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IndieCade East Conference Conversations, Part 1 of 5: History

Posted on Jan 22, 2014 - 11:03 PM

IndieCade East 2014 marks the first time the IndieCade Festival has had open submissions for conference sessions, and the response has been incredible. In this series of blog posts, IndieCade East Conference Co-Chairs Margaret Robertson and Kevin Cancienne talk about the themes that inspired them while programming this year’s event.

Kevin Cancienne: So one of the first things we talked about when we were planning the conference portion of IndieCade East was the idea of pulling the camera back a bit on the indie scene as we know it. The past several years have seen such an incredible explosion of creativity and interest in the output from what we call “Indie Games,” but at the same time, there’s a growing sense that the dominant story is only capturing part of the picture, and may be excluding all kinds of interesting people and work.

Margaret Robertson: There’s so much focus now on platforms like Steam and iOS, that it’s easy to forget there are many earlier generations of indie game makers, working with very different technologies and in very different fields. Laine Nooney’s session is a wonderful example of this. She studies videogame archeology and her talk looks back at the Apple II dev scene - back to a time when pioneers behind independent developers like Sierra and Broderbund were getting started as engineers moonlighting from their day-jobs.

Kevin: “Videogame archeology” is such an amazing term. I think we were attracted to digging things up. One of the things I know I’m personally interested in is establishing whether this moment in game history is more than just a bubble or a fad. It seems like looking backward at our roots and understanding that individuals and small teams have been making games for quite a long time is a pretty good way to envision a future that extends beyond the currently popular platforms or business models.

Margaret: For me, it was also really interesting from a design perspective to hear about game designers and specific games that I wasn’t familiar with. It feels like there’s a lot of indie history that we’ve forgotten to learn from - design approaches, specific mechanics, whole subject matters, even - that aren’t part of current design conversations. Game design is always iterative, and it’s really exciting to think that there are whole tranches of independent game making that we haven’t been drawing on.

Kevin: Absolutely. It’s also interesting to look at work that wasn’t necessarily consciously “indie” in light of what we now know or believe about games, and see that work in a new light. Pete Vigeant’s talk on adventure education pioneer Karl Rohnke comes to mind there.

Margaret: Right - I don’t even know if Rohnke would have self-identified as a game designer, let alone an as ‘indie’, but his work feels incredibly relevant to people making real-world game experiences today.

Rohnke’s also really interesting in terms of how his independent design work fed into corporate team-building culture. When we talk about indie we’re often thinking about a small team selling a game direct to their players, but lots of independent developers sustain themselves with corporately funded work.

Kevin: That’s a great point. Talking about “business models” sounds dry and kind of creepy sometimes, but with an eye toward broadening perspectives, I think it often makes sense to acknowledge that how (and whether) game makers manage to support themselves financially can have a huge impact on what their work looks like.

Margaret: Absolutely - those shifts in business culture are a really important creative force. Talking with Josh Lee about his session on hobbyist gaming magazines really pointed that up. On one level we have this really accessible maker culture now - almost anyone can sign up for an Apple developer account, make something and put it up for sale. But on another level we’re really locked out of the machines we use, and really influenced by those platform-holder gatekeepers. It was really invigorating to be reminded of a time when playing a new game started with reading the code for it in a magazine - where we didn’t draw lines between makers and players, or modders and players, and where everything was inherently open-source and tinkerable.

Kevin: Yeah, as an old guy, I remember those magazines that had pages and pages of code you could type in to magically (if you typed it all correctly) turn into a game. And messing with that kind of stuff is probably technically the first game programming I ever did. Stuff like Josh’s magazine talk tickles the nostalgia bone a bit—I know even Josh was excited/terrified about the eBay shopping spree he was about to go on—but I think choosing to focus on indie history is more than just an exercise in feel-good “back in the day” reminiscence.

Julia Keren-Detar’s looking way back, for example, and I think there are all kinds of interesting conclusions she’s managing to draw from her research into the history of board games and folk stories.

Margaret: Right - she’s really taking the long perspective seriously - it’s not often I get to have a game design conversation that starts in the middle ages.

Kevin: And not to get too highfalutin about it, but I think that kind of perspective fits in really well with questions about the sustainability of the indie games movement. Julia’s talking about games that have existed for hundreds of years. That’s a form of success that few game makers seem even willing to envision, but it’s fascinating to imagine people making work with that kind of reach in mind.

Margaret: And that’s the thing that’s so exciting about all of these sessions - they may all be grounded in the past, but it’s impossible to hear about these histories without imagining new futures for indie game making and culture. I bet that’s a theme we return to in the next post - how wider perspectives don’t just tell us more about what indie game is now, but what it could be next.

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