Being interested in games from an early age, I used to dream of attending the annual, grand videogame industry spectacle that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Reading about the convention in magazines, it sounded like a neon-lit, wonderland arcade where those deemed worthy could play pre-release versions of games and talk to renowned game makers. I imagined my attending E3 would have been a kind of religious experience, the culmination of a pilgrimage years in the making. The only problem: E3 was a press-only event in Los Angeles, and I was just some kid living in St. Louis, Missouri. And despite my city’s historical status as “The Gateway to the West,” in this case there’s a whole lotta lawn between the gate and the house. So, I never went.
Midwestern game enthusiasts have been geographically isolated for decades, internet friends and followers notwithstanding. Even as new events, big and small, have sparked and grown, in-person videogame communion has remained largely a bi-coastal affair. So I was filled with equal parts shock, excitement, and exasperation when I heard that there was going to be a new game festival called Bit Bash held in Chicago. Having just moved back to the Midwest from the east coast, it felt like some sort of karmic wish fulfillment, as if the planets had finally aligned.
So, what exactly was Bit Bash? Well, it was sort of a DIY arcade/art exhibition/games convention/open-air dance party. Also, it was decidedly unlike E3 in many ways, focusing on smaller, often locally developed games instead of corporate cash cows that require PR appointments. And if I’m being honest with myself, subsequent years of consuming the E3 press façade has left me a bit wary of that whole song and dance. A show like Bit Bash is much more my speed (and crowd size). Plus, Bit Bash’s organizers have intentionally built an event that feels like the videogame celebration the Midwest needs right now: a show that encapsulates the energy of the Chicago games scene as they strive to make a name for themselves, starting within their own city limits.
The festival was held from 2pm-midnight at t-shirt company Threadless’ store near Union Park, a small warehouse facility with a fenced-in parking lot outside. I entered to hear abstract electronic waves and jingles emanating from an Airstream trailer parked out front. The game inside the trailer (Panoramical) allowed players to twiddle knobs and sliders on a handheld mixing board to generate the music heard outside. Later in a nearby corner, curious attendees circled up to try their hands at the screenless keepaway/musical chairs hybrid, Johan Sebastian Joust, much to the amusement of onlookers too shy to pick up the motion-sensing wand “controllers” for themselves. Inside, monitors and projectors lined the perimeter of the warehouse space while freestanding kiosks and cabinets filled the interior. Everywhere there were backs of heads and shoulders, ambiguously waiting their turns. Temporary walls dotted with game art prints decorated the scene and a large crowd gathered in the back around a central stage, where 8-player battles of drunk-brawl simulator Gang Beasts were underway. Eventually there were food trucks, new games were rotated in, and free beer was distributed.
Though such happenings aren’t totally outside the realm of possibility at most indie game events, Bit Bash was significant for Chicago both as the first show of its kind in the area and as a locally organized event that was reflective of the city’s upstart gaming community. In the game development hub of California, for example, the “indie” label is meant to designate small developers from those tapped by console manufacturers and larger studios such as Electronic Arts or Activision. However, in Chicago, almost all game creation is indie by default. The last vestiges of major corporate game development and publishing in Chicago died when Midway Games filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and sold most of its assets to Warner Bros. Given this landscape, if Chicago wants to have a gaming scene at all, it must categorically be an independent one.
“There’s always this risk here because we don’t have a lot of mid-size studios [in Chicago] anymore,” Bit Bash Project Manager Jamie Sanchez told me. “So if the indie thing doesn’t pan out, relocating to California is going to be hell.” Sanchez is a member of Indie City Collective, a group of local gaming minds that share office space and organize local meet-ups, among other community-building endeavors. She characterizes the Chicago game making community as a pragmatic one, where having a levelheaded approach to the business realities of the game industry goes hand-in-hand with being a creative artist in the field. “I think everyone here has a very realistic sense of the markets they’re heading into and how they’re going to actually make a profit from their games,” Sanchez explained.
While practicality isn’t the first thing that comes to mind while wearing a virtual reality headset and swinging your head around like an elephant on a rampage in a game called Dumpy, Bit Bash did succeed as a public showing of Chicago-area developers as a cohesive, internally supportive unit. “In wondering if making games in Chicago is a viable thing, we decided … we had to get a bunch of developers together to boost the scene up from the bottom,” Sanchez said. Which is not to say that everyone in Chicago is making the same games (Bit Bash’s varied game selection is proof), but rather that the channels of communication are open and a lot of people are willing to pitch in to help put the best foot forward for the city.
The message must have gotten through to the public too— an estimated 1,400 people attended Bit Bash, riding high off the vibe and popularity of Chicago’s block party culture in peak season. Even when there were heavier crowds, it was refreshing to go to a gaming event where I didn’t feel trapped in a cave the whole time and could easily step outdoors, grab some food in the parking lot, and chat with folks while enjoying some exceptionally pleasant weather. It was comfortable, and I began to wonder what I ever saw in E3 in the first place.
All photos via Andrew Ferguson