This October, after six editions, over 100 games, and nearly 8,000 guests, it will be time to say goodbye to Gamercamp, a grassroots independent games festival started in Toronto in 2009. Without a doubt, running the festival has been an extraordinary experience, yet community festivals are gruelling affairs, fuelled by passion, determination, and not a whole lot of money. The upcoming Gamercamp is without doubt one of the strongest we’ve programmed, and it was the right time to end on top and send it off into the sunset.
Working on Gamercamp has been about championing people who devote their time to making games and creating a space where they can show them off.
Working on Gamercamp has been about watching our attendees discover and get excited about these works that they wouldn’t have heard of in any other way.
Working on Gamercamp has been about building an awareness of videogames in the city we live in and love, and helping to see them at cultural institutions like the Ontario Science Centre, Toronto Independent Film Festival, and Royal Ontario Museum.
Working on Gamercamp has been about seeing people get so inspired they begin to make games themselves.
Above all else, Gamercamp has been and remains the people’s games festival, unassuming and approachable. And, it has been rewarding and gratifying. Once the doors close for good October 20, I will be sad, but proud of our accomplishments.
I want to use this space to share four key lessons I learned throughout the process of crafting and shaping Gamercamp, because that’s the best reward from these kinds of endeavour: knowledge. Co-founding a festival from scratch and then sustaining it for six years puts you in positions you never imagined and throws obstacles you’ve never encountered, but surviving and thriving through it is some kind of amazing.
1. WEAR YOUR HEART ON YOUR SLEEVE
Knowing why you are doing something is absolutely vital to its success. There would be no Gamercamp without the enthusiasm of many, many people. People are busy and pulled in many directions, so we had to give people a clear reason for them to support us with time, energy, effort, and money.
Over the years we have tried to share with people why we love games, why we love this city, and why we love the people in it. It was a passion they also shared and that’s why they joined in. Often, attendees would tell us that they appreciated all the hard work that went into the festival and I think they did that because they knew how much it meant to us.
One of my favourite examples was the very first year we did Gamercamp. Our passes were $15 online or $20 at the door. An attendee in line told us he was purposely paying at the door in order to give us more money. It reminds me how people will go out of their way for something they believe in.
2. CONVERT WEAKNESSES INTO STRENGTHS
Being a grassroots festival has meant trying to do a lot on very little resources. While our budget has increased over time, it’s still a fraction of what major events cost—and, to be honest, I’m pretty proud of the experience we can still provide. It does means, though, dealing with a lot of imperfection.
This, however, has become a huge lesson for me to rethink obstacles in ways that can be turned into strengths. So often we try to move mountains when there are so many alternate options that we won’t fathom because we’re so focused on one solution. Now, instead of trying to change things, I take them as they are and attempt to find the strength within it.
Here’s a good example: in our second year, we held our talks at the now-departed Toronto Underground Cinema. It was a wonderful venue with one major drawback: the route to the theatre was through a cluttered and ugly hallway with busted walls and broken furniture. My co-organizer and I thought long and hard about ways to make it appealing, because first impressions matter.
Erecting curtains around the mess? Or, perhaps cleaning it ourselves? But realistically it was what it was. Accepting that, though, led me to an epiphany: the mess kind of looked like a background to a Street Fighter II stage. What if we made life bars and a timer out of cardboard and hung it from the ceiling so that if you took a picture it would look like a still from a real-life Street Fighter game?
It’s exactly what we did and our attendees had a lot of fun with it. In the end, taking that weakness and turning it into a strength led to the best idea.
3. THE IMPORTANCE OF CHAMPIONS
Starting something new is incredibly difficult. Sustaining it is even harder. They say 90% of businesses fail within three years. (We never approached Gamercamp as a business, but running for six years still feels like a minor triumph.) There are a million and one ways to fail, especially as year upon year expectations grow and the novelty fades.
Champions are essential. They provide different functions for the same goal: to keep you moving forward. There were four major champions for Gamercamp (aside from our attendees, of course!): local developers, colleges including George Brown and Humber, the provincial government agency OMDC, and the local games press. (Notice how local plays a theme here.)
It was with great awe when developers that we respected starting to tell other people about Gamercamp in glowing terms. It’s a heady moment when people you respect respect your work too. Studios like Metanet, Get Set, Capy, Benjamin Rivers, Right Square Bracket Left Square Bracket, and Queasy went out of their way in supporting Gamercamp—as did community organizers Jim Munroe, Jim and Emilie McGinley, Nick Pagee, Lesley Phord-Toy, and Steve Engels—helping to create the opportunities that we could grab onto as we grew.
George Brown College was huge for us too. Jean-Paul Amore, the program coordinator for game studies, took a chance on Gamercamp, starting in year two, helping us to receive space for the festival, student volunteers, and financial support. (In fact, my co-organizer this year is Arthur Marris, who started as a George Brown student volunteering in 2010!) We received a foundation from George Brown to spring from, and having a respected educational institution like George Brown behind us—and a year later Humber as well—emboldened our cause.
Similarly, OMDC, which funds and promotes media in Ontario, and Kim Gibson, who works on the interactive side, has been crucial since coming aboard in 2011. We were smaller back then, but as an existing, polished event that showcased Ontario developers, we were able to acquire some financial support that helped fuel our growth. Money isn’t everything, but it’s necessary. Beyond that, Kim brought a wealth of industry knowledge and experience, and knowing that someone like Kim thought our festival was on the right path made it that much easier to forge ahead.
