Christopher B. Patterson is an Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of the books Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific (Rutgers University Press, 2018), and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (New York University Press, 2020).
Heart Projector is a Vancouver-based arts collective that hosts semi-regular arcade events showcasing underground videogames from diverse creators. Since 2016, Heart Projector has curated arcades that blur the lines between games and art, and that highlight themes of queerness, indigeneity, and inequity. For this interview, I spoke to three of Heart Projector’s main organizers: Leanne Roed, Brendan Vance, and Ziggy.
Christopher B. Patterson: How did Heart Projector start?
Heart Projector: In 2016, there was one regular videogame meetup (in Vancouver), Full Indie, which is how we started to meet each other. Full Indie is a great event, but in a city of studios, it is inevitable that the one videogame meetup will have a focus on networking, career development, and the industry.
One of our members, Lan, had been searching for an artistic gaming community in Vancouver. She threw a line out to the universe not expecting to hear anything back and went on Meetup.com to form a group called Alt-G.
Ziggy will tell a different story—for him, his catalyst moment was going to IndieCade and playing the game Curtain (dreamfeel, 2014). It’s a funky and queer experiential story about a lesbian relationship that demands a lot of attention. Even fests like IndieCade, devoted to indie games, weren’t showing it well. The game was unique and deserved to be played in a venue that could do the game justice. Actually, a lot of us were primarily into queer games ourselves, prior to starting any of this, and we saw the importance of marginalized narratives in gaming. So having a queer and diverse space was integral to our formation as a group.
We showed Curtain in our third show, which coincided with Pride (curated by Claris Cyarron). It felt right.
C: What is an Alt-Game, by the way?
HP: Oh man. How to define indie, alternative, queer, or micro games… One strong “altgames” origin story lies with Soha Kareem’s twitter curation project @SupportAltGames (founded 2014). Yet to end the story there would exclude Natasha Excelsia’s Indiecade talk the following year, or the (now defunct) magazine The Arcade Review, or the hundreds of wonderful projects on which @SupportAltGames was based. “Alt-games” got broad very quickly and took off on itch.io. Soha and others felt it had got wrestled out of their hands, but the #altgames movement was an important lead into #Gamergate, which in some ways was a reaction to it. There are also movements like #RentPunk, which is more about financial sustainability, that we should all have dignified labor making games.
For us, Alt-games just means “good cool stuff.” But it’s hard to have any labels for games because game-making can be such an exploitative and abusive industry, at all levels. So once you say “Alt-Games!” there’s someone who has been abused by a designer who made “Alt-Games” and they will then see us as the enemy because we’re using that label. So we try not to use these terms because it can create sides when our goal is to bring people together.
So basically we see the games we feature as “non-commercial games”—whether or not they are aspiring or tending toward success. A world of videogames that focuses on which marketing demographics are most lucrative, is clearly and obviously a world of boring/cynical entertainment products.
C: Many compare alternative games to punk rock, in that everyone throws dirt at the “mainstream” but also everyone needs to make money.
HP: The tension between artistic purity and “selling out” can end up feeling rather remote to us, here in the world of alternative videogames. In order for “tension” to exist between art and commerce, there would have to be commerce taking place! And altgames never really suffered from the problem of “too much commerce”.
C: Well, couldn’t games like Doom (id Software, 1993) or Counter-Strike (Valve, 2000) be seen as early alt-games that just went mainstream?
HP: We think that’s a great point, but it’s equally important to think about all the context we’ve lost regarding those previous game-making eras. It’s true that Doom’s commercial success launched some folks from obscurity to relative stardom. Yet as momentous as we recall Doom being, we must remember it wasn’t the studio’s first FPS game nor its first hit.
