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

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) has long served as the showcase of the games industry. The event's host, the Electronic Software Association, announced this summer that the event was going to be discontinued, leading to heated debates in the blogosphere about what this decision might be signaling about the cultural status of games. The noisy, garish, spectacular quality of E3 had set the tone for the commercial games industry: this was the place where the buyers for the major retail chains went to see the new product and design and marketing decisions were often made with an eye to what would look really spectacular when displayed on the big monitors that dominated the floor at E3. One could even argue that the costuming of game characters were designed so that those characters could be embodied by the "booth babes" who worked the floor, trying to lather up the mostly male patrons of the convention, and get them "excited" about some new title. Many people wondered what would happen if this show disappeared. In this blog, I argued for one possible scenario:

One step is to separate out the various functions which E3 served and see whether they should be combined or remain separate. Clearly, the industry will need some ways to introduce its new products to retailers and there's some danger that the next step will be to fragment this process -- allowing the major companies to have their own shows (as Next Generation suggests) but leaving the smaller publishers out in the cold. I don't think that would be a very good thing for the games industry. A second key function would be to inform the public about the current state of the games industry. For example, the Penny Arcade Expo may function more like San Diego Comiccon in providing a space where industry figures communicate more directly with their fans, while there are moves underway to develop an independent games festival that functions more like Sundance does within the film industry, offering a place to showcase work by smaller publishers or games that fall further outside the commercial mainstream. We are seeing a growing number of gatherings with more specialized focuses, such as those centering on casual games, mobile games, serious games, even religious games, each of which serves a specific niche as compared to the general interest focus of E3. The Game Developers Conference may absorb more of the training and recruitment functions that were associated with E3. And so forth.

One of the new events which have emerged in the wake of the collapse of E3 is the Indiecade, which is presenting itself as a celebration of games and play in all of their many manifestations. As envisioned by Stephanie Barish and her collaborators, the Indiecade will be an event designed to heighten public awareness of the diversity of games production and to recognize innovative and distinctive work across all games platforms. It will be an event where new games, as well as works in progress, get displayed. So, if E3 helped to shape the content and style of commercial games, one may wonder what will happen if there is another kind of event which really does attract critical awareness and public interest and which operates with different aesthetic, economic, and pedagogical goals.

Last time, Barish offered some thoughts about the current state of the games industry and why she feels an independent games movement and a games festival is needed. Today, I am running the second part of that interview, allowing Barish to talk about what kind of role her festival hopes to play for the producers and consumers of independent games. I am running it as part of an ongoing series showcasing key movers and shakers within the independent games movement.

For more information about the festival, check out their home page. The festival is scheduled to run in Fall of 2007 in Santa Monica, California.

Barish asked me to acknowledge the contributions of her collaborators to shaping her responses to 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).

*Sidebar: Anyone who would like to see my keynote address from the Serious Games Conference can see it here.

What roles do you see Indiecade playing in fostering an Independent games movement?

While the industry needs the equivalent of Run Lola Run, Billy Elliot, and any number of other important independent work, independent game designers don't necessarily need IndieCade for inspiration. They are already inspired. Independent gamemakers make games for the same reason independent filmmakers make movies, to express something they are passionate about. Of course they hope to make money as well, but this is not necessarily their driving force. On the other hand, they do need and want a public forum to show their work, a place to meet collaborators, a community, and public acknowledgment of their work. In other words, a wide-scale dedicated universal gathering. At least in the United States, all of the other independent game festivals are buried under a film festival (Slamdance) or an industry conference (GDC). We need a forum of our own, fully playable, inclusive of all forms and screens, and with public access. "Play" needs to be exalted. Independent games need an environment dedicated to making them successful, and that is our dedication.

Can a games festival serve the same needs as a film festival given the very different nature of the two media (that is, films are designed to be watched in large scale social settings, where-as most games facilitate only a limited number of participants.)

