Against Homebrew

moonshine.jpgI am against "Homebrew" game development.

Not the activity nor the concept — I participate in the Atari VCS development scene. I enjoy making games for the machine, and I teach it in my classes. I am against the word. Or more properly, the frame it evokes. Let me explain.UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff has advanced the concept of "frames" in language. For Lakoff, a frame is the way we conceptualise an idea. Words invoke frames. The way we use words to frame ideas can influence what and how people believe. In his book Moral Politics, Lakoff discusses the way liberals and conservative use (and fail to use) frames to communicate political ideas. For example, the conservative phrase "tax relief" implies that tax is a burden or an affliction rather than, say, a means to broader social improvement. Lakoff argues that conservatives are very good at verbal framing, while liberals are very bad at it.

Videogame developers, publishers, journalists, and players are also very bad at framing. For example, game proponents often respond to criticisms about game violence inciting real violence by saying "you can't prove it" rather than "shifting the frame," in Lakoff's terms, toward another perspective.

"Homebrew" is another frame we should be shifting.

What does the term evoke? Moonshiners. Bootleggers. Illegal trafficking. Or if not that, illegitimacy. Bastard products. Fakes, fraud, and corruption. Something that can't or shouldn't be done in public, but that you can get away with at home.

There's a reason for that illegitimacy has been a part of "homebrew." One reason is the first-party publishing model. Because the popular game platforms are closed, ordinary people don't have access to them. The only way to end around this limitation is to illegally acquire a dev kit (bootlegging) or to reverse engineer or otherwise jury-rig a solution (moonshining).

Another reason is obsolescence. Computer platforms age and leave the marketplace. When they do, there's no reason to protect them. Thus, homebrew development is sometimes seen as a waste of time. Homebrewers, taking on their drunkard namesakes, appear like slackers and tramps. Why write a game for a dead platform? Why not get a job?

In response to the first objection, we might cite the considerable innovation on early platforms came from reverse engineering. That's how most of the third-party developers (save Activision and Imagic, founded by former Atari devs) figured out how the system worked. So reverse engineering has a history of progressing design.

In response to the second objection, we might question the idea that a platform's expressive and cultural (or even commercial) value ends when it becomes less prominent. Poetry and theatre are very hard arts to make a living at, but still people do them, often as a supplement to other parts of their lives.

Compare "homebrew" to, say, "hobbyist" or "community" or "amateur" or "DIY" or "weekender" or "offhours" game development, to name just a few alternatives. These are more positive frames that better explain what so-called homebrew development really feels like. Or we could just forget the term entirely and use different frames of legitimacy: "I'm a university professor and I like to travel, dine out, and make Atari games in my spare time."


    Wow, thanks for a good read!

    Great article, I used to call myself a homebrew developer, I think I'll go with "offhours" now :)

    They could call themselves "hackers" like they did back before hacking became a term for destructive behaviour.
    I don't mind the term "homebrew". Sure it evokes ideas of illegal activity, but that makes it a little more exciting. You're becoming a part of an underground society. You're a renegade, standing up against The Man who wants to hold down your creativity. Cutting a dashing figure with your pocket protector and coke bottle glasses as you hold aloft your mighty hardware.

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