IndieCade wrap-up: Amid ‘gamergate’ storm, a bold new game world rises

Oct. 13, 2014 | 8:23 p.m.


"Use of Force" is a virtual reality experience that puts players at a tragic 2010 scene at the US.-Mexico border.  (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“Use of Force” is a virtual-reality experience that puts players at a tragic 2010 scene at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Imagine, perhaps, you’re a die-hard football fan. Now imagine someone comes along and says, “Hey, football isn’t so smart. It can be played better, team names don’t have to offend an entire community, and what’s with all the abuse scandals?”

Maybe you don’t react too kindly to the suggestion that your Redskins should change names. Maybe you’re offended that the game you’ve held dear since childhood is facing criticism.

A similar theory was recently applied to video games at IndieCade, the gaming conference and festival that concluded its seventh year over the weekend in downtown Culver City.

It went something like this: While big-budget games with guns still rule, independent developers are opening up new avenues with games that tackle police brutality, explore the perils of dementia and address the difficult conversations parents have — or don’t have — with their children regarding sex. These smarter new titles are getting attention, and a very vocal, largely anonymous online game community isn’t happy about it.

Their fear? It’s the end of games as they know them.

That fear became the subtext of this year’s IndieCade, following a summer marred by violent social-media threats targeting those attempting to intellectualize the medium, namely independent female game developers.

IndieCade made clear that gaming culture stands on the verge of boldly experimental new ground. For a medium grounded in technology and rules, never more so has it been apparent that none of the old rules apply.

Alex Marx, of Los Angeles, tries out the virtual reality experience "Use of Force." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Alex Marx of Los Angeles tries out the virtual-reality experience “Use of Force.” (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

More than 150 games were shown to the public as part of the festival. One of them, “Use of Force,” is certainly a violent game, but it isn’t violent in the trigger-happy ways of yore.

In “Use of Force,” players take on the role of a witness, one who sees the tragic and ultimately fatal beating of an immigrant at the U.S.- Mexico border in 2010. Virtual reality puts players on the scene, but there are no heroes. Playing the role of bystander, the only option is to decide what to watch — or when to turn away.

A player has no weapon and cannot intervene, and is instead armed with a virtual cellphone low on battery. The question is what and whom to record.

Creator Nonny de la Peña, an Annenberg fellow at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, recognizes that some may say “Use of Force” isn’t a game. But it is, and the festival gave it the Impact award for its potential to change the medium.

“I had people tell me that games are cartoon-ey, that you can’t tell serious stories in this space,” says De la Peña, a former journalist. “When you’re trying to do something new, it pushes people out of their comfort zone. Doing that will cause people to get frustrated and angry and annoyed. They love something. They love the space they’re in, and that’s fair too. The newness can feel like an attack on that comfort place.”

And attack people have.

Since late August, a number of prominent independent game developers and critics have been bombarded with death and rape threats online. Those fighting against the intellectualization of video games have coalesced around an online movement dubbed “gamergate,” a word now associated with so much hatred that many at IndieCade still struggled with how to deal with it. Many who discussed it almost immediately expressed fear that gamergate would stop young women from pursuing a career in games.

Those who participated in the Sunday morning talk, “Misogyny, Misinformation and Misunderstanding,” were not recorded or identified by name at the request of IndieCade organizers. The hour-long conversation sought to find answers as to what’s driving the anger of some video game players. Some speculated the game industry has remained silent for too many years as players spewed racist and sexist commentary in their popular online multiplayer games.

Elsewhere at the conference, others such as UCLA game design professor Eddo Stern argued during a political talk that the medium’s steps to maturity have been slowed by top-shelf developers who insist their games are only for “fun and entertainment,” even though they’re sometimes set in very real wars. It perpetuates a myth, Stern said, that games are “pure” and free from political commentary.

Game designer Daphny Drucilla plays "How Do You Do It?" from Nina Freeman and Emmett Butler at IndieCade. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Game designer Daphny Drucilla plays “How Do You Do It?” from Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka and Deckman Coss at IndieCade. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

The developers at IndieCade weren’t shy with their intents. Nina Freeman’s “How Do You Do It?” is a short, simple Web-based game that asks big questions, namely whether parents should be more open with their children regarding sex. She’s interested in autobiographical games and noted that the medium is only going to get weirder — and smarter.

