Its easy to think of MAGFest as a gaming convention, but its really a festival for gamers. Founded in 2002, MAGFest is held in the Washington DC area, moving this year from Virginia, to the Gaylord National Convention Centre in Maryland, a lavish hotel complex about 20 minutes from the centre of Washington DC. From humble beginnings, the festival has risen from 265 attendees a decade ago, to over 6000 descending on the Gaylord, and quite a lot in full cosplay.
And as its name indicates, its equal parts Music and Gaming. If you wanted gaming covers served up as hard rock and metal, bands with some European recognition as ARMCANNON, Metroid Metal, and Year 200X were on the main stage, whereas the second stage had more intimate acts like 1-woman ukele singer-songwriter Hello, The Future!. My personal favourite act was Random Encounter, a (wait for it) Russian “zombie-hunting” accordion and glockenspiel playing folk-rock gaming & cartoon music cover band.
The main event of MAGFest was the Earthbound Papas, who you may not have ever heard of, nor of Nobuo Uematsu, but if you've touched a Final Fantasy game you've more than likely heard their work. The Earthbound Papas, named for their prog-rock sound and line-up of middle aged men, are all heavyweight game score composers, formerly of Square Unix. But to anyone with an interest in gaming music, Uematsu is something of a fusion of Brian May and John Williams, a delightful eccentric who indulged his fans during a Q&A session with hugs, personal advice and a patient ear for would be gaming musicians. The Earthbound Papas gig boasted around 2400 people in attendance, the festival atmosphere in the ballroom all the more surreal with lightsabres held aloft alongside the more traditional lighters and phones.
On the gaming front, The main hall was half arcade consoles from wall to wall, from the early 80s cabinets to up to the minute motion capture games. It was oddly the retro games that proved the more addictive.
The other half of the mail hall was merchandise and traders, mainly t-shirts and gaming memorabilia, but also a number of artists selling music, artwork, and promoting other events. One artist, Mike Hates Meathook, made sculptures from broken consoles and controllers.
A number of gaming professionals, from bloggers like Extra Credits and LoadingReadyRun were there, offering Q&A panels on their web series. Many were there in their capacities as gaming academics and professionals, and I spent most of the Saturday attending panels discussing the nascent academic field of Gaming Studies, as well as panels on gender in gaming, and the difference between industry and academia on the future of gaming. The gaming industry is being compared by many to the 1970s American movie industry, with big name studios looking to independent developers and the first real generation of gaming studies graduates who can develop innovative ideas on a budget.
The combination of music and gaming clearly has an audience – its mostly local, but I'm tempted to go back if I can justify the transatlantic fare. More importantly, it says something about Gamers being a subculture of their own, one whose female population is is around 40% and increasing. With the growth of independent festivals all around Ireland, its only a matter of time before more gaming festivals, such as the Games Fleadh in Tipperary, are organised.
- Baz Nugent