Lastly, local press like BlogTO and Torontoist helped us get on the radar for many people, and games sites like Dork Shelf, Toronto Thumbs, and C&G Magazine kept the heat going. Writers like Daniel Kaszor, Raju Mudhar, Patrick O’Rourke, and Andrew Webster, who are already overworked as it is, have been wonderful in always making time for us, as has one of my favourite people to hug, Shaun Hatton of Electric Playground.
These champions were the ingredients to keep an organization going year after year. Developers helped create potential opportunity pathways for us, the schools gave us a foundation to spring off of, the government agency (and our generous sponsors, including Ubisoft Toronto, Microsoft, and Sony in recent years) helped fuel our venture financially, and the local media shone a light so others could see us and where we were going. CHAMPIONS.
4. GIVE PEOPLE THE POWER TO FEEL LIKE THEY BELONG
Hospitality matters. Think about restaurants: while food obviously is a huge factor in the experience, hospitality is as important. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you just take the food home to eat? It is crucial to think about how every choice will affect patrons, because they do. We strove to make Gamercamp the most welcoming, hospitable, and polished experience of any games events.
We now have a hotel as our venue, Hotel Ocho, because it is an unexpected venue for games. Usually, they are jammed into some random building or bland convention centres, and for a lot of people, these venues signal who belongs and who does not. On the other hand, a hotel is by default designed to welcome visitors. And by setting our festival in an unconventional, but comforting space, a new crowd of people felt comfortable enough to attend.
Next, we modelled Gamercamp after two familiar experiences: the (now nearly extinct) arcade and the home play experience. We wanted people to feel like they could jump right in. One floor of Gamercamp is set up like an arcade with multiplayer and arcade-like games. Then, the above two floors with hotel rooms have quieter games situated inside.
I did the latter because some games need to be enjoyed in isolation. My first experience of Limbo always left a deep impression on me. It was at the IGF pavilion of GDC, and the fluorescent lights washed out the noir visual elements of Limbo; I couldn’t properly hear the excellent sound design; and, I had to play it while a crowd huddled nearby judging my every move. What a terrible way to have a first impression!
Imagine Limbo now inside a hotel room. You can dim the lights and turn up the sound to amplify the mood. There are just a few people inside the room, so there’s less pressure. You want to play that, don’t you? And because the experience fit with the game, it made our attendees feel more relaxed: they could try these games at their own pace. Sure, at first, attendees were taken aback by the beds, but by doing our job right making them feel at home, many jumped right on—even with strangers!—and dove into playing the games.
When people spend so much time, money, and effort to make games, I felt like it was my job to make sure their games showed as brilliantly as possible. This was the best choice for the developers, the best choice for our attendees, and thus ultimately the best choice for the festival.
4B. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE
As I mentioned before, putting Gamercamp in a hotel brought out a different crowd. If there is one legacy I hope Gamercamp leaves, it is for the industry to remember the people who play games are its heart. And, when I say people who play games I mean the ones from ages 5 to 85, the ones who may not call themselves “gamers” but can beat anyone at Mario Kart or know how to ace a Dance Central routine. Too often, we forget that these players exist, and so naturally they never show up then for game events.
Toronto is a city filled with such multiculturalism and diversity it was vital to have our attendees reflect that mix. How did we accomplish this? Through a lot of trial and effort! But the results are fairly decent. For instance, a third of our attendees are women. It’s not the half that would be ideal, but it’s a lot better than the industry standard. There are no guidelines for improving diversity, but I leaned on Gandhi and his saying that you have to create the change you want to see.
I have never hidden that I am a queer-identified man (although I will admit I was nervous about it when we started in 2009!) and have reached out to LGBT groups about attending the festival. It still sort of astounds me that one of Canada's largest events dedicated to games would be led by a queer man of colour. Half of the organizers in Gamercamp are women.
For our conference we try our best to have balance in our speakers. On our website, we work to ensure that the imagery, language, and even colour schematics don’t read as gendered. In our programming, we choose games that appeal to a broad audience so that children and grandparents don’t feel excluded.
It’s a lot of work. There is a lot of time spent parsing over decisions from various lenses to see how they could be viewed. Our results and approach haven’t been perfect, but we try anyhow. But we do it because it’s worth it. Because that’s the world of games we see and love.
Okay, that’s a huge message, but thanks for making it to the end! Lots of love to the volunteers and co-organizers who helped make Gamercamp special, including Thao Lam, Arthur Marris, Jonathan Burton, Perry Jackson, Emily Claire Afan, Mark Rabo, and MC Bourdua. Also, while Gamercamp is endING, it has not endED yet.
This year has a lot of fantastic programming, including the return of our Pop-Up Arcade on October 18 and 19, with over 40 unique games, including some soon-to-be released titles for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. You can use special gloves to defeat space monsters with fist-bumps, or transport yourself into a 1990′s action film to defuse a bomb, or joust in space with intergalactic neon narwhals, as just a few examples. There’s also our Conference on October 17 with some brilliant talks that are guaranteed to inspire you. Get your passes, tell your friends and family, and come experience Gamercamp for the final time!
And, if you’re free, join us October 17 at night for our farewell party. Nothing fancy. Just celebration, conversation, drinks, and memories. Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1555803741318281/
Thank you Toronto for your love and support over the years.
With the heartiest of cheers,