“Now that there’s more accessible [game design] tools and different kinds of people making games, there’s going to be lots of experimental stuff, there’s going to be new kinds of stories and new kinds of people making games,” Freeman said. “We’re going to see people trying to engage with different kinds of dialogue that don’t fit the traditional consumer game paradigm.”

Another festival game, “Ether One,” certainly doesn’t. Available now for home computers, designer Pete Bottomley is working to bring it to Sony’s PlayStation 4. It’s a first-person exploration of dementia, seeking to answer the unanswerable. In Bottomley’s words: “What happens when the person you love no longer knows who you are?”

The game isn’t necessarily sad. It’s about piecing together one’s memories, and it’s the sort of game that could potentially bring newcomers to the medium, namely those looking for something a little more serious than sci-fi battles on alien worlds.

Heather Conover, of Lake Forest, plays "Framed" at IndieCade. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Heather Conover of Lake Forest plays “Framed” at IndieCade. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“A game may not be for everyone, but you don’t need to focus a funnel of hate at a specific game just because you’re not interested,” Bottomley said. “If you’re not interested, there’s 5 million other games you can play. It’s important that there’s games for all type of people.”

Even those made for and by girls ages 9 to 16. Girls Make Games hosts camps and workshops designed to encourage girls to learn and explore the inner workings of video games.

The company recently had a game “The Hole Story” successfully funded on Kickstarter. Only when the game was posted on the online store Steam it was bombarded with sexist comments — some twisting the name and others slamming it as feminist propaganda. Orchestrator Laila Shabir worked to shield the tweens from such hate.

“The girls are coming,” Shabir said at IndieCade with more than a hint of sarcasm. “Everything is going to be rainbow pink unicorns.”

Actually, that sounds pretty great.

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex


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Gamergate-related controversy reveals ugly side of gaming community

80 Days’: Jules Verne-inspired game brings a more global perspective

‘Valiant Hearts: The Great War’ upends the combat video game

‘Road Not Taken’: You’re not getting any younger

‘Kim Kardashian Hollywood’: Fame is the name of the game

Mobile games keep it simple and smart

The balletic ‘Bounden’ is a pas de deux with Player 2

Nintendo keeps the video game industry weird

‘Ori and the Blind Forest’ finds a challenge in sadness

Games that make a play for diversity

Video game designers take on real-world problems


16 Responses to IndieCade wrap-up: Amid ‘gamergate’ storm, a bold new game world rises

  1. AricVader says:

    One sided article. Gamergate is not about a fear of these new games you mention. Most if not all of gamergaters I know do not care about new game types and directions. What they care about is corrupt journalism and/or pushing political correctness into current game genres. I personally do not care about all these new games you mention, just add them to the already large collection of different games out there. I simply do not want the political correct police to come in and stifle the artistic expression of game developers, and the gaming media seems to be doing just that with their ideological agenda.

    • Austin says:

      It's fine to not want to play these new games. I am not too interested in them myself. What seems difficult for many to understand is that the opening up and diversification of the games industry will inevitably lead to discussions of political issues. The subjects of all the games mentioned in the above article are all political.

      GG is about fear of political issues invading the games industry. This is facilitated by indie games but is inevitable even if these developers are stifled. Many Gamergators see this change as something that can be stopped, when the truth is that video games are already political.

      What Gamergators think is an ideological agenda is simply a concerted effort to correct all the political issues that exist in the games industry today.

      The article is not onesided, but a very subdued version of the truth. Even the most sobering and objective account of Gamergate would be its own indictment.

      • Parker says:

        GG has no fear of new games or genres entering the ecosystem. We welcome and appreciate creativity and originality in all its facets.

        We do not support censorship, collusion and corruption.

        We do support diversity of people and opinions in the industry. GG does not want to silence anybody.

        We do not support a politicized in-crowd presenting themselves as supporters of Indy-gaming, when all it does is reek of nepotism.

        We do support awards based on merit rather than personal connections, which somehow never get disclosed.

        We do support taking responsibility for one actions and integrity when writing about the subject.

        We do not support the dismissal of an entire culture based on the actions of a few individuals, especially when similar actions on the anti-gg side are never called out.

        Dismissing the gg movement as a mere gender issue and its proponents is misogynists is at best woefully misinformed if not deliberately disingenuous.

