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That Broken Punk Metaphor
06.04.14

That Broken Punk Metaphor

Illustration by Jordan Rosenberg

There's a word that crops up every so often in videogames journalism, and it's one that can frustrate by its presence. That term is "punk."

All too often its usage fails to reflect the fascinating history of a movement that is musical, cultural, artistic and social; that for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people has changed or redefined lives. All too often the appearance of "punk" in a headline doesn't indicate that you're about to read an incisive exploration of what punk games might be, or what points of confluence exist between a videogame or developer and a particular interpretation of punk.

This bothers me. I've a deep fascination with the storied history of punk and every time I read a weak article that leads with a banal statement like "indie developers are the new punk rock," I feel like God has just drowned a sack of adorable kittens.

It's not hard to see why so many writers—and not just in games—seize upon it as a descriptive metaphor. Punk and its children have often proven a source of great creativity, of independent social and political thought, and of iconoclastic lifestyles—straight edge being a notable and sometimes infamous example of the latter. When trying to describe something that stands apart from societal and cultural norms, "punk" can be an irresistibly evocative choice of word.

Yet the history of punk has always been a continually evolving one. 

Yet the history of punk has always been a continually evolving one. It is full of stories and astonishing developments. Its transnational history is replete with examples of positive political engagement, from electoral politics to the national stage, and from the politics of the street to community activism. It's a term associated with youth, rebellion, creativity and a devil-may-care attitude.

In the 70s punk kicked hard against a record industry establishment and social mores, inventing an abrasive new style of music as it did so. Through the early 80s punk music and culture continued to evolve, becoming harder-edged and more aggressive, acquiring the appellation "hardcore" to distinguish it from what came before (you can thank SanFran zine Damaged and Vancouver's D.O.A. for that).

Fresh shoots continued to spring from the fertile bed of punk rock and D.I.Y. culture after the first wave of hardcore collapsed, producing new variants like emotional hardcore, riot grrl, pop punk and anarcho. Each style of music came associated with a culture possessing its own politics and concerns, either focused within the community or looking outward—such as British anarcho punk's aggressive opposition of South African apartheid. In more recent years I've received records to review from bands based in cities dotted around East Asia, often believing themselves to be the only punk band in their hometown and so reaching out internationally to spread word about their local scene. Across the world the concept of punk resonates with many people, particularly the young, and the sense of community it engenders can span borders and continents.

So "punk" is a word packed with connotations, one that encompasses over forty years of history and divergent musical sub-genres and sub-cultures, many of which continue to thrive today. But this is also the problem. Punk can mean so much, and to so many different people, that it is difficult to argue that it has a strict definition—which renders it prone to weak misuse as a metaphor for other cultural mediums.

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"Hardcore was the suburban American response to the late-70s Punk revolution. But while Hardcore grew out of Punk, it would be wrong to say, "If you understand Punk, you can understand Hardcore."—Steven Blush, American Hardcore

I'm not the first person to try and address the proper combination of "punk" and "videogames." Fellow Kill Screen writer Chris Priestman had a fair stab at it last year. He made an argument for the punk credentials of fifteen different games, deriving from them a set of characteristics for punk games: DIY aesthetics, anti-design, bugs as features, politics, sex & violence, loud & punchy.

These are all obvious descriptors with the exception of anti-design, which Priestman sums up thusly: "Punk games, as you have seen, are quite often anti-traditional game design. They don’t care about notions of what’s right and what’s wrong. The idea of not including a process or part of game development as the final game itself is absurd to punk games. They want to allow the player to enjoy the full breadth of games, including their broke states."

But most of the fifteen games listed each demonstrate only a few of the six characteristics, with some outright contradicting others. Further focusing on the anti-design argument, I'd counter that punk, far from not caring about notions of what's right and wrong, is an often extremely ethically led culture—though punks and punk music can also be stoically apolitical, to the point of bitterly condemning political engagement by punks and bands. "I wish they'd shut up and just play the songs" is a common refrain at Propagandhi gigs—a remark that rarely fails to impress upon me the ability of human beings to spectacularly miss the point. Priestman's list is perhaps most successful in that it reflects some of the contradictory tensions at the heart of the idea of punk.

