Burning Invaders: A Return to IndieCade

“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.

Slide from Johannes Grenzfurthner’s ‘Play With the World’ panel.

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.

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  • Fiohnel  On 10.09.12 at 4:24 am

    You can finish Dishonored by murdering no one.

    Or you can focus on how it still offer gameplay mechanic where you can kill in creative ways and it devalues everything, but that’s like saying Unmanned is all about killing suspected terrorist with a drone.

    Still jealous you can experience that honest, authentic experience and creative energy. Too bad for the rest of million gamers and designers that have no idea what that’s like.

    • Kris Ligman  On 10.09.12 at 8:17 am

      True, you can play Dishonored without murdering anyone. But the marketing sure has emphasized the violence, the role of revenge as a key motivator, and at the end of the day it’s yet another 3D open world thingie fueled by testosterone and a disproportionate graphics budget. I’m tired of seeing these games held up as the best we have to offer year after year, when more interesting (visually, textually and mechanically) work is happening right under our noses.

      And did I imply gamers and designers couldn’t have an authentic experience unless they came to IndieCade? If so, I apologize. I meant more that it felt like a high concentration of the sort of spirit that otherwise I seem only to find at the odd corners of the discourse. Sure there are plenty of great, hard-working developers working year-round to create something worthwhile, and that’s fantastic, but it’s also great to get a bunch of those folks together and get a real community going. It’s the community I’m already missing. I do hope that you, and a lot of other great designers I respect, get to make it out to the festival someday.

      • Fiohnel  On 10.09.12 at 9:11 am

        No idea how disproportionate their graphic budget is, but Dishonored is actually far from expensive photorealistic visual. The textures are low quality, washed smudgy quality. Instead they rely on art direction and intense interior and level design. Lots of hidden corner and elaborately designed room containing lores that players will miss if they play with testosterone murder rampage approach.

        Agree with the dissonance between marketing and real game. It made people expect for CoD experience, but instead they got a game they can rush to completion with just 4 hours and miss all the good stuffs.

        Well IndieCade is one opportunity for people to see what a passionate / personal game design is like, and it’d be nice if more people in game community (players or designers) can experience that at least once, instead of just knowing games as AAAs on console.

        • Kris Ligman  On 10.09.12 at 9:19 am

          Is that so, re the graphics? All I’ve seen are the same polished 3D modeling I’ve come to expect out of most AAA. Perhaps I’ll give it a second look.

          And yeah, that’s the thing. It’d be nice if what I got out of IndieCade actually WAS huge, in the pervasive sense, not in the sense of having one large convention. They’re expanding into a secondary festival for IndieCade East, though, so maybe if we start seeing a trend of more independent conferences and more independent game design *everywhere,* it’ll eventually break down this sort of mass-market stranglehold AAA gaming has.

      • Fiohnel  On 10.09.12 at 9:21 am

        The characters are quite cartoony, closer to Team Fortress 2 anatomy and texturing instead of Bioshock or other AAA photorealistic, as comparison.

        • Kris Ligman  On 10.09.12 at 9:42 am

          Erm, I guess there’s a BIT of stylization, but the character look and moreover the entire aesthetic is still pretty geared toward photorealism, from everything I’ve watched. If that’s changed since the trailers, my hat’s off to them.

  • Rachel Helps  On 10.09.12 at 9:11 am

    sounds AWESOME. I’m curious about the presentation about curators you included a photo of… were there any suggestions to curators or was it more focused on the marketing aspects of indie games?

    • Kris Ligman  On 10.09.12 at 9:38 am

      Curation was actually not the subject of the panel; it was more about using games and interactive installations to subvert player expectations and start a critical conversation about how we consume things. This particular slide went up during the panel discussion as kind of a joke while the panelists were discussing the games-as-art divide, and we didn’t actually hear much else about it at the time. I did go up to Johannes later that day, however, and asked him what he meant by it, and he answered that it was in reference to Marx (which was what I suspected, that curation was anti-proletariat because it established certain individuals as taste-makers/gatekeepers). He also works as a curator, though, so he noted his own ambivalence, but his central argument was that in the case of small galleries, etc, it makes more sense for the individual artist to present him/herself directly to the visitor, rather than curators acting as intermediaries for an artistic experience.

      I didn’t get into my own work at CD much, but I agreed with him that it’d be nice if critical games curation didn’t NEED to exist– that is, if everyone knew where to find the really meaty stuff, if search engines were truly optimized and the biggest sites were home to the best content already. (Maybe then we’d stop hearing about how games criticism is broken and only so-and-so can fix it.) Till then, I think curation serves a purpose, you just have to be conscious of your own agenda.

      It’s definitely a subject that didn’t really get addressed too heavily in the course of the conference, though. It was touched upon briefly in the inclusivity panel with Celia Pearce on Sunday, and two of the coordinators, Tracy Fullerton and Richard Lemarchand, were saying to me afterwards that my view as a critical curator might have fit in pretty well with that discussion, and I know Rich wants me to speak in his class sometime in the coming weeks… So if we’re lucky, we might see that conversation pick up again at next year’s conference. It’d be really interesting to see!

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