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Preview: GameCity6

25 October 11 words: Al Needham
illustrations: James Huyton

If you want to go somewhere to stand with a load of people and play games, get yourself down to the Forest for Goose Fair and try to catapault a manky rubber frog onto a rotating lilypad, for a keyring of Donny Osmond that says ‘Justin Beeber’. If you care about videogaming and where its heading, on the other hand, happy days; GameCity is back...

Described as the Sundance Festival of videogaming, GameCity is an event that goes far deeper than getting punters all hyped up over a game that won’t be available until Christmas 2012, or PR gimps trying to mate with each other. Its ethos is to demonstrate to the general public that gaming has as much of a cultural impact in the 21st century as more traditional  entertainment media, and to remind the industry that it’s supposed to be fun, Goddamnit.

Event announcements are starting to pile up, but the highlights so far include Fear Friday, a multimedia homage to all things browny-trousery including readings, films, live craft events and gore-spattered gaming on Friday 28 October, while the Square is converted into a Hyrulean market village in a day-long tribute to the God-like Legend of Zelda series. A team of hardcore geeks will be playing all fifteen Zelda games one after the other, the general public will be asked to form impromptu ocarina orchestras, create their own shields and swords, and wallow in the minutiae of the other world-renowned green-garbed hero.

Possibly even more important than all that is the introduction of the GameCity Prize, an award for the best game of the year. Naturally, in keeping with the spirit of the event, it’s a typically individual gong; games from all platforms, from multinational corporations to bedroom developers, are on the same level playing field, and the panel is free of industry experts, ranging from the drummer out of Blur to an MP to You Me At Six to Swiss motherflipping Toni. And, according to GC Festival Director Iain Simons, the rest of the industry are finally sitting up and taking notice...

This time last year, we were talking about GameCity5 as if it could be the last in the series. Now it’s back and seems stronger than ever. What’s happened between then and now?
It always feels like it could be the last one in the series, and we always try and programme it as if it is. That’s probably why we always look so nervous. GameCityNights Season 2 has been running since January, which has really stepped up and turned into a much nicer event than it was, I think. There’s been lots of development happening with the National Videogame Archive, we’ve been feeding into a new MA/Msc at NTU which is launching next year, and we put a lot of research and development into an event that didn’t quite happen, but might well do next year. Generally we’ve just been trying to find better ways of doing our work in line with pretty much every project in the world at the moment, that basically means doing more for less. The project has become much more deeply embedded into the city over the last few years, and we're still exploring and developing what that could mean and how we can do things better. GameCity touches, and certainly could touch, so many different parts of the City - we’re trying put some effort into making all these links better.

Wired magazine absolutely raved about GameCity5. Do you feel fully accepted by the gaming industry now?
This year feels like much more of a step forward than 2010. OpenGameCity is a lot more established; I think we’re communicating a lot better with everyone and making the whole event easier to understand, participate in and attend - I think we’re fairly comfortable in the skin of what it is now. Furthermore, the games industry itself seems to ‘get’ what we’re about now. It was odd; last year was the first time some really senior people had been up and they had a brilliant time - all getting really excited that they’d just discovered this really exciting new event. It was great that they had a good time, but kind of humbling because, y’know, some of us have been sweating over this for seven years...

Barring the award, what are you looking forward to most this year?
This year I'm most looking forward to some of the more collaborative events we have running with devs who are here all week. There seems to be a lot more of that this year - Rich Lemarchand, Eric, Robin, Brian, Cory, Phil - people are stopping asking us about coming to GameCity to do a session, and more just asking if they can come along and get involved and do stuff over the whole week. That's great for us - it's kind of like having more staff, but you don't have to pay them.

The award panel are massively eclectic. Was that a conscious decision, to veer away from ‘industry experts’?
Totally.  Often with videogame culture, most of the time it’s just gamers talking to gamers, mostly about games. Nothing wrong with that at all, but GameCity has a different role. What we’re trying to do with the GameCityPrize is start broader conversations between videogaming and the rest of culture. Basically, it isn’t really about which game wins; it’s about how we decide.

Now that so many videogames are 18-rated, does that make organising a festival harder, seeing that so many kids flock to the marquees in the Square?
Actually, the proportion of videogames that are 18-rated is actually really small, so it doesn’t really present that much of a problem for us. Crysis 2 was playable in the Square last year, we just have to be really careful that we screen off inappropriate material - although last year people could still hear the sound of guns and death coming through the walls. The bigger problem is that parents don’t often care that their kids are playing Call Of Duty or whatever. We’re not that focussed on giving people games to play anyway, to be honest; there are other events that do that much better than us.

Now that the iPhone has become a serious gaming platform, it seems like independent developers are needed more than ever. Do you think we’ll see the return of the mid-80s boom, where almost every provincial city seemed to have its own software house?
I really hope so. One of our big pushes - and kind of the central concern of most of our work - is exposing the fact that games are made by human beings. This is fairly often overlooked. I would love a return to the days when you could really feel the fingerprints of a specific studio on a game, like you could with Llamasoft or Ultimate back in the 80’s.

Has GameCity created a knock-on effect with local developers? Is Nottingham an important dot on the videogame map now?
We're really lucky to have so many brilliant studios and developers, filled with brilliant people right on our doorstep. The support we get from them is amazing and we're grateful to be a part of that community. And yes, I think Nottingham is becoming an important location on the videogame map - it has these great studios, it's where the National Videogame Archive was started and I suspect it's the only city of its size that can count these awesome people not just as visitors but as friends. Developers have been and continue to be incredibly generous to us - and are one of the main reasons we can continue. Any success we've had is shared with them.

Can we safely assume that GameCity is now a permanent fixture in the calendar?
It’d be nice, wouldn’t it, but we assume nothing.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to begin a career in gaming?
Well, I don’t make games, so it’d be negligent of me to offer any advice other than to come to GameCity and GameCityNights to meet people who do and ask them.

Mega Drive or SNES?
How dare you. Amiga.

GameCity6, across the city, 26-29 October

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