Curating Diversity for IndieCade

Among the many conversations around representation and diversity rest the dilemmas and strategies of curation. No one’s fully figured out how to exhibit games, most typically using the model of product expos that offered either demos or the impossibility of playing the full game in a crowded space and a line. With the expo model came a certain standard for what would is seen as exemplar, typically in line with what pleased consumer media largely made up by hobbyists. It can be a tough landscape when you’re cognizant of the lack of diversity in works, bodies, and identities in our exhibits.

Unless you’re doing something specifically about identity, it never feels good to include someone just because they happen to be who they are. When you’re given notice just because you’re marginalized, down the road you suffer a large amount of self-doubt when people actually don’t know your work in any real capacity, just that it’s neat that you’re a brown woman who’s in games. Thinking on this problem, wanting to get more underrepresented people in shows without using their identity as a basis, I knew that a strategy or process needed to expand how we value games, because those who are left out of the spotlight are so because they are saying more unconventional things.

Then came this year’s IndieCade, where I was asked to be a jury chair to help go through our submissions and choose who will be nominated. IndieCade is an interesting festival because it continues to reach out to games in different formats and generally accepts more weird things than GDC and the IGF. IndieCade and IGF use similar judging systems where essentially a large volunteer group goes through and rates games, and then someone or a group of people looks at the ratings and trends and tries to pick out nominees and award-winners. This brings up a lot of issues, since we have so many different perspectives, agendas, and tastes that it can be hard to corral everyone behind a curatorial mission. An advantage IndieCade has is trying to stick to judging based on innovation as opposed to strictly quality, because standards of quality in games encourage reviewers to produce a homogenous set of recommendations that represent the most mainstream instead of interesting.

Despite being used so much that it is basically empty, ‘innovation’ is a useful for getting a group of people who do not have much strength in the arts or humanities outside of their narrow if existent use in games to look for things outside of the traditional. The theory I wanted to test going through this process is that if we push innovation as the major weight in deciding whether or not it belonged at IndieCade, and to also stretch our imagination on what innovation means. This is harder than one might expect, because it is our inclination to reward ‘good’ things, and that popular criticism is all about assessing how well something is crafted with interesting ideas often falling by the wayside. We are trained to see value in polish, certain amounts of content, and a strict sense of ‘interactivity.’ There’s a tendency for incremental change, such as the next Journey or a 2016 Legend of Zelda or more interactive twine game. It’s my guess that if we can put these impulses aside, we will be able to discover and celebrate more people from the margins of games, because at some level our art is reflecting personal experience, even when it isn’t about saying our exact story, and we will see different experiments coming from those who see the world and games differently.

There were many arguments over this because of the function of festivals and awards and what it means to celebrate games in this given social context. By curating in these games we’re deciding what is noteworthy, implying they are a standard others should strive for. With an ever-increasing amount of games being made, there’s this general concern for best game-making practices to be wider recognized and to hold up independent successes. Where this falls short is assuming that what we have now is the general shape games will always be, when our understanding of play and games are so undeveloped that we close off many new forms of expression.

You can take a look at the nominees to see the results of my efforts. 50% of the games had creators who weren’t men in lead roles and 25% had people who weren’t white (this number doesn’t include white-passing minorities). It shook out to only 33% of nominees being exclusively lead by white guys, which is pretty darn close to their representation in US demographics (31%). Only half of the games are exclusively digital, there were installations, performances, VR, physical computing, bespoke game objects. Many nominees were students or people who never worked in the games industry. I cite all this because this was a result of holding to values of innovation instead of inclusion, where what is considered innovative was expanded to naturally include people typically not represented in games events. We only did demographic checks after we chose our shortlists, not before, and it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that a diverse group of people would result because we chose an honestly varied selection of games. I haven’t seen any games event come so close to gender and race parity and not be ‘about diversity.’

I’m proud to have gone through a process that allowed me to present such a diverse offering of games and creators without tokenization, no one was there just because they are a social minority and many games where being a social minority was the most interesting aspect of the game were turned down from nomination. I wanted to write about this experience because I feel like many others are struggling to figure a system out. Or I want to challenge those who continually show mostly white men’s work and shrug their shoulders. It shows the importance of constantly reevaluating what we find to be good in games and understand how we as event organizers, curators, networkers, or anyone involved in casting visibility on others can make sure we’re showcasing interesting work without excluding people based on conventional standards of quality. It would be nice to finally get past questions of inclusion to more critical issues facing our medium.

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