IndieCade: Critical, Inclusive, Revolutionary

Last year, IndieCade felt like an ode to the inspired artist. We talked in tiny bubbles about specific games, upcoming instances, or the highest level global trends. We knew we were important, but we still weren't quite taking ourselves seriously, or maybe we just hadn't learned how to. We were a jenky, diverse group trying to find cohesion and direction - from the awards ceremony to the conference to the festival floor. This year, across all levels, that changed. This year, IndieCade wasn't an ode - it was a call to action. This year indies staked out their place in the collective history of art, technology, expression, and politics. We weren't just diverse - we were championing diversity, inclusion, and the variety of perspectives necessary to make great works of art. And most importantly, we were reminded that what we were doing isn't the norm. We are, willingly or unwillingly, revolutionaries.


The critical element was most boldly marked by the three IndieCade keynotes: two discussions between very different but equally vital forefathers of our industry, and an overarching history lesson of the people responsible for our current, humble movement. John Romero interviewed Steve Russell, who coded the first ever shmup, Spacewar, on a PDP-1 in 1962. Listening to Steve Russell talk about punch cards, sine algorithms, and 1 KB memory was a valuable lesson for the greener indies at the conference: we didn't emerge from nothing, and we don't exist in a void. We have a rich and powerful history. Eric Zimmerman interviewed Bernie DeKoven (whom I recognized as Mr. Fun), one of the founders of the New Games Movement in the sixties and author of The Well-Played Game, a piece on the philosophy and psychology of playing and game-playing. Bernie talked about the inherent paradox we all work within: the difference between play - driven by autonomy, curiosity, exploration - and game-playing - fueled by strategy, determination, rules. He showed the power of putting play into the player's hands - by making us all improvise a performance variant of rock paper scissors. He proved that while the trend today is towards giving players a line of cookies and hoping they follow it - that's really nothing near the underlying psychology of play. Finally, Mary Flanagan gave an impressive quick-hit history lesson of 7 phenomenal people who in one way or another had a powerful effect on our industry. Starting with Joseph Marie Jacquard, who created the first punch-card-reading machine (a loom for art) and ending in fact with Steve Russell and Bernie DeKoven. She made a point of including the queer, the technological, the artsy, the revolutionary. This is our history to own. Many other talks contributed to this sense of elevating indie games: giving them a history, giving them a vocabulary to analyze and reflect upon themselves. Bennet Foddy discussed the power of pain (challenge, frustration, difficulty) and its addictive and necessary qualities for engagement. A brilliant panel including Amy Hennig, Jenova Chen, Ian Dallas, and Dan Pinchbeck went deep into the philosophy and trial and error of experiential games, echoing much of Bernie's philosophy on the play element in games.


At the end of a year marked by appalling sexism, unsafe conferences, and unbelievable affronts to women's rights, IndieCade felt like a haven. This isn't coincidental. It was purposeful and apparent that the organizers supported a safe space, and that those who showed were invested in maintaining it. There were women on every panel, audiences that weren't the typical 90/10 m/f split. There were people of color, transgender speakers, participants that IndieCade sponsored because they didn't have the finances to go on their own dime. This IndieCade was about voices being heard, and those voices had so much to offer. Anna Anthropy was at the forefront, making the entire audience repeat: queer games are important. Queer games are important. For so long it's been the same people making games for themselves - the same straight white male perspective being shipped to a world of different people. Queer games - used more broadly than just games with LGBT themes - diversify and enrich the dazzling sphere that is indie games. Queer games are important. New voices are important. Different voices are important. Mattie Brice interviewed Christine Love about Analogue: A Hate Story - a proudly feminist game that used an empathic approach to creating realistic characters that illustrate, if not comment on, women's issues. Celia Pearce joined Akira Thompson, Megan Gaiser and Anna to discuss diversity and inclusion in the industry. Megan passionately declared that we not only have the ability, but the responsibility to take action. We need to create safe spaces. We need to amplify voices too often talked over, silenced, or ignored. We need to embrace, encourage, and embody diversity. And we did. We are. This is our community, and we've created an inspiring kaleidoscope of invaluable viewpoints, varied perspectives, and powerful histories.


Bernie DeKoven said, of the sixties, that all play was revolutionary. Playing, in public spaces - in public spaces together - was subversive, subtly defiant, even dangerous. To play is to toy with systems, to learn cause and effect, to understand. Play implies agency and autonomy, the capacity to act and affect outcomes. It is the ability to make change. Johannes Grenzfurthner and Molleindustrias' Paolo Pedercini said play, and games, continue to be tools of the revolution. They are seductive, persuasive, and powerful. They are not instrumental to change, but inherently transformative. It is the nature of a game to change a player. The question then became: what are you changing? How are you using this power? What are you saying with your voice? - because we all have one now, because game making has reached the commons, because anyone with any will now has a way. Don't just do the same. Don't be derivative. Don't create selfishly. Create for the future, for the community, for the unheard or ignored. Create with intent. Create to change something, to be someone, to make a difference. We're all of us capable now. We're all of us responsible now.


