Inside and out: Activism is the heart of IndieCade

Hal Weiss, an activist for PETA arrived at IndieCade - the International Festival of Independent Games - on it's final day with little knowledge about the event. “To be perfectly honest, we didn't know that much about IndieCade,” said Weiss. "We saw it at the last minute. It came across our radar a little too late for us to officially get in so that's kind of why we're set up outside.” Along with two other PETA volunteers, Weiss was outside the IndieCade Village grounds trying to get passersby to partake in a simplified virtual reality demonstration that put users into the first-person perspective of a chicken about to be slaughtered. The demonstration, called "iChicken," could have fit right in with the many VR games on display at IndieCade. This theming was pure happenstance according to Weiss, who said he had been using "iChicken" at public events all summer.

The members of PETA were just a few of many activists and advocates that attended the open-air gaming convention in downtown Culver City. The day prior, there were dozens of Culver City residents protesting low-flying aircrafts outside City Hall, where game developers were delivering lectures. On the first day, it was Megan Mitchell, a ferret legalization advocate with standing where Weiss would be 48 hours later.

“I came here because a lot of people I know who have ferrets are game people as well so I thought this would be a great event to target the audience,” said Mitchell as she attempted to get attendees to sign a ballot initiative petition on ferret legalization for 2016.

It’s not an uncommon sight to see petitioners and advocates like Mitchell and Weiss outside of big public gatherings going on in the LA area. But what they may not have known was just how well they fit into the IndieCade atmosphere. For as much as the festival bills itself as creating “a public perception of games as rich, diverse, artistic, and culturally significant” on its website, it’s secondary and equally important mission is, as outgoing Co-Chair John Sharp put it on his blog, " bring more diversity to games — both in terms of the play experiences, but also those making the games.”

IndieCade’s face may be about art and culture, but its heart lies in game industry diversity activism. This year the center of this activism was the Gaming for Everyone (G4E) tent, an Intel sponsored hub of activity that commanded as much attention as any of the games on display.

“I feel like we can kind of transcend the diversity issues and those barriers,” said Brad Hill of Intel Corporation, the manager of the G4E tent. "It doesn't matter who you are, where you are, what you are. We come together because we love games and love making games."

Hill’s primary job at Intel is in developer relations and managing Code for Good, an initiative from Intel that sponsors game jams and hackathons across the country. Though they do target children with this initiative in order to teach algebra and the importance of physical activity, they primarily aim for college students. Hill said, “I think by aiming at students and impressionable young minds, we can get to them and show them the great side of things before they get into the real world and get jaded.”

This philosophy of childhood outreach was common inside the G4E tent. HNDP, a non-profit organization that teaches inner city and at-risk youth digital entertainment technology skills in order to encourage entrepreneurial development, was also present. “We're the workshop for kids that don't go to workshops,” said Co-Founder of HNDP, Aaron Duran, as he described how his organization was trying to impart gaming industry job skills to children in LA. "We want to give them tools that they can go home and continue to build off of.”

But the primary focus within the G4E tent focused not on issues of job training for minors, but feminism. Of the nine booths inside the lounge, four were from organizations focused primarily on getting more women to make video games: FemHype, The Code Liberation Foundation, Pixelles, and Dames Making Games (or DMG).

“We take women with absolutely no game making experience and, after six weeks, they come out with a game,” said Stephanie Fisher, director of the Montreal-based Pixelles. Fisher went on to explain how they used easy-to-grasp game development tools in workshops known as “incubators” to introduce women to game development in order to “demystify” the process.

DMG, which operates out of Toronto, had a similar mission according to Cecily Carver, the group’s Co-Director, who said, “Learning to code is great and I really encourage it, but sometimes it's more of a barrier to people than it needs to be.”

The fact that the pair of feminist non-profits hailing from the land of maple leaves and Molson had such similar philosophies is no coincidence. Both groups have the same origin point — the Difference Engine Initiative, a workshop to get women to make games run by The Hand Eye Society in 2011. Fisher and Carver both said they had attended the incubator — Fisher made a game called “Salsa Loco” and Carver made a game called “Adeline’s Elopement” — and were inspired to continue the trend of diversifying the Canadian gaming scene which Fisher described as, “...homogeneous, like white dudes. There was really not a lot of conversation about diversity before the Difference Engine Initiative."

The sales data on software espousing feminist ideals however, hasn’t been promising lately. Last year’s openly feminist game “Sunset,” by developer Tales of Tales, flopped, as did a recent release trying to subvert the “Damsel in Distress” trope called “Knight and Damsel.”

At the end of the day though, the sales may not matter. Both Fisher and Carver spoke about how neither organization was about finding jobs for women who signed up but about creating a way for women to find their voice in video games. “Many of [these women] are not interested in the games industry, though they are interested in making games," said Carver.

If the point of the art side of IndieCade seems more like a film festival where prospective developers attempt to find a publisher to sell their game to a mass market, then it’s the activism side of the festival that’s seemingly the most resistant to “selling out.”

Whether it’s for ferret legalization, getting women into games or for being sent to the slaughterhouse in a pro-vegan virtual reality, if there’s one thing that’s in the air during the festival of independent games, it's an activist spirit, and they deal in the currency of ideas, not dollars.