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Consent and Collaboration: My weekend at the IndieCade East gaming convention

After the six-month-long parade of horribles that has wracked the gaming world, IndieCade East felt like a long overdue reminder of what those of us caught in the crossfire were fighting for. 

Held at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, IndieCade East is a three-day-long convention that focuses on independent games — many made by first-time developers or those operating outside the corporate strictures of mainstream gaming. But familiar companies were there as well, with Sony hosting an entire arcade of independent games they had contracted for their new PS4 platform.

I wandered the conference like a ghost in a business suit, my exhaustion worn like another layer of clothing on the bitterly cold days of the conference. But the games, and the family reunion atmosphere of IndieCade, eventually pulled past my defenses to find that little bit of me that can actually successfully avoid being a dork in social situations.

It was appropriate, to say the least, since several of the games were explicitly designed as two-person social affairs. This is an interesting thing to note in an age where most non-Nintendo games increasingly take “multiplayer” to mean “online play” rather than folks in a room playing together. There was a very literal intimacy to some of IndieCade’s multiplayer offerings. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, which I played with a friend of mine, is a painfully adorable 2D space adventure that could be said to take place on your very own “Satellite of Love.” Each player must control one part of the ship’s systems at a time and coordinate with each other in order to rescue bunnies trapped in space prisons. In order to avoid getting blown up, each character has to run around taking temporary control of a gun battery, shields, superweapon, or the engine.

Collaboration being a core mechanic is actually kind of hot.

Vietnam Romance

A couple at IndieCade playing a game entitled “Vietnam Romance.” (Credit: Scott Chamberlain/IndieCade)

Another, much simpler game in this vein was Realistic Kissing Simulator, which asked two players (and it really is more fun to do it with two players rather than solo) to take control of one half of a smooching, gender-ambiguous couple. My player two here was a different friend of mine (or was I her player two?)

It begins by having one player ask if the other would like to smooch, and they are given the option to say yes or no. If they refuse, the game ends right then and there. It’s one of many variations on the theme of exploring consent that has characterized many indie games of late (more on that anon). If you say yes, however, thus begins a kissing adventure that seems rather a lot like two Dune sandworms fighting one another.

Long, sinewy tongues extending far enough to void the warranty on any human mouth; the game is a giggle fest, really, and it’s a stress-free way to get two people standing next to one another at the computer making lewd jokes as each of you sees who can poke the other’s eye with her tongue first. My friend and I had entirely too much fun with this thing that was neither realistic, nor much about kissing, but whose simulation of intimacy had quite a few positive effects.


Consent is so often derided as a byzantine system of rules, checks, and balances that short circuits the silent, knowing intimacy of sex.

That catastrophic fiction — that “everyone knows” how to be intimate without saying a word or otherwise communicating — is something that is now being picked apart by more than a few video games, like Merritt Kopas’ Consensual Torture Simulator, or Naomi Clark’s fascinating card game Consentacle (In the interest of disclosure I should note that Ms. Clark and I have worked together on the board of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project). Consentacle’s design is rich, from its mechanics to its artwork, simulating a silent sexual first encounter between a human and a tentacled alien. Making a game of the process of exploration and negotiation is a clever and increasingly common conceit that unveils the practice before wider audiences outside feminist communities; it makes communicative intimacy unthreatening and fun.

As anti-social and shy as I tend to be, finding human contact to be better in the observing than the doing, these moments where I became someone’s player two were the most memorable of the conference, a reminder that gaming’s magic circle is very often an enchanted social space as well, which foregrounds behaviors and sentiments less likely to surface elsewhere. It had been far too long since, as I did with Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, I picked up a controller to have fun with someone sitting right next to me, and I’d forgotten how simply sublime that experience can be.

Initiate Fuckplan

Merritt Kopas (l) and Cara Ellison during their “Initiate Fuckplan” discussion on sex and sexuality in gaming. (Credit: Scott Chamberlain/IndieCade)

The convention’s talks were elaborate reminders that what many indie communities are trying to do with games gives me a lot of hope. Journalist and critic Cara Ellison and developer Merritt Kopas’ delightfully titled “Initiate Fuckplan” conversation was unapologetic in its discussion of sexuality in video games, for instance. The opening keynote on the first day of the convention, delivered by Uruguayan developer Gonzalo Frasca, took on educational games and called for games that don’t condescend to children, teaching them how to think rather than how to memorize by rote.

These thought-provoking explorations came in bite-sized, 30-minute blocks, save for longer affairs like the “Great Video Game Design” debate that brought together stars like Leigh Alexander, Mattie Brice, and Mohini Dutta for a geeky discussion on whether there was a difference between game mechanics and content.

Geekiness without toxicity; imagine that.


Late on the second day I found myself wallflowering in the back of an auditorium while the assembled crowd cheered on the players of a game being projected onto the wall. ClusterPuck 99 was a delightfully minimalist 2D hockey game of sorts with wild maps and nondescript circular avatars. It was the opposite of the stereotypical graphics intensive, bloodsplattering war games that tend to characterize competitive play in the gaming world. Yet everyone was engaged and cheering hard for their favorite ClusterPuckers. No blood, no sexism, no big budget busting required.

After everything that’s happened in the last six months, it was a lovely sight to see.

Header Image Credit: Scott Chamberlain/IndieCade (The game featured is Earth Night)

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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