London Games Festival: Now Play This explores the “weird and exciting things” going on in games in London
The first London Games Festival is due to run from 1-10 April, and one of the lead events is Now Play This – a three-day mini festival that takes place in Somerset House and encompasses, in its own words, the peculiar, the beautiful, and the deeply experimental possibilities of games.
I spoke to Holly Gramazio, director of Now Play This, about the event’s second year running and the evolving attitude towards game development in the UK.
What was the original impetus behind Now Play This?
The original impetus came from a few different directions – Somerset House was interested in exploring how games might work in their space, and the London Games Festival was interested in something that explored all the different weird and exciting things going on in games in London.
But for us, I think we really wanted to find a way to show different sorts of games and playful work regardless of medium – to present digital games and physical installations from theatre-makers or poets or architects in a context where people can see the connections between them. We’re interested in how to show games in public, in how to make spaces where people feel welcome and in the mood to play, and in showing and commissioning work that does something new.
(Above: Holly Gramazio)
How does it differ from other games festivals?
I’d say we’re interested in appealing to people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as someone who plays games. That means having a lot of games that only take a few minutes to play, making it clear what the different games involve, so you don’t need to worry that you’re getting into something you don’t want to play, and providing a lot of context around it, whether that’s in the form of curatorial text or talks from designers.
“We’re really uninterested in policing the edges of what a game is, and in having rules about what to include”
We’re also really uninterested in policing the edges of what a game is, and in having rules about what to include. In fact, we’re explicitly interested in what happens if you don’t try to define those edges, but just invite a pile of wonderful playful stuff that feels like it makes sense together, and then focus on exhibiting it to its best advantage.
How have you built on last year’s festival for 2016?
Last year, we learnt a lot about how to relate different games to each other physically, about how to draw out threads and themes through an exhibition space without going “This is an exhibition about games that do such-and-such”. Even little things, such as if you’re showing a game where the designer is going to be present and watching, don’t have it in a corner! Playing a game in a corner can feel safe and lovely and like your own little space, but if the game designer is going to watch then the corner can become a weird hover zone where the game designer lurks, ready to pounce and demand your feedback – it’s better to have it somewhere more open so you can wander by and see if you want to play without having to commit.
In 2015 we experimented with giving the different rooms different names and personalities, and I think we’re pushing that further this year, finding games that speak to each other and putting them together and hopefully finding ways to display them that really emphasise what they have in common, without feeling same-y.
What does the creation of the London Games Festival say about the current attitude towards the games industry in the UK?
It’s really exciting, I think, and maybe speaks to a broadening in the range of what people – both within and outside of games – see as worth thinking about in the context of games.
The range of different events encompassed by the programme is so vast. I think the number of events in the Fringe is super interesting as well; it feels like there are so many people in London making games who have just sprung up at this, have decided to run an event or give a talk or come along and play, as if it’s a chance to say “Hey I do this too!” and express the range and depth of work being done here.
Among this year’s line-up you have digital videogames, physical boardgames, literary projects and conceptual pieces. To what extent is a game more about approach than technology?
I don’t think that games are about approach rather than technology. Part of the reason we try to have games that work in so many different ways – installations, games for phones, games for PCs, games for tabletops and so on – is that these different types of play do enable designers to accomplish very different things. Want to have a photorealistic image of the city that 20 people can run around in simultaneously? That’s a huge pain on a computer, but really easy if you just get 20 people and take them out into the actual city. Want to have a game where you can teleport? That’s pretty difficult in the real world, but super easy in a videogame.
Games tend to emerge from the affordances of whatever we’re using to play them. So, tabletop games can do social interactions really well, because everyone’s seated and can see everyone’s face; installation games have an easier time letting us explore movement and physicality. Of course sometimes people make extraordinary work that pulls against the easy affordances of their medium, or which expands our idea of what those affordances are but more often they make extraordinary work that uses the technology in question to its best effect.
That’s part of why we want to be agnostic about the form a game takes because we want to explore the whole range of things that games can do, and that means, that has to mean, including their different forms.
How would you characterise a British approach to games, as opposed to, for example, US or Japanese games? Does national identity play a strong role in game development, or is it less palpable than a medium such as film?
Oh, interesting! I would say that in the case of London in particular, a lot of people making games here aren’t originally from London or even Britain. Thinking through the specifically London-based game designers we’re showing, a lot of them were originally from the United States, or Portugal, or Japan, or France, and so on. (I’m an immigrant myself, from Australia).
“I’d say that inasmuch as there’s a distinct London approach, it’s something to do with range”
There are lots of people who are British who are involved as well, but I’d say that inasmuch as there’s a distinct London approach, it’s something to do with range – with recognising the range of different scales that people can work on, from one-person-in-a-room to a big company.
Or recognising the range of different work that can be made within games – a particular designer might make a game for a phone or for a park or for a wall depending on their mood, and also recognising that not everyone making games in London will be from London, and that being from London is in some ways the exception.
London is weird like that, right? So many of us aren’t from here, it exists as a temporary confluence of people who are together to do a thing or live in a place for a while, and I feel like that’s reflected in its games culture, which is various and wide.
In your experience, how has the game development scene evolved in the UK over the past decade?
A decade is almost exactly how long I’ve been in the UK, and I’d say there have definitely been big changes in the games scene during that time.
But even more than that, there have been big developments in how games are perceived. Seven or eight years ago, if I said I was a game designer, people would make a gamepad-fiddling motion and say “Like, video games?” and then often say something about how that’s a weird job for a woman.
Three or four years ago, the main gesture people made switched from being gamepad-twiddling to a stroke of an imaginary smartphone. And now, when I explain that sometimes I make digital games and sometimes I make physical games or games for events, people are a lot more likely to go “Oh that sounds neat” rather than “Wait, is that a job?” or “What else do you do?”.
People are aware of the possibilities of game design, and its importance as a cultural form and an industry, in a way that, ten years ago, they weren’t.
Now Play This runs from 1-3 April, at Somerset House in London.