“This one time at GameCamp…”: a grand day at GameCamp 8

GameCamp logoAs previously discussed, today saw the eighth almost-annual GameCamp in London, at a campus of South Bank University near Elephant and Castle. The day saw something like 200 or 300 attendees enjoying an ad-hoc programme between 10am and 5pm (and an afterparty in the pub…) with people offering talks and activities on the half-hour, along with an extensive board game library and digital game demonstration lounge and occasional social games in the hallways. There were plenty of very knowledgeable, smart people there and an awful lot of fun ideas.

I enjoyed the event not only as a random attendee but also as a student of unconferences, having had only the Leeds edition (as an attendee) and the London edition (as facilitator) of The Great Escape UK. In truth, I had rather a shy day. The night beforehand I had grandiose plans for running a chocolate-tasting game with a box of tiny Green and Black’s flavoured chocolate bars, but (a) the bars are so small that the game wouldn’t have been fair and (b) the chocolate was out of date and some way past its best. (Maybe next year, though, with more preparation and more chocolate; in context, it would have fit in quite well.) I had also thought about trying to run sessions about puzzle adventures outside locked rooms or The Genius (or, more generically, “proper games on game shows”…) but it quickly became clear that the standards were so high – session attendances varying from approaching ten to more than fifty – that I wouldn’t have been able to busk the sessions. Again, maybe next year, with proper preparation.

What I did do, though, was play one published board game (Mr. Jack, a two-player detective-vs.-Jack-the-Ripper deductive chase game… not bad, though needs more than one play for each player to get the hang of the strategy), a late-stage prototype board game (very mechanically satisfying, sort of an inside-out version of one of my favourite early Reiner Knizia games), a late-stage prototype of Fabulous Beasts (which compared very favourably to the early playtest version I enjoyed in mid-February 2015) and a handful of prototype social games: a very simple, silly card/dice game that didn’t outstay its welcome, a real-time play-via-SMS negotiation game (cute medium, well worth exploring) and the mighty, silly, playful, rule-changing Cat On Yer Head mob party game. Half an hour of each was the exactly correct bite size. I also attended a number of talks, more of which than I had expected having a common theme of mental health. (This development is to be applauded; the more talking about mental health that happens, the better.)

The talk I most enjoyed was Oubliette‘s Mink ette on Designing Escape Games. This had a few dozen attendees. Adrian Hon had spoken on the genre at GameCamp 7, two years back, as mentioned at the time, and the audience (heavy on game developers, but game developers in many media) were much more up-to-speed now than they were then. Mink had given a talk at Strange Tales to an audience who were focused on narrative; this talk – completely off the cuff – was much more development-focused, and hit the mark completely with the audience.

As this is Ex Exit Games rather than neutral old Exit Games, I can say that Mink absolutely nailed it; I had a huge smile on my face for 26 minutes, and a covered mouth and furrowed brow for the other two. By the same token, I am of the opinion that Mink’s breadth of multimedia storytelling game experiences means that she gets it much more than most – she has a variety of perspectives, approaches and understanding of the modern story game aesthetic that I have heard infrequently elsewhere. Here’s a slightly silly analogy based more on feeling than anything else, but with at least a grain of truth behind it: Punchdrunk is to Myst as Time Run is to Monkey Island as Oubliette is to Gone Home; all great, in different ways. As discussed, Oubliette won’t be around for long in its current form. It would be a terrible shame to lose Mink’s experiences and vision from the world of escape rooms (yes, this is pretty much a direct HIRE MINK, SHE’S GREAT plug) but, if it happens, we can be sure that something not very far away will gain instead.

Another interesting session was a crowdsourced instant awards show: a very simple, elegant, effective design for a facilitator and at least a couple of dozen players. The protocol is simple:

  1. a player suggests an award category;
  2. other players can make nominations for the category, offering brief reasoning in favour;
  3. after each nomination, anybody can briefly rebut it;
  4. once the flow of nominations dries up, there’s a vote among the players (today using Approval voting) to determine which nomination wins the category.

