Why you should care
Around the world, a rising tide of artistic collectives and curators are bringing out the next generation of weird indie games.
Win or lose, the game is over in 10 seconds. Queers in Love at the End of the World, a video game loaded into a beautifully decorated arcade cabinet, has a simple premise: The world is ending. You have four choices — you can kiss her, hold her, take her hand or tell her. Each choice leads you to more choices, plunging you into a deeply felt love narrative for 10 seconds. Then the screen blinks with “Everything is wiped away.”
Not exactly Ms. Pac-Man. But this experimental arcade game is representative of a growing phenomenon in the gaming world: the emergence of myriad organizations, collectives and festivals bringing indie games to the public in curated settings. Think of it as an art exhibit you can play, or an arcade based not on nostalgia — as many modern so-called arcade bars peddling vintage video games are — but on an embrace of a punk rock aesthetic and boundless creativity.
These groups have all sprung up in the past decade and operate in different ways. Manhattan-based Babycastles is a gallery space that cycles through new exhibitions of games every three to four weeks, while Edinburgh’s We Throw Switches holds curated gaming parties known as Games Are for Everyone and San Francisco’s alt.ctrl.party encourages people to come to experience experimental gaming hardware. Super Friendship Arcade, based in Cape Town, throws parties every few months to showcase new games. In Toronto, the Hand Eye Society — which, at 10 years old is considered the precursor to many of these organizations — hosts not just game nights but a traveling cabinet called the Torontron, which is loaded up with new indie games and trundles around Toronto. It’s been joined by two more such Toronto-based arcade cabinets, and one in Winnipeg known as the Winnitron.
Slowly we’ve built momentum.
Dr. Lynn C. Love, computer arts professor and game designer
But these New Age arcades aren’t just marrying gaming and art. Despite the popularity of esports and watching people play games, the rise of home gaming has meant that for many people, video games are a private, living-room experience. The games these arcades offer are designed to bring players together again. At Super Friendship Arcade, which attracts hundreds of people to its periodic pop-up parties, 80 to 90 percent of the games are designed to be played in a group, says Ben Rausch, one of the organizers of the organization.
“A lot of the multiplayer games include things like actually having to make physical contact with people, like your hands are touching,” says Rausch. “You’re not used to having those interactions with strangers and that can be very special in those moments.”
The timing is likely a function of the timing of the gaming industry itself, say observers. There are now multiple generations who grew up loving games, and some of those people don’t find a home in the mainstream gaming industry. The “artcade” scene is an alternative to that, and even though the collectives that have sprung up around the world aren’t formally connected, they have often inspired each other. The growth of such collectives is in part also driven by the fact that “game-making has become so much more democratic, so much easier to do,” explains Dr. Lynn C. Love, a professor of computer arts at Abertay University in Scotland and a game designer herself. Several gamers who attended these events then became inspired to develop games themselves, she says. “Slowly we’ve built momentum,” says Love. “They see that these things are possible,” Love adds.
It’s a system that’s sustained by passion — this is not a field where anybody makes money, she explains, and it’s largely funded by ticket sales to events that, while popular, hesitate to charge high prices that’ll restrict it to a high-earning crowd. Rausch explains that the sustainability of the industry isn’t about finding an audience — there’s clearly a crowd of people who are excited to discover and play indie games at events like this — but about the organizers being able to find time and bandwidth themselves beyond their day jobs to make it happen.
The very nature of these events serves to change some of the longstanding negative traditions of the arcade. The fact that the games will largely be new to everyone in the audience means that nobody will start the game with much more expertise than anyone else. This ensures that the overwhelmingly male self-described gamers won’t have the upper hand, says Felan Parker, a scholar of digital media and professor at the University of Toronto because “nobody’s going to be good at this, and everyone’s going to have a good time trying and failing.” In fact, some of the games play off this even more explicitly, a trend Rausch refers to as fumblecore, and are designed so that being bad at it is part of the point. One such game, Enviro-Bear 2000, asks users to play a bear clumsily driving a car, searching for fish to eat before he has to hibernate. It turns out there is no graceful way for a bear to drive a car, but that it is very easy for him to drive it into a lake, where he may be attacked by a badger.
The trend’s punk rock roots are also evident in the DIY-ness of its aesthetic. Games that are encased in arcade cabinets will be beautifully decorated, but rather than looking like they came out of a high-tech factory, they have a distinct air of having been built in a really cool person’s garage. Cardboard’s a big building material here, a design vibe that, says Flan Falacci, an administrator at Babycastles, demystifies game creation for players who may think of arcade games as something that can only be made in a factory. “The arcade cabinets are very clearly not industry professional arcade cabinets. Everything has this put-it-up-in-a-day-and-take-it-down-in-a-day aesthetic,” says Falacci. “We really want people to get used to the idea that they can make games.” Babycastles and the Super Friendship Arcade both throw gaming jams, where non-gamers can come learn how to create their own games.
While these collectives don’t explicitly work together, some within the community are trying to change that. Parker mentions GAIN, a new network attempting to connect local organizations — and in doing so encourage the creatives who are actually making the games. “They’re trying to create a space in which the folks who do the organizing work and the coordinating share ideas and collaborate,” he says. “And then foster this kind of thing in other parts of the world where it isn’t happening yet.” Who knows, your neighborhood could be next.
Correction: The original version of this article referred to arcade bars as barcades, but Barcade is a trademarked name.