The Happy Medium


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A community of people willing to play your dumb thing

Note: This story was also published by OpenFile Ottawa as part of their coverage of the Ottawa game community.

Jeremy Penner is the man behind online community Glorious Trainwrecks, a place that celebrates the amateurish, broken, or weird games accumulating at the edges of the mainstream. Once a month they conduct the Klik of the Month, a two-hour game jam using an anachronistic game creating tool call Klik & Play that’s meant to spur people to create for the sake of creating. Nothing is too bad or too unfinished to be submitted.

Famously, the community created Pirate Karts, which are compilations of bad games that they submit to festivals and competitions. 

Penner’s own creations are a peak into the recesses of an over-active imagination: He’s currently working on a stew-based adventure game designed by his son. He’s hacked Mike Tyson’s Punchout to be played with Donkey Konga bongos. He created a game that never tells the truth. He’s turned R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet into an FMV adventure game. Some of these and more can be found on his website.

Penner found the time to join me for a beer in Ottawa and discuss the state of games language, journalism, and why a supportive community is an important park of game making.

THM: I feel like Klik of the Month is like the punks of the indie game world, fucking shit up.

Penner: Klik of the Month is really just about getting people to do something, anything. Whatever is in their grasp to do, and trying to help show people there is stuff in their grasp … The whole reason behind the site was to get myself doing stuff that I wanted to do and not get in my own way. That’s really what Klik of the Month has been about, and what Glorious Trainwrecks has been about, is just doing it. And if that ends up fucking shit up, then that’s awesome. But it’s kind of this by-product of not giving a shit.

I think it’s really cool how it’s been recieved over the years, and how people have been inspired by it. And it’s really just a bunch of people taking a couple hours out of their month to do something stupid.

You said before that it was a way to get rid of the barrier of creating. I feel like people are especially susceptible to barriers to creation in the indie games world.

Well, people, [game designers] especially, seem to have a lot of trouble with expectations. And it might be just because, I don’t know… we don’t know what we have figured out and not figured out. There’s not a well understood critical vocabulary for games, so it’s just like, “I’m gonna do this because this is what I’ve seen and this is what I like.”

What do you mean when you say there’s not a well understood critical vocabulary for games?

So… I don’t want to go off on a games journalism tangent.

No, please do!

Before I started Glorious Trainwrecks I wrote for kind of an indie webzine called the Gamers Quarter. The stuff that came out of that was also pretty raw, but it was also the only place where I could talk about how games worked. Just as a player, a player who wanted to understand why I enjoyed this thing. Sit down and think about, okay, what are the parts and how do they work? Why is this having this effect? This is one of the only places on the Internet that I found at that time, that I could actually have that conversation with people. There was some varying degrees of success as to how the magazine worked as a whole, and the quality of submissions, and all that stuff, but you know. Everyone was just rallying around this idea of, games are important, let’s talk about them. Let’s talk about our experiences with them, let’s talk about how they make us feel and why they’re important to us.

There’s a lot of assumptions in the discourse of games. Mainstream, indie, whatever, of like, “a game is good”. I don’t even like to say that. Right? I mean if a game is good or bad, that doesn’t even—you need to be more specific than that to be saying anything interesting to me. There’s a set of assumptions that is breaking down, but people are still understanding what they should be replacing the assumptions with. Obviously the assumption that technological progress makes games get better, that’s pretty much killed at this point, I hope. That hasn’t panned out. But I don’t think the discourse of games, the people making games don’t necessarily understand, well, okay, we’re at this point where we understand that this doesn’t work, now what do we do? What does work? There’s a lot of people trying a lot of things, but it’s not well understood how to communicate those things to each other in any way other than examples.

I have this feeling I want to make something that kind of works like this, so I’m gonna do it and I’m  gonna put it in front of you and you’re gonna see how you react to it. Which, that’s a great thing and now we’re seeing a lot of it, and Klik of the Month is just the logical extreme of that. People are just making whatever. It doesn’t have to be anything to be in Klik of the Month. Because if you impose those expectations on it, you are so limited in what you can do for two hours. We’d be making Tetris every month. We’d be making Space Invaders every month. To some extent we are, but we’re exploring how the context works, too.

I feel like there is an onus for the audience to help establish that vocabulary. People aren’t critical about games the way they’re critical about movies and music. Maybe it’s a generalization, but it feels like a lot of the players of video games are playing them for fun, but aren’t thinking critically about them.

And there’s totally space for that.