Then there's Punk Arcade, an initiative from the UCLA Game Lab. An admirable effort, Punk Arcade describes itself as " a videogame art exhibition and workshop inspired by rapid prototyping and DIY culture." Its website lists scores of games, and I don't doubt some of them are punk as fuck (as punks are prone to say—often ironically). Unfortunately their working definition—which to be fair is hardly the focus of their endeavours—would encompass any game made during a game jam. It's too broad to be useful as a definition.

On Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Brendan Caldwell focused on the famous “manifesto” from '77 protopunk zine Sideburns: here are three chords, now form a band. In the last part of the series, Caldwell skips over the putative conclusion that perhaps punk rock isn't the best basis for a comparison overall and instead defines the characteristics of what he dubs "bitpunk" games. They are amateur creations, they respect the old ways, humour is more important than politics, and the short form is king.

It's a problematic definition as only the last point is inarguable from a punk perspective: punk songs, records and zines do indeed tend to be short. Otherwise, the commonalities between "bitpunk" and regular punk are easy to criticise. Punk rock is only amateurish to the extent that it encourages participation; bands who only know three chords don't tend to play to anyone other than their mates very often. Punk has plenty of time for its own history, but "respecting the old ways" stands in stark contrast to the unspoken manifestoes of every major development in punk culture. As for humour being more important than politics... well, that will vary depending on where you look in your record collection, but it's usually easier to say that the two rarely meet, but are both central to punk culture.

One of the writers for the group blog Oh No Videogames had a stab at a definition that derives from a deeper understanding of the spirit underpinning much punk culture, arguing "Punk is the politics of rebellion through radical self-affirmation, community-spirited inclusiveness, the re-appraisal of accepted knowledge and the rejection of central authority. DIY Gaming is an extension of that spirit applied to a new medium, and it’s something we should all be a part of."

This argument speaks to my lived experience of punk at its best as well as what interests me most about it as culture and as history—although my experience is far from universal and counter-arguments can of course be made. Many punks resent the intrusion of academia or leftist rhetoric into a culture that defines their lifestyle and has provided their strongest friendships, even to the point of replacing familial bonds. It's far from uncommon for close affinity groups like this to push back against attempts to define them in a way they do not feel comfortable with.

How is it possible to define a punk game when it is not even possible to define punk? 

Here we arrive at the biggest issue with any attempt to write about punk videogames: how is it possible to define a punk game when it is not even possible to define punk? Punk is almost diasporic in nature: its origins, and the origins of each subsequent rebirth—be it hardcore, anarcho, emo or other—lie with a small number of people in one or two specific locations, and from there it has exploded outwards, mutating and changing sometimes beyond recognition. Punk is so broad that it will literally mean a different thing to different people based on the extent to which their lives have intersected with any given part of the punk diaspora.  

Of these efforts to define "punk games," those that attempt to define a list of characteristics come closest to being functional—if regarded as a set of potential descriptors rather than required characteristics. There will always be examples that do or don't fit a set of tags which we nonetheless examine and argue the contrary case.

Further, rather than seeking to categorically define the canon of one cultural medium in another, the punk metaphor should be engaged in drawing a specific connection between some aspect of punk culture and whatever subject is being examined, whether game, developer or community. After all, drawing such a connection should not be difficult if you understand both the subject you're writing about and the basis for the metaphor you're seeking to use.

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"As far as most people are concerned, we're all drug crazed revolutionaries hell-bent on the destruction of all civilization. Is it a surprise then when show after show is shut down? Is it a surprise when Punks are beaten, stuffed into squad cars and taken to jail? The list of injustices is as long as the history of bad press Punk Rock has received."—anonymous letter, MRR (Maximumrock'n'roll) #53, October 1987.

