On Sunday November 14th, as Gamercamp Level 2 was winding down, Comics & Gaming Monthly’s Eric Weiss, GameNorth’s Don Tam and I spoke with event organizers Mark Rabo and Jaime Woo. For the uninitiated, Gamercamp is a now-annual celebration of the art, creativity and community involved with games in Toronto, featuring everything from developer presentations to retro gaming stations to a nostalgic cereal breakfast at which attendees were encouraged to wear pyjamas. Over the course of our time with Mark and Jaime, we discussed the roots of Gamercamp, their thoughts on the Toronto video games community and what the future holds for their event. Finally, the pair revealed details to us about the recently announced Gamercamp Jr.
Brady Curlew: We’d like to have a general, post-event discussion with you guys to get your impressions about Gamercamp Level 2. How do you think the weekend went?
Jaime Woo: Mark and I are very proud to have organized this year’s Gamercamp. We tried to listen to what people wanted, and it seems now like people liked what they experienced.
Overall, we have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and graciousness of the attendees. The speakers came prepared with thoughtful and articulate presentations. When you have that combination of great content with people who are excited to be here, a magical buzz takes over – that’s what it has been like for the last two days.
Mark Rabo: It shows how strong the Toronto gaming community really is… that sounds cliché, because it feels like so much more than that. I’m blown away by how inclusive this community is. At no point did we see the kind of structure or hierarchy that separates people. Everyone was here on the same plane, hanging out and enjoying games together. That is very rare in creative spaces – they can be cliquey sometimes. At Gamercamp, everyone is welcoming, ego free and willing to share ideas. We’re so glad that we could facilitate an event that allows for this.
JW: We’ve doubled in size from last year. When we started Gamercamp last year, we thought maybe fifty to seventy people would show up. We ended up with one hundred and fifty. This year we didn’t want to make expectations. I can tell you, without seeing the final tally, we’ve probably had somewhere between six hundred and seven hundred people in total attendance for both days for Gamercamp 2010. That’s amazing for us. We had people come in from Ottawa, people drive in from the States… We have tapped into something and we’re grateful that other people have responded. But we didn’t realize they would be responding all the way from Ottawa and the US! We throw this because it is a big jam for Toronto, but we couldn’t be happier that other people are coming here to see what’s happening.
Mark and I are going to Winnipeg soon for an event and we’re excited for Winnipeg to experience the same kind of outside interest. It means all across the country you’ve got communities and cities talking about games locally, and you’re going to start to see larger conversations drawing more and more people in. I think games are going to be in a great space in Canada in five years.
MR: What’s overwhelming for the two of us is that we’ve crafted Gamercamp in the image of an event we would like to attend. We said to each other: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this or that,” and that’s what we organized, something for us really. To see other people loving it is great.
It’s like being a part of a scene or community where people have signals or signs that they wear on their clothing to hint to others that they are part of the scene. A friend of mine has a t-shirt that shows an illustration of a train dangling off a cliff with a little guy hanging from it – and that’s it. No text explains the scene, but if you know games you know that it refers to Uncharted 2. As a gamer, if you see someone wearing that shirt you say to yourself “that guy’s into games” and you can strike up a conversation and have a shared experience. That’s what happens now with Gamercamp. Jaime and I wanted to do this because we like it, but to see so many people approach us and say “hey, we like this too,” proved by their attendance and their feedback, that’s fantastic. It’s great because there is nothing really spectacular about what we did other than we just did it.
JW: That speaks to the inclusiveness and approachability of the Toronto scene. Two guys who had nothing more than a passion for games and the willingness to devote the required hours could create an event where everyone buys in. It could have been so easy for developers to say “We don’t know who you are, so we are not going to participate,” but everyone has said yes without hesitation. We’re still stunned that this community exists in this way, because a lot of communities aren’t nearly as inclusive.
Don Tam: Along with Electric Playground’s Shaun Hatton, Toronto Thumbs’ Jorge and Dana, we recorded an impromptu podcast earlier and someone brought up a good question about Gamercamp’s ability to appeal to a younger audience with the heavy presence of retro gaming here. People of our age appreciate that, but do you guys have any plans to draw in a younger crowd in the future?
