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The New Arcade Missionaries Are Trying to Convert the Non-Gaming Masses

Wild Rumpus will bring gaming to where the people are.
Image: Robin Baumgarten

For game developers around the world, March is the season to head West. My fellow cave dwellers have awoken from hibernation, flocking, spawning, and returning to our respective territories for the Game Developer’s Conference 2014. I was on the floor of the conference all week for various game-centric events, combing through the various tracks of the summit, diving into the strange and wonderful world of conference parties, dodging sales reps on the expo floor, and eating many burritos.

Last year, I went to a dubious party where many of my fellow indie developers felt uncomfortable. It was a very Hollywood, very entertainment industry-styled party, but centered around a video game conference. It was weird.

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“The video game party” doesn’t seem like a thing that should exist. It even seems superfluous when I call it a ‘party.’ People who play games once had a paradisiacal natural habitat: the arcade. That's before it was slashed, quartered, deforested, wiped out by over-hunting, as prey of the now extinct rental video shops, the nearly extinct home console, and good old fashioned American geography.

With the exception of trendy barcades dotting the gentrified cities of America, Dave & Buster’s and it’s mini-mall ilk are all that remain of the arcade, which was forced to evaporate sometime ago, at least stateside. Once, I asked founder Nolan Bushnell how Chuck E. Cheese had managed to survive in the arcade business for so long. He leaned in and said, “Well first of all, it’s very hard to kill rats.”

Image: Robin Baumgarten

Bushnell himself is largely responsible for the format of the arcade, being a carnival barker in his youth and the driving force behind Pong, which he sold to bars across Silicon Valley and beyond. These days, the business of making arcade games is not looking good, even though Japan continues to have a decent market for it. Instead, developers and curators have moved in to fill the void with the so-called ‘new arcade.’ Among those actively working in this space, which includes collectives in Toronto, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Chicago, Austin, Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Melborne, it is London that really focuses on bringing games into nightlife.

I’ve worked with Queens video game exhibition space Babycastles on such things here in New York. In Montreal, Kokoromi actively transformed the indie arcade with their showcase parties. NYU GameCenter has a cabinet built by their MFAs at the Brooklyn Brewery’s beer garden. Rob Lach built an impressive multi-game cabinet for Logan Square’s Emporium Arcade Bar to highlight the work of his fellow Chicago devs through Indie City Games. Designers have been doing the same thing in less drunken environments for years. A din is starting to grow from the void; there’s palpable traction for the idea of reviving the arcade; after all, arcades are the threshold through which many of us entered gaming.

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Of all the new arcades, one group consistently reinvents how this new arcade functions. They do so, not through the shell of a cabinet, or in the art world, but instead by transforming bars and nightclubs into arcades. They’ll put games on a Cold War-era German fishing boat, in a faux living room, in bars around Shoreditch, in a party, anywhere they can sneak under the radar. There are games stuck in their fingernails.

Image: Robin Baumgarten

They are London’s Wild Rumpus, a ragtag band of roughhousers who, aside from having an excellent grasp on what’s important in video games today, know how to make them fun, accessible, and meaningful in an outfacing, inclusive, very public way. Essential for not preaching exclusively to our tiny, mostly supportive indie video game choir.

Rewind to 2011, when Rumpus began out of a need to have those North American new arcade experiences across the Atlantic in London. Instead of beelining for the art world, Marie Foulston, then a Penguin Books producer, decided to brings games where the people were: drinking and dancing. Foulston now leads a troop of six fellow indie game reprobates, among their ranks Pat Ashe, a game dev and performer, George Buckenham, a game designer and developer, Ricky Haggett, Honeyslug founder and creator of Hohokum, Dick Hogg, an illustrator and designer, and Alice O’Connor, an artist and craftsman. Together, they are dedicated to reviving the idea of the arcade as a social space.

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Here’s how Rumpus works. They come into your town—typically London. They set up shop somewhere: on a boat, in a warehouse, at a bar. They sell tickets online ahead of time. They sell out. They still try to get you in at the door. There’s live music, there’s games. You’ll play games, you’ll talk to people, you’ll play games with people and talk with them while you’re doing so. They have a great curation of new games, games you haven’t heard of, games you love to play with others. They’re about the new multiplayer, about weird controllers, about interactive experiences that you actually experience. Last year they had their largest turn-out for “The Wild Rumpus on a Fucking Boat,” on the aforementioned German fishing vessel.

