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Punk’s Not Dead: An Introduction

snot-flicking gusto

Deep in the year 1977, an upstart fanzine called Sideburns printed a drawing of three guitar chords. They were A, E and G, if you really want to know. They were scribbled down the page like one of those desperate reminders in Memento. “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third,” the reminder said. “Now form a band.”

This message scrawled on the photocopied pages of a doomed fanzine was the distilled essence of an entire genre: punk rock. No, you haven’t fallen off the edge of the internet. This is still RPS and I’m talking about music. This is real. This is happening. Deal with it. It’s happening because the ‘do it yourself’ mentality that characterised punk rock has returned. Not to the music industry, bloated and deformed as it is by the constant battery of X Factor and Britain’s Got Wash-outs, but to the games industry. Programs like GameMaker, Adventure Game Studio and RPGMaker have, in the past few years, democratised videogame development in the same way the lousy vocals and poor strumming of the late seventies democratised the notion of forming a band. So there you have it. Punk isn’t dead after all. Instead, a brand new Law of Thermodynamics has been invented. “Punk can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred between media.”

And with snot-flicking gusto, people are taking advantage of this fact. To The Moon was made in RPGMaker. Nidhogg, in GameMaker. Gemini Rue and Snakes of Avalon in Adventure Game Studio. And there are a lot more too.

In truth, there has never been a more appropriate time to celebrate the resurgence of the bedroom coder. And Rock Paper Shotgun, as the world’s benevolent PC gaming dictator, is not going to let this movement go undocumented and unnamed. At least, not as long as I still have the power to pester Jim into commissioning this series. But what should we name it? Cyberpunk? No, already taken. Bedroompunk? Reads like a bad smell. Whatever, youse’ll come up with something good in the comments.

Meanwhile, over the course of whenever I feel like it, we’ll be looking more closely at a few of these homemade punk marvels and interviewing the people behind them.

Some of these people will be angry, some of them will be absolutely lovely. Some of them will be scarily intelligent and you should watch these people particularly closely with as many eyes as you can muster. But in terms of programming language knowledge they might know only a little. They might hold the lump sum of Fuck All. And yet their games will prove worthy.

This week, we’ll be forgoing the close look at a particular game in favour of a long chat with Oakland’s resident ‘Pixel Provocateur’ Anna Anthropy. For a cool, refreshing taste of Anthropy why don’t you have a brief play of the Wizard of Wor homage Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars. Then come back and listen in while I get some chat from her. We’ll be talking about GameMaker, the internet’s problem with women, and coder ‘bullshit’. Plus we’ll be seeing just how far we can stretch this whole punk rock metaphor. To breaking point? I hope so. Breaking stuff is what punk is all about.

RPS: Hallo there! How are you? Are you working on anything at the moment?

Anthropy: At the moment I’m actually working on a game for Occupy Oakland []. A couple weeks from now, the 28th [of January], a bunch of activists are going to take over a building downtown and convert it to a social centre. And a friend of mine realised, you know, what a social centre needs is an arcade. So he’s currently building an arcade cabinet for this occupied building using a game that’s going to run in it all day. [In the end, Occupy ran into some, er, problems].

RPS: Oh yeah, I think I saw you tweet a picture of that.

Anthropy: Yeah, we had this skeletal arcade cabinet sitting around in our apartment for, like, at least a year now. Finally it has a purpose.

RPS: I guess your games aren’t always this overtly political – but sometimes.

Anthropy: I mean, every game has politics, every game has values. I feel like the values that I put into my games are usually pretty different from the values that most games embody and that’s kind of important to me.

RPS: I’m throwing out this theory of ‘punk’ games as a genre, as chin-tickled by Thecatamites. I’d put your games in among that crowd but you’ve got a different name for it from what I read: Scratchware.

Anthropy: I usually try to avoid using labels entirely because I feel like that gets into scene-ness and cliquey-ness and weirdness. I mean, Scratchware is a word I like to drop because I’d like more people to read the Scratchware Manifesto because when I encountered it ten years or so ago it really resonated with me. And I think it’s still important because the problems it identifies are still problems that videogame have.

