The bleeding edge of games culture isn’t at E3, it’s down the pub
The culture of video games can feel a little stale. Try to find it and you generally end up on Twitter, where an echo chamber of opinions forms and any naysayers are hoisted up and pelted.
Expos aren’t any better. These big-money, AAA spectacles sprawl across halls the world over, ignoring discussion in the name of sitting you down in a booth and putting a controller in your hands.
But games culture isn’t just about hulking consumer events like E3 and Gamescom, or even the big development events like GDC. Nor is it limited to barbed, 140-character exchanges between personalities with a tendency for self-promotion. No, the stuff that’s really nudging gaming forward can be found in small events dotted around the world – events where people come together to pull apart the concepts of games and how we interact with them.
This is the bleeding edge of video games: underfunded and underappreciated events slipping between the cracks. These events are dedicated to changing the way we interact with the concept of play, as well as providing a place for those who want to talk about how games are made and come together to exchange ideas and party.
Some of it is in the curation, giving people things to make them think, things to play with. Somerset House in London recently hosted Now Play This, an exhibit centred on play, that gave people a chance to interact. (The excellent Hannah Nicklin has written more about curation here on Alphr.)
But there’s another side to it – the aspect of creation, of people coming together to exchange ideas and celebrate the act of play, no matter what form that takes.
I have some bias in this area: I run the event VideoBrains, described by Vice as “the Ted talks of video games”, and building a better community around games is an all-consuming hobby. But there’s magic happening elsewhere, too – that aspect of creation, of people coming together to exchange ideas and feedback and help make games happen.
“I’m angry at senior video game figures that can’t talk about the culture of video games.”
Take Feral Vector, an event that ran at a loss of £150 last year in the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, more famous of late for suffering devastating flooding. Event organiser David Hayward gave an impassioned speech to kick off the event, explaining his anger at a games industry that doesn’t seem to care for its own roots. “I’m angry at senior video game figures that can’t talk about the culture of video games,” he said. “It always comes back to the money. Every time. That creates a bleak future for them and for us.”
‘Conferences are a bit dull’
Despite its location 200 miles from London, the event was well attended by a variety of video game developers and enthusiasts, all of whom crowding into the town hall to talk about the things they love.
At the time, cat-encouragement simulator Neko Atsume had launched recently, although only in Japanese. George Buckenham, creator of weird and wonderful games such as Fabulous Beasts, talked new adopters through it while serving tea from a small hatch. In the main hall, people were clamouring to play Gang Beasts on the big screen, while eager developers moved around the outside of the space with laptops, showing each other their games.
(Above: Feral Vector)
It was far removed from the usual idea of a video-games event – there was no sign of Phil Spencer striding out in a video-game T-shirt and blazer, eager to tell you how to spend your money for the next year.
“Around 2007, I convinced my then boss that indie games were about to become really important,” says Hayward. “Reluctantly, he allowed me to run a conference for indie developers in the UK, who until that point kind of knew each other on the internet but didn’t realise they could hang out in a room together.
“I did that every year for a few years, and by the second time I did it I started to realise that conferences are a bit dull. Then I realised that games events could be a lot more fun – and a lot more useful.”
A lack of funding and a severe flood that put the whole village underwater at the end of last year made it look unlikely that the event would return, but the plucky organisers recently announced it will run this year from 2-4 June.
Making games in the middle of nowhere
Feral Vector is one of a wave of events springing up. Inis Spraoi, which is also taking place in June, invites game makers, theorists and enthusiasts to spend a week on an island off the west coast of Ireland.
The event has the benefit of acting like a digital detox: phone signal is a myth there and Wi-Fi is a dirty word. Instead, attendees spend the time making their own fun, attending workshops and forming their own impromptu activities.
“The more we thought about it, the more we realised we just wanted to switch off our laptops and get to live a little.”
“We wanted to do something that made a lot of sense for Ireland, and the idea of a remote island was fairly obvious,” says John O’Kane, one of the creators. “It started as a games jam, but the more we thought about it, the more we realised we just wanted to switch off our laptops and get to live a little.
“So, it became more of a retreat, a chance to recharge and engage on a human level with the people we know from our industry.”
(Above: Inishbofin island, the site of Inis Spraoi)
On the other side of the pond, New York outfit Babycastles embraces the idea of play and brings it to a permanent location. Its website describes the gathering as “a collective with roots in New York’s DIY culture dedicated to building platforms for diversity in video games culture at every level, from creators to consumers, connecting the independent game developer community with the broader New York art community”.
It recognises that games are art, and tries to kick back against a games community that seems to be made up of white males. Not only is the audience homogenised, but so is the conversation around games. By day, it’s a space where people in art and games come together to work. Then, in the evening, the place comes alive with a mix of art, games and interesting people.
This is when you can really see the value of the venue.
(Above: Babycastles’ co-working space)
Games are inherently playful, and pulling apart the concepts at their core in a safe space can be a great way for people to get infected with the bug for video games.
Events such as these help bring game-making back to the real world. That can only be a good thing.
All of these events are struggling to stay afloat, but they are invaluable to the culture of games. Every country seems to have its own version, whether it’s Screenshake in Belgium, Amaze in Berlin and South Africa or those spread across every state in the US.
With the internet being a risky place to discuss game mechanics and issues around representation, this bleeding edge has become essential in fostering progress.
When discussing a game such as Gone Home can rouse angry men from all corners of the internet keen to tell you it’s not a real game – not to mention the harassment facing so many people looking to enter the industry – events such as these help bring game-making back to the real world. That can only be a good thing.
So, what’s the best way to support these events? Just go along. Buy tickets, engage with the community, maybe donate half a day to volunteering at one of them. There’s a growing scene developing a stone’s throw from AAA, and we’re all responsible for what happens next.
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