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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Dispatches from IndieCade

Earlier this month was IndieCade, a festival that celebrates indie video games down in Culver City near LA. It’s actually a little more than that, also including non-digital games and tends to be more open to experimental and fringe work. It is open to the public and one of the more inclusive games events, and probably one I’d still appear at to see how things are moving along in the not-too-mainstream, not-too-artsy realm of games. I’m also a judge for the festival, meaning I help funnel games towards the jury to select for the awards and general inclusion into the festival. I want to take you through some highlights and games I saw there, and even some that didn’t make it into the festival but I judged and think are worth noting.

I’m really into going to talks at conferences and conventions because I feel like it’s a good litmus test for where most influential thought is at; not necessarily the most radical, but usually ahead of the curve and educational for conference-goers who can’t be plugged into Twitter and academia 24/7. This IndieCade was centered around community, which is fitting since that word has been on everyone’s lips for the past year. Thankfully that meant a lot of talks about diversity, inclusion, history, and outside influences. Look out for recordings of these when/if they go up!

The first talk I went to was “Let’s Not Make a Scene,” which mostly raised a lot of questions about groupings of people and how that works in industrial, artistic, and advocacy communities. The panelists were smart enough to not really get prescriptive of what is and isn’t a scene, and showed quite human complexities around scene making and power dynamics. Particularly salient was the story of how TIGSource forum devs set an unintentional standard and in-/out-group dynamic when many of those developers rose to prominence and were basically dubbed ‘the indie scene.’ A group of friends and peers became an aesthetic movement, and then became an industry in of their own. The problem with this is that power structures when it comes to visibility and resources were set mostly by the values of this group, however unintentionally, and access to all that surrounds the indie industry is affected by how many degrees, and what kind, of association you are away from this original group of people. This is also a conversation going on with the ‘Queer Games Scene,’ which I am included in per my wishes or not, and there’s a question as to how a similar dynamic will be created in this movement. Though I don’t think these two situations are comparable, I was glad it was still evoked and interrogated so we can at least be wary of replicated power structures of any group of people.

Another panel that went over rather well was “Let’s Do Something About it” (only now seeing the repetition) with regards to race and class issues in games. In a weird way, I left it mostly glad I was not on the panel; not because it was bad, because, like, finally other people are being recognized and I don’t have to be one of the very few people talking about race in games. They had a wonderful line up with devs and writers in different aspects of their careers and analysis, but were pretty resonant about their experiences of being in games spaces and having the topic of race shut down on them. It was good to hear, thankfully no one really does that to me so I don’t speak about that aspect often, but the panel showed how various aspects of racism and classism sneak up in the independent scene. The most salient point I took away from it was how non-white people just don’t even see the opportunity to get involved; either the resources they need are never offered to them or spaces are so white and east asian and don’t make the effort to extend out an invitation. This is in contrast to how there are so many initiatives to get women into these spaces, that sexism is the current ticket-item everyone is focusing on, instead of taking a multi-prong approach to diversity and inclusion issues.

The last day of the conference I spent mostly in City Hall, which was appropriate because it was all the more serious, political talks of the conference. The first session was an overall town hall kind of meeting, where people aired out concerns and action plans for change in the industry. What I deduced from the session is how people really wanted to be heard, on an individual level, about their feelings and thoughts about what’s all going on in games, and don’t often get the chance. There was a lot of grand statements and aimless frustrations, but it was probably helpful and shows we need public venues to vent grievances that might lead to some actual plan of action. My contribution to that discussion was the need to actually listen to people who know what they are doing, like activists and other people who engage with social change more frequently than the average indie dev, to have the resources and platform to enact change.

I was then part of a microtalk session called “Why ___ Matters,” where each panelist filled in their own part about what matters to games. There were definitely recurring themes, such as looking outside of games and the gaming community for reference and life, and also the negligence to self-care and valuing people’s livelihood. My talk in particular was ‘Why Reality Matters,’ where I hopefully challenged the body-detached attitudes of games as a whole, both in craft and the treatment of artists and activists. If you are a frequent reader of my work and tweets, you probably wouldn’t be surprised at the things I talked about, but all in all, I wanted to have reality be a design inspiration, and for play to be more applicable to reality and its issues.

