The Independent Games Movement (Part Three): Behind the Scenes at Indiecade

>Independent gamemakers, like their counterparts in film, make products that can be a lifelong passion, that rely upon the creative inspiration of innumerable collaborators, and that often deplete a life savings or run up credit card debt to create. Like independent filmmakers, they compete for support, publicity, and distribution against established producers and productions that can cost millions of dollars… But the game industry, unlike cinema, has no comprehensive, public venue to introduce, explore, and celebrate groundbreaking independent work. Worthy independent games, prospective funders, and players hungry for new experiences rarely find one another.

Imagine an annual global crossroads and marketplace, open to the general public – a yearly celebration of this community’s new voices and their trailblazing work. Imagine thousands of independent creators, developers, thinkers, players, and fans, traveling from across the world to be at the same place at the same time….

–Indiecade website.

This is the second of a series of interviews I plan to run over the next month or so with key movers and shakers in the independent games movement. I am running this series out of a belief that we may be at a vital crossroads in the history of computer and video games as a series of announcements and developments this year may pave the way for greater innovation, diversity, and experimentation in game design. For a long time, the games industry seemed in danger of being completely swallowed whole by Electronic Arts and a few other major publishers. Suddenly a number of institutions are emerging which will enable distribute and critical engagement with works by smaller games developers or will encourage amateurs to produce and distribute games. Like many of my readers, I love many mainstream games but I also believe that there need to be an alternative games culture if we are going to avoid standardization and stagnation.

A little over a week ago, I featured a two part conversation with Greg Costikyan about Manifesto Games, its support for creator rights, and his critique of the mainstream game publishers.

Today and tomorrow, I will be talking with Stephanie Barish, Founder and President of Creative Media Collaborative, the group which is organizing Indiecade, which they hope will function for the independent games industry the way Sundance has functioned for the independent films movement — a gathering place, a training ground, a focus for critical attention, and a showcase for the best new work from around the world. Full disclosure dictates that I acknowledge that Barish asked me some time ago to serve on the board of advisors for the festival and through telephone conversations and e-mail correspondence, I have watched her and her team grapple with some of the challenges of building the infrastructure and identifying the sponsors needed to pull off a pretty ambitious plan. The first Indiecade is going to be held in Santa Monica, California in the fall of 2007.

I first met Barish when she was working as the producer and director of multimedia publications at Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and then later as the executive Director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center. Barish comes not from the heart of the games industry but rather from the world of independent media production and multimedia literacy education. She brings an alternative sensibility and perspective to the effort to promote independent games.

Here, Barish suggests the ways that the Indiecade has emerged from a particular analysis of what’s working — and what isn’t — in contemporary games culture and explores some of the ways that a games festival might contribute to greater public awareness of the independent games movement. Along the way, she speaks to the question of games criticism, which was a central focus of discussion across the blogosphere earlier this year. Tomorrow, she will speak more fully about what it means to create a festival around games and how games might be understood as reflecting differences between different national cultures.

Barish has asked me to acknowledge the contributions of other members on the Indiecade team who helped her think through how to address some of these questions: Scott Chamberlin (Partner) , Janine Fron (Conference Chair), Sam Gustman (CMC V.P., Partner), Kirsten Paul (IndieCade Program Manager), and Celia Pearce (IndieCade Festival Chair).

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If You Live in Boston…

The What: CMS has agreed to act as the local organizer for a street-game called Cruel 2 B Kind, which will be held on Halloween night — that’s October 31 — from 6:30-8:30 PM near Harvard Square.

Cruel 2 B Kind was created by Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost (both sometimes readers and responders to this blog).

Here’s what their website says about the game:

Cruel 2 B Kind is a game of benevolent assassination.

At the beginning of the game, you and a partner-in-crime are assigned a secret weapon. To onlookers, it will seem like a random act of kindness. But to a select group of other players, the seemingly benevolent gesture is a deadly maneuver that will bring them to their knees.

Some players will be slain by a serenade. Others will be killed by a compliment. You and your partner might be taken down by an innocent group cheer.

You will be given no information about your targets. No name, no photo, nothing but the guarantee that they will remain within the outdoor game boundaries during the designated playing time. Anyone you encounter could be your target. The only way to find out is to attack them with your secret weapon.

