Playdate is an LA-based video game showcase with a lineup of creations described by its organizers as as “feminist, queer, weird, and wonderfully experimental.” It’s been going on for years, and the 2019 event wrapped up earlier this year. It’s the kind of place where off-kilter game makers actually produce the kind of art-driven, commercially unviable work that many people claim to wish there were more of.
As of last week, Playdate also happens to share branding with something very different: an indie gaming handheld from Panic—that thing with the crank that’s been lauded for how quirky it is. (I’m guilty of this.) That would otherwise be unremarkable, were it not for several emails Panic sent to the organizers of Playdate, arguing “there’s a very real possibility people will start confusing your thing with our thing” and quickly suggesting a name change.
The exchange came to light over the weekend, after Playdate co-organizer Nathalie Lawhead published a blog post discussing their anxiety over the email from Panic.
“Last year I was one of the organizers for Playdate,” said Lawhead. “That year we received an email from Panic basically telling us we can’t use the name anymore because it would be a shame if our event got confused with what they are doing. It came off as incredibly self-important. It left me thinking ‘Wow, what a dick move.’”
Lawhead compared this to “King owning the word ‘candy’ and arbitrarily enforcing that ownership,” and wishing Panic would have, instead, simply left Playdate to do their thing.
Panic co-founder Cabel Sasser published one of the emails he sent to Lawhead. In the email, Sasser doesn’t outright demand Playdate change their name, but does “think it’d be best” if Playdate “tweaked it’s [sic] name” or ”otherwise came up with a totally different and unique name.” Sasser offered to financially compensate the organizers “in some way for your time and the pain in the ass factor.”
It’s not an aggressive cease-and-desist the way ZeniMax went after Mojang over their card game Scrolls, alleging it would infringe on the company’s Elder Scrolls trademark, but it’s certainly easy to read the email as a polite-sounding nudge before a lawyer is involved because that’s usually how these things go. You ask nicely before someone else doesn’t.
“An event like Playdate (us, proper) is hardly a threat to Playdate (game-toy),” said Lawhead. “We are literally the culture that your advertising is supposedly touting (“weird,” experimental). You come in, take these ideas, mentalities, philosophies, register it, own it, and bully the people that broke that ground for you.”
“I never ever intended to pursue an actual legal route,” said Sasser on Twitter. “I never would have done that. But I can see why it felt that way.”
In response to a tweet by Lawhead, Sasser said he intended “to find a way for our Playdates to co-exist joyfully” and “worried we would overshadow yours.” He admitted the presumption came across as entitled, and backed off entirely, encouraging them to keep using the name.
Lawhead publicly responded to Sasser by discouraging people to “trash” what Panic was creating, but hoping Sasser saw this as a moment to “realize the position you are coming from, and learn from that.” Cease-and-desist or no, Lawhead saw the email as threatening, given their distinct access to resources. (Lawhead said Playdate does not make any money.)
“There is a complicated power dynamic here that very much leans towards supporting the ‘biggest capitalist,’ and that is never going to be friendly to small scale marginalized folk,” said Lawhead. “It’s always going to ‘kill’ artists in preference of the one that’s here to make money.”
Describing the larger conversations about what it means to be “indie” and “who gets to be different,” as important, Lawhead seemed to acknowledge Sasser’s comments but ultimately “stood by what I wrote in my original blog post and feel like it’s important for any man in the game industry, who is in a position of power, to read it and learn from it.”
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you're making something “feminist, queer, weird, and wonderfully experimental," reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.