At Play at IndieCade East

[19 February 2014]

By Eric Swain

“Play! Where’s the magic? We have technicians… we need magicians.”
—Karl Rohnke

Over this last weekend I spent a good deal of my time at IndieCade East, a smaller scale convention focused on the art of games, on the avant garde, and on challenging the idea of what games can be instead of celebrating the stagnation of what they are. Last year I wrote an extensive three part primer on PAX East. I enjoyed my time there well enough, though I always end up feeling stifled, constrained, and in the end exhausted by it. Conversely I felt I didn’t get to spend enough time at IndieCade East. More than just the games that are represented on the “show floor,” it is almost the exact opposite of the huge public spectacle that PAX East is in every major respect.

The difference between the two is almost immediately clear when walking through the front door. I’d say even sooner—when approaching the building. IndieCade East was housed this year in the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, New York City. It’s a big modernist style building, meaning it’s a giant rectangle of concrete with the occasional strip windows facing the front and a small, nondescript marquee over the front door announcing itself as such, notable only because the rest of the wall is without detail. Despite the fact that the whole of the museum could fit into the lobby of the Boston Convention Center, the space feel open and clear. The museum’s ceilings are high, and the everything is white—from the floor, to the walls, to the tables and chairs in the museum cafe, and, of course, even the snow seen falling outside through the back bay windows looking over the building’s courtyard.

Time itself at this convention is less of a consideration and less of a worry than at others. The entire event is allowed to breathe. There are keynotes and panels on topics far more interesting than what is usual for PAX East. These include talks titled things like: “Indie Criticism,” “Narrative on a Budget,” “Outsider Games: Why Leaving Your Expertise at the Door Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing,” and “I’m a Transsexual Witch Poet Gamecrafter and You Can Be Too.”

These discussions are shorter and get to their main point faster. That and you can walk in several minutes late and still find a seat somewhere. There is no half hour line up beforehand, just to have a chance at getting in. There is no rush. If you’re talking to someone or playing a game, you can do so right up until the moment that the talk starts and get in without being hurried along. There’s no running a half a mile to find the theater. The museum isn’t that big and allows for a more intimate setting between its speakers and its audiences, its designers and its players.

The attitude here is different. Everyone at the event loves the medium and wants to see what it can do, but they are not fanatics. Holding such an event in a museum helps set the tone. We often repeat the mantra that “games are art, games are art.” It often seems as if this is said more to convince ourselves, than it is to convince our opposition that it is true. In this setting, with games positioned as they are, no mantra is needed. The idea that games are art is unconsciously accepted as the norm. If the immediate impact of the space isn’t enough, nor are the attitudes of your fellow attendees enough, then you will be convinced sometime around Friday afternoon. Most likely around the time you are watching people battle it out on Towerfall: Ascension, while eating complementary Skittles from OUYA listening to a live string quartet play a rendition of the Halo Main Theme. A friend who came in from England to attend stated that is was a rather surreal moment of realization. I never found it such. I felt myself fitting into the event like the last needed I-block needed to complete the row.

Behind an indoor amphitheater, NYU game design students showed off their school projects of experimental game design, four stations showing off a game each that would rotate out on the next day for four new projects. In the room opposite the hall was what could be called the show room floor—though it looks more like a medium sized cafeteria. Sony took up one corner of the space for the weekend with several stations showing soon to be released indie games for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Most of these games were mutliplayer titles, clearly selected to take advantage of the centrality of spectatorship inherent at a convention. And while Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Hohokum may be single player, there’s more than enough spectacle in their play to keep others interested.

On Saturday and Sunday, a good half of this room would be taken up by round, chest high tables where every two hours indie designers would rotate out their creations. Most of these games were incomplete in some form or another, ranging from titles still in early alpha to more complete beta versions. Quite a few looked ready save for some bugs. Some were merely awaiting approval from Apple to be made available for sale. And the variety of games on display was staggering. I tried, but I could not play everything that was on display—as much as I wanted to. It is quite something to walk up, be offered a controller, and to be asked whatever comes into your mind as you play and have the creator answer you directly, openly, and with as much complexity as you can tease out of that individual.

It is the kind of back and forth in which you can make an obscure reference to another game and still have the other person understand it. Even when I found myself making a reference that the designer didn’t get, it only took a few seconds of him staring at me until I realized that he was waiting for me to explain that reference to the obscure title that I had just compared his work to. There was no dismissal, only interest and hope that someone else would find their own work interesting. I offered to write a news post about one of these games for another site that I write for, and I handed the developers my email address to let me know when the game was available to do so. The looks on some of their faces at this simple innocuous offer was incredible. For me, it was simply the daily grind of finding material for news blurbs. For them, it was an acknowledgement of their effort.

