The debate as to whether or not video games are capable of expressing complex or artistic ideas has, for the most part, settled throughout the United States. Video games, as an industry, has survived criticism, refuted enough ridiculous claims, and produced amazing experiences in the visual, conceptual, and artistic realms. The same can’t be said in all parts of the world though. In Belgium, a group of enthusiasts have been attempting to cultivate an indie game development community to help establish games as an artistic medium. Co-founder of The House of Indie, Bram Michielsen and his team have attempted to present the artistic value that games are capable of with their festival Screenshake.
Hosted in Belgium and scheduled for February 6th-8th, Screenshake Festival 2015 is largely targeted at Belgian locals with the intention of bringing awareness about the artistic promise that video games hold. With a successful IndieGoGo campaign plans are in full swing and include a wide range of local and international speakers. William Pugh (The Stanley Parable), Karla Zimonja (Gone Home), and Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge), are just some of the names lined up as speakers. Even Arizona will be represented as local developer Erin Robinson (Gravity Ghost) is scheduled to speak.
Interested in learning more about the challenges organizing a festival of this scale can incur, we sat down with Michielsen who was more than willing to give us some insight into the atmosphere that video games face in Belgium.
Jesse Tannous: What did it take to start up this conference in the first place? What experience did your team bring to the table to successfully hold it last year?
Bram Michielsen: The way we got started is a beautiful example of the enthusiasm we’ve shown again and again with our collective The House of Indie. Back in 2013, we’d built two arcades and local design center De Winkelhaak offered to house them for us. Their curator proposed we “host a little event” to mark the occasion and asked us “if we had any ideas”. Did we ever. Three weeks later, we’d put together the first indie game festival in Belgium: a two-month long game- and art exhibition with international speakers like Zuraida ‘zo-ii’ Buter and Studio Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, a chiptune party, documentary screenings, development workshop, and more.
When 2014 rolled around, we decided to up the ante: more speakers, interactive installations, screenings in an actual movie theater and five times more visitors on our opening night than the year before. We did however start to notice some problems: a several weeks-long expo was a lot of time to keep a dozen of game installations up and running without downtime. Also, spreading out our events (talks, party, workshop, and screenings) throughout the month-long expo period proved to be problematic for our international visitors and guests. We decided to change our formula and turn the expo into a three-day long festival, bundling all our events together.
JT: How did you go about reaching out to the various speakers you’ve confirmed for the conference, was it difficult?
BM: One of the most beautiful things about the indie game community is that everyone is only one Tweet away. Reaching people isn’t hard, it’s getting a response that’s the difficult part. Luckily I’ve mastered the art of courteous, repeated pestering. I like to think that our reputation as an anything-goes, inclusive festival helps. We give our speakers completely free reign when choosing their topic, and ask only that they keep our target demography of a general audience in mind. We hope this leads to unique talks you’d never get to hear at something like GDC. At the same time we also make no secret of the fact that we’re a festival that actively and deliberately strives to be a welcoming, safe space for everyone. We try to do our part to have both our speakers and artists represent the wonderful diversity of the actual world and offer a podium to voices less heard, even if only by proxy.
JT: So far, besides the difficulties in acquiring transportation funding, what have been the most difficult challenges managing an event like this?
BM: The House of Indie was created to establish an indie game community like the ones we encountered in Berlin, Utrecht, Copenhagen and London. Bearing that in mind, the biggest challenges therefore, have always been twofold: the first is to reach the right people. With every edition of the festival and with every other event we organize, like our monthly Indie Game Salon meetups, we discover new people interested in (indie) game development who had no idea there’s a burgeoning community. The second hurdle we face is the ruling prejudice against the video game medium, especially among traditional media. Our goal with the collective, and with the festival in particular, is to challenge the traditional idea of what a video game can be.
Having already reached their target goal in their IndieGoGo campaign, Michielsen and his team can probably breathe a little easier and focus their full attention on making the event as successful as possible.