There are plenty of lo-fi games that it's easy to look at and associate with punk; what's more difficult to determine is just how close that association is and how it is informative.

Take PUNKSNOTDEAD, a game by mooosh, created in response to Andy Schatz's famous "there are no punk-rock games any more" speech at GDC 2013. Its soundtrack is a snarling, aggressive and bass-heavy punk tune. Each game session rarely outlasts the song. The game itself is simple and crude, with the player avatar moving through side-scrolling levels and punching mostly identical figures. The game flings up irreverent messages like "get fucked!" and "eat shit!" after a particularly effective punch. You will probably die young.

What does PUNKSNOTDEAD tell us about punk rock? On one level, very little. For example the game's aesthetic, all pinks and environmental minimalism, is more reminiscent of 80s neon-inspired art than the cut-and-paste appropriation and collage of punk art. But on another level it suggests a lot. It's all in the title: PUNKSNOTDEAD is a simple and contrarian piece of work, created to express opposition to another viewpoint, and there's no shortage of reactive or contrarian songs in any punk's record collection. Yet this is not all that should be looked for.

An early "punk game" was a Flash release that achieved some online popularity in 2003. Emogame, a basic action platformer, saw the player flinging vinyl at generic enemies to progress through a series of visually varied levels. The player controlled a stable of characters, almost all drawn from then-current or historical punk and emo bands, each of whom could deploy unique special abilities tailored to their band or musical style.

While mechanically and conceptually an unexceptional series of games, it exhibited a great deal of playful affection for its source material, featuring characters such as a levitating Ian Mackaye who dispensed zen punk wisdom to players. The second Emogame also featured vignettes that expressed the dissatisfaction of the game's creator—and, most likely, many players—with the future that awaited them: work, eat, sleep, repeat. It was also, looking back, a rather problematic game, full of cheap stereotypes and a frankly astonishing amount of homoerotic (or homophobic) innuendo toward certain punk or emo musicians.

Such issues aside, the Emogame series deserves recognition as a "punk game" not because it exhibits punk-like characteristics as a game but because it is a game that chooses for its narrative and aesthetic trappings the story of punk rock. This is not to say that "punk games" can or should only be characterised in this way, but rather that this is a particular game which stands adjacent to punk culture. The "punk-ness" of a game need not be derived from its mechanics or structural design: it is clear to see that were the punk elements of the Emogame series removed and replaced with, say, the art and writings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, it would be a quite different beast and yet players would fundamentally be interacting with the same game.

Further, the Emogame series was apparently created for the love of game development and for punk: they were free to play online and therefore offered a very low bar to entry. The points of reference with punk are clear; the ease of getting started as a punk musician or zinester, or the great lengths that many historical punk bands went to in making their shows open to younger kids.

That desire to offer openness and inclusivity has long been a feature of many punk communities, and here too it is possible to draw connecting lines between punk and videogames. New York-based Babycastles has provided dedicated videogame exhibition spaces since 2009. They've produced exhibitions in partnership with institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image. Partnerships with avant-garde institutions are redolent of aspects of 1970s punk, yet it is Babycastles' earlier origins that are of most interest here: a collectively run gallery that celebrated the concept of the videogame arcade.

Similarly, the Wild Rumpus has turned into a familiar sight. Today appearing at many conventions, this London and Toronto-based organisation arranges events featuring independent multiplayer videogames (the more physical the better; JS Joust is a regular feature), chiptune and electro pop music, and often copious amounts of alcohol. It makes for a rather fine party, again built around the concept of celebrating a particular type of game in the context it was designed for.

Both organizations are run by collectives, both appear rooted in or driven by passion over wild financial success, both celebrate the obscure—whether it's holding the past in reverence or highlighting contemporary gems—and, most importantly, both are designed to be enjoyed by audiences who are an equally important part of the communal effort. The parallels with punk scenes the world over are inescapable: many bands are well aware that financially breaking even is as much as must be hoped for, but that sharing their creative efforts with an audience is an experience valuable enough to make it worthwhile. Punk, meanwhile, has its own collectors, historians, icons and folklore: although the quantity and focus of reverence for that past will vary from person to person, it's a culture that is well aware of the power of its own history.

