Monday, April 22, 2019

Lessons from Europe: fields reports from EGX Rezzed, Now Play This, and A MAZE Berlin

I just came back from a games event tour through London and Berlin, where I had a lovely time meeting new people and catching up with old friends.

I had never been to EGX Rezzed or Now Play This before, and this was my third time at A MAZE.

I went because I feel like much of the game industry is still focused on the US, but to me, the majority of the interesting games culture and arts events seemed to be happening in (Western) Europe. What are they doing over there, what's their magic sauce, and how can I bring some of that sensibility back to the US?

Here's some general thoughts and Wot I Think:

EGX Rezzed

EGX Rezzed is mainly a customer-facing fan expo branded by Eurogamer and Rock Paper Shotgun in the Tobacco Docks, a complex of open-air brick vaults ringed with balconies and breakout rooms that feel like giant people-sized aquariums. It's a fraction of the size of the main EGX London or bigger US fan expos like PAX, but still features the same tabletop gaming rooms, indie publisher megabooths, and merch stands. It was fine, but personally I'm just not very interested in fan expos.

I enjoyed the more eclectic Leftfield Collection room, curated by David Hayward each year. And I particularly enjoyed Doggerland Radio by Amy Godliman, a modded vintage radio that you can tune to pseudo-real BBC radio dramas and poetic shipping forecasts, while playing with bespoke "feelies" like an impossibly old novel made of other novels or old vintage-style maps. It's like a very British version of Calvino's Invisible Cities, a mobile art game installation that would make the most sense in the UK.

The local neighborhood feels awkward even for London -- you either have to walk 20 minutes east from the Tower of London tube station, or take a semi-incorporated public transit line called the DLR. Other than the event venue, there's approximately one McDonalds with a 100 person line queue streaming out the door, and exactly one decent pub that everyone slowly drifts towards at the end of each day. (For designers and devs, this informal pub afterparty is probably the highlight of the whole thing.)

Now Play This

Now Play This is one of the most distinctively curated game festivals in the world, directed by Holly Gramazio and George Buckenham. In terms of tone and attitude, it's like the opposite of EGX Rezzed: it features many non-digital games, a zine library, and even big installations like a rope labyrinth (Transit Meditation by Zach Gage) that takes several minutes to traverse. (I might be wrong, but I believe there were zero gamepads throughout the whole exhibition.)

I think one of my favorite parts of the exhibition was the room dedicated to player-modified games and house rules. After looking at many different cards modded by players, visitors were asked to contribute their own house rules and traditions to a big bulletin board. If many game exhibitions and arcades are interactive by virtue of playable games, then this felt interactive in a different way: it felt "participatory" for visitors to curate their own culture as part of the exhibition. There's a curatorial focus on what Kate Compton would call "casual creators", simplified streamlined tools that let anyone create art and games.

This festival takes place in Somerset House, a huge neoclassical complex in the heart of central London. It is a very fancy building that feels like a museum or an academy. The tall rooms usually have big windows with lots of sunlight. All this context helps attract a more diverse audience than the typical games event -- I noticed quite a few moms playing with their kids.

A MAZE Berlin

A MAZE Berlin is arguably the best "medium-sized" public games event in the world right now, headed by its charismatic public face Thorsten Wiedemann. It's a three-day festival of talks and workshops led by European indies, with foggy techno dance parties going until 2 AM. Most games events keep people only during the day, before everyone splinters off for various after-parties; in contrast, A MAZE is its own after-party.

It's also maybe the only game festival of its size where speakers and sessions regularly focus on capitalism, fascism, colonialism, climate change, and gender -- this mandate comes from great curation by coordinators Lorenzo Pilia, Matthias Lowe, Christian Kokott, and Sebastian Uribe. My personal favorite talk was Tyu Orphinae's introduction to dress-up games, but check out Rose Carbo-Mascarell's tweet thread to catch up on other talks from the festival.

This year, the festival brought in a dozen African designers and devs, and showed their work / amplified their voices. I'm ashamed to say that I had never met so many African designers before this festival; for many reasons, something like this could never ever happen at a North American games event. For me, this gesture challenged the Americentric bias of the game industry in a powerful way, and reminds me of the growing push to relocate more events like GDC outside of the United States.

The new festival venue this year is SEZ, a pleasantly half-dilapidated East Berlin sports complex made of concrete and vintage tile. Berliners reported that they "walked past it all the time but thought it was abandoned"... until now? It was much more comfortable (and much warmer) than previous years, but some part of me still misses the post-apocalyptic fantasy of the old venue Urban Spree, where we would desperately huddle around a rusted burn barrel for warmth. It feels just slightly less edgy, but I guess that's inevitable as A MAZE becomes more of an institution.

* * *

Notably, all these games events were bundled with other events. Now Play This coincided with BAFTA Awards and EGX Rezzed, while A MAZE was bookended by a more business-like conference called Quo Vadis and the Deutscher Computerspielpreis (German Game Awards). Both cities had dedicated staff and resources to put together London Games Festival / Berlin Games Week branding to unify everything.

There are certainly some benefits to bundling events into a branded games week: (1) it helps you get funding / support from the local or state government, (2) visitors from out-of-town can better justify traveling to your city if there's a large variety of related stuff to do, (3) smaller events can stagger schedules to share the same audience and attendees, which is more sustainable.

In New York City, I can think of plenty of groups and events that could benefit from a New York Games Week. At NYU Game Center, we run events like No Quarter and PRACTICE; we could potentially partner with independent games galleries like Babycastles and Wonderville, as well as bigger expos like Games For Change and Play NYC, and awards like the New York Game Critics Awards. Out-of-towners can't justify traveling here just for one of those events, but taken together, it could be like a fun weeklong vacation for a lot of people.

Now we come to the big cost of planning a citywide games week: someone has to coordinate all these different people and groups together, and in New York, it's definitely not going to be me. (Well, who's going to do it? Who's going to rise up? The world cries out for a hero.)

But anyway. Even if you're not based in New York City, London, or Berlin, I'm sure your local town or city would benefit from something like this. After all, there's 49 other weeks in the year. That's 49 more potential game weeks to be had...