We must imagine all the other creators who were active at that time whose work didn’t make it to today, and thus cannot even be compared against Doom. We must acknowledge we inhabit a “winner takes all” economy, leading the vast majority of work from all videogame eras to have received near-zero recognition. We must, therefore, derive one logical conclusion: That our world’s most amazing games are statistically near-certain to have already been wiped from the map. Instead, we worry this industry’s focus on “experimentation” conceals a desire to treat the majority of games work as “free prototypes”, and the majority of games labour as not worth spending money on (at least not until some wealthy & powerful force comes along to ‘do it justice’ by AAA standards).
C: So if Alt-Games is a vague term, then how do you choose the games you present at shows?
HP: Community participation is probably the number one thing. We love the games, but also we love playing them in the presence of friendly people. We’re interested in contributing to a community fabric that weaves everybody together and keeps them mutually-involved. That means featuring new works from previous contributors as a point of principle. We want creators to feel like their work’s being celebrated; we sometimes try arranging ‘launch parties’ for small games, because we’ve all had the experience of releasing things to the world and feeling like no one’s ever gonna look at them. Anybody who’s released an altgame before knows what it’s like to conduct the project’s funeral on the same night as its launch. One of Heart Projector’s fondest desires is to save a few creators from needing to bury their projects in that fashion.
C: Why do these games have such trouble finding an audience?
HP: It often feels that as designers, writers, and fans of alternative games we’re constantly burning out because we’re just screaming into a void. You make something you love, you tell your friend about it and they love it, but then you release it and… it gets a retweet or something. Nothing. This is really discouraging and it’s something that we’re trying to push back against.
We’re not alone in feeling this way. The website Critical Distance, for example, is one of the best resources for people who work on games because it facilitates a searchable archive of writing about games. Yet despite its tall stature, it gets like 4 “likes” on Facebook whenever they post a news round-up. The apparent smallness of their audience is alarming because they’re doing such obviously-valuable work that will be useful for generations to come.
We often hear the narrative that there aren’t enough resources, that the number of people who play alt-games is too small, so we all have to compete for them. But we also hear that 99% of gamers’ attention is consolidated beneath a handful of huge AAA games like Fortnite (Epic Games, 2017)! So the struggle for resources shouldn’t be about us fighting each other for that 1% of scraps; it should be us trying to get that 99% down to like 95%, more equitably sharing the fruits of everybody’s creative labour.
C: Going to your show was quite the experience. There was beer, laughter, and a very diverse crowd. What was the thinking that went into creating a particular space for these games?
HP: There is a gaming literacy that we as game designers rely on and assume in our players. When someone hasn’t had the opportunity to learn the patterns, where to look, what is interactive, how to use a controller, it can be potentially intellectually brutalizing.
We like to think we provide a lot of ways for guests to prevent their curiosity about games from turning into something negative. If you aren’t confident about playing something yourself, you can watch someone else. You can ask other guests what to do next, or just puzzle at it for a few seconds before going off to have a drink and talk about your kids. The diversity makes it so it’s more than just gamers, and hopefully, no one feels like they’re the ONLY ONE HERE who can’t figure some game out. (The beer, we hope, feels very optional and unobtrusive!)
C: What is it like starting out as an up-and-coming alt-games designer?
HP: There’s a lot of survivor bias in the industry, which has the effect of erasing most developers’ actual lived experience here. Those who succeed tend to succeed in a big way, and some start assuming that it was 100% their hard work and 0% good fortune or privilege.
The truth is that as an indie game designer you are faced with difficult choices. Do you take a second mortgage on your house to make it to the finish line, or get under the wing of a publisher who could abuse and exploit you? Even boutique publishers, who may genuinely love your work and maintain a good reputation, are still mostly motivated by the market. We created Heart Projector to create that kinder culture in games.
C: So how does Heart Projector try to create an alternative space?
HP: We like to think of ourselves as a grassroots alternative to the industry’s traditional “top-down” arrangement of people and power. We aspire to be chameleon-like, in that we can interface with the art scene to do a gallery-like show, but we don’t want to become a collective that ONLY does art gallery shows. Part of representing “the alternative scene” is about connecting to all the other parts of culture so that we can find a niche in between them all and defend space for this little special thing (without inadvertently just being drafted into the artist community or the industrial games community).
