No Show is a Must See

 

no-show-conf-2013anna anthropy’s keynote speech at this year’s No Show Conference took attendees immediately to the heart of the conference’s mission—asking and answering the questions of how and why we make games—by pointing out the class assumptions and barriers inherent in the current U.S. gaming industry. We make games to share life experiences and emotions, even those that aren’t privileged in society. But how we make games has many barriers, from the price of time to learn a new programming language to the cost of game-creation software. Even for indie game developers, there are gatekeepers, in the form of entrance fees, travel and presentation costs, and the price of food while you hawk your newest game. anthropy discussed one specific event in detail: taking her game dys4ria to compete at the Independent Games Festival (IGF). In the end she paid $250 for the game to be a finalist.

It was an ironic note on which to open the second No Show Conference, two days of presentations by indie game developers and critics, whose registration price is around $100. The conference consists of breakfast and lunch both days, eleven well-known speakers, and a game jam in parallel session to the talks. NoShow eschews panels and Q&A sessions, instead allowing ample time between presentations for all attendees to speak directly with presenters. This year’s event was hosted by the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center (NERD) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The second talk of the day was Juhana Leinonen‘s presentation whose title married Call of Duty and Interactive Fiction (IF). It was also about accessibility, although of a different type than anthropy’s. Leinonen’s talk covered the difficulty of bringing new players to IF and compared the methods used by Call of Duty, as an example of AAA industry games, to teach new players how to interact with a first-person shooter (FPS). Leinonen’s argument was wonderfully clear, highlighting that tradition and a history of stubbornness are the main factors in keeping IF games from incorporating boot camp tutorials, objectives of increasing difficulty, and rewards for completing important tasks as methods to teach new players how IF games work.

Deirdra Kiai discussed the lifecycle of their newest game Dominique Pamplemousse in “It’s All Over Once The Fat Lady Sings!”. Surprisingly, they had been wanting to do a game based around singing since playing Curse of Monkey Island where a similar scene plays a prominent role. Their life circumstances played a large role in forming the pieces of the game, including obvious things like being laid off from their programming job and unexpected ones like playing in a brass band. Their talk was an amazing amalgam of vulnerable, personal commentary and game design details. They spoiled the ending of the game, saying that its choices exemplify the tension between making change in an institution from within it and going your own way in an attempt to change it externally.

Nathan Altice brought down the house by opening his presentation with a clip from Project Runway where the judges argued whether fashion was art. He proceeded to lecture on the parallels between the fashion industry and the gaming industry, going so far as to talk through the lifecycle of a style. He illustrated each step in the lifecycle of a style with a screenshot from a version of Donkey Kong that exemplified the step, going through the birth, death, and reinvention of the game, perfectly mimicking the fashion lifecycle.

Mattie Brice turned the conference’s focus back to the nitty gritty by defining true alternate reality games and discussing how such “public play” could be used to address social issues. She discussed two of her own games, giving their very personal origins, purposes, and audience responses. One game was Eat, which she wrote for her more-privileged partner so that he might understand what it is like to live hand-to-mouth; he refused to play it, saying it was too hard. In addition, she evaluated a number of organizations that attempt to use play for social change, finding most of them to be aimed at the economically privileged.

Liz Ryerson ended the first day’s session by responding to a few on-going conversations within the indie gaming community, including both the most recent PAX disaster and the furor surrounding Darius Kazemi’s “F*** Videogames”. She defined a game as something that mediates human interactions through systems. Ryerson then cautioned that using video games as a method of personal self-expression has the unfortunate side effect of supporting the illusion that technology can solve any problem while simultaneously keeping you from improving your interpersonal skills. She exhorted designers to challenge existing norms in both their own work and that of others.

Robert Yang opened the second day of No Show presentations with “Level Criticism”, a far-ranging discussion that covered the history of game mods—wads, total conversions, modular mods, post-mods—to the Let’s Play phenomenon (as an extension of mods) with an introduction to Heidegger’s philosophy slotted in to illuminate Let’s Play’s potential to expose the relationship between humans and games. Yang believes the double performance of Let’s Play videos, both the player playing and the player’s response to their own play, exposes the hidden ideas that we hold about play, plus how we think about and experience games. Many of the Let’s Play videos he used to support his argument hinged on exploiting a game’s glitch, often using the inaccurate game physics to contrast impossible actions with the outcomes expected in the real world.

Alex Myers also explored the possibilities of video game glitches, specifically in the art games genre. Myers loosely defined art games as focused on experience and emotional response to the environment rather than meeting goals or objectives. In art games, some artists and designers exploit glitches to create a narrative arc not present in the original game, such as videos from famous first-person shooter games which focus on a character waiting for hours at a public transit stop in their game. Alternately, the artists might use a game’s character skins, landscapes, or items to create machinima, a visual piece with cinematic qualities that may or may not be playable.

The penultimate presentation descended from the museum to the arcade with a tour of fighting games and the fighting game community. Maddy Myers and Todd Harper began by quizzing the audience on fighting game slang, explaining the meanings of technology (new fighting moves or new use of old fighting moves) and salty (leaving a match once it’s clear you’re going to lose). They gave a general definition of street fighting games (static backgrounds, life gauges, a match time, and two fighters) and even passed around a real arcade stick for the audience to poke at. They discussed the high barriers to entry for those newbies wishing to play fighting games, including the requirements to keep up with the fan-created rankings of fighting characters and dictionaries of new moves. They closed by breaking open the contradictory culture of the fighting game community that simultaneously considers itself to be welcoming to all comers while publicly harassing female players during tournaments.

Chris Klimas’s game-creation software, Twine, was mentioned numerous times during the two days of No Show Con but his own presentation came at the close of the conference. Klimas stated his talk would cover three topics: why he built Twine, why he left it, and why he now wants to return to developing it. What followed was an emotional roller-coaster that revisited the impact of earlier presentations by anthropy, Kiai, and Brice. Klimas’s speech was filled with uplifting comments—”don’t wait for someone’s permission to do something”, “rehearsals” not “mistakes”—but at its heart was the story of a programmer who built software and nobody came. He said it was a good thing he burnt out on Twine, becoming unable to see the positive fanmail when it preceded a request for additional features or remote debugging. But that didn’t stop the community of indie gamers from constructing amazing things with Twine. Klimas expressed his concern that coming back to Twine now would impede what its new community is building. In the end, he believes that the community deserves improved software and knows he is the one to spearhead the effort.

No Show Con 2013 was a celebration of the diverse communities within the indie gaming umbrella. It focused on articulating and removing barriers to playing and making games, barriers based on class, race, and gender. The range of topics affirmed the thriving culture of indie games. I think it’s fair to say that everyone attending left inspired and uplifted and ready to make change by making a game, even your own humble journalist.

Interested in attending? Contact them to be a part of next year’s show.

Writer. Word-monger. Alliterative architect. Science storyteller. Past lives include: planetary scientist, software dev manager. Home base: http://www.pantoum.org.