Nothing was turned away. Nothing sucked. And nothing was “not a game.” I couldn’t help but admire the courage of two young students who brought with them nothing but a basic prototype. a prototype in which the only function on display was a basic icon representing a character moving around a field that could enter through a door into a dungeon, which was just another field. They were still building the engine that their game would eventually be built on, and they proudly showed off what was really nothing. But they had made it themselves.

I’ll talk about the games that caught my eye next week, but for now, I want to convey the creativity on display. It is hard to see the the enthusiasm for creation when we merely relate to games as consumers. We see the end product, while whatever we see in previews before release is filtered through press releases and screenshots—without the context of the process of design or any contact with the people that made them.

And all of that is just the first floor.

On the second floor of the building, the Indie eSports Showcase was featured. An event allowing attendees to play the mutliplayer games of the future. Games like LAZA Knitez (of which yours truly managed to win a match streamed over TwitchTV), Videoball, Nidhogg, and more.

On the third floor was the museum’s exhibition “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games.” It’s something I could write a whole other post about. Suffice it to say that it is an interestingly crafted space that serves to display a group of curated video games to hardcore gamers and non-gamers alike in order to demonstrate their artistic worth and the overall variety of Indie offerings. The exhibition will continue until March 2nd if you’re interested.

And at the end of Saturday, the museum was prepared for night games, an evening devoted to live action games, pick-up-and-play multiplayer video games, projected games, theatrical games, and the Indie eSports Saturday Night Rumble. I, unfortunately, had a train to catch for the evening and left before the event got into the swing of things. From the photos, it looked like everyone had fun.

If there was a central theme to this year’s IndieCade East, it’s that games aren’t important. Play is important.

One talk that I attended in the Bartos Screening Room, a theater whose entrance was drenched in red light (in contrast to the Redstone Theater, whose entrance was drenched in blue light), was about a man named Karl Rohnke. He was a man who had never made or even played a video game. You probably have never heard of him, and the things that he made don’t have names. If you were in high school anytime after the 1970s in the USA, then you’ve played one of his games or at least one inspired by his work. Ever have to stand on two planks on long wood with ten other people, then walk in unison while lifting these planks forward? That was his idea. Ever have to get about a hundred people through a jump rope, each person getting one jump to do so without a mistake. This is also a creation from the Karl Rohnke school of game design. His play inspired activities and reinvigorated and revolutionized physical education classes around the country after the era of the medicine ball and the rope climb.

The speaker giving the talk cited three reasons for Karl Rohnke’s success:

1. Freedom to explore
2. Freedom to innovate
3. Constant stream of participants

Likewise, Karl had three main rules for himself regarding creating games. The most apt for indie video games and really video games in general is the second one: “Don’t get in the way of fun.” What he meant by this is to not dictate how something should be done.Instead the designer needs to identify a moment of engagement, of heightened emotion, of delight, and expand on it. Karl was a skilled motivator and could get people to do anything by empowering them to play along. There is a resistance in humans to looking silly. Play subverts that reluctance and encourages people to look absolutely ridiculous on purpose.

Other talks addressed the video game community directly or brought light to corners of the medium that are not well known. But no talk quite got to the heart, to the ethos of IndieCade, like one by Pete Vigeant, who tossed a large beach ball into the audience and told that audience not to let it hit the ground. Once everyone got the idea, he added another, then another. Eventually the theater had its own version of multi-ball going on. It took less than a second for a bunch of people resting in their seats listening to a lecture on a man and his game design philosophy to begin smack beach balls around like it was a rock concert. Play changes people. Play is important.

IndieCade East is an event that I’m rather annoyed at myself for having taken so long to go to. I didn’t know this is what I wanted until I got there. Isn’t that always the way? I got to play games that I’ll likely never have the opportunity to play elsewhere. I got to talk to people about video games in a way that I rarely get the opportunity to. I got to be a part of something for a weekend that feels like a shot of adrenaline to the medium’s future. I got to talk to an indie documentary filmmaker who was taking notes like a college freshman as she continually encouraged me to give a condensed version of what she felt like was “an entire seminar class” on the artistic breadth of video games. Who knew that knowledge would come in handy?

It’s amazing what a touch of class can do to change the state of entire medium. It was more than worth it to get up early each day to brave the New York City subway system, the weather, and the cold just to attend. I only wish I could have seen more, talked more, and played more.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/179248-indiecade-east/