MR: It’s almost like we planted that question…
JW: Let’s start by saying that film students have to watch the great films by classic directors as part of their training – they have to watch Kurosawa and Hitchcock. For people to make great games, we need people to be interested in all eras of gaming. For younger gamers who’ve only known the polygon era to dismiss games from previous generations is missing an opportunity to be as good a game designer as they can be.
Mark and I have been thinking about this, about how to give the next generation of game developers and enthusiasts a full set of tools to understand all of gaming. We’ve been thinking about what we’d want to see if we were kids, and how would our lives be different if we had experienced an event like Gamercamp while growing up. So in March 2011, we are planning Gamercamp Jr., focused on youth.
MR: Gamercamp Jr. is going to be an event that fits into the understanding that children already have about the importance play. As kids, your whole existence is playful. That becomes harder to maintain as you get older and get more responsibilities, but it is an important thing to maintain. So Gamercamp Jr. is aimed at a younger age group. We’re planning to create something that shows younger people some of the great things that are happening in games, to have workshops to get them exciting about game creation.
JW: Younger people are at a stage when they are willing to experiment with making different kinds of games… By the time you’re an adult, you’re often so afraid of failure that you are unwilling to try new things. We want Gamercamp Jr. to teach kids about board games, outdoor games, immersive games – playing and making them, without fear of failure. It’s going to be very workshop oriented. Should they continue to pursue the path, what an amazing set of tools they’re going to have when they get older.
MR: Jaime and I are not coders or programmers. Gamercamp came out of that. There were no events targeted towards the enthusiast side of gaming that provided what we were looking for. We reached a point where we realized that to develop the skills to make some of these games takes a long time and you have to really want to invest the time and passion it takes. With Gamercamp, we wanted to bring people in who maybe didn’t know how to get into games. When we were younger, we didn’t have an event at which we could connect to the gaming community or game makers.
Part of Gamercamp Jr. is to show kids that games are a form of creative expression and introduce them to the people in the community who work with games, people who are making great stuff and can inspire the next generation. Our passion for games might have been redirected into something more creative if we had been exposed to the right experiences offered by the right people at the right time. We aim to provide those experiences for the next generation.
BC: Part of what Play Till Doomsday does is advocate for games as culturally significant artifacts, for games having cultural meaning that makes them valuable despite that much of the mainstream discourse about video games is negative and dismissive. Are you concerned at all that something like Gamercamp Jr. may face friction or criticism from parents who think games might be frivolous, trivial or dangerous for kids?
Eric Weiss: Or unhealthy or inactive forms of play.
BC: Yeah. Do you have a strategy for dealing with the stigma frequently attached to digital games?
JW: I don’t think we are going to run up against a lot of friction. There were multiple parents who brought their kids to Gamercamp this year, and this happened last year as well. We are organizing Gamercamp Jr. to encourage parents to sit in with their kids during workshops, and make the event another way for moms and dads to bond with their kids over games, something that happens a lot already at home. This weekend, hundreds of people were here dedicated to the practice of gaming – they all know kids or young people just getting into games that we can inspire through an event aimed at a younger audience. Referrals are going to be the first group of kids we’ll see.
That being said, I’ve experienced some of the stigma you mentioned as a writer. When I started writing, my parents didn’t understand. Writing has been an established form of expression for thousands of years, but they were concerned that I was sitting in my room all by myself! They kept asking “What are you doing?” … Parents may not always understand, but not understanding certain behaviours doesn’t mean they should be stopped. There are kids out there that are going to want to make games and nothing in their way will stop them – we’re going to provide the tools for them to be the best game designers that they can be.
EW: So there’s soccer camp, there’s basketball camp, and now there’s Gamercamp, where kids might go to learn how to program games for a week?
JW: Not just video games but learning about game design in board games, outdoor games, etc. Take tag, for example. What are the design choices of tag and how can we change them, make them better? What makes football fun? Let’s dissect games and get young people thinking about them while they are experiencing them.
BC: Play, as something people do, is exercised in all those different forms, but it’s great that you’re tapping into thinking about new ways for it to be exercised. In our culture, or most Western culture at least, play has been trivialized, or negatively weighted against work and pushed aside for far too long. But play is impossible to get away from, so it’s great to get young people thinking about how it may be important or valuable, or tied to work cooperatively instead of antagonistically.