It was a weekend of empowerment. We learned the past, glimpsed the future, and celebrated the present. To all those who shared the weekend with me, and moreso those who made it possible: thank you.

Experiencing Renga

A starscape glittered on a suspended screen, the projector mingling with twilight at the edge of IndieCade Village. Red, jittery, chaotic spots flicked alive one by one, until dozens of laser pointers fritzed across and beyond the projection- onto palm trees, trash cans, people's faces.

The Hokku

An old school computerized voice called us to action - most definitely us, even though I didn't have a pointer, even if I couldn't touch the screen. From the very beginning, I, the observer, the inquisitive designer on the sidelines, was drawn into the shared experience. It started with bright geometric shapes slowly rotating in space, unwound and destroyed when there was at least one laser pointer on each vertex. Red lights flit everywhere, darting and twitching in tiny circles as players fought to discern their pointer from over fifty others. I held my breath as the shapes started to disappear, grinned when a static pop and particle effects signaled success. These first exercises in coordinated laser pointing were, as the cheeky computer voice told us, not even the beginning of the end. After this abstract tutorial, the real game started.

The Waki and Daisan

Renga is aptly named after a Japanese style of collaborative poetry, and mimics its structure. After an initial stanza, the Hokku, two stanza styles alternate repeatedly ad nauseum. Renga's first phase involves collecting floating blocks from space while defending from antagonistic geometries. The second is using the collected blocks to build out a spaceship. The spaceship has three elements: Silos to store blocks, Harvesters to go out into space and fetch them, and Launch Boosters, all four of which are required to battle the final boss. Our initial harvesting missions were… a bit pathetic, as emphasized by the computer's "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear." Enormous spoke-monsters appeared and before we'd halfway depleted them they'd lurch at our ship and destroy our harvesters. People were unsure whether to use their pointer to unlock the floating blocks, move the harvester to collect them, or focus on the encroaching enemies. Similarly, the first time we were building up our ship (done by holding a laser pointer still in a certain location to "vote" for where you think a block should be placed) the line connecting us to the Launch Booster we wanted was two blocks thick, jagged, with wasted blocks everywhere. We were a mess. Then the next round began, and the next, and the lines between our ship elements got more and more precise. We were better able to handle those aggravatingly random and aggressive monsters. We realized that keeping our harvesters closer to our silos saved time. 10, 20, 30 minutes passed. The crowd grew, oozed out onto the sidewalks, collected passersby. I had no pointer, but I cheered, gasped, hollered, and felt so much a part of the experience it made no difference. The moments belonged to all of us, actors, observers, and otherwise.

The Ichiza

Those with laser pointers shook out their hands before the initial vote on whether or not to fight the final boss. We'd unlocked all of our Launch Boosters, but our blocky exterior had a hole in it and we were just finally figuring out how to strategize as a collective. "What a bunch of cowards," the computer said as we voted for another round of harvesting and building. It was the most difficult round yet, but we came out of it with more resources than we'd ever had before. We reinforced our walls, filled in the holes, and when the next vote came, the majority agreed: it was time for the final boss. We'd been annihilated by the boss at the end of the tutorial, and tension tightened up the air as we held our collective breath.

The Ageku

It was chaos, but this time we knew how to deal with it. Little teams of five went off to tackle the spoke monsters, while the majority mass swarmed the boss from the inside out, destroying continuously larger geometries, each with more vertices than the last. Two circles - the largest - remained of the boss, with 45 and 50 vertices respectively, by estimation. They rotated faster than any of the previous geometries, and were slowly moving across screen, forcing our ship (which was now controlled by just a few lone laser points) into a corner. "Everyone on the boss!" came shouts, as we slowly realized we didn't have enough pointers to attack both the small enemies and the boss. Little red lights tracked back across the screen and fell into line around the perimeter of the circle. I'm not sure I breathed as its life depleted, and then that static WHUFF and it was gone, and we were cheering, and the next one went that much faster. Red pointers made circles, whirls, and joyful streaks as the computer voice congratulated us. I was clapping furiously and whooping along with everyone around me, who'd sat enraptured for the better part of an hour because this was something special, something spiritual, something sacred.

The Henka

We hear about mob mentality and think humans fall apart and disintegrate in large numbers. We think they become thoughtless, angry, stupid. But here, without a leader, without any chance to form strategy, without any plan or pretense, over a hundred people not only worked together, but got better. The same way an individual's skill improved, this collective's ability visibly, markedly increased over time. It wasn't chaos, it wasn't stupid, it wasn't random. It was beautiful. Renga ended and I wasn't sure what had happened. I knew in that soul-deep way that it was important, that it had changed me, and that it was unforgettable not in a puppy-love sense but in that truly transformational capacity. I knew that it had, in a single hour, kicked the field of game design ahead by leaps and bounds. I felt it had seeded the potential for stadiums of people to be as engaged as football fanatics over a team of strangers all building, fighting, defending together. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the developers, to the game master, to everyone around me who made the experience what it was. Few games deserve the word sacred, none as much as Renga.