“That party has a sad side too—as it was our first big audience shift as we moved from a free event to a paid event that was set away from Shoreditch,” Foulston recounts. “We noticed that we'd lost a large chunk of audience who weren't part of the games community, or weren't already initiated into games—it was an awesome space… but it was a shift for us away from what we've always said was one of our big goals: to bring these games to new audiences.”

There are of course, events that are going to be specifically for that incumbent audience, and no larger guestlist comprised entirely of indie game Twitter feeds exists than “That Venus Patrol and Wild Rumpus Party,” which has accompanied the Game Developers Conference for the last three years. Co-hosted by Independent Games Festival Chairman, Brandon Boyer, and his home for gaming romantics, Venus Patrol, they combine to form the be-all and end-all party for the year’s biggest gathering of game makers at San Francisco’s Public Works venue.

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Image: Robin Baumgarten

In addition to just being fun, there were games to showcase. Beers to drink. Songs to dance to. This year, Adam Saltsman & Keita Takahashi’s Alphabet was present. Instead of using a keyboard, players used the cobbled together dance pad controllers like you’ve seen in Dance Dance Revolution, similar to the MegaGIRP control pad by Babycastles seen at Motherboard’s own launch party back in 2012. In Alphabet, you move little letter men across the level. Part obstacle course, part race, its fun to watch folks scramble, Twister style. They cooperate to compete—jumping over one another to vie for the front-running space.

There was ROFLpillar, by Lucky Frame, a game about being a larvae you control by rolling in a rainbowed potato sack. Kyle Reimergartin’s FJORDS, was gorgeous, glitchy, fun. And there was Push Me Pull You, a four player game I saw all over the conference being play tested on laptops, where two Human Centipede/CatDogs play shuffleboard with their torsos, created by Melbourne-based designers Nico Disseldorp, Stuart Gillespie-Cook, Michael McMaster, and Jake Strasser.

They make games to get other sects of culture interested in games too. Musclecat Showdown, by Major Bueno and Bee & Puppycat creator Natasha Allegri debuted at the party, paired with furred controllers with little cat buttholes under their tails, hopefully attracting fans of cartoons and Allegri’s artwork, aside from the GDC attendees.

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Meanwhile, all these games are accompanied by live sets from gaming’s favorite musicians and VJs. Daedelus, Baiyon, Arcane Kids, and Phillipe Lemarchand all performed, accompanied by their own visuals, as well as the work of Berlin’s Christoffer “TRU LUV” Hedborg, amongst others. Phillipe Lemarchand, a portmanteau of Phil Fish and Richard Lemarchand, closes out the party each year.

Image: Robin Baumgarten

Stepping away from the nightclub for just a second; Wild Rumpus also debuted the “Mild Rumpus,” an exhibition at the conference’s West Hall, essentially a living room in the middle of the conference center’s efficient American brutalist architecture. Featuring games better suited to be experienced at home, it included some of my favorites, like Kentucky Route Zero and Hohokum, alongside Quadrilateral Cowboy and Samorost3. Not only was this a quiet place of refuge and relaxation amongst the uncomfortable architecture of the quintessential civic center, it was a meeting place for passers by to be surprised by talks or play sessions with the designers themselves, always somehow emerging on an adjacent beanbag or from across an IKEA coffee table.

The Rumpus team’s warmth and familiarity does so much to make games approachable. Granted we’re at a gaming conference, but nevertheless—their work is important as advocates for the power of gaming as a medium. Foulston and her merrymakers don’t showcase anything without injecting life into every orifice of what can often be stuffy affairs.

These things are important because we need to re-learn how people approach games, especially in the context of our largest annual spawn at GDC. You don’t see any proponents of the new arcade putting games in pretentious places; hell, I can’t even get Babycastles to use a consistent logo. You’re going to keep seeing Foulston and her compatriots putting them in fake living rooms, in nightclubs, in homemade arcade cabinets, in backpacks, in teddy bears, in planetariums, wherever they can find new people.

I returned to the infamous party I wrote about last year to find that not many of my fellow developers were there.