30 minutes before the private viewing for Now Play This, there’s a remarkable lack of panic when I talk to Holly Gramazio, the director of the festival.
I was warned, ahead of time, that Gramazio might be a nervous ball of energy this close to opening but, as we sit in Somerset House, everything is calm. All of the work has been done, and now the team are eagerly awaiting guests for their private viewing.
Perhaps it’s because this is the fourth installment of Now Play This, the festival of experimental game design that kicks off London Games Festival.Looking at London Games Festival’s multitude of events across the capital, including finance and networking opportunities, esports symposiums and the indie-focused EGX Rezzed that takes over London’s Tobacco Dock each year, Now Play This, a quiet celebration of play, might get lost in the noise.
But events like this are essential for the future of the video game business at large. Gramazio explains why:
"There aren’t many events which look at game design and play where where you’re looking, mainly, at themes or experiments or what’s going on in this big experimental field of play. There are practitioners from architecture and from visual arts and from video game design and board game design. All of these different areas are doing really interesting experimental stuff with playing."
Gramazio says that often these fields can be sectioned off not just from the commercial mainstream, but also from each other.
" I find it really exciting to have an event where we’re able to draw from all of these different places and put these practitioners from lots of different corners of both the contextual world and also, sometimes, the physical world because of being able to bring quite a few people over for it, put them together, and get them talking to each other about their work and cross-pollinating ideas and finding out about things."
Commenting that work is "absolutely" better when people pull from a larger frame of reference, making events like these essential.
"If video games only look at other video games for inspiration, then you can quickly get something quite insular, based either on recreating or rebelling against past glories. Once a game has been made it doesn’t exist in isolation, but this approach of recreating and rebelling just isolates games from the rest of culture."
We asked Holly about some of the more interesting experiences that are being shown at Now Play This this weekend.
"There’s a piece from the early 90’s by Suzanne Treister, who’s a visual artist. We’ve got eight principal series fictional video games stills, so in 1990 and 1991, she, on her computer, made the screen, single screen screenshots from video games that didn’t exist and then she photographed them. She took a camera and took a photo of the screen – that was 1991 so that was the best way to show off work from her computer – and they actually resemble a recent trend for Flat Games, a format Laura Mcgee came up with for games that have to have art done in an hour, ,with just a single backing track and no collisions or interactions. We’re showing some of these too, so there’s a nice way to track that evolution."
Gramazio also discusses how events like Now Play This also introduce new audiences to games, who perhaps may have been intimidated by the idea of a controller before, or who might have preconceptions about what games can be.
This does create an interesting challenge for curation, however.
"Definitely a lot of our audience aren’t necessarily used to engaging critically with games and so there’s, definitely think about how you get people to think about stuff from different angles, how to enable people who don’t necessarily want to play a game or who might be intimidated by a controller with 25 buttons on it. How can we create a smoother path to play for them or provide an experience that’s still worthwhile if they just choose to watch and read tutorial text and have a think."
There’s a mix here: some of the experiences on offer here are fun toys, some provide an interesting experience while some, like Dan Hett’s The Loss Levels, a Warioware-esque collection of mini-games about the grief felt by Hett as he came to terms with the death of his brother in the terrorist bombing of the Manchester Arena last year or Jane Friedhoff’s Lost Wage Rampage, a game about two women tearing through a shopping mall to collect the cash they lost by being underpaid – politically relevant right now just a day after the gender pay database submission deadline has shown a disparity between what men and women are earning in the industry.
Events like Now Play This are important to games culture, and games culture will inform the next generation of commercial video games, in addition to the subversive but hugely important experimental indie scene. Now Play This takes place at Somerset House between today and Sunday.