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Don't Call It A Comeback: GameCamp 2010

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This is the second Gamecamp. Organised by awesome people, hosted by PayPal/Gumtree/eBay with food from Pizza Express and booze from Unity, it works on the unconference model. In short: a conference without a plan. People turn up. Anyone who wants to try and run a session, can do so. Just lob up its name on the board. People turn up. People leave. People may get annoyed/inspired by what others have done, and do a response session later in the day. And then, 8 hours later, everyone goes to the pub.

Much like the first Gamecamp, I left wanting to nab its structure and do something similar in an RPS-centric way. It’s a fantastic cross-cultural exercise, involving bumping all these sorts of people together and profiting off the random interactions. As Margaret Robertson said early on, when she comes to something like this, she has no plans on what to do, and relies on being inspired by an interesting conversation over the coffee in the morning to see where it takes her. That she ended up doing 3 panels by my count says much, y’know?

By the end of the day, the board looked like this:

I am sad to report no-one managed to win tic-tac-toe. The only way to win is not to play.

The day was a success, generally speaking. It did have a different tone than the last one. There, it seemed to genuinely be more random. This time, the majority of people there were deeply involved in game culture. My favourite moment of the first one was talking to a middle-aged woman who knew nothing about game culture and just came along because the Guardian offered tickets, because she wanted to see what there was to it. There was nothing even vaguely like this time. The people there were either industry people, or fans of the medium with a strong opinions on the medium. In other words, much like a normal conference, with only the way the conference runs to separate it.

The style counts for a lot though. It’s free-spirited, encourages participation on every level and generally turns chaos into a positive trait. I went to eight sessions and got something from all of them.

I started with the PC Is Dead Long Live The PC session, because if I didn’t, I suspect I’d be drummed out of this website. It was a lively, open debate, much which focused on what was actually the core of the PC. I forwarded my general position that the idea of what PC gaming is, is wrong. In my view, anything which allows open development and sales is a PC and everything isn’t… isn’t. And that anyone who believes that a closed system will be dominant in 50 years is frankly mental. The position was well challenged though, with it being rightly pointed out that there’s an excluded middle, as shown by Apple’s current activities. Also, a lot about Steam as a virtual console – a (now) cross format DRM/Sales combination. Top speaker was an indie dev – whose name and games I missed and I failed to catch up to later – who spoke about the difficulties of actually making a game work on steam, in terms of developmental limitations.

Second, I was lured to the Cannon Fodder and somethingunreadableonthisphoto session, despite the offer of tasty prizes in the Power Game one. Ran by Nia Wearn of Staffordshire University, this was her talking humourously and openly about the state of play in games development courses. What most interested me is the problem of accreditation. An accredited degree basically has to have a static syllabus for a couple of years. However, in a field like games, that’s actually harmful to the actual use of the degree. I was also pleased to hear news that rather than a few years ago, when everyone wanted to merely design the enormous necks of shooty-American-macho-men, there’s an increase in those interested in other areas – and the course actually does help support people who go the indie route afterwards. I was also unsurprised to hear that education in games also does what any other degree does – as in, educate many people that the field simply isn’t for them after all.

The last session before lunch was Margaret Robertson’s – and I’ll see if I can get this one right – “I am curious to see if you are as curious as I am about how curiosity works in games”. Close enough. Margaret lead a free-ranging discussion about the concept of curiosity as a motivating force in games. Particularly of interest is how curiosity differs from and overlaps with the gambling urge – as in, the knowledge that you have a chance of getting something and then playing the odds. A cocktail of the two was forwarded as an ideal mix in a game – as in, killing a creature in an MMO will lead to a known drop most of the time… and a very small chance of getting something unexpected. So, no matter how many you kill, there’s still a flash of curiosity to excite a mundane element. Also was note is how curiosity links to narrative theory – in that opening gaps in knowledge and then answering them is the engine of trad-narrative, with the point when there’s no more curiosity in what happens next to be the actual end of the film (i.e. All the relevant questions have been answered). This lead to me thinking about how curiosity actually transfers between games – as in, if you know what’s over that hill through your experience in other games, there is no longer any curiosity there. If you “know” the next level is going to be an ice-world train level, the urge to press on vanishes – whether or not the actual level is an ice-world train level or not. When you lose your faith in a game’s ability to surprise you, it’s as good as dead.

(Which strikes me as a counter to the “Good is good, new is new” line which I heard mentioned elsewhere. If you’re working for a games-literate audience – which you may not be – new is a definite component of good, because it maximises the curiosity in a gamer.)

Then we had lunch. The meat pizzas disappeared in seconds, leaving enormous piles of vegetarian pizzas to be picked at throughout the day.

After lunch, I was tempted by the Archetypal narrative session, but decided to go to Phill Cameron‘s procedural generation one – not least because we were chatting about various games’ approach to it in the bogs for 10 minutes beforehand, as we sat and waited for one sinister cubicle to finally open. While Phill framed it as a “Is the designer obsolete”, we never really reached something that controversial. There was a general belief that no matter how the designer generates the levels, they’re still the designer. Or, as I shouted out, “God can be a watchmaker”. It was most useful in terms of focusing in on the difference between random and procedural, plus various methods people have used to best achieve this. For example, Frozen Synapse’s various methods for making its randomly-generated missions’ unfairness into a feature rather than a bug. I wished Jim managed to make it, because this really is his specialty subject.

