3 Reasons Indie Video Games Are A BIG Deal Right Now

When hot girls proclaim their nerdiness—and then, obviously, turn into memes—it’s clear that the Nerd has arrived as King (long live the Nerd!). And, as Silicon Valley rock stars peer down over their hives, one bespectacled corner of the nerd-o-sphere is emerging from the shadows to claim its crown of cool: the video game geek.

So hot right now.
Photo Courtesy of BroBible

It’s impossible to deny: the chatter about video games is rising to a dramatic crescendo. Next month, MoMA will start exhibiting a newly-acquired video game collection, rumors are swirling that Barcade, a popular video game-themed bar, will open its first Manhattan location, and video game site Kill Screen has taken its rightful place alongside Pitchfork as the arbiter of awesome.

An indie arcade at the Brooklyn venue The Silent Barn, run by the popular gaming collective, Babycastles.
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times

I wanted to find out why video games matter—not from the media, or from MoMA, but from the avid enthusiasts and practitioners in the industry itself. So when IndieCade—an indie game fest known as the industry’s Sundance—arrived on the East Coast for the first time this month, I spent three days roaming the halls of The Museum of Moving Image, which was hosting the event.

Visitors at IndieCade playing Renga, which uses laser pointers to allow large crowds to simultaneously control the game.

The marathon of academic panels and interactive games made one thing clear: the industry is poised to blow up the cultural mainstream—but not for reasons you’d expect:

1. Games Are Becoming More Social, And Less Isolated From Reality

A member of the IndieCade crowd points a laser controller at Renga.

The Matrix was a dream that belonged to Generation X. Generation Y just doesn’t care,” declared Katherine Isbister, an Associate Professor at NYU’s Polytechnic Institute, and one of the most intriguing speakers at IndieCade.

What she meant: totally immersive games that aim to created a perfectly simulated reality that players can get lost in are becoming less interesting to today’s young gamer, who doesn’t want to be tethered to a screen, but rather move fluidly between the spaces of game and reality. While there will always be hardcore Call of Duty fans, a market is growing for games that help augment a player’s real life, instead of escape from it.

“Think about it this way,” Isbister continued, “Movies used to look like plays, until they found their own way. Maybe this is what’s happening to video games too. They’re moving away from total immersion, to heightening parts of what’s already in your world.”

2. Thanks To Academia, Games Are Also Becoming More…“Game-y”

Two IndieCade visitors play Hit Me!—a hyper-interactive physical game that requires a player to hit the button on their opponent’s heads, triggering a camera to take a snapshot.

Isbister’s idea of video games searching for “their own way” turned out to be a common thread that several other speakers touched on.

Joshua DeBonis, the director of an indie gaming studio in Brooklyn, offered his insight during a separate panel discussion on the local indie community.

According to DeBonis, the most popular type of games on the East Coast are those that dwell on systems and process—in other words, games that experiment with their own “gamey-ness.”

This kind of meta-level navel-gazing probably stems, in part, from the many game-focused academic institutions in New York; both NYU’s Game Center and Parsons’ had heavy presences during the festival.

But it could also be because indie game designers simply don’t have the budgets to invest in special effects and atmospheres—and therefore create thinky games out of necessity.

“How do you keep costs low?” asked a student in the audience, to which DeBonis ironically replied, “take resources from academia!”

3. Games Are Instigating Social Change

A group plays Roaming Gnomes, which requires gamers to decode commands written in Gnomish, a gibberish language.

“Empowerment” was the biggest buzzword tossed around all weekend, as a debate raged over how to move games beyond pure entertainment, and into the social sphere.

As my fellow Creators Project contributor Leigh Alexander has pointed out, “individual creator culture around games increasingly becomes less about…the “fun factor” to which the commercial industry gives primary. It’s more about the power in creating something as personal expression, as conversation, or for simple self-empowerment.”

Games For Change, one of the festival’s partners, is a champion of the “social cause gaming” movement—games that aim to educate on political and social issues. In just a few weeks, the company will be releasing one of their most ambitious projects on Facebook: Half the Sky Movement: The Game, which aims to raise awareness on female genital mutilation and child prostitution.

While largely uncharted, “social cause games” are a pretty interesting terrain for the future—but, paradoxically, their stickiness will largely depend on how fun they are to play.

Regardless, their capacity to do good is already evident: one of the most resonant stories I heard was about a virtual alien used by social workers in South America to allow abused children to share their stories if they are too ashamed to tell an adult—clearly, a demonstration of technology’s powerful capacity to afford a moment of rehearsal for those who are not quite ready for the gaze of others.