Indie Games Pop-Up Video Arcades

Nurturing aesthetic experimentation and alternative forms of production, distribution and consumption, the indie game culture has grown in the past decade gaining global and local recognition. As part of this evolution, practitioners have started to create geographically localized community organizations that foster assembling informal innovation ecosystems and cultivating social, cultural, and human resources. In cities such as Toronto, London, New York, and Austin, these organizations are making a range of events in hybrid spaces intended to support sociality, creativity, and community building. By planning and making temporary pop up video arcades, for instance, indie game community organizations are cultivating a more diverse and productive audience of designers, players, critics, curators, and other creative types. They gather and come together as a public, both in online and offline spaces, in order to play, perform, network, and celebrate the indie game culture. By doing so, they find opportunities for connecting, learning, making, and earning. In this entry I would like to  briefly review two pop up video arcades (the Space Cowboy Arcade and the Barfcade) organized by Juegos Rancheros, a local indie game collective based in Austin. Specifically, I would discuss how these arcades were created by actively mobilizing social, technological, and physical assets, and how they developed across virtual and physical spaces.

Digital networked technologies are important nodes in the ecosystems that indie game collectives are building for supporting developers, players, critics, and other potential audience members and collaborators. Leveraging technology assets, indie game practitioners are making, earning, distributing, connecting, and building the capacity of their growing community. The pop-up video arcades, for instance, are good examples of how the mobilization of technology assets happens with the specific purpose of creating a safe space for play, socialibily, experimentation, fun, and innovation. That space expands through the virtual and physical realms. On the one hand, these arcades are planned, promoted, and crowdsourced using Web platforms such as Twitter and On the other, the arcades are performed and created in the physical space of buildings during a short period of time. The online space, in particular, is created during a longer period of time, as indie game practitioners, including the organizers of the arcade, engage in conversations and creative exchanges on Web platforms months before the arcade is performed in physical space. For the specific cases of the Barfcade and the Space Cowboy arcades, that virtual space was created using the Twitter and platforms.

The social network site (SNS) and micro-blogging platform Twitter supported the creation of a virtual space where the pop up arcades were organized, planned, promoted, and discussed by Juegos Rancheros members, their national and international network of collaborators, and their local and global audiences. By using specific #hashtags in their mesages, participants of the arcades created a dedicated space for their conversation and constituted a networked public. Hashtags such as #spacecowboygamejam and #barfcade were actively used during both the time the arcades where performed in physical space, and the months of planning and organization. During the period of time that preceeded the actual rendering of the pop-up arcade in a physical building, the #hashtags turned out to be very useful for coordinating the crowdsourcing of content. As in an open innovation enteprise, Juegos Rancheros crowdsourced the content of the two arcades they organized in 2014. They organized two game jams in which any designer around the world could submit a video game they created following certain thematic constraints and deadlines. From the announcement of the game jams to the process of making the games to the discussion of the selected pieces, participants engaged in an active and productive conversation that took place on the Twitter platform. The conversation not only was easy to follow through the #hashtags but as well the barriers to joining it were also very low. Although the majority of participants of this conversations were designers and artists who teamed up in order to create new indie games following the themes of the jams, some games and indie game culture fans did also participated commenting and re-tweeting. was the other networked communication technology actively mobilized in the making of the pop-up arcades, and particularly for hosting the game jams. As a digital distributing platform and market place, offered a free and open service participants of the game jams could use for collaboratively create a virtual space. While Juegos Rancheros organizers set up the initial page of the jam wiht information about the rules, deadlines, and themes, participants filled this page with content from their game submisions. Moreover, when submitting their games, developers also created a unique and simple page for their game so it could be downloaded and rated by other participants of the jam. In this way, the virtual space of the pop-up arcades on expanded across several pages and included not only the main page of the jam but also the single pages of every game submitted. Hence, it was pretty much an open networked space that could be explored by organizers, developers, and the audience of the arcades. For the Space Cowboy Arcade, 56 different new games were submitted during a period of time of two weeks (5/24-6/8). For the Barfcade, 36 games were sumbitted during two weeks (8/30-9/14).