The fact that most game reviews are consumer reviews—whether or not you should spend your money—and not analytical reviews really bugs me.

But at the same time, there are a lot of people working hard to make it not awful, within the mainstream. And they’re not getting the kind of audience that, you know, the dumber reviews are, the consumer reviews are. So that’s a hard problem. I want the critical discourse of games, I don’t think the answer to creating the critical discourse of games is saying, “oh, well, gamers are stupid for wanting a number, and for playing these dumb games.” I think you have to find the audience that is interested in talking critically about games and I think you have to find the people who are interested in playing games that reward being understood critically. And that’s hard. That’s still a hard problem. I don’t know… I don’t know what the best way to approach it is, but I’m doing my part, I guess.

[Jeremy and I discuss the release of the most recent Pirate Kart, and his experiences attending Game Developers Conference]

I did get to meet one of the creators of Klik & Play and he said he was delighted with our work and that was a very moving experience for me. It felt very validating to have taken this weird tool that was clearly originally meant to spur kids creativity, and has morphed into this hundreds-of-dollars professional game product, and have the creator go, “no, you guys are doing it right.” That was really cool.

Was he aware of it before hand? 

No, he had no idea before hand [laughs].

Have you heard from him since?

He did post on the website, basically saying, “It’s so cool you guys are using Klik and Play. We don’t mind that technically the version of Klik and Play you use is not free for personal use, it’s for schools.” He was just kind of impressed that we still cared about this old piece of software. I think tools are really important to opening up game creation to new people. And I think Klik & Play has been a really valuable one in terms of showing that it could be done. It’s very visionary, especially for its time, and even now.

Do you think that game creation is actually accessible?

I think that the technology is not terrible. I think it could be a lot better. I think the culture has a lot longer way to go. To get people interested in making games, they have to be interested in playing games. And to get people interested in playing games, you have to have games that they’re interested in playing, and say, “oh, I like this so much that I could do something like that.”

People who are musicians don’t start off inventing music out of nothing. They listen to music that they like and that speaks to them. I think to truly democratize game creation, you have to get that out there that games that are interesting to all kinds of different people who have voices that should be heard in games.

I think part of that is—I mean, that’ll open up as more weird ideas are tried and more diversity gets out into the hands of more people. I think the tools are really important and I think the culture is really, really important. And the kinds of games that people put out and that people can play is really important, that there’s a wide diversity there and that people are trying new things in order to put different ideas out there and take those risks.

Do you think the average person that likes games has access to the tools to make them? I think there’s still a huge disparity.

I think what I’ve seen through Glorious Trainwrecks is that it hasn’t been—when I started Klik of the Month club, you were doing it in Klick & Play because you won’t care if it’s good or bad or whatever, you’ll just do something weird and it’ll be by default hilarious and awesome. But as the site has grown, people will come to Klik and Play and say, “I have no idea how to use this”. As someone who kind of grew up programming, I’m pretty easily able to find my way around Klik & Play. I do believe that anyone who wants to make games, it is in their grasp. But they need a supportive community of people who can help them out and is willing to not laugh at them for not already knowing.

For the longest time, the piece of advice people there’s always people on the Internet being like, I want to make games, how do I start? All these people are like, I’m willing to sit down and do the work. What do I need to do? People will come back and say, “first you need to learn a programming language, and then you need to make Pong, and then you need to make Tetris, and then maybe you’ll understand enough to make a game that’s anything like what you want to perfectly express.”

For the longest time this was the de facto answer I heard over and over and again. It’s an incredibly demoralizing process if you’re not already inclined. The people who were saying this were programmers. They are people who are like, all you do is dick around on a computer … and the process is as interesting as the product. And there are a lot of people for whom that’s just not true and it’ll never be true. And I think there are tools available where people can learn, and learn well enough to put their ideas out there, but I think they need a community of people who is willing to not think they are stupid for not wanting to care what a pointer is. I think that’s something I’ve definitely seen in Glorious Trainwrecks, people helping people learn the tools is something that’s real. Just having a community of people who is willing to play your dumb thing and find the thing that’s personal that you put into it. That’s going to go a long way to get people through the hard work of learning how the hell these things are put together.

There’s a huge cultural barrier to people thinking that it’s just beyond them, and the only way to do that is to provide resources and say: look, you can do this. It might be hard, you might have to put in a lot of work to get where you want to go, but it can be fun along the way, and every step is good and something that can be appreciated by other people.