January 20, 2007 5:58 PM PST

Filmmakers at Sundance look to indie video game industry

PARK CITY, Utah--Imagine a Sundance Video Game Festival, an event that would showcase new work from some of the world's best independent game makers.

Such an idea is not a stretch to video game makers who view themselves much like the independent filmmaking pioneers of decades ago--innovators whose work led the creation of the annual Sundance Film Festival taking place here.

The young, but fast-growing independent video game industry--which has been offering new genres, including documentary, casual and serious games--was the focus of a panel discussion Saturday for filmmakers interested in exploring the evolving video game medium.

The enthusiastic panelists, comprised of both indie game community members and those observing them, concluded that the movement is not only radically changing the gaming industry; it's changing the way in which people perceive the world.

"We've come to understand that we're at the beginning of a major revolution of learning," said panelist Connie Yowell, who reviews education grants for the MacArthur Foundation. "Games are based on productive conflict. Fundamentally, that's what learning is...We're beginning to understand just how powerful this medium is for learning."

One example of an education-based game is panelist Asi Burak's PeaceMaker, which explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Burak, who credits the Internet with helping connect indie game makers and publishers, said his game is set to be released commercially in 10 days. Burak hopes that by including real news footage and allowing players to play both sides of the conflict, PeaceMaker will help players "understand the cause and effect relationships" that are involved and why people on both sides feel so impassioned, he said.

Other examples are games that advocate for social change, such as Darfur is Dying and the United Nations' Food Force. Unlike violent and action-packed mainstream games, these alternatives encourage humanitarianism, said panelist Suzanne Seggerman, co-founder of Games for Change.

Indie game makers, much like indie filmmakers, have to grapple with issues like how to fund projects, distribute games and balance creative expression with marketability. But unlike the major commercial publishers, who rely on blockbusters for profitability, independent game developers can afford to take more risks.

Indie game development has yet reach its cultural tipping point, but it's definitely adding a new voice to the ongoing, polarizing conversation about whether video games are good or bad, said panel moderator Heather Chaplin, a seasoned video game industry journalist and author.

That debate continues to be elevated as some of the more risk-taking, art-driven, experimental game developers like Eddo Stern join the mix. The maker of games with names like Waco Resurrection and Tekken Torture Tournament, Stern believes games should be more than just fun--they should also evoke emotions like anguish, and even pain. In fact, players get actual electric shocks as they play one of his games.

"Even though game play is a part of them, fun is a question," he said.

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