PixelPop 2019 – The Ground Floor of Experimental Gaming

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PixelPop 2019 marks my third time at the gaming festival, and my second time that I have covered officially for Black Nerd Problems. It’s one of my favorite events to attend for a variety of reasons. The fact that it’s in my adopted hometown of St. Louis. The fact that it’s an inclusive space that makes a concerted effort to make sure that its attendees feel comfortable. But mostly, it’s a very passionate community who want nothing more than to share their creations with other passionate folks.

As someone whose primary gaming focus can be a little bit myopic (okay, maybe I’m very very myopic), it sometimes feels weird attending. But the instant I get my press badge, wrist band, and pronoun button, there’s something about it that just makes the anxiety fade away. Between the wide variety of talks and panels on the Main Stage and the wonderful menagerie of games and game-like experiences in the Expo Hall, I guarantee you could have found something to latch on to whether you were an aspiring game dev or gamer.

Experimentation For All

Carol Mertz, the Executive Director of PixelPop, talks about how the last three years PixelPop has focused on becoming a festival that embraces the “experimental side of games.” This was omnipresent in the Expo Hall. The tables featured board games, tabletops, and video games that cross and transcended conventional genres. We should talk immediately caught my eye with its unique take on dialog-driven narrative story telling, while other games were attention grabbing due to their unique controllers including, but not limited to: a fish, buttons and a turntable, and a whole couch.

The Flow Gallery set up an entire art exhibit in the back corner of the venue called “Rules to Play By.” The installation featured a series of odd, interactive experiential games, ranging from meditations on permanence to walking games moderated by their artists to chess variants.

I even got to witness the return of some of my favorite games from last year back on the floor, namely Starcrossed (which in the intervening time had been successfully funded on Kickstarter) and Nour (which is still as wild and fun as last year).

Panels For All

Just wandering the floor was an experience unto itself. It’s very clear that PixelPop has fostered a community of gaming developers who are searching for their niches, making games that they want to play on their terms, and sharing their love and joy of games. But beyond that passion, there is also a strong drive to teach and inspire others. I spent most of my time at PixelPop 2019 listening to all of the talks in the main hall and it was refreshing in a way that I wasn’t ready for. As I was telling one of my friends, one of the best things for a creative is seeing another creative talking and doing what they love (and it’s not lost on me that this isn’t the first time this exact theme has come up this month). PixelPop’s panels were specifically curated to be an educational experience.

  • Anya Combs, the Director of Games Outreach at Kickstarter, gave a brilliant overview of the inner workings of Kickstarter as well as fascinating statistics about board game and video game funding.
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  • Akash Thakkar, audio designer and industry vet, gave a candid talk about fickleness of passion and motivation, and how true success requires a level of resolve and perseverance.
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  • Tanya DePass critiqued the current usage of diversity in the gaming world and pushed the audience to think of ways for us not to be allies, but accomplices to other marginalized folks and go beyond the 101 level talks of inclusion and representation.
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  • In a similar (yet drastically different) vein, Bahiyya Khan presented her experiences as a WoC game developer in another country and the inherent bias of our western/white perspective.
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  • And to close out of the conference, Carol Mertz moderated a panel about Experimental games with Bahiyya Khan, Adam Schroeder, and Tj Hughes that just encapsulated the spirit of PixelPop.
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These were just a few of the talks that I attended. With a mix of 20 minute and 1 hour long talks on the main hall, it made it easy to expose myself to a diverse list of speakers talking about an equally diverse range of topics. And the best part is all of the panels and presentations are going to be available online at a later point in time.

Gaming For All

I’m not a game developer. I’m a gamer with a very singular focus. But there’s something about PixelPop that excites me to my core. Something about being on the ground floor of experimentation, of the clash of ideas, and willingness and drive to be better. If you are a lover of games or a game developer, make it a point to find your way to St. Louis in 2020 for the 7th Annual Pixel Pop Festival. Make it a point to be inspired, to learn from a kind, nurturing community. You’ll find out a lot about games and yourself in the process. I did this year. And I almost certainly will next year as well.

See more about Pixel Pop here on their website.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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