“Playing a game in public is a political act,” asserted games evangelist Bernie DeKoven at a keynote event of IndieCade 2012. In the particular context of his discussion with game theorist and designer Eric Zimmerman, DeKoven was referring specifically to the “New Games” movement of the 1960s and 70s, which promoted a philosophy that group play was vitally important to both adults and children.
Yet the statement also resonated strongly with the weekend’s festivities in general. IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, held October 4–7, 2012, in Culver City, California, was not held at a typical conference venue, but rather overtook the city itself: a fire station, a recreation center, a Masonic Lodge, a parking lot, and a former-railway-substation-turned-theater. Every fall, games of every kind overtake downtown Culver City and are showcased, discussed, played, watched, and sold: video games, board games, live games, hand-made cardboard arcade games, card games, and night games. A variety of events surround this gaming revelry, including a conference for industry professionals, awards voting and galas, public panels and workshops, and a series of tutorial events for game design novices and dilettantes.
To begin the keynote conversation between DeKoven and Zimmerman, DeKoven was introduced as a legend of sorts. DeKoven is the author of a foundational book on the deeply social and human dimensions of play, The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy (1978). He is also an experienced game designer and regular lecturer at industry events, where he evangelizes the “spirit of play.”
DeKoven’s path into games started when he was a curriculum writer for children’s theater. One day, desperate to engage his group of incredibly bored kids, he asked them what they wanted to do. They wanted to play Duck, Duck, Goose. Giving in and joining the game, he recalls discovering to his surprise that the game was actually highly theatrical. What if a player does not want to be chosen? Then she has to manifest her invisibility—unless, of course, the person on the outside is looking to choose the invisible person, in which case she has to act like she wants to be chosen. How does the person on the outside choose whom to pick? Someone who wants to be chosen, someone trying not to be chosen, the best runner, a friend, a rival? What does it mean to pick and be picked? DeKoven saw in Duck, Duck, Goose a human dramaturgical story about being chosen. Suddenly, gameplay seemed bigger and deeper than he had previously thought—something with meaning that could tap into concerns and anxieties of everyday life for both adults and children.
If the theatricality of being chosen is the essence of Duck, Duck, Goose, it also resonated with one of the most interesting games being shown off at the festival: Hidden in Plain Sight. In the mode I saw demonstrated, Death Race, four players are each assigned an anonymous avatar among a field of 20 or so on-screen characters all shuffling toward the finish line. Each player can also take a single shot to eliminate one character from the game. The goal is to blend in among the NPCs (non-player characters) while trying to be first to the finish line. Any player who tries to race out ahead of the pack will instantly be detected by the other players and eliminated, so winning requires the player to perform invisibility, to masquerade as an NPC, to look as if her character does not want to win.
There’s something utterly fascinating to me about this conceit—embedded at the core of both Duck, Duck, Goose and Hidden in Plain Sight (as well as a number of other games including Mafia and Team Fortress 2)—of becoming inconspicuous, blending in with the crowd, performing invisibility, not being noticed, chosen, or singled out. “Keep your distance, Chewie,” advises Han Solo in Return of the Jedi, “but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance.” Games like these embody a dissonance between individual goals and collective constraints, implicitly opening up fundamental questions about social conventions and the meanings of everyday behavior in public places, communities, events.
Crowds of all kinds have their own tacit rules and logic about appropriate and inappropriate behavior—guidelines that are usually entirely invisible but can become immediately apparent when disrupted by, say, a ranting homeless person on a street corner, a streaker in a grocery, a Musical Theater major singing loudly to herself as she walks across campus, or a sudden square dance flashmob in a food court.
Disruption of an ordinary, routine public order is then, perhaps, one sense in which playing games in public can be said to be political. Gameplay itself can be inherently conspicuous, forcing players out of their comfort zones of socially established norms. Zimmerman asked DeKoven to teach the keynote audience a game: each impromptu game group was to invent its own variant of Rock-Paper-Scissors (say, Pasta-Chicken Coop-Marshmallow), with each member of the triad to be accompanied by full-body gestures and sounds. And each time there is a tie, the players have to hug and say, “Ohhhh.” Rules could be changed by groups at will. “No matter what game we create, no matter how well we are able to play it, it is our game and we can change it when we need to.”
The house lights came up.
A theater that had been full of grown, serious, note-taking, quietly-sitting adults was now bustling with inventive, silly, wildly gesticulating, nonsense-babbling characters laughing and cheering, hugging and “Ohhh”ing.
Such a scene was IndieCade in microcosm: an ordinary downtown neighborhood transformed into a beautiful, messy throng of impromptu play with both friends and strangers. Fundamentally different from a music festival or a film festival, IndieCade is a truly interactive and participatory experience, one that actively ventures to blur the boundaries between game players and designers. In so doing, the festival even provides a glimpse of a better—or, rather, better-able—world, one in which the established bounds of social behavior suddenly appear to be fluid, changeable, re-definable.
Andrew Myers is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California. He recently received his M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. He also serves as the post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library. His diverse research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history, new media (especially video games), and documentary.