▶ a tune to accompany this ♬
I am home.
I cannot think of a single place where I would be allowed to hack-speedrun a flash game in front of +200 people, host a workshop where we build game controllers out of buttons, cardboard and ducttape, have a game in an art exhibition and watch one of the punkest shows I’ve ever seen. That is exactly what happened at A-MAZE, and it’s only half of it. This writeup will be self-indulgent, oversharing and possibly lengthy. Be warned.
For all the times I’ve gotten deeply entwined with a scene, I’ve never felt like I belonged. As a teenager, I was really into punk rock, and I went to all the festivals and shows as long as I didn’t have to go alone. I made some friends, had some amazing experiences, but was too young, shy and scared to fully engage. None of my friends were as into it as I was, and none of the people I met there were particularly interested in creating bonds. Later, I got into programming, started a bachelor degree in CompSci, cause that’s where all the people who are into programming are, right? Apart from the few who became good friends, the uni I attended was filled with people who had, to phrase it nicely, a lack of creative ambition. Nobody had projects outside of school, and people who did were often discouraged and frowned upon cause school sucks and/or is lame.
Not knowing where else to go I started a masters degree and eventually dropped out, I started bartending in my hometown. Not too long after I opened a bar, as the 2nd in command. This got me really well connected in the horeca (hotels/restaurants/cafes) scene in Antwerp. I knew the places where all the staff would go out on Sundays and Mondays, which were our Fridays and Saturdays. I think I could’ve belonged there, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. At the end of the day, I felt incomplete and unfulfilled. Lastly, throughout the years, I volunteered for the budding Dubstep scene as ‘guy with van’, before it was cool obviously. Again, at the concerts I was always treated as part of the crew, free drinks, backstage, etc… yet an embarrassing jealousy that I could never create the music I admired combined with the disinterest of using drugs made sure this wasn’t very longlived either. Due to the etherial nature of the word scene, there’s many more scenes that I’ve been a part of, but these were the biggest and most influential.
The reason I am sharing this is because it helps me analyze what I loved about the A-MAZE festival, and why I’m such a melancholic piece of driftwood after it. The last time I felt like this, I wrote this. The indie scene combines all the things that I was lacking. I feel incredibly welcomed, respected, sometimes admired (even though I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface), … Not only that, here is where I can contribute. I can create games, experiences, events, etc… in this community for others to engage with. People have enabled me so much, that I have become an enabler, in less than 2 years, and being an incredibly privileged individual, I want to be that more than anything. I can call myself an artist and nobody will bat an eye. People will shrug and wonder why that label means anything to me, but consider it took me several years for me to muster up the confidence to call myself a designer. It’s a place where I can listen to breakcore, chiptune and remixes of video game soundtracks and this just seems normal for all of these people.
(I’m not completely oblivious of the fact that the scene isn’t as welcoming to everyone as it was to me. I realize my privilege to some extent, which is why I really try to have an inclusive attitude in my work as a curator, organizer and person, which are the only ways I can think of for now.)
Just a few weeks ago I was in San Francisco attending GDC, and the comparison is very revealing to me. At GDC we often complain to each other about having to wade through the waist deep swamp of gray games industry mud, yet that’s the main reason the conference exists. We scramble from oasis to oasis, from the IGF booth to Lost Levels to ALT.CTRL, in the desert of things we have no connection to. Even if you feel like you belong at GDC, which I obviously do to some extent, GDC is a celebration of our product, our companies, our financial accomplishments, … A-MAZE is a celebration of our craft. It’s a place where I would feel comfortable inviting friends and family to, without feeling they’d be bored or feel out of place. It’s a playground for adults (and kids). It’s a museum where you have to touch the art.
“I felt like we were in the center of a ridiculously narrow overlap of 500 venn diagrams that night and it was perfect” – Dom.
Last September, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Arcade Jam in London, where I was (a small) part of building the Doom Piano. This was a dream come true, work with some of the most inspiring people, with a budget, on building whatever you want. We had access to the London hackspace, some spending money, and worked with people who knew their way around Arduino’s, C code and powertools. Iterating on the idea of the Arcade Jam, thinking of how to make it more accessible, I wanted a way to do this with less experienced people, fewer resources and the same amount of fun and explosive creativity. That’s when I came up with Burn the Keyboard.