RPS: Would you say the amount of people now who are using DIY programs like GameMaker or Adventure Game Studio are embracing that kind of spirit, even if they haven’t read that manifesto?

Anthropy: Even if they’re not embracing it in letter I feel like that kind of mentality, that attitude towards creation, is kind of what the manifesto was talking about. Doing it for yourself, doing it outside of the system.

RPS: Do you still use GameMaker and things like that to make stuff yourself?

Anthropy: I’m actually using GameMaker for the game that I’m making right now – the Occupy game – because... it’s easier to do weird file-saving and loading stuff with GameMaker. Normally I just use anything that can make me a flash game because usually I want games to go out there so anyone can play them. But when I make games for particular spaces, that are supposed to run in a specific event, then I tend to use GameMaker. Which is what I’m doing right now.

RPS: Did you ever get very experienced coders looking down on the use of programs like that?

Anthropy: Whenever I mention GameMaker on Twitter or something people will tweet at me and say, ‘Oh, you know the real solution to your problem is to just learn a real programming language’ or some shit like that. That’s all bullshit of course. That’s coders feeling smug about what has historically been their protected space and if some coders wanna feel emasculated by the fact that people with no computer engineering experience can now impede on what I guess they perceive as their territory, then that’s their problem. I don’t really see it as a problem. I’m also not really interested in doing any more coding than I have to. Like, I’m very much interested in learning just what I have to to make my ideas work and not so much that I really [begin to] hate coding.

RPS: So it’s about being easy for you to do and also easy for other people to play?

Anthropy: Mm-hmm. Well, before I started experimenting with GameMaker I had no – or very little – programming experience. The kind of chasm between the games I wanted to make and my ability to make them was just insurmountable. But once I discovered a simple program like GameMaker, suddenly it wasn’t so insurmountable anymore and that’s a big deal. I want everyone to be able to have that experience.

RPS: That’s where one of the similarities to a punk movement come in, right? With the ‘do it yourself’ mentality.

Anthropy: Yeah, coding is like this huge barrier that keeps so many people – so many people – who have all these interesting ideas from contributing to game making because coding is a wall. It requires years and years to learn, like, even how to approach it. But if there are shortcuts around coding, like GameMaker, like all these DIY tools for non-programmers then that’s amazingly liberating.

RPS: You said you’ve had developers giving you cheek on Twitter. But do you think it might put some players off as well?

Anthropy: Well, I mean, I’ve seen people be snotty. ‘Oh, you just made this in GameMaker that’s you know...’ But that’s bullshit anyway, those are people who already immersed and entrenched in cliques and are very hostile to new things. And those aren’t the people that I really care about or who I’m appealing to. I want my games to reach people who kind of aren’t already in the magic circle, people who are ostracised by this kind of culture, to give them a way in. And I think those people certainly are not going to be repelled by me making this game in GameMaker instead of Visual Basic or something.

RPS: The art style of your games can be quite scrappy. It’s colourful but can be twisted and dark at the same time.

Anthropy: Okay!

RPS: Where do you get that visual style from or is there someone else who does the art for you?

Anthropy: Well sometimes I collaborate with other people who do art for me [the out-of-game artwork for Spider Queens was done by Mariel ‘Kinuko’ Cartwright or do music for me or whatever but the art that I do comes from a lot of places. Usually it comes, other games. Not necessarily sampled directly, although I do do that a lot. But I try to work simply so that I can create a lot in a small time and I try to create images that will resonate with existing images. Like, pixels sort of suggest this whole history of games and the way we’ve looked at and thought about games and if someone can look at one of my games and place it in the that history, or maybe a little off-set from that history, then that’s really valuable to me. Some of my games are very thrown together because a lot of them are made very quickly, then I just tend to use found art from wherever. That happens a lot.

RPS: One of the games that I remember well, apart from maybe the lambasting of Dan Savage, was Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars because on a functional level it was quite fun to play.

Anthropy: It was actually a real game! Not one of these stupid little five-minute things that I throw together.

RPS: But it also had that rough-around-the-edges feel but purposefully so, that I feel is similar to other artists who do things through GameMaker, like Messhof or Cactus. Do you see yourself aligned with them, even artistically?