Effectively showcasing interactive media is one of our biggest challenges, particularly since games are generally designed as such an intimate experience. We're all leveraging our diverse backgrounds to think beyond rows of computer kiosks or big-screen auditorium. We have had to design the IndieCade experience from the ground up, to design exhibition experiences in keeping with the spirit of the games themselves. Games need to be given a forum that speaks to their innovations. Our goal is to capture the excitement and creativity in the content and translate it into the festival.

One of our team partners, KTGY (led by exhibition designer Jeff Mayer) has had a lot of experience with events like SIGGRAPH, E3, and the foundational designs for GameWorks. Among others, they are helping us realize some of the inspirations we have had for sharing game experiences among multiple participants playing roles across the player/spectator spectrum. New forms can be challenging in many ways, and they need to be presented in an appropriate context. We have seen this done very well, and want to ensure that the audience has a play experience, even as spectators.

You are creating a games festival at the same time that the games industry is

abandoning its major trade show. How has this decision benefited or hurt your


Well, on the negative side we lost our fabulous location for board meetings, and like so many others we have come to rely on E3 for the inside scoop, the community of practice, the inspiration, the radical socializing, and the overwhelming sensory experience. But generally the operative word for us is synergy. As you know, the President and Senior Vice President of the ESA, Douglas Lowenstein and Carolyn Rauch, are on our advisory board, and we're working closely with them to forge a kind of complementary relationship between the new E3 and IndieCade.

Happily, they have scheduled E3 close to our own date and moved it over to our location, Santa Monica. I think that we can also say that with the number of exhibitors so drastically reduced (only 30 of the usual 400 will be exhibiting in the new E3), there is even more of a sense of the power of the major publishers and thus even more of a need for an independent counterpoint.

Without a doubt, the move creates a bigger demand for IndieCade. We believe that one of the reasons for the downsizing of E3 is that the big companies don't need it anymore; they already have their distribution channels in place. On the other hand, smaller companies and international participants get a lot out of E3 because it exposes them to potential distributors and publishers. So the E3 reduction is really going to impact the little guy more than anyone and we are receiving an extremely positive reaction from this constituency, as well as the public who regularly attends the expo, and the public who always wanted to attend but didn't have the industry credentials.

Art films have been celebrated as offering us windows into cultural difference, giving us access to the beliefs and everyday practices of distinctive cultures around the world. Do you think games also reflect cultural differences in this way or has the global circulation of games meant that from the beginning they have developed a culturally neutral style and content?

I wouldn't be here if I didn't see an incredible potential in games for cross-cultural interactions, far beyond watching a new experience in a film. The collaborative aspect to certain games will give us an unprecedented window into cultural dialogue in the future, particularly as more diverse gamemakers emerge. We are now seeing a glimpse of what is possible as American kids embrace Japanese games and their culture, aesthetics, and play styles - the Wii and the DS being great examples. Indeed, a lot more of the world could be seen through the lens of games.

There are three ways to think about it. One is games that are specifically about other cultures, much parallel to film. The Games for Change movement is to be lauded for working to make headway in this area - focusing on political games and games about different cultures. Another is games in which people from diverse cultures cohabitate and collaborate and opportunities exist, particularly in the MMOG sphere, to create more connection between people of different cultures. Cross-cultural exchange is particularly interesting because often it is within the framework of a non-culturally-neutral game. I think more people are aware of Korea today because of games like Lineage and Ragnarok. And finally, ways in which game makers can challenge mainstream game culture through modding the game itself afford us opportunities for questioning, countering, and commenting upon culture that other media simply just cannot offer. I believe this ability to connect with others and to author, facilitates questioning that can address cultural differences and enable us to interact with them on a global level.

Getting to your question, though: on the formal side, I do not agree that games are culturally neutral. To the contrary, I think they reflect the biases of the fairly homogenous gamemakers who design them. And in terms of content, I don't think games have yet been able to approach the nuances of culture and human understanding that film has reached.

But, what makes independent games so exciting is that they represent new voices and new points of view. We want to pave paths for many more voices to come to the mix and the public eye. It is our desire to follow in the footsteps of the independent film community and salute the creative forces that take risks, run up their credit cards to follow a vision, and turn convention on its head to make independent games that are truly innovative and expand our definitions and experiences of play.