And, of course, it is a games festival, so there are lots of games I witnessed and played. One was Squinky’s Coffee: A Misunderstanding, which is a super interesting theatrical, narrative generating awkward situation simulator. There are multiple performers in this game: two are the main characters, who read and interpret lines given to them from the drivers, two other players selecting options, and there’s also a musical accompaniment that also gets instructions. What is most interesting to me about Squinky’s game is it’s a sort of social catharsis game for awkwardness, when two people have separate goals and comforts that collide with one another. It also shows how people’s actions can be interpreted multiple ways depending on their context. We get a lot of this from some more narrative based roleplaying games, yet there’s an added usually unreachable element when you have it set up like a performance. The mundanity of it all made it pretty relatable.

Elegy for a Dead World by Dejobaan Games and Popcannibal was actually a game I looked at last year for the IGF and was quickly on board with the concepts it was playing with. The game puts the player in these beautiful panoramas of abandoned worlds and at certain scenes prompts them to leave some words. It’s pretty open-ended, though it has options to give the player a sort of ad-lib structure to work with. I think it aims to be interpretive and meditative; there are few games that ask you to reflect and be creative. It’s very moody and a great start to an interesting idea. I’d like to see more invitations for interpretation, and I’d also like to see how the metanarrative of it all comes together once it’s released.

I was also pretty wowed by Ice-Bound from Down to the Wire, another narrative game. I am a more narratively-interested person, but I don’t think other aspects of games stood out for me this year at the festival. And Ice-Bound is a good example of a future of indie games that I’d like to see, where access to technology reframes our relationship to storytelling. The game is part physical book, part digital-technology AR sorta interpreter, where you see different kinds of information on both and are trying to uncover what happened. This really got me inspired to remember and rethink games in the past that were part physical artifact, and part digital. In particular, manuals and strategy guides, how can we incorporate those into contemporary play?

There were definitely a lot of games I didn’t get to play that I wanted to (mostly LARPs and other RPGs, like Service), and lots of games worth mentioning, but here are a few that didn’t make it to the festival that I judge that was interesting for one reason or another:

Beyonce: Two Souls: I mean, the title should say it all? It was one of the few games I actually laughed with, using humor in a particularly video gamey way. Not like in a meme-knowledge manner but in a sort of surrealist deliverythat really uses the medium and conventions. I hope it becomes more developed than when I saw it, which was months ago so I imagine that’s the case, I’d definitely check it out for laughs with Queen Bey.

FutureCoast: An ARG that taps into the climate change discussion through player-generated apocryphal fiction. The most interesting aspect of it were the recorded voicemails left by people around the world depicting some sort of natural disaster that evokes climate change anxieties. On top of that, people could create what is basically a playlist of these voicemails, connected by whatever topic or theme they noticed. I thought it created a really interesting look at the collective unconscious about how people feel out of control about the environment, and it’s being exhaled through all these apocalypse stories.

The Sun Also Rises: I just found out this is also the name of a Hemmingway piece, and I don’t like Hemmingway, but alas, this is a pretty looking game that is very ‘post-Kentucky Route Zero’ game, if the gentlemen at Cardboard Computer don’t hate me for saying that. It’s set in US-occupied Afghanistan, and the main conversation is between a boy growing up in that culture and an American soldier. When I saw it, I think they were prototyping some narrative experiments that didn’t really jive well with me, but I think through development it’s going to turn out really interesting and be quite the pertinent theme. Just realizing now that it has two different kinds of non-white people as main characters without being awful stereotypes, so that’s cool!

Of course there was a lot more going on, but hopefully you all click through all that and see there’s interesting stuff going on, and a lot of it you can support! At least three of these games have/had fundraisers, which shows public patronage of weirder stuff could stay an important part of developing fringe work. Next weekend is the Queerness and Games Conference, which will round off my busy October, so stay tuned for my notes from that! It’s going to be great, and I believe it will be streamed, so keep an eye out!

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