C: Speaking of curation, can you describe some of the shows you’ve had, and what themes you tried to explore?
HP: Most recently we had a show called “Playables,” in which guest curator droqen shared his fascination with “gamified play”. Some people believe you can ‘gamify’ things, right? Well, droqen observed that the videogames we like to play have been sort of pre-gamified for us (they’ve got high scores and stuff to make you play more), so for him, the question became: What if you took a pre-gamified videogame and then de-gamified it? As one simple example, he presented a simple version of Tetris (AcademySoft, 1984) where lines never clear and just pile up forever. But he also selected Rooftop Cop (S.L. Clark, 2014), which is a more nuanced work that invites you to be a cop and write ‘tickets’ to people for no real reason in order to chase an unreachable quota that doesn’t seem to actually matter.
We were invited to collaborate with the Western Front Gallery in Vancouver by Allison Collins to work on a show called “REGENERATION: Breaking Time with Indigenous Video Games”. It celebrated indigenous game designers and was curated by Maize Longboat. It came with a panel event of indigenous artists discussing how their presence was not seen in the industry. One of the designers founded her own studio, and another discussed the issues of living on reservations and having bad internet connection issues.
One of our early curation events was with Robert Yang, designer of the Radiator 2 (2016) games and basically a rockstar in the alt-games movement. The event was a response to Davey Wreden’s game The Beginner’s Guide (Everything Unlimited Ltd., 2015), which is a first-person guided tour, narrated by Wreden himself, through the eclectic work of a 2008-era Source Engine modder named Coda. As some of us—and Yang, too—had actually lived and worked in that creative community many years ago, it was obvious that Coda was an amalgam of many designers and works from that time period, none of whom were credited in the game, or made a penny off of it. So to give them credit, Yang wanted to honor this obscure, nearly-forgotten history. Our exhibition surveyed the many real-life authors and works that likely inspired the character of Coda.
C: It sounds like all of those projects are implicitly critiques of the game industry.
HP: Well, there are a lot of issues in gaming that we try to face head-on, so we can also do them some justice. With Yang’s show, there was sort of a thorny issue when The Beginner’s Guide came out, which was that you had a commercial product making a pretty good amount of money, but the product in question is a bunch of uncredited homages to influential games from marginalized creators who all made zero money themselves. Robert himself pointed out that at the end of The Beginner’s Guide, Wreden writes “Thank you R.” “R.” could have been Robert, but the fact that we don’t know who the designer is actually indebted to is a problem.
It’s not Davey Wreden’s fault, it’s our industry’s fault. But now we have a situation where Wreden is more famous, more notable, and maybe even a bit wealthier than someone like Brendon Chung, despite Chung being considered an extremely foundational altgames artist.
So this whole story, of course, is really about social inequity. Inequity hurts everybody! It hurts videogames, it hurts videogame creators, and if we want this medium to improve then what we want is more equity. And that’s one of the things Heart Projector is all about.
C: So what’s the future look like for Heart Projector?
HP: We’re getting more ambitious—basically, we are looking to change the infrastructure for artistic games. In Vancouver, to create art you need grants. And right now people who make games do not have access to grant structure. Options like “games” are not on grant applications in the way “film” or “dance” is, and one additional problem is that the folks gatekeeping this region’s art grants may never have experienced a videogame that wasn’t some AAA product that looked nothing like anything they’d ever fund!
There’s a group called the Hand Eye Society in Toronto who worked for a long period with the provincial government to get the word “games” added as a category to the forms you need to fill out when applying for grants. They also made it a mission to educate those who administer and who sit on the juries making the decisions. They got people to see the difference between independent, experimental/alt, and AAA games.
So for us, winning grants is less about the money and more about changing the perception of games as frivolous, mere entertainment projects. So our new mission is to join the longstanding, international guerilla effort to slowly convince the art world’s power structures that they should take some games seriously as artworks.