I suggested the GameCamp 8 award for GameCamp 10’s “That’s so GameCamp 9”, which I should have more neatly called this year’s next year’s last year’s thing, and which was not unreasonably elided to “flashes in the pan”. VR games were nominated first and much discussed. The fourth nomination – obviously not by me – was that of live-action escape games, described in some most unparliamentary language. Oddly enough, I rebutted the nomination, to a decorous round of applause from the nominator; when it came to the voting for the award, VR games won, but escape games did come a pretty close second. On balance, I don’t mind the nomination at all; one of the ways you know your genre has made it is when there’s a backlash against it.

If there’s a negative criticism to the day – and this, I fear, is one where the committee had worked long and hard on the practicalities – it’s that the lunch was merely serviceable (and I’ve juggled a few alternative adjectives here) with three thin slices of very moderate pizza and a merely competent salad, when previous GameCamps have had the communally broken bread as a highlight. Plus points for free water, minus points for no dessert. I nearly said in the debriefing session that “I’d have paid a higher entry fee for the budget to cover a lunch that included dessert” – but, when I went to the café afterwards and looked at the prices charged for dessert there, I internally said how much? and bought a cheap banana instead. That position of mine is not quite inconsistent, but it’s certainly incongruous. (That said, I nearly bought a cake just for the purposes of taking it to a session taking place in a room that had been renamed Cake for the day, but decided it a gag not quite worth the money.)

Many thanks to the committee for all their hard work, to the overseers of the board game library and to all those who contributed, either by leading a session or just by contributing to one. (Playing games definitely counts here.) It was lovely to see people from both Puzzled Pint and from the London The Great Escape UK unconference – no name checks, but you know who you are. (It’s also great to start to bump into people more and more frequently; that’s how you make friendships!) It was also lovely to get something that had been weighing on my mind somewhat out into the open, and it was received as well as I could have hoped.

The unexpected conclusion that I came away with from the unconference is that it was absolutely the right decision for me to move from Exit Games UK to Ex Exit Games. Just as well, really!

8 Comments

  1. The Awards Game sounds like one of the play options within The Metagame (aka the non-offensive version of Cards Against Humanity), except with a finite number of categories and nominees rather than free-forming it. I was tempted to say ‘better for less creative types’ but actually you just have to be creative in a different way.

    Reply
    • Intriguing! I shall investigate.

      By coincidence, one of the other awards categories ran along the lines of “most-cloned game in 2016” and a very strong second place went to Cards Against Humanity (though, arguably, that award should be grandfathered back to Apples to Apples… or folk games earlier still.) The award is telling because so many successors have imitated not just its gameplay but also its look, even if not quite its feel. (Thankfully.)

      Reply
  2. Many thanks for the extremely kind words about almost all of GameCamp. On the point of lunch, I’ll only say that providing it for free costs us two-thirds of our entire income from ticket sales. At previous events we could use our own caterers, but due to changes in policy we are now tied to the university’s contracted catering service. They don’t do desserts, but then we never did either.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, James!

      Your comment about the cost of the catered lunch sounds entirely believable (an odd thing to say, as it would be impolite to suggest that I don’t believe you). I sympathise with your comment at the debrief about the location being the toughest part of the event to lock down, from experience with much smaller unconferences and Puzzled Pint. I’m not suggesting there are any better deals to be had than the one you struck (though if any ever come to my attention, I’ll let you know, and other aspects of the venue set the bar extremely high…) but the LSBU contracted catering service clearly did pretty well out of GameCamp.

      Reply
  3. Yes, it was a well-organised event and most enjoyable. On the downside, I only got to one session all day (frustratingly, not the Escape Room one) which was definitely a mistake on my part.
    …oh, and thanks for the comments on my game, Chris – the minor fix that was prompted by your comments has proved to work alarmingly well. 🙂

    Reply

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