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.
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.
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.
“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.
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