Burn The Keyboard: Build your own controller was the title of my workshop. I didn’t mean it as an anarchic suggestion, but rather as a vision of the future, where we won’t be using keyboards anymore to interact with our virtual worlds and spaces. With just basic arcade parts (button, cable, i-Pac) and ducttape and cardboard, I encouraged people to build something in three hours. Three amazing projects came out of that, which Lucy Morris has written up in this lovely article on Indiestatik. I have since collected the software builds and the official names and, even though the process was much more meaningful than the outcome, it’s nice to know that Lorenzo is already thinking of exhibiting them at an event in Berlin.
The three projects were:
A collage of controls: buttons, the flap of a cardboard box, two joysticks used as sandbag simulators and a pressure sensor. All of these together let you steer a balloon. Losing altitude? Drop a sandbag or blow into the pressure bag. Want to move left? Flap the wing of the box. image
A long pole, representing some sort of pencil, with which you draw on another player’s back. While giving or receiving a massage, you are playing a game of pictionary.
A body suit with buttons, a long tron-arm with a bit button, robot masks. Press the button on your arm into the button on your opponents suit, just like fencing, but with robot masks.
At first I was a anxious, since the workshop filled up before any of my friends or people I had expected to attend had a chance to sign up. Turns out it that I ended up with a better audience that I had anticipated, I heard multiple people say things like “I have no idea it was this easy”, or “I want to start doing this now”.
This was underlined even more, when two participants within a week after the workshop sent me pictures of a project they started right after A-MAZE. Aran Koning made an amazing birdseed pecking game, where players wear a beak and peck at the keyboard. When I told him I liked what he was doing, he replied: “glad you like it! I wouldn’t have made it without your workshop :)”, which warmed my heart. Another one was Brenden Gibbons, who evangelized some of the tools that were used to his colleagues, who went on to make this air guitar controller.
My other contribution to the A-MAZE program was my 5 minute hypertalk. A talk format that fits my attention span, where each speaker gets 5 minutes to rant about whatever they want. A few years ago, while researching subversive playstyles as a part of a game studies class I took, I reverse engineerd Pippin Barr’s game The Artist is Present (TAIP for short). The game is, apart from it’s reference to an existing artwork, an experiment in patience, where you must wait in line for hours to get to the ending. I ripped out the assets and the code, and recreated the ending, making myself one of, at the time, very few people (<10 ?) who had ever seen the end.
What I did for my hypertalk was go through this process again, and get to the ending of TAIP in 5 minutes. Obviously I had to use some tools to help me do this, like decompilation, source code extraction, asset extraction etc… Apart from being able to perform a video game that everybody knows but nearly nobody has ever finished, in a very personal and surversive manner, which was satisfying in itself, I wanted this to raise a question. Why do we limit our playstyles to what the game affords, why don’t we intensify, de-intensify or otherwise modify play experiences more often. With custom controllers, with added context, with tools that make it easier or harder. What I did in those five minutes did not require expert skill, or large amounts of preparation. Many games I have played are far more difficult than this. Yet nobody has ever used this method to get to the end. Maybe it’s cheating, maybe it’s coloring outside of the lines, I don’t know. The reaction of the people at A-MAZE at least filled me with joy. They either liked my performance, or agreed with my question, or both.
And lastly, the absolute sweetspot of overlapping venn diagrams of personal interests happened at the Tough Coded concert on the second night. A DJ from Buenos Aeres who plays music while he plays a game against members of the audience. A completely unfair scenario, where Little Nando (the DJ) can grab the players with the mouse pointer and move them, spawn enemies or level pieces, and write intimidating messages to the players. His unapologetic choice of breakcore/pop/mashup music, visual aesthetic, general unfairness and hardship was almost too much. More than anything it has filled me with inspiration for my own overstimulating project GO NUTS!!
Thank you A-MAZE. It was good to come home. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to go and rest now.
written by joon on May, 2014