There is an American mythology built around summertime. These myths are built around a post-1950s suburban fantasy filled with bicycles, a lack of parental supervision, the essential enterprise of the lemonade stand, and the oppressive heat that beats down on tweens across a continent from the school-less months of June to August. The 1980s summertime dream enshrined in the films of Steven Spielberg has disappeared, and of course it was never really there for so many of us. These myths are fueled by a powerful nostalgia for a desired past that might or might not have been there.
It is appropriate that here, in the weeks that can only be described as the gateway to summer, we find the Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3). Started in 1995, E3 is an unparalleled industry event for videogames marketing. When I write “videogames marketing,” I’m being specific on purpose, as there is no event where videogame hardware and software makers make such a targeted appeal to videogame journalists and the consumers who depend on those journalists. E3 is the heart of hype, and the production value of the show increases every year, drawing more and more consumers into the heart of the show (which is closed to the public) through live streams, concurrently-released trailers and specific game showcases.
E3 has long drawn ire from certain sectors of the wide world of videogame consumers. It has become the universal symbol for the excesses of the contemporary videogame industry and the desire to reproduce itself over and over in slightly different iterations. It is a heartless machine that pumps out excitement and eradicates difference in its continual reproduction of the same thing: A new Call of Duty or another immersive experience unlike any experience before seems to be the eternal return of an industry that is out of new ideas (and would be unwilling to take risks on them if they had any.) E3 is where frontline software battles take place in decade-long console wars. E3, in an air-conditioned stadium that keeps out the worst of Los Angeles’ heat, feeds off the same powerful nostalgia that makes our summer mythology so palpable. “Do you remember retreating from the worst of the sun to play Mario for days on end?” E3 asks. “If so, have some more Mario.” Or more Master Chief. Or more Samus Aran. Or more Beefy McManshooter.
It is out of frustration with this eternal reproduction that Indie3 has been born.
I watched it appear as it appeared. Game developer TJ Thomas tweeted the hashtag #indie3; a twitter account was made (@projectindie3); organizers popped up and began calling for panel submissions. It seemed to appear organically from nothing other than a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of things. If E3 is a behemoth, gaining force as it becomes ever more dense with prestige and advertising dollars as the years roll on, then why not something else? Why not an event that points at something other than the biggest releases that we’ll be seeing TV commercials, banner ads and shortform documentaries on for the next two years?
“E3 is presented as something that’s impossible to ignore, huge and defining for the games industry, press and critics,” co-organizer Aevee Bee, Paste contributor and game critic, told me over email. “Big budget and big spectacle, it’s incredibly aggressive at demanding your attention, no matter how reluctant you are to give it. It inflates the importance of corporate marketing, new hardware and big budget sequels.”
Zolani Stewart, another organizer and critic, echoed a similar sentiment: “There’s nowhere else to turn, if you like videogames. So we have the disposition that it must be important because it’s everywhere, and it looks expensive, and everyone with money and prestige is talking about it. That’s normal, that’s the cultural logics around capital that we’re socialized with.”
It is this ubiquity of blockbuster games and their advertising strategies that Indie3 seems to be politically committed to critiquing. E3 is broadcasting streams of the events thrown by the biggest corporations in videogames: Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and more. Indie3 is countering with streams of their own: There are streaming panels built around the development of games, streams of new indie games, and talks criticizing the representational and structural ways that current games are built. E3 has new game announcements and teasers for select blockbuster games, but Indie3 has built in a massive, unthinkable set of indie game announcements and trailers from games all along the spectrum of budget and scope.
All of this works to show the real ubiquity of games. It isn’t just that videogames are everywhere in the sense that there are huge posters for games with massive budgets on the sides of buildings. Instead, it is that there are videogame developers everywhere. The amount of material that Indie3 is attempting to bring to the forefront of the public mind is to show that videogames are not merely made in some black box in some unmarked office building. Instead, they can, and are, being made by people from a multitude of backgrounds and with different levels of abilities. Videogames are not merely what you have seen in the past, and Indie3 seems to want to change what is visible.
E3 needs the mythology of summer to live; it drains the nostalgia for the digital childhood, teenage and adult companions to make you feel safe. It is like seeing an old friend again, in some ways.
Indie3 wants to prepare you for the radically new, the unthought, the strange. It wants to introduce you to new friends. It wants you to rethink the very idea of a friend, even, because a friend who shows up once every five years to take $60 and run away again might not be a friend after all.
At the end of the day, Indie3 is a welcome complement to the social world of videogames. It is breathing a new kind of life into what has become a rote cycle of hype and disappointment in blockbuster videogames.