Well, we're all indie developers. We're all in this together." And it's not really clear what we're in this against or for. [Laughs.]
It's sort of a contentless ideology, right? It's just sort of this banner that can be waved to say, like, "Look, we're all indies! We're all doing independent games stuff!"
But the kinds of things people are doing are so wildly divergent that it's just meaningless to and try to use this one term to catch them all.
Yeah. Do you think there was a tipping point of how the term "indie" coalesced into what it seems to mean today?
I think a lot of people point to games like Braid. I think in the mid- to late-2000's, when you had games like Braid, games like World of Goo popping up on mainstream consoles. Like, you've got World of Goo on the Wii and things like that. I think that's when people get this idea of a capital "I" indie of, like, you have this cadre of elite, independent artists who are pursuing their own vision and making work that is not exactly what you would see out of mainstream games.
And then you have the whole Indie Game: The Movie narrative, which sells people this idea of, like, if you work hard enough and have a strong enough dream, then you'll be swimming in money, too, just like Jonathan Blow. [Laughs.]
You, too, can be taunted by rappers.
Yeah. Yeah. And sleep fitfully atop your piles of money.
Yeah, I think in the mid-2000's is when I see that happening, because people were doing this work before then, but they really weren't thinking of themselves as indie in the same way, I think. What happens, then, is you really have this drive to professionalize and commercialize as well, because hobbyists have been doing this kind of work forever, and it's never necessarily been a profit-seeking kind of work.
I mean, in some cases, I think it has been a stepping stone toward that. But, really, what happens, I think, in the mid-2000's and later on is that indie becomes a dream of success. With Indie Game: The Movie, people start to think, like, "I can pick up GameMaker and make a game that will get me rich and famous."
Which is really scary that people believe that. [Laughs.] Because, I mean, to some extent that is true. That does happen for some people. But it's totally random, right? It may as well just be completely luck-based because there's so many people doing that work and the number of people who are going to be picked up out of that and who are going to reap the rewards are just so small.
So, not accounting for quality, which is subjective, what are the factors you think actually contribute to an independently made game's success?
I think the main things that I see as contributing to a game's success -- I mean, obviously there's a luck factor involved because there's this mountain of work being produced everyday. But beyond that, I see this sort of fetishizing of this idea of "cool" in games where a work has to sort of fit into a particular kind of aesthetic.
So, if it's, like, very minimalist in a way that is kind of flashy or attracting; if it can be played at kind of festival settings; if it really grabs your attention. So, work that is very shareable on Twitter.
I think this is one of the things that contributed to the success of indie games over the last few years, going back to Phil Fish's work, which is that the screenshots really jumped out at people, right? So, a game that's maybe text-based is not going to necessarily do that. It's not as easily shareable.
But something that has really flashy screen shots or that can grab people's attention really quickly, I think that's become more and more important because people are discovering more of this work through Twitter and similar kinds of social media lately.
That's something I've long pondered but never actually discussed with somebody else: When we think about games that get successful or noticed, these are typically games that are, like you said, they show well in settings where they have to grab someone quickly.
This may be an obvious question, but do you think the nature of that impacts the types of games people try to make to the extent that they're not even really making the thing they would really want to make? They're just making something they think will hopefully get noticed in that context?
I mean, I do think that a lot of the people who do get really successful are the people who happen to want to make those kinds of things. [Laughs.]
The kind of people who really love making roguelikes and really love making really tightly made action games with lots of screen-shake.
I think that's one reason why they're successful, because if you're trying to do something for mercenary ends and you're not enjoying it, that can end up being more difficult than trying to do something that you're actually enjoying.
But, yeah, I think it definitely does shape the work that gets created. I think that's why you see piles of zombie shooters on Steam, I think that's why you see roguelike after roguelike after roguelike, I think that's why every game is procedurally generated: Because people see the things that are successful and there's a kind of patterning effect or a path dependence, right? One thing happens to get successful maybe for a totally random reason, and then they start to dissect it and say, "Okay, what are the qualities of this thing and how can I reproduce that to get the same results?
