Gamercamp came to kick ass and chew bubblegum. Unfortunately, it was unable to locate a single morsel of bubblegum, be it in stick, cube, or nugget form, so it was resolved instead to staying its original course and so it did, ipso facto, kick ass.
Sponsors AND signage? Are we still in Toronto?
The sophomoric outing of the annual event expanded to two days this year, and spanned two different venues: the Toronto Underground Cinema, and the Hernando Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, both in Toronto. After hearing great reviews of last year’s event, i begged the organizers to give me a speaking slot. i heard they were looking for someone with experience building educational games, and we happen to be completing just such a project at Untold. Serendipitous!
Two Rad Dudes
As with any event, some things went off without a hitch, and some things were rough around the edges. Some ideas worked, and some didn’t. But you have to hand it to the two event organizers, whose background is in film, not games – their enthusiasm, winning personalities, and passion for the games community are infectious, and they give us all a real hope for the future of games-related events in Toronto for years to come.
Capy prez Nathan Vella describes Gamercamp organizers Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo “two rad dudes”. (photo by Ryan Couldrey – see the uncropped original here)
Mark and Jaime got a lot of things right with Gamercamp this year. They did a lot of ground-level research, personally attending the events that already existed (like the Hand Eye Society socials). They made the right contacts, finding people around the city who were doing all sorts of interesting things with games … some folks i’d never even heard of, but was very glad to have discovered. And they put the right amount of effort into organizing their event. i can’t fathom the number of hours that went into running Gamercamp, but i can always tell that any event that has printed programs, and where the venue ceiling is not falling on the attendees, and where three or fewer people die or are irreparably injured, has had boatloads of effort put towards it.
The Right Way to Do It
Gamercamp stands in contrast to a certain other Toronto event, where the organizers don’t run in quite the right circles or grasp exactly what makes games enthusiasts tick. One of the Vortex Competition organizers actually attended part of Gamercamp on the second day, which was great to see! I hope she was taking extensive notes.
The key difference between the two events is that Mark and Jaime play games. They grew up with them. During my talk on the second day of the conference, i repeated the importance of this: for men and women who have grown up with video games as an essential element of their lives, there is a language – a common understanding – a culture in the truest sense of the word, that folks in the older non-game-playing generation just don’t get. i don’t think it’s impossible for them to get it, but it would take a lot of hard work and effort playing games, researching games, reading game magazines and articles, and striving to understand the culture like an anthropologist would try to dissect a newly-discovered tribe in South America (for whom there are extensive Wikipedia entries and funny YouTube videos).
If you’re not part of the culture, you need to put in that legwork and that effort in order to run a games-related event with any feeling of legitimacy or relevance. What Gamercamp has that Vortex currently lacks is credibility – a feeling that it’s genuine – that it’s motivated by a true understanding of gamer culture and a kinship with its people. If Gamercamp is run by natives, Vortex is run by missionaries.
Location, Location, Location
Of course, not everything at Gamercamp went off without a hitch. Jaime explained to me that he and Mark were throwing ideas at the wall like wet spaghetti and trying to see what would stick. For me, day two stuck. It far stronger than day one, which slid down the wall in places. i think the disparity was largely due to the venue. Toronto Underground Cinema was plagued with technical problems, most notably audio, and the in-house techs were frustratingly slow on the uptake when it came to fixing problems on the fly (including turning up completely inaudible presenters, and even simply turning down the house lights after one speaker’s repeated requests before an increasingly impatient crowd). This could be due to the fact that TUC is a relatively new venue. i’m not sure how many events of this type they’ve handled, so they could still be working the kinks out.
The building, though, isn’t ideal for a conference event. The upper foyer with its ticket window is just small enough to feel cramped with ten people. While the lower level foyer is larger, it still struggled to contain the attendees during break times. Certain of the day one talks were worth skipping in favour of networking, but the foyer wasn’t an ideal location for that. It felt more like a thoroughfare than a place where you could stand around and gab without being in anyone’s way.
Technical issues plagued the BigPants presentation, but it was hard to remain unimpressed at the hundreds of custom-made 3D glasses, each hand-stamped with the company’s logo and a secret code.