MR: Every art form has its detractors that think it is a waste of time. To some people, making movies is a waste of time. Someone who is into illustration might have parents who think drawing is a waste of time. Lots of parents want their kids to take the safe route, become doctors or lawyers and theoretically make lots of money, using different definitions of success. One of the challenges for us is going to be to champion a creative way of life in general. It is by being creative that you explore ideas, that you choose not to accept the status quo as the only way to live your life. Personally, I feel that those are the most important qualities in life, as opposed to earning as much money as possible or attaining a certain status.
In lots of places within the gaming industry, people are making games because they are passionate about them. Nobody gets into gaming expecting to be a rock star or a millionaire, to have Porsches and limos and crazy benders on the weekend – it’s more of an exercise of passion. That’s a very healthy way of life in general, so we want to encourage more people to accept it as a way of life.
BC: This sounds very familiar when compared to how the Canadian games media works, for the most part. Writing about games in this country seems to be very much a project of passion, and, at least in the Toronto scene, very cooperative. We’ve been sharing resources, doing interviews together, etc. If we were more mainstream for-profit outlets, we’d be competing and trying to one-up each other. Those parallels of being passion-driven might contribute to the quality of Toronto gaming space in general, which is good for Gamercamp.
JW: We are really trying to champion active participation in games, not just have players be consumers. We can take ownership over our games when we try to make them, when we think about them in a constructive way, or when we ask why they work or don’t work. I said this after Mathew Kumar’s keynote: We don’t want our attendees to feel like product targets. We aren’t selling things to them or pushing something onto them.
For Gamercamp Jr., I can’t wait to see how many kids have their eyes opened when they realize that THEY can make a game, when they realize that games don’t have to be the polished, multi-million dollar games they might be used to… Maybe one day they will create those kinds of games, but the ownership they foster by actively participating in the games community is most vital.
DT: How do you see the schedule of future Gamercamps being structured? We were talking earlier about how we felt this year’s event needed to be even longer, with less concurrent panels, etc.
MR: One of the things we did consciously for this Gamercamp was overextend. We wanted to push the event to see where things start to make sense or start to fall apart, with the size, scope and number of presentations. We didn’t take the safe route this year. We made this thing way bigger than we needed to, just to see what would happen. It seems to have turned out great. We’ve learned a lot about what can stay the same and what might need some tweaking. But if we just kept it safe, we would have just experienced what we expected.
EW: Speaking to the size and scope this year, you organized a full set of presentations and panels over the weekend. As great as those things have been, some of the most interesting times I’ve had here have included taking a break from the panels and checking out the retro games and emulators, and talking with people in the hallways while sessions were running. I almost wish I had more time to just do that – mingle and talk.
JW: We do like having those spaces for people. So we might not provide more content [in the future], but we might work on spacing out what we do provide a little better. We know people get exhausted by the end of the day at these kinds of events, so it’s good to have those “inbetween” spaces… It’s funny, we saw how exhausted people were last year after one day, and planned to fix that. Then we ended up adding three times as much content to Gamercamp Level 2 because we can’t say no! It might be a bit of gauntlet to get through… maybe that will be our thing. It’s a gauntlet! You just gotta survive it! Tie in the gaming element.
MR: It’s pretty bad-ass that the city can support a two-day-plus weekend dedicated to gaming, with presentations, concerts and movies about games.
JW: I’ll qualify that just a little bit. The people in this city are what make this possible. I think the institutions in the city are going to need to start recognizing games more as a cultural force.
BC: That’s what I’m here for! And they have been getting better.
JW: We’ve seen a lot of progress recently, but I hope we start seeing more institutions get involved… We’ve had things like Nuit Blanche and Luminato come up in the past few years – wouldn’t it be great to have something like that focused on games? It becomes a question of who wants to get involved.
DT: Have you thought about including any professional gaming content in Gamercamp? Playing games for a living is possible now, in terms of gaming as sport and the MLG tournament scene.
MR: I’ve never considered that angle, mostly because the creative side of gaming has been a focus for us. The competitive side is… well, competitive, and we like the collaborative stuff. Of course, we had retro competitions here this weekend, but there was no real consequence in them. The serious competition stuff is a different kind of animal…
DT: The reason I bring it up is because I’m wondering about how professional gaming might fit into our discussion of deviant career paths. [Gaming for a living] is certainly something many parents will not agree with, so I’m wondering if there’s a role for it in Gamercamp Jr.