What relationships seem to matter for people making games independently for them to get noticed -- and we'll get into what success means next -- but just for them to be ignited?
I mean, it does seem -- and this gets into difficult territory, right? Because it's easy to point to relationships between --
And this is not about "ethics in videogame journalism" or whatever bullshit. I'm just talking, legitimately, for anyone who is trying to create things for the Internet today there are so many other people trying to make the same things. So, relationships matter everywhere. I'm not saying --
No, yeah. No, no, no, no.
Those relationships are critical to me, and I see the development of this kind of -- there is a scene, right? Or there are multiple scenes, and this is something I don't see people talking about as a problem: But these kinds of scenes of work that shows well at festivals and people who run those festivals and a lot of them happen to be men. [Laughs.]
So I think a lot of about the ways that this development of an aesthetic of, like, cool, alternative videogames is kind of politically contentless. It's about particular genres or kind of imagery that is attractive to people.
And I think there is these sort of networks that develop around those kind of work and the people who are covering them, and people maybe want to point to women journalists covering other women and making games and saying that that is a huge problem but really I see this more in terms of the ways that male-dominated scenes perpetuate themselves. But I guess, yeah, if you are a man, it's super-important to know those other guys who are running that stuff, right? I don't think that's necessarily enough.
And I think sometimes it's easy to get confused because I think what happens sometimes is people happen to find success and it sort of is just a semi-random thing, and then they sort of get pulled into these networks and the cause and effect isn't always so clear, you know?
Yeah, I was gonna ask, like, do you get the sense that people who are lucky in games know that they're lucky?
I think they do. [Laughs.] I think some of them do.
Obviously to say that someone is lucky, to me, doesn't diminish the fact that they may be talented or hardworking. It's just to say that so are a lot of people. There are always just as many people working just as hard as you and that's where luck comes in, that you are the one of that crowd of people who are putting the work in who happens to get plucked out of that.
In conversations that I've had with people who do that stuff, I think some of them are? [Laughs.] Probably not. Not all of them. I think there is a belief among some and this maybe comes from the meritocratic beliefs that come with tech and that have sort of trickled into games that, like, if they're at the top it's because they are the best and they're doing the kinds of work that no one else could possibly do.
Have videogames ever been a meritocracy, though?
I mean, I don't think so. It's -- I mean, what artistic field has been, right? I think once money gets in, definitely things start to get more complicated, but even before that, the kinds of people whose work is being shared is always shaped by social factors. And to a some extent, the Internet lets you circumvent some of those things, but not entirely.
But there are other people who believe -- and I think as games become more profitable and they become bigger and bigger and some of those beliefs from tech, the sort of technolibertarianism trickles into games, you do have people who are basically the equivalent of successful guys in tech who believe they got where they are by working hard and that they're irreplaceable and they're doing really critical work. Maybe they are doing interesting things, but I think that their sense of self is really inflated by their position. [Laughs.]
Not naming any names. [Laughs.]
No, of course not. And I'm not asking you to. I'm just curious what the membrane is we're all wading through.
So you can speak to a different scale of scope of games with your project. I'm curious: In general, and including, the things that you curate, what does lower-case "s" success in videogames look like for those people? We'll get to capital "s" next, but --
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah. I think at this point just having your work covered can feel like success to some people, and I think that that is a kind of success because -- again, we've been talking about the discovery problem and having someone sift through, like, itch.io or Gamejolt or whatever and finding your work and playing it and then caring about it enough to write about it? I think that can feel like a pretty major victory to people.
And I think if you are not in it to get rich and if you're not in it to be, like, the most famous game developer, then that is a success. That means someone has found your work and it's reached them and it's meant something to them and then they're going to broadcast that and hopefully more people will have that same kind of experience.
With your project, have you been able to make connections like that for people?
