What It's Like to Curate an Indie Gaming Event
It’s a testing world, individualism necessarily tempered by accessibility. We speak to three organizers about their efforts to have us playing differently.
Above: Rezzed 2016 photograph by Jake Lewis.
Cutting through the gaming industry noise over what is and isn't worthy of a player's time can feel like an impossible task. There are simply so many games released, across mobile stores, Steam, consoles and more, that gloriously fun, culturally significant, or just plain interesting titles can get lost beside those with marketing budgets big enough to guarantee a splash.
Which is not to say that if you're just playing triple-A games, you're doing something wrong. Play what you will, and what you love. For many, though, simply following the biggest new games doesn't work. And websites like Warpdoor—and, hopefully, this one—are here to help you explore the relatives fringes of the culture.
But getting smaller games noticed by the public, in person, at and around the great many gaming expos held globally, is another matter entirely. Not that this has deterred a collection of event curators, toiling away behind the scenes to give you something else to play. Indeed, it inspires them.
Each of these smaller events—sometimes self-contained, sometimes part of much bigger occasions—is different. And whether it's the Leftfield Collection, the raucous Wild Rumpus, or self-styled "festival of experimental play" Now Play This, each one has its own aims and curates its lineup in singular ways.
Many of these curators work on several events. David Hayward has the weird dual role of arranging lineups for the Leftfield Collection and Feral Vector. The Leftfield Collection is anomalous, a white-walled hallway within both of EGX's twice-yearly conferences, held in Birmingham and London (the latter the more indies-focused Rezzed). Rather than simply offer booth space to the highest bidders, Hayward, sometimes alongside other EGX event staff, books games that fit what he considers a very distinct vibe.
"We'll get like 300 submissions for each event, no sweat," Hayward, who's been running the Leftfield Collection for a decade now, tells me. "Ten years ago, you could pick any indie game, and it'd be unusual and interesting compared to everything else the industry was doing."
"Nowadays, though, 'indie' has established itself as a part of the commercial industry," he continues, "and EGX and I are both very aware that Leftfield should continually be looking outwards to that boundary. So, we were never content to just bill it as a show of indie games. We're looking for a mix of games that will be accessible to the audience who come to EGX, but we also want them to showcase stranger, or more experimental work."
Related, on VICE: Feral Vector Shows Us That Indie Gaming Needs Greater Support
Feral Vector, held annually in Yorkshire, is something else entirely—Hayward describes it to me as a "bring your own bottle party" for those making, or who might want to make, their own, unique video games. Here, he's looking for games that illustrate their makers moving beyond comfort zones, in the spirit of game jams.
"People are really scared to fail," Hayward adds. "So, for Feral Vector, part of our curatorial agenda is to create spaces where people can experiment, and fail hard if they want to."
Holly Gramazio, half of Matheson Marcault alongside fellow game dev Sophie Sampson, is the director of Now Play This, and has another audience to think of. Now Play This, part of the annual London Games Festival, has to appeal to casual fans and people drawn to an event billed as culturally significant and held at the capital's Somerset House contemporary arts center. In other words, people who probably aren't literate in the language of video games.
"We're interested in finding different things, people who are producing exciting work." — Holly Gramazio, Now Play This
"We're interested in finding different things, people who are producing exciting work that we can articulate within the festival," she tells me, of her approach to booking games for Now Play This. Each room at the three-day event has a concept, even if it's not exactly spelled out on the doors. "We've the 'ten-second room' this year," Gramazio explains, "where every game takes ten seconds to play." Which, naturally, influences the kind of game she's going to invite to participate.
Gramazio has been at this for a decade too, and Now Play This is only the latest in a series of events she's been involved with. She started with physical games, but after seeing a variety of events blending the digital and physical, Gramazio shifted to focus on something else.
"I began to look at what commonalities there are between all of these different forms that use game design and play as a motivating force," she says. "Whether that's by someone who thinks of themselves as making video games, pervasive games, interactive art or whatever it might be."
