In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
When we think about video games, we often envision a solitary experience—meditatively private escapism into fantasy worlds or traversing the realm of challenge between a machine and ourselves. Even when we talk about games for multiple players, the imagined setting is the living room, racing a buddy on the couch or jogging through warzones with teams of internet strangers.
But games for groups are actually an area of significant focus for some in the indie community, who are increasingly interested in making games for public spaces. Their work is focused on designing games that bring people together at parties, exhibitions, and other public settings where the game serves as a social touchstone.
New York City's constantly-evolving Babycastles arcade began with the goal of bringing indie games into public spaces, by putting handmade and art-designed arcade cabinets into DIY show venues like the currently-defunct but legendary Silent Barn, Brooklyn's iconic Death by Audio and thriving 285 Kent. Selections of games would be organized by curators from all around the world, and locals attending band shows would be drawn to touch, share, and experiment with the strange and wonderful independent games they might not have otherwise encountered.
The most positive and memorable installations and events have involved group-oriented games that encourage strangers to cross that usually private barrier and get involved, even if it's only as spectators. For some time, 285 Kent played host to an enormous installation called Mega GIRP, a version of Bennett Foddy's intentionally-awkward, keyboard-oriented climbing game (check it out free here) that involves a wall-projected screen and a giant, human-size play pad.
Johann Sebastian Joust, the brainchild of a Copenhagen-based indie collective called Die Gute Fabrik, doesn't involve screens at all. Instead, players publicly spar with motion controllers in a live game where speed set to music is key. In recent years it's quickly become a perennial favorite in the events scene. When I first met one of its creators, Douglas Wilson (his thing, in his words, is "doing ridiculous shit with technology") at a Babycastles event, he was manning an exhibition of Dark Room Sex Game, which encouraged pairs of partygoers to sneak aside into a dim booth where they took turns spanking the air with the usually family-friendly Wii controllers, causing some brow-raising grunting and groaning sound effects.
The result was always lots of laughs, and, at the least, a good icebreaker. Any game that encourages people to cross the usual barrier of social discomfort in public can make for a fun story the next day.
Each city where games education and development is present has its own indie community, but New York City's in particular is characterized by this focus on public spaces, community and underground culture. What's interesting about the indie gaming scene here in New York is that this culture has reverberated outward into the wider indie scene. This environment of community around games, which saw local designers and students casually sharing the experience with friends against the backdrop of art, music, beer, and good conversation, has been inspirational to numerous game developers who've visited or shown work as part of Babycastles' exhibitions.
Since then, a collective of designers have married their interest in community events with game design to great effect. Independent creator Ramiro Corbetta grew up in Brazil, where the soccer stadium had a church-like role in his family and community experience, with its rituals of attendance and participation from which fans derive a sense of unity. He moved to the US at the age of 12, and now his desire to recapture the sense of public ritual that sports can provide helps inform his game design. Energized by his experience with the local Babycastles community, Corbetta has been exploring sports-oriented games, and his latest endeavor, Hokra, was recently one of four titles (along with J.S. Joust) on offer at a tournament called Sportsfriends Quadrathlon that played host to some 40 teams.
Held earlier this month at Parsons in association with the New School Game Club, the Sportsfriends Quadrathlon was a tribute to the marriage between sports and games. That union has been rarely-celebrated in the history of gaming, which has often favored the divide between "jocks" and "nerds." Pure sports games, like Electronic Arts' thriving Madden NFL franchise, have largely remained the domain of the living room, but indies like Corbetta and Wilson, who were joined by Foddy (presenting Pole Riders this time) and Noah Sasso (developer of BaraBariBall) are interested in opening that experience to the event-oriented audience that's made Babycastles such a success for indie game creators.
For Corbetta, some of the keys to designing games that crowds will be attracted to and enjoy are simple gameplay, short sessions (so that passers-by can quickly get a turn) and clear, visible scoring signals that attract spectators. In his vision, the game is not the be-all of social interaction, but a conveyance—similar to how a dinner party is really a pretext to human bonding, not solely about the food.
Game design targeted at groups and parties seems like a relatively new and experimental arena, but in fact it gets at the core of play. All these designers are interested in the "folk" experience of games: Think of analog experiences like stickball, Tic-Tac-Toe or any other game that's widely understood by culture throughout time. They require few tools and components and people generally know how to play these games already, so they can be easily taught to others. In most cases, people can get the gist by watching others, and can self-regulate their own rules. Games like these have lasted through the ages as essential forms of communication and socialization, and this new wave of sporting designers focused on event spaces is aiming to bring a little of that simple human joy to the digital space.