Yeah. I think what happens with a lot of these sites that are talking about games or that are sharing smaller games is that they feed off each other a little bit, and I think of this as mostly beneficial to everyone. So, I'll post a game sometimes and it'll show up somewhere else with a deeper write-up about it, and that means this author is getting all this exposure, right? Which is pretty cool.
I guess I sometimes forget that the site that I run has an audience and so sometimes I'll get an author writing back to me being like, "Thank you so much for sharing your work and so many people saw it and this is just such a great feeling." It's like, "Oh yeah, it is hard to get your work seen if you're not the sort of person who doesn't already have an audience."
Like, it is hard to break into that. It's a cool feeling when I'm able to do that.
What do you think capital "S" success --
I think the dream of a lot of people is, "This is your job and this is how you're supporting yourself." Like, you don't have a day job, you are making games full-time, and probably -- I think for some people, the question of fame versus material success is -- they've sort of wrapped it up into this one idea of "making it," right? So the idea of having a following and also being materially secure, but what I think a lot of people don't realize is that those things rarely go hand in hand. That a lot of people who have enormous followings on Twitter or elsewhere are destitute or at least not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination.
And a lot of people who are doing really well for themselves in games and making a lot of money aren't the ones who are like, "Oh, they're being personalities on the Internet. Right?"
And so people have this idea that, "Oh, I'm gonna make it and then I'll get the followers and then I'll get the money." [Laughs.] It's like, "Maybe if you are super-lucky, if you strike at the right time, if you're working in the right genre, if you have the right aesthetics -- all these things. Then maybe. Maybe that'll happen."
But the number of people that that happens to is so small that this idea of capital "S" success is just so illusory.
Popularity, if you can amass that in the independent space, like, nebulous though it may be: What does that seem to actually empower people to accomplish?
I think it depends. I think if you are -- I think a lot of time what getting popular in an indie-game space means is very little. I think -- again, people overestimate the breadth of the field and they see being invited to speak at an event or getting an article about one of your works as this enormous function of power when it really is not. I think maybe if you are the kind of person who is making really traditional games or not so traditional games but things that still fit pretty comfortable within that label, and maybe if you are white, and maybe if you're a man, or all of these different things, then maybe you'll be invited into other kinds of circles.
Or maybe you'll start making connections in the mainstream industry. Maybe you'll start getting deals to have your work ported to other consoles. But that seems so rare for people that I don't think -- like, because this field is so small, success within it doesn't actually mean much unless you're actually able to transfer it outside of that.
Do you perceive people in their quest for lowercase "S" or capital "S" self-editing whether it's in their works or in the arena of social media to maybe be more appealing or amenable to perceived gatekeepers? I hate to ask you to get inside the heads of people you maybe don't know, but maybe you have gleaned this from conversations with people -- but again, don't name names.
But maybe through some of the authors you know through your project or elsewhere in the community, where sometimes they say, "I really wish So And So would start talking about my games."
I don't know. Basically I'm just asking: Does this feel like high school? [Laughs.] That's basically the question.
Yeah, and I think any kind of small culture is going to, right? I think people definitely self-edit and the people who get really good at that are the ones who are more palatable to a wider audience, right? I've certainly found myself doing that, too. I have cultivated a very specific Twitter persona that may seem very open and honest, but it really is a brand, right? That's what you have to do if you want to build up that kind of success, which is a fairly damaging and difficult process. But the people who are most successful are generally the ones who are able to have a powerful filter or the ones who don't need to really have that in the first place because maybe they don't have the kinds of resentments that other people do by virtue of not being male or not being white or whatever.
But certainly those people, like, people in the position of facing structural oppression are -- you have to learn to either keep that stuff to yourself and only speak to it with people you trust or else you have to be prepared for the fact that people are going to be upset with you for talking about it and that it may end up sabotaging you.
I have seen some developers who -- you know, you end up just attracting people into your orbit on social media. I have seen some individuals be -- like, the way that they want to brand themselves is talking about how much they hate branding themselves. They're uncomfortable owning it.