JW: You know, if someone committed to being the best player they can be in a certain game, we’d love that. There is inspiration to be pulled from that. We know Daniel from A&C Games and he can apparently beat Friday the 13th on NES in four minutes. We’re inspired by him because that takes a lot of dedication and it shows that challenges are surmountable. But adding a financial aspect to something like that, in a competition, always makes things murky… Gamercamp is more about putting passion first. That’s one of the reasons there has been so much stuff going on here – we’re willing to value attendee experience over finances, within reason. So we’ll have to think very hard about whether or not serious competition will play a role in Gamercamp Jr.
BC: With attendee experience vs. finances in mind, how much cereal will you be eating over the next few months?
MR: Oh God…
JW: [Laughs] It was amazing, the shopping experience of buying so many boxes of cereal. The people at Costco were overwhelmed by the amount of milk we bought…
MR: The staff started taking away the carts we’d loaded up, thinking they were carts to stock shelves with. People would stop and talk to us – wondering “Who needs that much cereal?”
JW: But it was one of the things we loved doing for the attendees. Gamercamp comes from Mark and I talking about the things we love, what we grew up loving, and how to make those things into a communal experience. Where else could you get a bunch of people to show up to a cereal breakfast in pyjamas, right? It was about taking a sense of fun and wonderment, and taking games and the sense of play, and making them a real part of life, rather than sectioning them off and compartmentalizing them only into ‘days gone by.’ That doesn’t make sense to us at all. If you love cereal, and you love wearing pyjamas and watching cartoons or playing video games with friends, why would you ever stop?
I’m going to get on my soapbox now: “Why would you ever stop!?”
MR: I went through a phase in university where I didn’t play any games. I was busy with school and didn’t play at all. After graduation and starting work, I struggled to stay interested in what I was doing. Then I met Jaime a couple of years ago – actually about a year and half ago, though it feels like we’ve known each other forever… But it got me back into games and that’s when things started falling into place for me. I started to realize that the play and the fun involved were things I missed, and the people I was meeting through tapping into gaming communities were really the types of people I had shut out of my life without even knowing it. When we did the first Gamercamp, we really started to meet the community and it felt right. Games brought me back to a creative way of life, which we talked about earlier. I wonder how many people were like me and fell off the creative path in their daily grind for a pay cheque, who might be out there missing the joy that play and games can add to life without knowing it? With Gamercamp, the goal is to entice people back onto a creative path, back into the world of play and games we were so familiar with as kids. People might come here for the games, but it will be the creative community that brings them back year after year.
JW: When we asked at the opening of Gamercamp yesterday how many people had been to last year’s event too and that sea of hands came up, I was blown away. Sometimes we work so hard with the organization of the event that we forget to promote it. We’ll say to each other: “We’ve put everything in place… wait, does anyone know about what we’re doing?” To have last year’s people come back, and to have people this time around say “Hey Jaime, see you next year!” – that’s great.
MR: Gamercamp is something you’ll continue to see, with interesting, strange or quirky experiments included. The pyjamas and the cereal, you don’t see that very often, and we didn’t know if it would work, but it sounded like fun to us. Lots of people got right into it though and I saw people eating cereal all day! Gamercamp will always exist as an event that welcomes strange or creative ideas that play with notions of fun and games. Our goal isn’t to grow it for the sake of growth, just like it is not a goal to put it on for the sake of money. Instead, the point is to foster a creative atmosphere that brings people together, sharing, teaching and learning, meeting each other, etc. If that means keeping the event from growing to include thousands of people, that’s alright… We were at PAX recently, but it’s a very different kind of event. You don’t see the organizers of PAX running around at the show, but we want to remain approachable. The goal is to keep Gamercamp that way.
JW: As the event grew for this year, we weren’t sure if the mood of our attendees would change. Last year it was so warm and inclusive, and we didn’t know if growth would change that. But, as things wrap up here now, it sounds like everyone had a really good time and there were no problems with attitude or ego. That makes us very happy. That’s what we wanted.
More information about Gamercamp Jr. can be found at http://www.gamercampjr.com. Right now it is just a page with a brief description, but people can sign up for email updates if they want further information.