Why We Keep Coming Back to Game Conventions
How a modern-day gaming expo compares to the rose-tinted memories of my 90s childhood.
EGX 2015. Image: Tom Fenwick
1992: Ecco the Dolphin, Flashback and Mortal Kombat were in our consoles, virtual reality was finally an actual reality, and GamesMaster was on TV. It was a golden age for video games. And at the time, there were only two things I wanted to do more than anything else in the world:
1. Play morally questionable full-motion video house invasion game Night Trap
2. Go to the Future Entertainment Show at Earls Court in London
Only one of those things ever happened, and while I may never know the fate of Night Trap's slumber party coeds, I still vividly remember the excitement, glamour, and sensory overload of the Future Entertainment Show. Arguably the first public-oriented event of its kind, it was a vision of the future in a pre-internet age; a time when demos of the latest games couldn't be instantly downloaded, and previews or reviews were limited to print titles like CVG, Mean Machines or Official Nintendo Magazine.
For me it felt like a glorious time to be alive, but I was just a kid. For a less rose-tinted view I spoke to Sam Watts, BAFTA-nominated game producer at Tammeka Games and long-time convention attendee, who remembers those days a little differently. "It was basically everything bad about cons," he said. "A dominantly male audience, scantily-dressed 'booth babes' who didn't know much about what they were advertising trying to draw them towards the stands, hard sales being pressed onto people, and random Chinese manufacturers selling knock-off devices."
Over the last 20 years, as conventions have evolved and expanded along with gaming, they've largely done away with 'booth babes' and tried to balance mainstream needs alongside niche inclusivity. And as Watts tells me, for indie developers they're still part of a bigger picture: "If you're an aspiring dev, it's crucial to go to these things because it's the best way to get coverage and get your game out there."
But what if you're just a fan, unconnected to the games industry? In an age where the latest gaming news can be found immediately online and beta demos arrive weeks before release, a convention seems like a peculiarly archaic way to glimpse the future.
To try and figure out what draws the public back year upon year for endless queues, overcrowded halls, and unabashed advertising, I headed to my second game convention in 20 years, amongst the labyrinthine halls of the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre.
EGX is Britain's largest gaming expo. After starting out in London with a capacity of 4,000 people— a relative latecomer to expanding party of video game events that span the globe—it's now moved to Birmingham and grown exponentially, to accommodate a staggering sold-out crowd of 75,000. It boasts an impressive line-up too, with something for everyone whether you're a cosplayer, triple-A game junkie, YouTube celebrity hanger-on, or just an old-fashioned analogue Warhammer fan.
Much has changed, but some things remain the same: the booths, advertisers, endless snaking queues, ephemeral swag, and sensory overload are all still there. It might be the greatest place on Earth if you're a teenager—and judging by the amount of blazers stuffed into rucksacks a few are skipping school to be here—but as I step over discarded cans and make my way into the heart of the arena, it feels more like a panic attack made corporeal: a sea of bodies in perpetual motion, fuelled by off-brand energy drinks.
The only time people seem to stop is when they're queuing for games or crashing out on beanbags in a taurine slump. I bump into Paul McCambridge on the fringes of one queue, an enthusiastic gamer from Norfolk who's a regular at these events and doesn't see the increased capacity as a problem. "It's bigger and busier, but the more people who play video games the better, as far as I can see," he said. "I don't mind queuing for an hour, to play a game I'm interested in."
But queuing for an hour is the exception, rather than the rule—something I find out later when I'm told the queue to play Star Wars: Battlefront, a game which is out in beta next week, is four hours long. Or when every five-minute slot on the latest VR headset vanishes in the first 15 minutes of the con opening; a first-come-first-served concept, which the people in the HTC Vive booth valiantly try to explain to a belligerent latecomer in Google Glass. "I try telling them we were all booked out for the day," the guy at the counter tells me. "But they just stand here for hours waiting, or try and negotiate in case someone cancels… No one's going to cancel, mate."
In another queue I catch sight of Darren Johnson, who enjoys elaborate cosplay. He loves events like this—he's here for all four days—but he's been burnt by the cruel comments of non-costumed gamers at other conventions and is concerned that more widespread appeal can occasionally ruin the fun for niche communities. "Some cosplayers get very wary, because there's always a handful of people who just go out to ruin the experience for you," he explained. "But I won't do this everyday. Sunday's my day off, where I just dress in normal clothes."
A rest on Sunday seems appropriate when I meet Brian Buffon from GameChurch, a Christian nonprofit that "wants to tell gamers Jesus loves them and it doesn't matter what they play, they don't need to take a shower afterwards." Although with the sheer quantity of free badges, posters and books they're giving away, it's hard to judge if the people crowding around their booth are there for sermons or just more swag.
Whether by design or practicality, EGX avoids ghettoising niche groups, taking a wide view towards gaming's many distinct groups. The stand for Sony rubs up against areas devoted to tabletop gamers, while indie devs, like Nic Berbece—who's promoting his game Move or Die—sit alongside a gargantuan Nintendo stand. I ask Nic if he finds the experience comfortable and he echoes the sentiments of Sam Watts: "It's truly amazing! I made this game in my living room and now I get to share the floor with these huge companies."
As a kid in the 90s, events like the Future Entertainment Show were a validation of something my parents' generation didn't quite understand: video games weren't just a distraction from homework or going outside, they were part of a lifestyle. What modern conventions present is simply a broader vision of that ideal; it's bigger and more parents understand now—because they were the ones playing games in the 90s—but it's no less gaudy.
In trying to encapsulate the broadest cross-section of games culture possible, there's a sense conventions like EGX could spread themselves too thin at the expense of inclusivity—but for better or worse, that's probably the closest we'll get to a representation of modern video gaming.