Basically they're on the beginning of the journey of going through that process that you're talking about. I'm certainly familiar myself and I know a lot of other people who have been through it, but you used the word "damaging." What is damaging about going through that process?
I think the danger is that you come to see that brand as yourself, as the sum total of who you are, and the more time you spend doing that work, the harder it can get to pull apart your public persona from your entire life. I see that happening to some people where, like, I think it can get to your head if you're not careful. Like, this sense of, "Oh, I am this really cool person on Twitter with thousands of followers and everyone loves me."
I think you really do have to, like, have people around you who are calling you on your bullshit or you do have to be really good at knowing that doesn't mean you're a good person or an incredible person, necessarily. It just means that people like the kinds of weird jokes or content or whatever that you post on Twitter. [Laughs.]
It is what it is, right? Like, that can be really great, but that can't be who you are entirely as a person.
And I think people who do try to just be their Twitter brand start to break down and that can get really messy and horrible really quickly.
I feel like part of what you just said would have been a laugh line on a sitcom a decade ago: "I'm really cool on the Internet." But today in these circles, it seems to be something that people violently strive for. What do you think has shifted where this is a thing people want so badly?
I think there's a few things going on there, right? One thing, and something we forget a lot, is that tech platforms want us to want that. Right? It's in Twitter's interest for us to want to be Twitter-popular and to get favs and to have tons of followers because that perpetuates their platform and, like, it's good for them as a business. I think we forget that too often and we treat and similar kinds of social media as just these neutral environments where our interactions take place but they're absolutely not.
And I think maybe the other thing is that people see this as a substitute for traditional kinds of success, right? So, you were saying 10 years ago this would be like a joke. Well, what's happened in the past 10 years, right?
Thinking right around the time that Braid and similar games are coming out, that's around 2008. And there's this kind of shift away from these -- I think people realize, "Oh, I can't have the things that traditionally signify success to me. I maybe came from a middle-class family, but I can't have those things anymore because I sort of chose this life of writing or making games or whatever, and so I need something else to substitute for that."
One thing that can do that is the sense of having a following or being micro-famous, having a few thousand Twitter followers or whatever. And of course, yeah, like I was saying, platforms like Twitter are really happy people feel that way. [Laughs.] And they're really happy to encourage that feeling, too, of investment in those platforms.
So I think that's sort of the thing there is people searching for the substitute for traditional forms or signifiers of success that seem out of reach now.
What are the types of behavior you tend to see out in the independent videogames space?
Sure. Yeah, I think the one major dynamic that I've seen over the last few years and that I don't see talked about very often is the one I mentioned earlier, which is this kind of sense of "cool" around games that sees itself as "alternative" and "indie" just by virtue of it being small or whatever.
But the kinds of content that are being created in those spaces are often not super-dissimilar from traditional games. But I think there is this sense of, "Yeah, we're doing cool work. It's, like, outside of the mainstream. It's being shown in festivals in a desert or whatever." And the kinds of people that I see congregating around that space are fairly traditional-looking games people, right? So that's a major thing I see.
And then there is this other strange dynamic of the interaction between academics and designers or non-academic critics, which is a very complicated and fraught relationship. But as games have professionalized, there is also this growing number of people whose job it is it to professionally write about them in an academic way and to do them within the apparatus of higher education, which comes with all its own complicated rituals and networks. But the kinds of dynamics that exist between academics and non-academics are really strange because there's, like, this power dynamic. But it's not the kind of power that people think. Like, people tend to think professors have enormous social power when, really -- it's like games, right? [Laughs.] No one outside the academy really listens to them.
So there are all these weird things happening with games. I mean, I say it again: They're still small, but there have been little bursts of growth. And there has been this expansion, of even independent games and with that comes all these weird, new interactions at the margins of that space.
Why do you think some people in the audience for videogames take them so seriously? Why do you think some act in ways that are so entitled over entertainment products they consume? I think it’s reasonable to feel entitled to a working product, but that attitude carries over into a lot of other things, and very aggressively.