Watch out: The hunter is also the hunted. At the beginning of the game, you and your partner will also be assigned your own secret weakness. Other pairs of players have been given your secret weakness as their secret weapon, and they’re coming to get you. Anything out of the ordinary you do to assassinate YOUR targets may reveal your own secret identity to the other players who want you dead.

As targets are successfully assassinated, the dead players join forces with their killers to continue stalking the surviving players. The teams grow bigger and bigger until two final mobs of benevolent assassins descend upon each other for a spectacular, climactic kill.

Will innocents be caught in the cross-fire? Oh, yes. But when your secret weapon is a random act of kindness, it’s only cruel to be kind to other players…

Not sure you’re cruel enough to play as an assassin? Don’t worry – you can still experience killer kindness. Just show up to any game site at the right time. You can hang out, watch the game, and play along as an “innocent bystander”!

Sorry for the last minute notice — I’ve been traveling and have just now gotten my hands on the relevent information.

You can sign up to play in game here.

All you need to play is a partner (the game starts off in pairs), and a cell phone that can receive text messages (to get instructions and updates during the game).

Hope to see some of you there.

Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Seven)

This is the last installment of my series on the white paper which we wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on participatory culture and media literacy. If you want to read the whole paper, check it out here. If you want to learn more about the work that the MacArthur Foundation is doing on youth and digital learning, you can follow their blog — which regularly features comments from some of the country’s leading educators and experts on youth media.

This last installment concludes with some general thoughts about what all of this means for parents, schools, and after school based programs. Project nml will now be turning its attention to developing a range of curricular materials and activities based on this framework, which we will be rolling out through this blog, among many other places.

Thanks for taking the time to read through this material. Do let us know what you think and do share this with others you think would be interesting.

Once again let me acknowledge the contributions of Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison without whom it would have been impossible to pull this report together.

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Announcing: Media in Transition Conference

I wanted to direct my reader’s attention to an event our program will be hosting in April 2007 — our 5th Media in Transition Conference. We try to use these events to bring together scholars from across a range of different disciplines and from around the world to talk about underlying issues that cut across media platforms and across historical periods. We also very much encourage participation from artists, community leaders, and industry people who also might want to share their perspectives on these issues. This year’s topic should be of particular interest to many of the different groups represented among regular readers of this blog, including fans, media literacy educators, and others.

media in transition 5: creativity, ownership and collaboration in the digital age

April 27-29, 2007

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

CALL FOR PAPERS (submission deadline: Jan. 5, 2007)

Our understanding of the technical and social processes by which culture is made and reproduced is being challenged and enlarged by digital technologies. An emerging generation of media producers is sampling and remixing existing materials as core ingredients in their own work. Networked culture is enabling both small and large collaborations among artists who may never encounter each other face to face. Readers are actively reshaping media content as they personalize it for their own use or customize it for the needs of grassroots and online communities. Bloggers are appropriating and recontextualizing news stories; fans are rewriting stories from popular culture; and rappers and techno artists are sampling and remixing sounds.

These and related cultural practices have generated heated contention and debate. What constitutes fair use of another’s intellectual property? What ethical issues are posed when sounds, images, and stories move from one culture or subculture to another? Or when materials created by a community or religious or ethnic tradition are appropriated by technologically powerful outsiders? What constitutes creativity and originality in expressive formats based on sampling and remixing? What obligations do artists owe to those who have inspired and informed their work and how much creative freedom should they exercise over their borrowed or shared materials?

One source of answers to such questions lies in the past – in the ways in which traditional printed texts – and films and TV shows as well – invoke, allude to and define themselves against their rivals and ancestors; and – perhaps even more saliently – in the ways in which folk and popular cultures may nourish and reward not originality in our modern sense, but familiarity, repetition, borrowing, collaboration.

This fifth Media in Transition conference, then, aims to generate a conversation that compares historical forms of cultural expression with contemporary media practices. We hope this event will appeal widely across disciplines and scholarly and professional boundaries. For example, we hope this conference will bring together such figures as:

* anthropologists of oral and folk cultures

* historians of the book and reading publics

* political scientists and legal scholars interested in alternative approaches to intellectual property

* media educators who aim to help students think about their ethical responsibilities in this new participatory culture

* artists ready to discuss appropriation and collaboration in their own work

* economists and business leaders interested in the new relationships that are emerging between media producers and consumers

* activists and netizens interested in the ways new technologies democratize who has the right to be an author

Among topics the conference might explore:

