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IndiE3 Postscript: Weighing the Alternative

June 24, 2014  |  12:00pm
IndiE3 Postscript: Weighing the Alternative

IndiE3 had an origin like a lightning bolt. E3, the biggest videogame consumer event of the year, was making its annual approach. A small group of videogame developers, critics and fans decided that they had had enough of the same things being served to them time over time. In a fit of commitment and enthusiasm they formed IndiE3, an event that purported to fight against the worst habit in videogame culture that E3 had come to represent: huge budgets, CGI trailers, discrimination of all kinds, and a commitment to the new at all costs. As one of us wrote here at Paste at the beginning of IndiE3’s weeklong event, “[IndiE3] is breathing a new kind of life into what has become a rote cycle of hype and disappointment in blockbuster videogames.”

Now IndiE3 is in the rearview mirror, and it is important to look back at the successes and the failures of the event in the cold light of day.

It began with a bang. Out of the gate the organizers were juggling game and trailer submissions, panel proposals, and support from outside organizations. It was these outside organizations that seemed to be the most crucial in these early planning stages. Hitbox, a streaming service, played host to all of IndiE3’s panels and showcases. Noted videogame news site Indie Haven devoted a significant amount of coverage to the event, organizing a large number of developer interviews and managing the schedule for the entire event. Trekking through the weekend and into the week proper, IndiE3 appeared to have a huge amount of support and excitement.

Every bang peters out, and by midweek the excitement that initially supported IndiE3 could no longer paper over the structural problems that began to be apparent. Lacking a mission statement or a code of conduct, there was no real way for the community at large to understand what IndiE3 was or what its politics and policies were. Some saw it as an attack on their enjoyment of the blockbuster games of E3 and responded accordingly. Some saw it as a slightly more formal version of the streams and streaming culture that they participate in daily. Some saw it as a rebellious outcry against the structural oppression that so many feel every day.

Problems began to snowball. The official IndiE3 account made a tweet that appeared to be taking glee in the racism of a game development company. During the opening set of streams, a streamer was harassed in the chat of a channel, which was allowed to go on because of a lack of moderators. An organizer made a transphobic comment.

The incidents piled up and action was taken. Community members volunteered to moderate stream chats. TJ Thomas, the initial creator and a key organizer of IndiE3, effusively apologized and pulled out of the event completely. Indie Haven released a statement announcing their withdrawal from the event, canceling dozens of developer interviews. The channels went dark for half a day, and from our perspective as outsiders, things seemed bleak.

When IndiE3 returned to life it was more cohesive. A sweeping Code of Conduct was posted on the event’s main site that covered the correct way to participate in all of the events IndiE3 was sponsoring. It made clear that the event was created to be a safe space in which to explore and comment on games and issues of all kinds, and invoked specific policies around content warnings and methods for processing what to do when called out for behavior that violated the Code of Conduct.

Alongside this document came a mission statement that attempted to clarify some of the political issues and questions that had plagued the event from the start, and while it did seem to answer some of the criticisms levied at IndiE3, it left us confused about IndiE3’s relationship to videogame culture on the whole.

Yet, even accounting for this reorientation, it’s hard to say what exactly the core character of IndiE3 was. With their new mission statement in hand, the organizers sought to provide a space for “those who have been marginalized and ignored” by E3. But this was a wide net to cast, and it meant that IndiE3 had to be many things to many different people. Independent developers just wanted a space to share their games to a potential (purchasing) audience. Critics and academics spoke on panels that analyzed individual games, industry trends and cultural issues. Members of the Let’s Play and podcasting communities showed up, bringing their schticks and their audiences.

But in trying to address all of these people, IndiE3 wound up feeling tonally inconsistent. What it seemed to implicitly criticize, it sometimes seemed to valorize. In the same moment that hosts hyped up trailer after trailer on the main IndiE3 channel, panelists on the secondary channel argued for a break from the commercialism of games coverage. The event featured both a panel analyzing the problem of racism in games and a live podcast featuring a title written in “Engrish.” This inconsistency was troubling, because in the same minute that the event felt like a break from the norm, it would quickly return to that old familiar shape.

Still, when the show was at its best, it did offer content you couldn’t get at E3. Over 170 games were shown at the event, most of which would never have made E3’s show floor, let alone a conference stage. Developer interviews allowed the hosts to step out of their “hypeman” posture, to be more engaged and, frankly, a lot more interesting. Each day featured panels that were intriguing, and they often brought issues and concepts to an audience that hadn’t previously considered them.

One of us took part in two panels, each occurring after the midweek reorganization. IndiE3 staff hustled behind the scenes, making sure that panelists were briefed on the code of conduct, testing sound quality, and generally making sure that everyone was comfortable. Panels covered a wide range of topics, and despite the rush in organization, IndiE3 was able to attract strong, well-established panelists.

Despite the range and complexity of subject matter, audience members remained engaged and active. In fact, with moderation in full effect, the chat became a sort of running panel of its own, as viewers interacted not only with hosts, devs and panelists, but also with each other. They exchanged their own experiences, ideas and resources, sometimes moving into thoughtful debate, and other times offering compassionate support to each other. It was nowhere in the mission statement, but this exchange of experiences and ideas between attendees was perhaps the most important and most “un-E3” feature of the event. We hope that these organizers make it a priority to carry the intimacy of their chat-culture forward into their future events.

At the end of the first iteration of IndiE3, we’re still left with a number of questions, and these are best summed up in an interrogation of the event’s late-breaking mission statement. IndiE3 situates itself after this statement: “Ten years ago, a person could go to a small event called the Electronic Entertainment Expo, sit down with an upside down cardboard box and a laptop and impress somebody with their game.” This statement is patently false.

This gets at the heart of our questions about the future of IndiE3. Despite the large number of games shown and talked about during the event, the vast majority of these games were either recently made or in progress. Despite the mission statement’s appeal to the past, it is remarkably divorced from the real history of independently developed videogames. Although IndiE3 expresses clear distaste with E3’s drive to produce more and more new and exciting products, it seems as if IndiE3 is merely replicating this system on a different level.

As one of us suggested during an IndiE3 panel, perhaps the concept of indie, with all of its internal contradictions, is no longer the most productive foundation on which to build a critical intervention into the industry and culture of videogames. Indie games show up on small, curative sites like Warp Door and Forest Ambassador, but also on the conference stages of major publishers and platform holders. They compete over virtual shelf space, social media attention and enthusiast press coverage. Some openly tackle political topics in theme and mechanics, others are driven by uncritical nostalgia. In a real sense, IndiE3’s inconsistency only reflects the incoherence of “indie” writ large.

The event’s organizers have said that the name was only ever meant as placeholder, that future events could take on a new, stronger identity. We hope that this stronger identity will manifest itself beyond two-dimensional polemics. We hope for a celebration of videogames that doesn’t reduce developers and their art down into nonspecific categories. The spirit of IndiE3, as we have seen it develop, seems to support this, and there’s nothing we want to see more than future events that challenge the most deeply held assumptions of videogame culture while celebrating the plurality that that culture possesses.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.

Austin Walker is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, writing about games, labor and culture. He writes about games at @austin_walker and at Clockwork Worlds.

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