Gamercamp Explores the Ideas and Art Behind Video Games
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Gamercamp Explores the Ideas and Art Behind Video Games

Gamercamp attendees ham it up for the camera.

Though the view of video games as a goofy, childish pastime has long since passed, many, like noted film critic Roger Ebert, still tend to see them as flippant entertainment, more full of spectacle and bombast than anything else.
But the second annual meeting of Gamercamp—a weekend festival dedicated to the ideas that go into making video games and the community that surrounds them—proved that games haven’t only come into their own as a form, but that they’re increasingly artistic and experimental, too. What’s more, some of the coolest stuff is being created right here in Toronto.

Spread over two days at the Toronto Underground Cinema and George Brown College, Gamercamp brought together a diverse crowd of game designers, programmers, writers, and fans who simply like to talk and think about video games.

Organizers Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo kick the weekend off.

Day one kicked off with a discussion from the Superbrothers team about their upcoming game Sword & Sworcery, which was created after artist Craig Adams heard the work of Juno-nominated musician Jim Guthrie. In the demo that followed, the crowd saw how Guthrie’s music and Adams’ retro 8-bit aesthetic worked together, and although the game does feature classic “hack ‘n slash” gameplay, Adams highlighted the title’s intro, in which a main character simply explores the ethereal, pixelated landscape. The clearly arty experimental approach set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
Case in point: a demonstration of Big Pants Games’ attempts at making a game that relies on those old red and blue 3D glasses. After handing out glasses to the crowd, Jim McGinley showed the various iterations of his attempts to make something fun and compelling using 3D. When McGinley showed a ball convincingly moving through a three-dimensional tube, there was much oohing and aahing from the crowd, as they got a sense of how the effect might be used to do something truly new. Both it and Sword and Sworcery are being developed in Toronto, and both are indicative of the kind of innovative approach being taken here.

Attendees ooh and aah over a new game.

Jaime Woo, a one-time Torontoist contributor who organized Gamercamp with Mark Rabo, told us that the city has become such a hotbed for indie game development both because of a spirit of collaboration between developers, and because of the “proximity to other art forms in the city, such as theatre, music, and visual and media arts.” What’s more, Woo said, the fact that “there hasn’t been a major studio in Toronto until recently meant that people who are in the games industry in Toronto had to do it because they loved it.”
Toronto’s specialty seems to be mixing video games with the gritty, do-it-yourself ethic of indie rock. And even though Vancouver and Montreal dominate big-name game production in the country, day two of the conference showed Toronto’s indie vibe is a fertile ground for new ideas. A panel discussion featuring David Fono of Atmosphere Games, JP Dyson from the Rochester Museum of Play, and OCADU prof Emma Westecott focused on the nature of play itself: why do we play, why do we stop playing when we grow up, and what can games do to facilitate a return to that spirit of playfulness that renders the world more open and creative?

A panel on narrative in games was especially popular.

Though the answers in that panel were mostly nebulous, it would turn out that some were offered by another panel on narrative in games and comics. Led by Christopher Butcher of local comic shop The Beguiling, the panel suggested that games needed to continue to find a way to tell stories through gameplay itself, or what academics call “procedural rhetoric.” As Butcher suggested, games have a capacity for making the player complicit in the story, which can allow for experiences not possible in any other form. As indie gaming leads the wave of innovation, it’ll be up to small developers to push gaming forward as a serious medium.
One of Gamercamp’s last talks was by Benjamin Rivers, provocatively titled “Social Gaming Has Nothing to Do with Facebook.” But rather than giving Farmville the tongue-lashing it so deserves, Rivers suggested that something has been lost in the shift to multiplayer gaming online, an activity that sees people playing together while actually sitting alone in their rooms. What we need, he said, is a return to the spirit of friends playing a board game or Goldeneye 64 together in a room, using games as a tool to bring us together rather than encouraging solitude.
It was a fitting end to Gamercamp. For too long, games have been seen as escapist fantasy, as an attempt to retreat from reality into a world of musclebound heroes and hyper-sexualized vixens. But if the weekend proved anything, it was that games are about connecting with the world and the people in it, using the fundamental nature of play to reconfigure our relationship to life and each other. Sure, it’s heady, idealistic stuff. But then isn’t that precisely why, in the face of day-to-day drudgery, we put down our work, pick up our controllers, and play?
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.