* history of authorship and copyright

* folk practices in traditional and contemporary society

* appropriating materials from other cultures: political and ethical dilemmas

* poetics and politics of fan culture

* blogging, podcasting, and collective intelligence

* media literacy and the ethics of participatory culture

* artistic collaboration and cultural production, past and present

* fair use and intellectual property

* sampling and remixing in popular music

* cultural production in traditional and developing societies

* Web 2.0 and the “architecture of participation”

* creative industries and user-generated content

* parody, spoofs, and mash-ups as critical commentary

* game mods and machinima

* the workings of genre in different media systems

* law and technological change

Short abstracts of no more than 200 words for papers or panels should be sent via email to Brad Seawell at no later than January 5, 2007. Brad can be reached by phone at 617-253-3521. Email submissions are preferred, but abstracts can be mailed to:

Brad Seawell



Cambridge , MA 02139

Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Six)

Today’s post wraps up my list of the eleven social skills and cultural competencies which I argue we should be incorporating into our educational practices with transmedia navigation, networking, and negotiation. Next time, I will wrap up with some recommendations about what this might all mean for parents, schools, and after school programs. We haven’t received many responses here from readers but I am very pleased to see localized discussions of some of these issues start to spring up on a number of other blogs. Do let me know what you think about some of the issues raised here?

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Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Five)

Today, I continue our serialization of the white paper written for the MacArthur Foundation. Today’s excerpt outlines three more of the social skills and cultural competencies we think young people need to develop if they are going to be able to fully participate in the new media landscape: Distributed Cognition, Collective Intelligence, and Judgment.

Distributed Cognition– the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand our mental capacities.

Challenging the traditional view that intelligence is an attribute of individuals, the distributed cognition perspective holds that intelligence is distributed across “brain, body, and world”, looping through an extended technological and sociocultural environment. Explaining this idea, Pea notes,

“When I say that intelligence is distributed, I mean that the resources that shape and enable activity are distributed in configurations across people, environments, and situations. In other words, intelligence is accomplished rather than possessed”

. Work in distributed cognition focuses on forms of reasoning that would not be possible without the presence of artifacts or information appliances and that expand and augment human’s cognitive capacities. These devices might be forms that externalize memory, such as a database, or they can be devices that externalize processes, such as the widely used spell checker. The more we rely on the capacities of technologies as a part of our work, the more it may seem that cognition is distributed.

Teachers have long encouraged students to bring scratch paper with them into math examinations, realizing that the ability to construct representations and record processes was vital in solving complex problems. If, as Clark notes, technologies are inextricably interwoven with thinking, it makes no sense to “factor out” what the human brain is doing as the “real” part of thinking, and to view what the technology is doing as a “cheat” or “crutch.” Rather, we can understand cognitive activity as shared among a number of people and artifacts, and cognitive acts as learning to think with other people and artifacts. Following this theory, students need to know how to think with and through their tools as much as they need to record information in their heads.

Gamers may be acquiring some of these distributed cognition skills through their participation in squadron-based video games. Gee suggests that in playing such games, one must form a mental map of what player and nonplayer characters are doing (nonplayer characters are characters controlled by the A.I of the game). To plan appropriately, players may not need to know what other participants know, but they do need to know what it is those participants are likely to do. Moreover, in playing the games, one may need to flip through a range of different representations of the state of the game world and of the actions that are occurring within it. Learning to play involves learning to navigate this information environment, understanding the value of each representational technology, knowing when to consult each and how to deploy this knowledge to reshape what is occurring. Instead of thinking as an autonomous problem-solver, the player becomes part of a social and technological system that is generating and deploying information at a rapid pace. Humans are able to play much more complex games (and to solve much more complex problems) in a world in which keeping track of key data and enacting well-understood computational processes can be trusted to the processing power of the computer, and they can thus focus more attention on strategic decision making.

Distributed cognition is not simply about technologies; it is also about tapping social institutions and practices or remote experts whose knowledge may be useful in solving a particular problem. According to this understanding, expertise comes in many shapes and sizes (both human and non-human). Experts can be expert practitioners, who can be consulted through such technologies as video conferencing, instant messaging, or email; some knowledge can emerge from technologies such as calculators, spread sheets, and expert systems; new insights can originate from the teacher or students or both. The key is having expertise somewhere within the distributed learning environment and making sure students understand how to access and deploy it.