Anthropy: I like a lot of what they’re doing. I was actually on a panel with them a couple of years ago at NYU. I think there’s a lot of overlap between our work, especially with Messhof because what he’s been doing for a long time is making games for very specific showings. He’ll make a game that will run in this museum, using this very particular set of hardware, controlled in this very specific way that’s very hard to reproduce in different settings. That has actually informed a lot of my work because I’ve been trying to do a lot of games for specific spaces. The game that I’m doing right now for Occupy is that kind of game. It’s being designed for a specific setting instead of for the lowest common denominator of computers for everyone to run at home alone. That sort of thing has always been really interesting to me and I’ve always appreciated what Messhof brought to it.

RPS: You’ve talked about cliques and the ‘magic circle’ – do you think people like Messhof and Cactus and everyone else who starts to use these programs to make these kinds of games are in danger of imploding, in the same way punk did? Could they ever ‘sell out’, so to speak?

Anthropy: Well, I mean [laughs] – I’m a sell-out. I sold out long ago. I think for a community of games to implode it actually has to be substantial. The people you mention like Messhof, Cactus and other self-identified indie game makers, those guys are white male nerds. And frankly, they’re already in the magic circle! Like, the people that I want to see more of – I want more games to be made by queer people and women and people who have historically not been the ‘in’ group and I think we’re nowhere near having that kind of diversity that I want to see. I don’t think that we’re in any danger of imploding, I think the danger is that not enough people are getting involved in making games.

RPS: There are gender issues like that in a couple of your games –

Anthropy: A COUPLE of my games!?

RPS: Okay, lots. Like, the Dan Savage one was the most overt attack I’ve seen on a chat show host. Is that your raison d’être when you’re making a game? To politicise that issue and highlight that fact?

Anthropy: The Dan Savage game is about this columnist in a major newspaper but the sort of hostility that’s there is similar to the hostility that’s always present in [mainstream games culture]. I had a... a scrap I guess, with Jim Sterling a year-ish ago about [how] videogame culture is very homophobic, very misogynist, very afraid of anything that’s not a white straight nerd. And as a woman on the internet, whether you’re involved with games or not, it’s impossible to escape that, to escape a culture where you’re constantly reminded that you’re not the intended audience. And also that you’re probably a slut and ugly. I mean, that’s constantly in front of me when I’m doing my work and what I want to do with everything I create is I want to make people who are uncomfortable in that culture feel more comfortable, a little bit more welcome. I want to make games that, for example, other trans women can play and be like, ‘Oh, I feel a little less unwelcome in videogames now’.

RPS: Do you think that it has even started to come around to being more inclusive?

Anthropy: I hear from a lot of queer women who message me on Twitter or whatever who are like, ‘I really like your work, your work is really important to me, I really like this game’. That – I mean, that’s a small thing but it’s a great thing. I see more women and more queer people making games now, like little DIY games, than I did ten years ago or even five years ago. The tools are still not super-there yet for non-programmers but they’re pretty close and I think that a lot of people have become involved in the discussion and involved in making games that never were before and that’s super exciting. I think there’s only going to be more and more of that exponentially as time goes on.

RPS: Do you think there’s a perceived split in indie games, as in punk music, between those who feel they‘re authentic and those who aren’t considered authentic? The whole punk/poseur thing?

Anthropy: I certainly see that there are similar patterns and yeah, there’s definitely a sense of some people’s values have changed from what they were and they’re no longer about creativity and experimentation as much as they are about producing marketable products. Yeah, that certainly is there. But I guess I would be careful about trying to wedge this one community into the history of this whole other community... I would say that certainly those sentiments exist but I would advise against pursuing a metaphor like that so stringently that it begins to transform the way you think about this other thing that’s going on. Which is: people making games.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Well, would you look at that? With one fell swipe of her reasoning, Anna Anthropy appears to have killed this whole metaphor before it even got off the vomit-masked ground. But wait, punk’s not dead – that would be silly. We all know punk can never truly die. Because we all know our Laws of Thermodynamics, don’t we? “Punk can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transferred between media.”

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