“I hope one day this thing is huge,” a young games journo tells me breathlessly. He wears a fedora and a pixel tie and I would peg him as not old enough to drink.
I frown. The kid has just finished bragging about “sneaking in” to his first E3 this summer, a so-called industry conference about which I have some pretty strong feelings. E3 is still not back up to its tottering pre-2007 top-heaviness but it’s still horrifically large, unsustainable in its girth and the inertia of its own technological obsolescence. I do not want IndieCade to ever resemble that.
Size means money and money means sponsorship. Sponsorship doesn’t always necessarily mean ideological compromise but it usually does, in my experience. There is nothing indie about product placement or branding. Even Sony’s rather subdued presence at IndieCade each year tends to make me a little uncomfortable, although I’ve started to adjust to it. But IndieCade is still not the place for trafficking hardware and million-dollar licenses. The best uses I saw for the trappings of mainstream gaming over the weekend used the technology as a medium for culture jamming, using the presentation of mass consumption against consumers.
IndieCade tends to be called the Sundance of videogames, but I prefer to think of it as gaming’s Burning Man: three days in the (surprisingly still baking) October sun in which board games and their pieces get ripped apart and reassembled, players get together for meatspace renditions of Frogger and artist-provocateurs like Johannes Grenzfurthner hold ad hoc massively multiplayer thumb war tournaments. Everyone keeps their shirt on and drug use is kept off-site (well, mostly, I presume) but otherwise, IndieCade runs on a very similar spirit of home-grown hippiedom part Maker Fair and part Gen Con. It does not need to be anything else.
I try to explain my disagreement to the young journalist, who writes for a publication I’ve never heard of (no surprise, as there are infinitely more gaming blogs than one might ever happen upon, even if you’re in the business of happening upon unconsidered trifles, as I am) and he carries one of those NES controller print wallets you can buy at Hot Topic. “A bigger convention means a bigger backend,” I say. “It means more people and more bureaucracy and more opportunity for the people they’re trying to promote actually ending up marginalized.”
I don’t think he gets it or cares. He heard about IndieCade just a few days ago, so I admit I’m not terribly interested in how he thinks it could be improved. (Which it certainly can be. But that’s a discussion for another time, when we’re further away from wrapping up the year’s festival.) I am a bit troubled by the mental image of an unmanageably large IndieCade, an actual Sundance into which our AAA all-stars might swan in and offer their stamp of cultural legitimacy… Well, more than they already have. No, perish the thought.
So here is what I did this weekend.
On Friday I watched John Romero conduct a Q&A with Steve Russell, the developer of Spacewar! and thus, one of the principle forebearers of gaming’s modern military-industrial-entertainment complex, via its first phase of liberation amongst the academic elite. Then I saw Mattie Brice, whom we might consider games journalism’s first true socialite (also, queen and empress) hold a conversation with Christine Love about making an openly feminist game (which generated applause, and should not have, if only because making a feminist game should not seem in any way unusual, yet it is). Later in the afternoon I watched anna anthropy deliver a talk on the significance of queer games, elevating the term “queer” to deliberately highlight its meaning as other, as outside of normal, as inherently political, a theme Mattie had introduced as well and would continue as a leitmotif throughout the conference. I watched anna patiently weather the same tired questions from worried straight white cismen seeking anna’s stamp of approval for their well-meaning but dreadfully problematic liberalism.
On Saturday, I shook the hand of Dan Pinchbeck and marveled at how little I had ever heard of his academic background from the mainstream press. I watched a presentation by a panel of activists, artists and self-professed trolls on using games for subversion, and it lit a fire in my brain that has yet to go out. At dinner with Christine Love, Mattie Brice, Patricia Hernandez, Jorge Albor, Miguel Sternberg and Isaac Schankler we discussed the nature of attribution, the open and closing of shareable ideas, and the difference between hearing “make your own games” from a person in a position of privilege and from one who is not. (Also, anime and suchlike, lest you think we could stay so serious after the first couple rounds of drinks.)
On Sunday I watched Mary Flanagan trace the history of computing, of hackers and wargaming. I watched Celia Pearce, Megan Gaiser, anna anthropy and Akira Thompson hold the first IndieCade panel on festival and industry inclusivity. In the afternoon I took a small but appreciable group of games journalists and developers on a field trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology to see what ideas might germinate therein.
And after the final awards and meeting and talking with more developers, professors, researchers, critics and gamers in the span of an hour than I can ever say I have at any previous venue, I found myself standing at the entrance of the festival, watching in astonishment as someone I could only assume was artist Jason Torchinsky slung a sledgehammer into the large wooden Space Invader sculpture (above) that had stood out as a demarcation point between IndieCade and the outside world for the preceding weekend.
At first I’m distraught. What a lovely artwork, smashed to pieces before my eyes! I’d gotten my photo taken in front of it besides academic colleagues for two years in a row. But then later, as I sit across a dinner table with the writer of this year’s grand jury prize game, Unmanned, talking about how the state of the critical discourse has changed in even a short few years and how IndieCade is becoming a true breeding ground for the kind of innovation and counter-consumerist political action I so love, my previous analogy returned to me: it’s Burning Man. Yes, the Invader has to be destroyed. And I hope that we do the same thing every year from now on.
Returning home late that night, a little bit tipsy and incredibly exhausted, the memory of the Fedora And Pixel Tie Kid fading quickly into inconsequential trivia, I check Twitter. I see discussion on whether Dishonored, a game about the tremendous freedom of choice afforded players in how to savagely murder their virtual targets, should be considered in the running for Game Of The Year.
I feel revolted. Yes, the smashing of the Invader is a fitting end to the year’s festival, but it took no time at all for the outside world to come flooding back in, with all its trivial affectations and frankly disgusting priorities. I’m not saying violent games shouldn’t exist, but the disappointment I feel at this moment is so profound it feels like an actual loss.
“What lovely silver slippers you have, m’dear,” I’d muttered to Mattie on Saturday evening, as we strode across the IndieCade village toward the Night Game displays, where soon about 100 people would participate simultaneously in a laser-assisted projected space war.
“Oh, I know,” Mattie answered cheerfully, because she is always cheerful. I have never met someone so extroverted. “I needed some silver slippers for my trip through Oz tonight.”
Oz, yeah. That might be a better analogy than even Burning Man. And now a whirlwind’s come and whisked us all away, back to dreary old monochromatic AAA gaming’s Kansas. Except that expression, too, sequesters IndieCade away from the rest of reality as though it is un-real, illegitimate, frivolous, fanciful. It should be the other way around. IndieCade is where everything feels authentic. It’s the other 362 days of the year which by contrast end up feeling fake.