Next was my panel, which I entitled “Beyond the Cutscene: Why we have nothing to learn from traditional narrative”. My aim for this Gamecamp was to be more involved. Last time, I sat back and let it wash over me. This time, I’d actually try and get my oar in a little. As such, I felt compelled to at least try and run a session. What I did was a whistle-stop tour of the techniques in narrative which are pretty much unique to games. From half a page of notes and half-a-lifetime of anecdotes, I did my arm-waving twitching thing, which seemed to basically get the information across – or, at least, transfix the audience, who stared in horror throughout. Most of our time was spent on the first idea – context as narrative – with a lively debate from all sides. The two polls were Tadhg Kelly and Lewis Denby, disagreeing over how much you actually become someone else when you play a game. I also talked about mechanic-as-narrative (Deutros), fake-simulation-as-narrative (Digital) and cut-scene-as-anti-cinema (Arguing that videogame cutscenes aren’t actually anything like film at all). And I think I forgot to talk about the topic of actual-simulation-as-narrative (Sim City, etc). Or did I? I was on a high of adrenaline and caffeine throughout, so really don’t remember.

Next was We Need To Get More Boys Into Videogaming, which was an astute and brilliant reversal of an old conference stand-by. The core argument is that – on average – boy game students have very little interest into getting into the areas of the games industry which are actually growing. They just want to make shooty-shooty-any-colour-other-than-grey-is-fruity games. As such, in a generation’s time, they’re going to be an increasingly obsolete minority in this brave new world of 100+ Million player games on facebook, or the future equivalent of. Topics included how recruitment into this area inverses the traditional skill-set required to get into games development. As in, specialists are dead, and the equivalent of liberal-arts finishing-school bit-of-everything are gold-dust.

It was also the only panel of the weekend which made me see genuine red. I apologised to the gentlemen I snapped at, who – following the general trend of the debate – suggested that wanting to make games for yourself was “selfish”. But still: the subtext to the debate – “how can we make these men grow up and make game for grandma” – was smug bordering on contemptuous. Surely the point is that, as long as they understand the financial realities of their decision, they can choose to make a game for whoever the damn hell they like. Some people would rather try and communicate – or perpetuate – a worldview or means of expression than giggle at the number of people playing their game. If someone wants to be Metallica rather than Celine Dion, more power to them. To think otherwise is just inverted snobbery – and when wrapped in a sense of moral superiority becomes unbearable.

Later, on the way back home, I found myself thinking about how much I’d actually gone out of my way to argue against the mainstream-developers who look at casual non-trad-market videogames with obvious disgust. It’s all gaming. It’s great that more people are playing. Stop being such elitist pricks (i.e. Not all games need to be Metallica. We absolutely need our Celene Dions). So to see the other side of the intellectual divide to be just as arrogantly triumphalist was sickening. You’re just as bad as they are. In other words, this was by far the most useful session of the day as it allowed me to define myself more precisely. As in, I’m prepared to be shot by both sides, because both sides need to have their worst instinct dragged outside and have a ice-pick stuck through their metaphorical heads.

And rest.

Next session I popped into was Coalition, which I watched as a small group role-played the parts of the government ministers and tried to gather peace to the land. It’s the sort of small-scale random event which the unconference excels at – a game thrown in the middle of all this debate. I snuck away before anyone activated the Queen, and – scanning what the other sessions were – resisted the urge to wander into the “Do We Have A Citizen Kane Of Games’” one, to shout out “Of course we haven’t. No-one’s bought the Citizen Kane licence. Doh.”

Finally, I headed to James Wallis‘ always splendid People’s Revolutionary Commitee. The idea is basically a GDC-standard rant-against-something-you-hate panel, but with a little role-play twist. As in, the revolution has taken place and you’re trying to suggest things which should be taken outside and shot. Queue lots of insulting things you despise plus ironic-communist chic. Quick Time Events and Farmville were gunned down. Technology got a reprise, and the chap for forwarded it shot. I dragged Lewis, dartt and Phill – I think – to the stage, gave them chairs and got them to go up and down holding them. Well, eventually. What I did was tell them to drop them, which lead to Phill throwing a chair at me. When I got my machine working, it was to demonstrate the three-crushers-in-a-row puzzle which has appeared in 99% of games I’ve ever reviewed. The injury was worthwhile as it – and sliding puzzles, the tower of Hanoi and similar monhstrosities were dragged out and thrown beneath the wheels of revolutionary justice.

With the world made a better place, we decided to make our livers a worse place. So we all went to the pub and drank until the idea of a gameshow – “Warren Spector: Will He Respect Her?” – where a variety of ladies were forced to go on dates with the famous lead designer, and the audience bet whether – post drunken fumbling – Warren Spector would call her in the morning, or just sneak off like a dirty, dirty dog.

So not all highbrow game nonsense then.

In short: once again, strong. If you ever get a chance to go, grab it with both hands and don’t let go. There may even be free pizza.

Images all courtesy of RainRabbit under a Creative Commons Licence. Salute her.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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