Why Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur is relevant to game design

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Now, Andrew Keen is an unlikely figure to be idolised by a game designer. He doesn’t even think highly of “violent video games” himself. (To make matters worse, I’m writing this in a weblog. Fortunately, this weblog makes no journalistic pretensions whatsoever.) So, why do I think the points he made in The Cult of the Amateur are so important to game designers?

Because “Web 2.0” precipitated the decline of narrative-driven gaming. More generally, there is a built-in tension between social media and professionally-made media. For instance, Andrew Keen anticipated the coming of fake news due to social media. Investigative journalists are being undercut by shitposters on Facebook, Reddit and the rest.

Many of the criticisms Andrew Keen levied against platforms such as MySpace, may sound quaint nowadays. Yet the criticisms he voiced about YouTube, could easily be applied to TikTok as well. Indeed, game design itself is threatened by the Cult of the Amateur which Andrew Keen so criticises, which connect neatly to the main issues I am about to mention.

The decline of culture

Andrew Keen’s central thesis is that social media such as Facebook heralded a cultural decline. Websites such as YouTube are destroying professionalism in filmmaking. Social media are killing off investigative journalism. The astounding part is that Andrew Keen predicted this in 2007! Yet, this cultural decline seems to have impacted narrative-driven video games just as much.

Let’s go back to YouTube for a moment. It’s now home to many amateur gaming journalists, who have a tendency to mistake the Early Access releases for the final product and who are too ignorant to understand what placeholders are. They generally provide an inferior coverage of gaming compared to professional, printed publications such as Edge or PCZone.

The cult of the amateur has infected gaming journalism, and usurped the authority of printed gaming publications. Even if these were often corrupt, at least they are generally knowledgable about the development process. However, the cult of the amateur also affected game development more directly.

Only the most well-funded publishers can avoid Early Access. Yet, virtually all well-funded publishers matured in an era where the cult of the amateur had not entrenched itself yet. Indie developers are afraid of engaging in long term projects. They end up preferring smaller titles which are logistically uncomplicated. Consider itch.io, for instance.

The indie mob

Total Rendition was becoming too hard to find in a filthy sea of asset-flips (where the third party assets are decidedly NOT placeholders), tentacle porn and gimmick-driven “indie” titles (as opposed to narrative-driven ones). The envy of other devs, leading to a tall-poppy mentality, was often palpable. Yet, back then, I really believed “indie” meant independent development.

Indies may be content that their game lasts 15 seconds. However, I aim for Total Rendition to offer at least tens of hours of gameplay by the time it is finished. Logistics and risks are necessary to accomplish great things. If indie developers sneer at that, then we are no indie developers. It takes professionalism to achieve the goals set for any epic narrative-driven game.

To be sure, one does not need to agree with Andrew Keen’s political persuasion to see the point of his analysis of the cult of the amateur, nor to apply his analysis in practice. In our case, his analysis helped inspire the delegitimisation of amateur gaming journalists and developers of gimmick-driven “indie” games.

See also

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