        Unfortunately due diligence and fact checking is something increasingly rare in mainstream media. Publications such as the LA Times have become targets of militant smear campaigns under the guise of social justice and are regrettably enough too easily exploited.

      • Mythoughtsonthis says:

        As much as I truly believe you and many Gamergators are sincere in your intentions, you can't wave away the actions of individuals under the guise of Gamergate. To say they don't represent the vast majority of Gamergators is to ignore that fact that the movement is enabling them. The whole Quinn thing just kills any hope of support to all of your aims to any non-gamer, especially since the charges were so unfounded. GGer's want to say it's not about that (anymore) or they've "moved on." What seems to be hard to understand is when you adopt a tag born from trolls, you aren't legitimzing them, you are de-legitmizing yourselves.

      • YellowBird says:

        GG attempts to censor websites that publish articles they don't like by spamming advertisers with requests to pull their ads from the site. (see Operation Disrespectful Nod.) That's corruption. And censorship. And collusion.

        GG's main targets are people who criticise the games they like. If GG supports diversity of opinions, why do they attack people with different opinons than their own?

        How come GG rallies behind corrupt people like Milo? How come they spend more time chasing after random small-time indie devs, rather than AAA gaming companies, which is where the true corruption lies?

      • Thales says:

        This article is yet one sided. Mainly because when someone push a political issue it's obvious there will be an antithetic reaction. Gamergate is – between many things – don't put politics at all in gaming, for everyone – from "white cis scum" to "social justice warriors".

      • Javaed says:

        This is quite false. Large scale "triple-A" games have been tackling the politically sensitive issue of gay marriage & openly gay characters for years now. Look at the Sims series, or any of the recent games by Bioware. Next take a look at "Papers Please", an indie game with political statements about the security measures that have gone into place post 9-11. That game has received significant praise, including praise from Gamergaters. We don't want to stifle these games, in fact we encourage them by buying them before they're even in a complete state. With the rise of Kickstarter & Early Access gaming we're more and more buying into the concepts behind these games instead of buying them based on actual game play value.

        The issue we have is that a subset of the gaming media appears to be giving favorable treatment to particular game developers based on either personal relationships or adherence to an ideological doctrine that many feminists disagree with. Yes some people have been rather nasty to the individuals perceived to be engaging in active corruption, but most of us simply want to ask if these allegations are true and if so how do you plan to correct issues?

        However, simple questions like "Hey you dated this developer / were roommates with this developer / go out drinking with this developer, should you really be giving them a 10/10 review?" are actively censored and removed from the websites where these journalists post. These same journalists then coordinate a campaign across multiple websites where over the course of 24 hours they claim that gamers a bunch of bigots and our culture is dead. They then go on social media on call anybody who disagrees with them a bigot, or a misogynist or in the case of one individual start throwing out allegations of pedophilia.

        So sorry, no this is not a "right-wing" conspiracy. Most of us in GamerGate are political moderates. Very few of those who are publicly outspoken as pro-GamerGate have identified as conservative, in fact many have indicated varying degrees of liberal bias. We simply don't want a small group of extremists pushing video games based on ideological grounds when their job is to tell me whether I'll actually enjoy playing this game I'm about to spend money on.

      • Mythoughtsonthis says:

        Javaed. I don't think your a bigot or a misogynist. I agree that there's big issues in the gaming media as there is in media in general. I'm also increasingly not in favor of Gamergate, at least as a movement the way it is now. Let's examine your questions about personal relationships (which occur between journalists and those they cover is every form of media ever). If we look at gamergate ground zero – the Quinn incident, let's pose these questions. Not to mention they came from her ex-boyfriend, they accuse her of sleeping around to get favorable reviews. But Grayson never reviewed her games. Where's this 10/10 review? Once this was discounted, it moved to "but he gave he positive coverage!" Which was also found to be before their relationship and hardly positive. Then it moved to, "look, she wasn't donating to the charities as part of her game revenue. What a liar and scam artist!" Then she provided receipts. For Sarkeesian, it was "What a liar, she claims she got threats but didn't even file a police report!" Then she confirmed it was the FBI was investigating. It goes on and on. If these are the allegations the movement is founded on, how can you expect anyone outside gamers to take it seriously?