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Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Four)

I have been serializing in this blog the white paper I wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on youth, learning, and participatory culture. If you want to read the whole report, you can find it here.

My collaborators on this report were Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison.

Yesterday, I began to identify some of the core social skills and cultural competencies that we think should be embedded in contemporary educational practices. These skills reflect the best contemporary research on the informal learning which is taking place as young people assume roles as fans, gamers, and bloggers. Yesterday, we spoke about Play and Simulation; today, we will discuss Performance, Appropriation, and Multitasking.

I am hoping that if you are enjoying reading this discussion, you will bring it to the attention of parents, teachers, church leaders, librarians, and others who regularly interact with young people. We would very much like to use this report to open up discussions about the place of media in young people’s lives. Yet, we want to have a discussion which is not led by our fears and anxieties about what media is doing to our children but rather one that reflects our best research into what our children are doing with media.

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Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (Part Three)

The following is the third installment of the white paper on youth and participatory culture which I developed for the MacArthur Foundation. You can read the whole paper here. This blog offers more information about the larger Digital Learning and Youth initiative. For the full cites of the materials referenced, please check the white paper.

I was assisted in preparing this report by Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison.

Today’s installment digs deeper into the relationship between what we are calling the new media literacies and things schools have traditionally taught, and then it starts to lay out the frameworks of social skills and cultural competencies which we think are emerging through youth involvement in participatory culture. Today, I am dealing with the first two of eleven such skills we identify in the report.

These skills are things we think young people need to acquire if they are going to be ready for full participation in the new media cultures. These skills emerge from the existing research on youth, media, and informal learning. We have tried to anchor each skill with a range of examples of existing practices from schools and after school programs which suggest just some of the ways that these skills could be linked to instructional activity. We know many educators are already trying to incorporate these skills and competencies into their pedagogy. We see this white paper as offering them support as well as hopefully more insights that can further inform their efforts.

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Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part Two)

What follows is a second excerpt from the white paper which I authored, along with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison, for the MacArthur Foundation. The report is intended to offer a provocation for educators at all levels to think about how our pedagogical practices need to shift to reflect the demands of a more participatory culture. In Part One, I outlined some of the changes that are taking place in the media landscape and the ways they impacted young people. In Part Two, I make the case for why adult intervention is needed and why youth will not be able to make these adjustments all on their own.

My hope is that the release of this report will stimulate reflection and discussion among educators, parents, and students about the ways media education is or is not being taught through school and after-school programs. I hope this discussion will also be of interest to the many other groups who read this blog — many of whom are helping to shape the participatory culture we are discussing here and thus have some responsibility for thinking about how we insure that every youth is given a chance to participate.

As always, I welcome questions and comments. I am going to try to respond to any questions I receive once I have rolled out all of the parts of this report via the blog. While I have excluded sources from the blog version to insure ease of reading, you can see a full bibliography in the downloaded document.

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Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Part One)

I spent Thursday in New York speaking on a panel with the University of Chicago’s Nicole Pinkard and the University of Southern California’s Mimi Ito as part of the public launch of the MacArthur Foundation’s exciting slate of new initiatives in the area of youth, learning, and digital media. People interested in understanding the full context of this initiative should keep an eye on the Foundation’s new blog. The event was simulcast on Second Life and on Teen Second Life.


This is the context in which we have been pursuing our own Project nml (New Media Literacies) initiatives which I have been discussing from time to time in this blog. The New York City press event was the launching point for a white paper which I wrote for MacArthur identifying what we see as the key social skills and cultural competencies which young people need to be full participants in convergence culture. In Convergence Culture, I devote one chapter to thinking about the impact of participatory culture on our current understandings of education. Here I — and my collaborators Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katherine Clinton, and Alice J. Robison — have been able to dig much deeper into the pedagogical implications of the world I discuss in the book as well as to lay out some of the key insights from contemporary research on informal learning, games-based pedagogy, online communities, and participatory culture.

My hope is that this white paper will spark conversations among educators at all levels — in schools and in after school programs, in public institutions, and in churches and other community centers — about how we need to change our practices to reflect the new ways that young people are engaging with the world around them.

In hopes of sparking such a conversation, I am publishing the white paper in installments through my blog. This first installment sets the stage, describing some of the challenges and opportunities participatory culture represents in the lives of our young people.

For those of you who are impatient and want to read the whole report at once, you can download it here.

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