Where Gramazio and Hayward got their start in curating through a love of games and play, Pat Ashe, a curator working as part of event collective Wild Rumpus and one of the pair behind video games and performance project Beta Public, got his start through more theatrical means.
"We ran a night called, 'We Want Your Dog,'" Ashe recounts, with a smirk. "It often got billed as 'We Wank Your Dog', which was always fun to correct."
We Want Your Dog was a project started by Ashe as part of his theater degree. "Getting into curation was never a conscious choice. I'm terrible at performing, despite studying theater and spending three years trying to make performance art, but I just wanted to do something different."
After university, Ashe left curation alone for a few years, trying to survive in London as a temp. Then, he fell into the London games scene, became involved with Wild Rumpus, which blends a club night with an arcade, and then teamed up with another theater creator to produce Beta Public.
"Spectacle is an essential thing for all the games that we show." — Pat Ashe, Wild Rumpus/Beta Public
Ashe can't speak for the entirety of Wild Rumpus—there are seven members of the collective—but he's still informed by that theater background in what he does, and what he chooses to present at his events. "Spectacle is an essential thing for all the games that we show," he says.
And that concept, that spectacle, can take several forms. From titles like Roflpillar, that see people rolling around in sleeping bags and trying to control caterpillars, to the compelling sight of two experienced players of the fence-'em-up Nidhogg engaging in a mammoth duel. The key for Ashe is that a game is as much fun to stand on the sidelines and watch with a drink as it is to get involved.
As the work of these three curators shows, the playing field for this sector of the games industry is vast and varied. They're far from alone, of course. Marie Foulston has been doing great games curation work with both Wild Rumpus and London's V&A; while George Buckenham has mixed a singular approach to arranging events with the production of his own games about actually punching a very real bucket of custard and physically stacking model animals to breed them digitally.
Then there's Jo Summers of Profaniti Ltd, described by several people during my research as being one of the hardest working people in games events. She's worked behind the scenes on every single event I've mentioned so far, except for Beta Public. This list of curators is far from exhaustive, but it's important to highlight the variation in these events, to show how these people use their individual tastes to show off unique things.
Gramazio describes game curation as obeying the same impulses that might cause someone to throw a big party—although smart curation stops it being the party you kept ending up going to at university. You know, the one where an N64 controller appears in your hand, and you're told "No Oddjob, yeah?"
Hayward describes the process as occasionally futile, his curation work battling against a juggernaut of a games industry that has "the institutional memory of a goldfish". He also touches on the problems with creating a canon of video games, a variety of issues that pop up whenever you put any group of things together and declare it an official history. It's a problem whose burden can be eased by cultural institutions allocating more resources to the act of curation.
"A really serious amount of research and discipline goes into creating a show, and I feel the video games industry does not appreciate that." — David Hayward, Leftfield Collection/Feral Vector
"What you can curate within a given time or space depends on your resources," Hayward says. "It's a really serious amount of research and discipline and craft that goes into creating a decent show of anything, and I feel like the video games industry does not understand or appreciate that, about any of those institutions."
"I think curation, the importance of it, comes down to the people who are doing the curating in a lot of ways," says Ashe, musing on his own unique, but very related, potential problems with the discipline. "It's like the difference between an event curated by Robert Yang about local multiplayer compared to a Wild Rumpus one, or a Juegos Rancheros one, or a David Hayward one. It's through these perspectives, and by bringing more people into curation, that we help alleviate that problem of canonization."
This type of organization has great value, and has to be supported, with experienced curators brought together with decent budgets. There's a variety to the games curation scene that is distinct, absent from other aspects of video games. Which is not to say that curation like this is about replacing the wall of noise triple-A produces; rather, it's encouraging you to listen to a different song once in a while.
One that's quieter, sure, but no less significant for the future of the medium.
- indie games
- Feral Vector
- Wild Rumpus
- Leftfield Collection