I think when you grow up with something, and especially when it’s something that you’ve built up an identity around, any perceived changes to that thing can feel like an existential threat. Like, especially if you grew up as a dude who was picked on or failed to live up to the ideals of masculinity, and you got into games as this refuge from all that, which I totally sympathize with, then this is like, the one space you get to control, y’know? And then when you hear about changes to this space that’s brought you so much comfort and pleasure you start to worry, you get nervous, you feel threatened, you lash out. Which doesn’t justify it, but like, I think there are really deep roots to this stuff.
None of this stuff is totally in a bubble. Like, it’s also part of the same world that thinks Donald Trump could maybe be president and that also hated not just Skyler White but the actor who portrayed her onBreaking Bad. How does that sort of stuff connect or interlock with videogames?
Like, all that stuff is kind of preying on these exact insecurities and issues, right? There’s this powerful convergence of economic and social factors that makes young white men think that they’re way less powerful than they are, that makes them feel threatened by women and men of colour and everyone who isn’t them. And maybe they are less powerful than they feel like they should be, than they’ve been told they should be. And smart, awful people know how to use that feeling. The same guys who are organizing hate campaigns against women in games, who throw fits whenever the industry inches towards something a little better, they’re buying into these theories about how women secretly control the world. And videogames have not exactly done a whole lot to challenge that.
What do you think the industry or media could be doing to help combat some of the toxicity around videogames?
I really think we need to keep moving away from this idea of an industry -- so much games media is still this enthusiast press that’s about recommending experiences to players. My friend Matthew Burns has this really great essay where he talks about this, how games journalists have basically been these figures that have propped up the idea of gamers as consumer kings. And I think there’s been some heartening developments here, like Leigh Alexander’s Offworld.
I want to see more media talking about games outside of a “should you buy this product?” angle, more nontraditional media talking about strange playful experiences and not just like, personal essays about games people loved when they were kids. Not to discount that stuff, but I feel like so much attention is still disproportionately paid to the big stuff, partly because that’s where all the money is -- I’m at a place where I’m really jaded about games right now for a lot of reasons but there’s beautiful and surprising work being done all the time outside of like, the industry and I really see that as the way forward.
These are going to be two strange questions.
Do you consider yourself popular?
I gave you fair warning.
Yeah, you did say that it would be strange. I guess that depends.
I'm grateful that I have the kind of following that I do. It's humbling and deeply strange some days. And it's very strange, too, to be the kind of person who is sort of micro-famous and then out in the world no one knows who I am. And in a sense, that's kinda cool, right? Because it's like being a superhero: You can just take off your mask and go out into the world and you can just totally blend in. But I think it's frustrating sometimes in that people tend to assume that if you have any kind of platform that you have enormous power.
And from the context -- or from the position of someone who doesn't really have any kind of backing or following on social media, it's easy to look up at someone with a few thousand followers and think of them as, like, the establishment. And that's been a very strange experience.
So, I guess sometimes I do.
Which is still weird to me.
What do you think videogames have achieved?
I think at their best, games enable kinds of play and kinds of interactions that wouldn't be possible without them and that wouldn't even be possible in non-digital games, right? So, I think having networked interactions and being able to connect people around the world through different kinds of play is really incredible. All that stuff is great, and I could also talk about all the negative things that I think games have achieved and why I'm kind of ambivalent about them.
I could talk about the ways that games have interfaced with military industrial complexes, with the ways that games have participated in really horrible global chains of capitalism -- like, things like conflict minerals, and I could talk the ways that I think a lot of games encourage competition and conflict in a way that I don't actually think is healthy as a release valve but that just really encourages those kinds of things.
So, for me, it's really a mixed thing and maybe that's one reason why there feels like there always be a cap on how successful I can get in games because I'm not one of those people who is able to cheerlead. I'm not one of those people who can stand up in front of a crowd and say that games have made people better because I don't wholeheartedly believe that.
And I don't think that games are the media of the 21st century. I think that they're a form like any other and that some of the things that they've brought have been really positive and some of them have been really horrible.