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Q&A: Iain Simons On Building A Better GameCity

Q&A: Iain Simons On Building A Better GameCity

October 17, 2007 | By Brandon Boyer




How do you create a gaming event without a focus on playing games? The same way you hold a book festival without sitting around reading books, says GameCity director Iain Simons, whose Oct. 24-28th Nottingham event will again see a broader focus on experiencing games as culture.

As earlier reported, this year's GameCity will see a vision keynote by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi, who will be premiering his upcoming PS3 title Noby Noby Boy, as well as talks from Frontier's David Braben, Lego Star Wars creator Jonathan Smith and Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov.

The festival this year will also see an expanded role for students and aspiring developers with representatives from studios such as SCEE, Rare, FreeStyleGames, Blitz, and Bizarre offering one on one time to look over portfolios and give advice, and more general music and art events.

We talked with Simons to learn more about the vision for the event that eschews conventional 'come play the hottest new games!' rules.

Unlike other developer focused events or consumer events that primarily offer facetime with demo kiosks, GameCity seems to be trying to present games more broadly as culture. What was your original impetus for putting the festival together last year? Was there a larger point you felt was being missed elsewhere?

The thing came about mostly because I wanted to go to it. We were incredibly lucky to get the full support of Nottingham Trent University in the initial stages, who were progressive enough to see that this kind of activity could be an important part of the life of a university in a city.

I don't know about a larger point, but it's probably fair to say that GameCity was born out of a certain frustration. It's always surprised me that the games industry is as apologist as it is about its work. So much of the communication, particularly to the mainstream, that is produced is about trying to prove legitimacy, quell fears or suspicions - and more often than not the strategy for this is by comparison with other media, usually film.

What we've tried to do is start from a basic assumption that games are interesting, and that in order to play a game you have to be interested in being interested. The very nature of interactive entertainment demands that there's an effort involved on the part of the participant.

Rather than try and devise better ways to apologize, we thought it might be more interesting to simply try and invite people to see and participate in them as a part of modern culture, simply because they are. That's the basic leap you need to make in order to enjoy the festival I think. We're not hugely interested in having to objectively prove if games are 'culture' or 'art' or not, that's something that posterity will take care of.

The other thing is, we don't think that things being intelligent means that they can't be fun. It's paramount to us that fun, food, drink, music and good quality thought are never seen as mutually exclusive.

There are also a whole load of problems with how games are presented to the public. The pod kiosk model really doesn't work for a lot of people, myself included. I don't pretend that we have the answers to that, but I do know at least we're asking the questions.

What's changed this year from last, and what advice would you have given yourself last year knowing what you know now?

The support from the development community has been fantastic this year, and continues to grow. It's obviously essential that we build on that and we'd really like to explore more collaborative ways of doing so. On a local level, Nottingham City has been extraordinary in how it has taken the event to heart and invested heavily in its future.

Actually, this is something the industry should really know - there's a city in the UK which views video games as an important part of cultural tourism and is investing real money in that idea. This is pretty unprecedented for regional government.

As for advice - plan for contingency. Having worked in theatre and the arts sector in the past, the lead times which the games industry work to are both exciting and terrifying. It's more of a problem for our venues for us - but it's definitely something we've had to get used to.

I think the other big lesson was that games themselves aren't the best medium for talking about games. I spent months mistakenly thinking we needed pods, begging for pods, begging for code - and then in the event we had barely any playable code at last year and no-one even noticed.

I used to think this was kind of paradoxical, but if you look at it is the way we have literary festivals it makes sense. Books explain themselves really well to me when I'm at home on the sofa or somewhere comfortable reading them. Why would I want to stand around in a room with strangers reading with them? Games are the same. Playable code really isn't the most important thing.

To be honest, this year for us is a lot about proving. I think in 2008 you'll see more of a real evolution of the event.

What are this year's biggest "gets" and standout events that you're most proud of?

This year - obviously we're delighted that Keita has chosen to come along. I'm especially excited at how much he has understood and embraced the spirit of the event. Not just that he's coming to show Noby Noby Boy - but also that he's taken the time to create some papercraft for us.

I think [Tetris creator] Alexey Pajitnov is going to be wonderful, he was at GDC. Jonathan Smith and Lego Star Wars is always brilliant and insightful. I think the Friday night curry event this year is going to be particularly, er, robust.

I'm also really excited about the student clinics which a lot of the developers are running, and finally, the parent-specific sessions should be interesting.

I think the program this year is a lot more balanced than last time. Whilst we don't have a Richard Jacques solo piano gig, which was the highlight of last year for me, there's a lot more in here this time for a wider variety of people.

There seems to be an aspect of GameCity that hopes to reach out to more than just the industry choir -- what do you hope to communicate to the mainstream with the event?

Just that there's something here that's interesting, that's worthy of their consideration and that's fun. Anything more worthy than that is really just an added benefit.

I'm getting bored of turning up on panels and being asked questions about the 'benefit' of playing game x. I don't see why games should constantly need to be justified in terms of their empiric benefit? They're culturally interesting, they're things we can talk about, argue about, live with. Of course we need to understand and be able to deal with concerns to do with benefits - but I mean really, do people ask Springsteen what the benefit of listening to him is?

What do you see for the future of GameCity? Could it exist in the same way outside the UK?

You might get a lot of different answers about the aspirations for the festival based on who you ask. Personally, I don't have aspirations for this to grow into a huge expo event. I think we're getting clearer about what works and what doesn't - but it's essential that we keep trying new things out. I'm not too worried if we get things wrong from time to time as long as we're not dull.

I absolutely think we could do elements of what GameCity is about outside of the UK, and would love to try to do it. To be clear, we don't have some kind of transferable model in place though. GameCity as it is now is very much for Nottingham, and its designed for that city. Anywhere else we might try things out in would need to be designed for that specific location.

I'd love to think of the festival settling down to become a place where people know that its the place to be to get a certain kind of content and experience they can't get anywhere else. As soon as it starts to become something unsurprising, then we'll stop.

Ultimately, what kind of understanding do you hope any attendee comes away with?

That video games are a rich, varied, flawed, complex, exciting and unpredictably creative place for them to enjoy if they choose to.


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