  2. Namazuros says:

    I'm not sure why you tried to bring Gamergate into this as some sort of…smear tactic? Whatever it was, it made no sense. Gamergate is not about excluding devs or altering games (as can be seen by the defense of TFYC, Daniel Vavra, and many more). Gamergate is about ethical journalism. Its disrespectful to try and speak out for women while marginalizing all the women involved in Gamergate.

    Please check the #notyourshield tag on twitter if you need evidence of the hundreds of women like me who share this view, including devs in the industry.

  3. Po says:

    Gamergate operates and recruits as a right-wing hate group, with a pretense of moderation while acting consistently against women:

  4. Tinky Winky says:

    #GamerGate Is Not A Hate Group, It's A Consumer Movement –

  5. JackieDebs says:

    The fear is that gaming will turn into yet another platform for people to preach their politics. We get enough propaganda for a lifetime in all other forums of media. Is it so surprising that people just want the games to be about entertainment as they always have been? You can't simply label resistance to having politics shoved down our throats as "hate". It is a VERY valid worry.

  6. AmbivilantOutsider says:

    To be frank, gamergate is a mess and the backlash from the anti side is just as much a mess. Each side has good points and bad, and I can not in good conscience support either.

    That being said there are a few things I want to say;

    Attributing every hateful thing said to a woman with a tie to antiGG to the “gamergate hate group” is idiotic, this is the internet and everyone is anonymous, there is no way of proving that the trolls are gamers and not just the same scum that migrate to any issue where woman are involved. Certainly though there are some believers of “the gate” that are morally reprehensible. But after all why would a believer purposefully undermine their own beliefs, unless they have some serious issues to begin with.

    Gamers don’t hate change and progressive thinking, they hate people use “social justice” as justification for any number of contemptible acts; anything from doxxing a ten year old, or dragging someone through the mud because of baseless rape accusations, to throwing the people they claim to represent under the just to prove a point. But how can they be wrong when they’re fighting for social justice?

    And about getting agendas out of games and media, its more about keeping games culture from being coerced into adhering to the cultural standards of a single group. This makes sense, there’s the separation of church and state to prevent religious agendas from having too heavy a hand in politics. Of course you can’t get rid of all agendas in games(that’d make for some awfully boring games), but perhaps they should be allowed to evolve on their own, with whatever message the creator wants to include.

    The comments made about gamers that that they are socially inept basement dwellers who can’t handle human interaction, and that having gaming be a large of your identity is a terrible thing were very offensive, but not for the reasons so often talked about. All the gamers that I’ve known for whom gaming was a huge part of their identity were that way by necessity more than by choice, as they had some disorder making “normal” human interaction difficult or impossible unless they were behind a keyboard; be it it crippling social anxiety, autism, or any number of issues. My cousin, who is autistic, has been having a very bad time with this, to him its like his entire world is being ripped away. It doesn’t help that every time he tries to voice his opinion he gets shot down and mobbed by the “SJW’s” aka the people claiming to fight for his rights, who at the moment seem to wish that he would just give up and die.

    Gamergate may be a lot of things, but they don’t deserve the treatment they’re getting. Equally the anti side doesn’t deserve the shit they’ve been put through.

  7. Mythoughtsonthis says:

    JackieDebs, I’m sorry you feel that way, but also really puzzled. As long as the games you want to play are being made and as long as they make money – they’ll keep making them. But if someone wants to make political games, why is that a bad thing? I don’t understand what you mean by shoving down your throat – is someone opening your wallet and forcing you to buy it? All of the games mentioned about are really, really niche. They have a right to exist though. They have a right to advertise and be publicized. You have a right to ignore and not buy it and criticize it. Where it ends is you trying to prevent it from being made.

  8. cal says:

    The proof of a good game will be sales-if these new people can make an interesting game it will sell if not then they will blame misogynists and racists-yay America!!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I'm amazed.

    A whole article about Indiecade and gamergate without a single mention of the allegations that a past Indiecade was rigged. Not a denial, not a review of the evidence and why you found it lacking, just outright ignoring the one thing practically everyone in gamergate says they take issue with about that particular event.

    You've gone a long way to post a narrative of why Gamergate is annoyed that shows them in a negative light, and it's a real pity you only apparently talked to the Indiecade PR team in doing so.

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