Hernando Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined made a much better venue on day two, particularly with its nooks and crannies perfectly suited to stuffing them with game machines and teevees. Noticeably absent were bean-bag chairs (organizers: please be all up on that next year – daddy loves his bean bags). These areas reminded me of an excellent GDC party i attended, where Autodesk dolled up a hotel meeting room replete with an inflatable couch, swag lamps and a shag throw rug … and one big-ass wood-trimmed cathode ray tube teevee set with an Atari 2600 hooked up to it. These small details really made the space, and with (even) more effort, the game rooms could be taken completely over the top in a fantastic way.
Hernando Velasquez replicates everything you remember from your childhood rec room, right down to the gigantic letters on the wall. (Photo by Ryan Couldrey)
Content with the Content
The content on day two exceeded much of the day one talks. It was agonizing to have to choose one out of four talks that ran simultaneously (scheduling only three talks together may mitigate this). i spoke to a number of people who said the talks i missed were “great”, “excellent” and so forth. i’m not sure there was a lemon in the bunch … the talks i attended were very good.
i think it comes down to venue again. When you put everyone in a large theater setting, it’s far less personal. The speaker isn’t making eye contact with you, or even speaking to you – he’s speaking out into this vast space. During some of the day one talks, the lighting was such that the speaker was in total silhouette. This made it easier to tune out, heckle, or completely ignore the day one talks.
A completely silhouetted Matthew Kumar was responsible for the most memorable moment on day one, when he compared Internet video games discourse to a shit-covered house that he was attempting to clean with a tiny squeegee.
Contrastingly, the intimacy of the day two talks, in their smaller rooms, was excellent. The rooms were just a hair too small, in fact … it’s a very difficult balance to strike. One possible solution to the big room problem is to have cameras projecting the speaker’s face on one or two secondary screens, but this requires a much more robust tech set-up for which TUC was likely unprepared. It’s possible next year’s budget might allow for hiring an events company to handle the fancier tech stuff (like mics that don’t sound like they’re down the speaker’s pants).
A fix for the smaller rooms is to stack the tables where you can, and add more chairs to the room. This would require volunteers to dismantle entire rooms, but as i’ll mention later, if volunteers can be trusted to “own” their rooms, it’s possible.
i was immensely impressed that all of the sessions were recorded – that’s Jamie and Mark’s film background shining through. It means that i can catch all the sessions i missed on day two, and that i’ll be able to make a portfolio piece of my own talk. This is a great incentive to give the volunteer speakers some sort of return on investment for their effort.
i think next year, provided the organizers continue (and i sincerely hope they do), i’d like to see them delegate certain aspects of the event to some devoted volunteers. For example, hand one of the game rooms to two volunteers. They can find the swag lamp and the shag carpet and the absolutely vital bean bag chairs, and they own that piece of Gamercamp – and it’s one less thing for Jamie and Mark to worry about. Let two volunteers own the Mortal Kombat competition. Let them make a trophy for it, and set up a mic with an amplifier and a sports commentator. Have them play wrestling-style theme music as the combatants enter the room. Hand over the retro cereal breakfast bit to five people who can go stock the room with couches and set up rec room mood lighting and faux wood wall paneling. Have the volunteers treat each element as its own mini-event, and challenge them to completely outdo each other. Since most of the volunteers were Hernando Velasquez students, throw some extra credit marks at it and make it a project. Event management is actually a valuable skill to have in the games industry – think game launches and corporate parties.
i snuck into the retro cereal breakfast before it started and stole all the prizes out of the cereal boxes, because i’m kind of a dick. (photo by Ryan Couldrey)
But all this is fine trim on an event with very, very good bones. It was inspiring and exciting to see an event pull together game developers, game enthusiasts, educators, press, trade associations, tool makers, and two rad dudes with the gusto to slam it all together so that the pieces fit. Gamercamp is a very good idea, and one that i hope will make non-Torontonians rabidly jealous. My only regrets are that it’s not longer, and that it doesn’t happen every weekend.