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The Comedy of Errors

Preview: GameCity7

19 October 12 words: Al Needham

"We basically want to be the best village fete about videogame culture ever"

The best way to explain what GameCity is would be to point out what its not. No, it isn't a tedious 'industry' conference, where you get to see a couple of minutes' video of a game you can't buy until next year. Neither is it a week of dead-eyed youths monging out on free games over half-term. While there are ties with the big hitters of the videogaming world and the opportunity to sample all manner of games old and new, GameCity is a week-long celebration of an entertainment genre that has been around for five decades and has got a firmer grip on the cultural landscape than ever before, that takes control of the city centre every October and turns it inside out.

Even if you couldn't give a toss about joypad-jiggling, you can't deny that GameCity has been responsible for some of the maddest events town has ever seen. Previous incarnations of the festival have seen a Mario tea party, piano concerts of Sega themes in a 14th Century church, games developers being grilled by Notts kids, a successful attempt on the world record for most zombies in one place, live Pac-Man games through the city centre and - last year's highlight - the Market Square being turned into Hyrule, the home village of the Zelda series. To be honest, it's the absolute highlight of October, pushing the Happy Shopper Alton Towers event right down the ladder.

This year's event - the seventh - promises to bind together the oft-disjointed link between 'gaming' and 'having a life' tighter than ever before. Some huge events have been lined up; Peter Molyneux (creator of Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper, Populous, Black and White and Fable) will be taking the festival over for an entire day, programming a series of events that celebrate his past, present and future achievements. There's a link-up with Broadway to showcase interactive entertainment, as well as host Q&As and panel debates. A celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Commodore 64 is capped by a reuniting of team members of Zzap!64, one of the most iconic magazines of the 1980s. And the GameCity Prize - awarded to the most important game of the year - will be decided by a hugely eclectic panel including 2000ad's Dave Gibbons, Radio 1's Jo Whiley, Charlie Higson of The Fast Show, and chaired by none other than Lord David Puttnam, the producer of Bugsy Malone and Chariots Of Fire.

The big new development, however, is the STEAM school - an all-comers-welcome week-long learning environment on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, but with a GC twist - expect assemblies, school photos, school trips, school dinners and even a nit-nurse. Miss this and you're a fleabag

Iain Simon, Director of GameCity, lets a few pixelated cats out of the bag on the verge of this year's festival...

Last year's GameCity was a massive success, particularly Zelda Day - it was one of the few events held in the new Square that was almost too busy for it to handle. Is there a danger that GC might be getting too big?
We've never had an aspiration for the festival to keep getting bigger. We try and measure our success not by how many people come, but by how good a time they have. The Zelda day was amazing  and awe-inspiring for us; it was a real privilege to see so many people descend on Nottingham for that one day. It was especially nice as it had a really similar feeling to the Zombie event we did years ago - there were so many people, lots more than we imagined, but they all seemed to be having a really good time. We really want to maintain the kind of community atmosphere about the festival - that's a lot more important to us than being the biggest. We basically want to be the best village fete about videogame culture ever.

GameCity, and its placing during the half-term holiday, seems to be veering more towards the youth, but in a positive, educational way. Would you agree - and is that the reason for the STEAM school?
We try and attract gamers, who are sometimes young people, but also we try and attract people who live with or care about gamers. A lot of the dysfunction surrounding videogaming comes from the difficulty in finding an entry point to game culture - especially if you're a parent. We're doing the STEAM school this year partially to follow the momentum of the Livingstone-Hope review, ICT curriculum rebuilding agenda, but mostly to give people who want it an opportunity to get inside the games that they play even more. Basically, the STEAM school is an invitation to anyone in Nottingham who's interested to gather round GameCity's kitchen table, and take some videogames apart to see how they work.

Minecraft was a worthy winner of the inaugural GameCity Prize last year. How did the panel decide upon that game in particular?
Yeah, I was really happy when it won - well deserved. I wasn't personally in the jury session last year, but from what I heard it came down to a pretty feisty stand-off between two titles, and in the end the jury was just overwhelmed by the creative potential of Minecraft. To be honest, I was surprised - I kind of expected them to go for something a little more obvious. The best thing for us was how well the mainstream media picked up on how unique the prize is. We've never had as much radio, TV and press coverage for anything as we did for that - it was a genuine and brilliant surprise.

It's good to see Zzap!64 getting bigged up. People forget the importance of the mags back in the day, when people would happily spend a night keying in code from Computer and Video Games onto their ZX81s...
Crazy times. That's one of the nice things about the renaissance of programming, the sense of understanding how stuff works.

We've already seen zombie record-breaking attempts and live Pac-Man in the middle of town - any mad one-off events planned for this year?
Definitely. It's frustrating talking to you now, as it's a few days before we have to lock our programme down, so I'm not 100% sure that all of these things will come to pass. But, there could be urban foraging, cave-surfing, and the world's biggest computer science class.

There's also GameCityNights, the monthly games mini-fests on the last Thursday of the month. How do people get involved with that - is it just a case of rolling up to Antenna on the night?
Absolutely! Come along and get involved, and if you've got a game or idea you want to try out, let us know. It's a really friendly night and you'd all be very welcome...

The Big Three are getting ready to roll out the next generation of consoles, and PC gaming is finally making a comeback. Do you think we're on the verge of a new era in videogaming, or more of the same with nicer graphics?
I'm one of those people who doesn't think the future of videogames is tied to the future of technology, so if we are on the dawn of a new era I don't think it's necessarily going to come from the Big Three. The most exciting work at the moment for me is flowing out of what I guess we have to call the 'indie' sector - although I'm not totally sure what that means. We've got some of the most important names in indiegaming at GameCity this year, so I think there's a real opportunity to have a taste of the new era for yourself.

Favourite Mortal Kombat fatality?
As a thoughtful, liberal do-gooder, I'm duty bound to endorse the Spine Rip; although I have to stress that that doesn't not necessarily represent the opinions of my employer - I believe that the 'Babality' is the official Corporate finisher. By the way, you do know that the lovely chap who coded the Megadrive port of Mortal Kombat lives in Nottingham, don't you?

GameCity7, across the city centre, 20 - 27 October

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