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One of a Hundred: The Perspective of an “Outsider” on Indiecade East

February 19, 2013

By Joel Jordon

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It’s great how much you could take for granted at Indiecade East, held this past weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. You could take for granted that the people there love games and are, overwhelmingly, open-minded about them and want to see new things done with them. The academics there from NYU, Parsons, and elsewhere are all as far away as possible from stodgy academicism. They are grown adults who have dedicated their lives to studying play and designing games, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that they’re all fun and funny in person. You can take for granted that they take for granted the value of games, and while it’s apparent they’re exploring the expressive potential of the medium I also get this sense that they just see the inherent value in bringing play back into other adults’ lives.¹ Groups from NYU and Parsons competed against each other at the iron game design challenge, and the Parsons group designed a physical game in the spirit of Johann Sebastian Joust, the kind of playful social game I mean that everyone here seems to appreciate.

The best games for the museum space were just like this. I kept coming back for more competitive matches of Hokra, the minimalist digital sports game that’s being released with J. S. Joust in Sportsfriends. Others question whether games like this will have any real place outside of public events like this one. Since I’d like to play Hokra a whole lot more, I hope I’ll find a way, but I know that it at least worked very well in this setting.

Renga, the 100-player cooperative game controlled by laser pointers, was also a great experience and one that could definitely only work at this kind of event. I was surprised by how much of a traditional game it was. It would be easy to make a game like it for a big audience that’s much more cinematic, but it actually had some pretty complex systems of reward and punishment and made players feel responsible for the action while somehow also accounting for the fact that most audiences would play poorly. I’m not sure how it all worked exactly behind-the-scenes, but the loud and crunchy sound of your ship getting hit, which I don’t think quite matched the damage done to it, seemed to be enough negative feedback to give players incentive to try to play well. The audience actually showed some significant improvement near the end, learning how to build paths to upgrades much more efficiently, although as a group we never really figured out how to do the bigger thinking and choose the upgrades that were actually needed. We were mocked by the sharp and humorous commentary again and again.

Other games I enjoyed a lot, like Gorogoa², weren’t so great for the space. A puzzle game, Gorogoa was something you might wait behind someone to play but, while watching them, see all the solutions to the puzzles, defeating the point of then playing it. More generally, the trouble with all of these single-player games on display is that urge you get to be the one in control. That’s a feeling New York artist Cory Arcangel captured in games that play themselves.

At this same festival with Hokra and Renga was the Oculus Rift, the forthcoming virtual reality device whose form couldn’t possibly do more to discourage social play. A guy attaches a big black brick over your eyes by strapping it around your head, and then you stare into what I guess is supposed to be the future. All the bright colors shoot directly into your corneas, and the guy who tied the tube to your head keeps asking you how you feel, which was a question I thought I was expected to answer by saying, with some enthusiasm, “it’s cool,” so I did. I’ve noticed that people’s mouths tend to hang open when they play it, like they’re drooling.

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For a game design workshop we were split into groups before brainstorming and designing nondigital games using objects from a box. It was a fun process, although I ended up in a group with a couple of overzealous graduate game design students from NYU who led most of the discussion and who weren’t afraid to insist on going with the ideas they honestly felt were good and say which ones they felt were bad. This matched my experience in the room with the games on display, where, when I wasn’t too intimidated by the impenetrable circles of conversation people who knew each other seemed to form, I found others who were very forthcoming and to the point, businesslike in describing who they were and what they did before drifting quickly off to speak with others.

hokraThen I read a conversation on Twitter between several indie game designers the day after Indiecade East, and although none of them attended the festival and their comments were unrelated to it I found what they were saying was relevant to my experience. One designer insisted that there was no difference between being “in” and not “in” the indie game community and also explained how his way of getting known was traveling to many conferences over a few years and talking to a lot of people. Another responded that this isn’t something everyone would have the money for, and another argued that of course elite cliques form in this community, as they do anywhere else. Only some people win the big awards and gain attention and then so easily find the path to success and belonging.

I considered jumping in on this conversation because I am an outsider and there could be no time more ironic for me to jump in. But I am totally new, an extreme outsider. I only really started working on my first videogame a few months ago, so to even worry now about entering this community is presumptuous. But this doesn’t diminish my recent experience at Indiecade East, which I thought I might mention then but am now writing far more than 160 characters about. As far as I can tell, this indie community pretty much finds its digital home on Twitter, and this tool that’s so useful but also so terrible for communication blurs the line between “in” and “out.” This line is hazier and more difficult to discern here but by no means does it ever disappear. Their tweets are public, and you can read their conversations and even reply to them, but they are strangers. You’ve played and enjoyed and thought a lot about their games, many so much more personal than the big-budget creations of corporations, but they are also inspirations whom you look up to too much to feel you could ever be on the same level with them. They aren’t superstars—just game designers—and they are even very marginal as far as the larger game industry is concerned, but you find them inaccessible. Everything is transmitted through this void without the clear ups and downs and lefts and rights you’ve come to expect from the games you play.

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Even though Renga is a game meant to be played by a large group, not everyone gets to play all the time. They only had enough laser pointers for every third person or so and asked that everyone share. When the guy next to me hogged the controller, so to speak, for what I thought was a little too long, I got a bit annoyed. But as the game went on and after I’d had the chance to join in on the action a few times before passing my laser pointer back to the person sitting next to me, I got to be OK with just spectating. At the end, I just watched the final battle and felt briefly we all were really in on this together.

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¹ I’m not naming these people because I haven’t even spoken to any of them personally, mostly because I’m a bit too intimidated, which is something I’ll get to, but my big caveat here is that these are total guesses based only on hearing them speak and not even about these subjects particularly. I’ve been told I’m a good judge of character, but you might want to take this mostly as a bit of creative extrapolation on my part.

² It’s becoming apparent to me that it seems like all the games I liked had unusual but memorable titles that ended in the letter a. So let me just say that Dyad was there, too, which I obviously like a lot, and that I thought Splice was a brilliant and complex puzzle game.

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