This community and cultural history of course cannot stand as a defining characteristic of "punk in games." It would be absurdly over-reaching to try and appropriate beneath the banner of punk our human desire to form social affinity groups and celebrate what we value. What instead makes Babycastles and Wild Rumpus worth the punk metaphor are their collective ownership, their celebration of the non-commercial and the importance of their audience as part of the process. What makes the punk metaphor worth using is the way it suggests to outsiders the level of cultural inclusivity and specificity to be found within these collective organisations. They might entirely reject the appellation "punk" themselves, but the point of the metaphor is to illuminate by comparison, not to define and thereby limit in interpretation.

They are, in short, based on the assumption of a sense of community. 

Another example can be found among game development tools. The easy availability and use of tools such as Unity and GameMaker is often mentioned in articles comparing punk rock and "indie games." However, such applications remain commercial endeavours with limitations placed upon their free features. This stands in contrast to efforts like FlashPunk and Flixel, which are entirely free or open source and can be used for personal or commercial purposes. They're also community-supported with donations and crowd-sourced documentation, with experienced users essentially providing a support network for newcomers.

Here there are interesting parallels with the way that punks were early adopters of donation-based funding systems. Donation-based record labels like Quote Unquote records have been around for almost a decade now—long before the well-established Radiohead and Trent Reznor dabbled in the idea. Although financial transactions still take place, they're based on an honour system implicit in which is a shared trust between audience, label and band. They are, in short, based on the assumption of a sense of community. It is that same community which also supports and encourages newcomers, helping them learn to use the tools.

With this example we can see there are commonalities between these specific tools and punk culture, but what does the use of the metaphor actually tell us about FlashPunk and Flixel? Unfortunately, the answer is very little. Although the metaphor can be applied it is for little purpose: a cautionary example.

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"We wanted to have our own clique. We wanted to create our own culture because we didn't feel connected to anything. Here was the perfect opportunity for that. You were instantly devoted to others around you. This was the first time Rock Music was being written by, performed by, shows put on by, fanzines being put out by, networks being created—all by kids, completely outside of the mainstream music business, for reasons that had very little or nothing to do with economic incentive. It was a really important time in music history because music actually rose above business; as you know, music has always been a really insidious marriage of art and business."—Ian Mackaye, speaking in American Hardcore

"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."—Anna Anthropy, speaking to Brendan Caldwell

There is very little the subjects I've covered hold in common with each other—but I've compared each to a facet of punk culture, music or history in a way that demonstrates varying degrees of genuine resonance. That may be the tight-knit community that surrounds it, the devil-may-care pursuit of creative expression, or an overt love of punk rock.

It is, after all, a complex term because of its convoluted meanings. 

Of course some of the subjects I choose don't overtly identify themselves as "punk." I don't seek to impose punk-ness upon them, only to draw comparisons. The etymology of the word "punk" and the history of its use by musicians and music critics alike is littered with appropriation, imposition and rejection. It is, after all, a complex term because of its convoluted meanings.

No list of "punk games" or "punk developers" should ever, can ever or will ever be considered canonical or inarguable. It is, after all, ultimately a metaphor. It's the imposition of one set of cultural frames of reference onto another set, and that will never be a perfect fit.

Ultimately, if you wish to use the punk metaphor to describe something, whether you're creating it or talking about it, you should draw specific connections between that something and whichever aspect or facet of punk is relevant to the comparison. As you explore those specific connections it will become clear just why the metaphor is important to articulating a particular point or an argument. Perhaps the best examples will even shine an illuminating light back upon punk itself.

At the very least, I hope that whatever we're talking about isn't just a cartoon with a mohawk, a bellyful of fire and a mouthful of phlegm. Punk, and the audience you're talking to, both deserve better.