In contrast to the virtual space created on Twitter and, the offline spaces emerged as places for face-to-face interactions and physicality. Juegos Rancheros organizers mobilized physical assets in order to allow the arcades to pop-up in the real world for a few days. Specifically, they leveraged two private buildings. While for the Space Cowboy Arcade they were able to have access to an old one-dollar store in Marfa, for the Barfcade they used the space of an urban amenity located inside of a Movie Theater complex in Austin. For the former, Juegos Rancheros collaborated with the organizers of the Marfa Film Festival and together negotiated the access to the empty space of an old one-dollar store. For the latter, they collaborated with the organizers of the Fantastic Film Festival and the owners of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, who facilitated the access to The Highland Bar. Creatively, Juegos Rancheros  appropriated  these two physical spaces and transformed them into temporary video arcades for gameplay, performance, networking, and celebrating the indie game culture.

The Space Cowboy pop-up video arcade was open to the public during 4 days (3/6/2014-6/6/2014) and it ran in parallel to the Marfa Film Festival (MFF). Although the arcade was not the central attraction nor became a crowded space during the weekend it lasted, it was featured as part of the MFF in printed programs and posters pasted on street windows and walls. Several assistants to the festival walked to the western edge of town in order to check out the space, hang out, and play indie games. In the interior of the one-dollar story, the arcade was rendered in a huge rectangular room of approximately 20×30 meters and a tall ceiling (5 meters). In the room, ten small tipis were set up in the shape of a semi-circle. They functioned as a sort of private/public space for playing a game, a sort of chill-out, semi-intimate and comfortable arcade cabinets. Inside each tipi, a screen monitor, two speakers, a keyboard, a mouse, and sometimes a joystick, were placed over an AstroTurf mat. A little cushion was placed in front of each tipi as a sign to invite the players to sit on the floor. Ten different games were selected for the arcade (among 61 that were submitted) and they were put together in a single launcher application that each computer run. Arcade visitors tried different games although definitely not all of them. Interestingly, many of the players were children who came with their parents. They seemed to enjoy siting on the cushions more than the adult players.

The Barfcade was rendered in the physical space of The Highball lounge bar for only one night (21/9/2014). It was run as a live show hosted by Thu Tran, an artist and television personality well known by her psychedelic and comic imagination. Although the Barfcade defied the common definitions of what a pop-up video arcade could be, it definitely had not only some of the elements of gameplay, testing, networking, and performance that characterize these spaces, but also was rendered as part of Fantastic Arcade. Hence, even though only two attendees to the Barfcade had the opportunity to play “on stage” a selection of the  36 games that were submitted at the gamejam and also compete in stunt-eating games, the audience had also the opportunity of playing and testing indie games if they decided to hang out at the venue after the show. Particularly, they could just move to the indoor patio of The Highball where eight old-fashioned arcade cabinets had indie games ready to be played. During the Barfcade, the whole space of the bar, including a wide ballroom floor where several tables and chairs were allocated, was transformed into an informal auditorium. In order to highlight the stage and enable better visibility and acoustics, several chairs were organized in rows. The Barfcade live show lasted for about one 1/2 hours  and was developed as a hybrid of a trivia, eating , and video game. The two selected participants competed against each other answering questions, taking stunt-eating challenges and playing some of the indie videogames submitted during the Barfcade jam. Thu Tran, as the host, was in charge of asking the questions and  commenting the stunts. Wiley Wiggins, as the co-director of the Fantastic Arcade and member of Juegos Rancheros, also played the role of an MC off-stage providing commentaries and encouraging the audience to try some of the weird foods that were used for the stunt-eating challenges such as anchovy ice cream and durian popsicles.

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