Last week, Toronto’s Hotel Ocho hosted the sixth and final (?) Gamercamp festival. We’ve waxed nostalgic on what the event means for us at Dork Shelf, and for those involved in the Toronto video game scene in one way or another. We’ve also presented our rundown of the coolest, weirdest and most impressive games this year.
We spoke with Gamercamp’s organizer and co-founder Jaime Woo about the evolution of the event, why he’s bringing it to a close, and what might come next both for him and the independent gaming community in Toronto.
Dork Shelf: How has Gamercamp gone this year?
Jaime Woo: I’m beyond pleased with the way this weekend went. For four months of the year, this event is something that is imaginary. It’s just in my head. And you never know how it’s going to play out. I think any event planner has that worry that you hope that what you so believe in in your head, other people will find charming as well.
And so this weekend I’ve loved seeing such a variety of people who come and are experiencing these games, many of which they’ve never played before, never heard of before, but they’re getting it. They love the hotel, they’re diving into the games. It is really my happy place. I’m so happy that I get to create this space for people.
This is the second year at the Hotel Ocho. The venue seems to really fit the vibe you’re going for.
JW: Yeah, I think that it’s been great to have [games playable in the hotel] rooms. It blows people’s minds, because people just aren’t used to that. They don’t understand that, and yet, that’s the same time, exactly, how a lot of people in the games industry play games. If you think about it, at GDC, or Indiecade, you just go to someone’s hotel room, and you’re playing the game there, and it’s intimate and it’s cool. We should totally let attendees to that too.
Why is Gamercamp ending?
JW: After six years, it’s just been an amazing journey. But doing a community event is exhausting. We’ve been grassroots; we’ve been lucky to get some financial support, but by no means is it a windfall.
It’s been really interesting to see it grow, and I’m very proud of it, but it does take a lot of work from a lot of people. And creatively, I think I’m just going to ty to charge my batteries and take a break from it. And I talked to the team, and they agreed that they were ready for new adventures as well.
Let’s take a second for a flashback: How did this start in the first place?
JW: In 2009, Mark Rabo and I were wondering what we could do, as people who liked games in Toronto, that wasn’t just a purely marketing event. Both of us have worked in tech and social media, and we were just used to get-togethers where people came to knowledge-share. And that’s really how the first Gamercamp started.
I mean, we do this in film all the time. People give talks on film, and they show trailers and such, and there wasn’t a gathering that wasn’t as publicly focused. So often there’s a huge technical component that keeps people away. Because it feels like it’s not for them. And I thought that we could do something different.
The Toronto games scene has matured a lot in the past few years. Has the Toronto scene changed in a way that made it difficult for Gamercamp to adapt? Has it outgrown Gamercamp?
JW: No, I think that, even as this is our last year, Toronto needs Gamercamp as much as Gamercamp needs Toronto. To me, it’s really funny that we have all of these award-winning developers, and yet most people in our own backyards had no idea that these games were made here.
I mean, we know indie games, but no everyone knows indie games. But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like it if they got to try it. We don’t do the best job of highlighting how great our local artists are.
Part of this is the lack of awareness that mainstream media have around games. So they’re very happy to promote theatre artists, or film artists, or music arrests, but game artists are so foreign to them. And it’s actually silly, considering that some of these games are some of the best cultural products, financially and awareness-wise, out there.
If you think about it, [Mare Sheppard’s] N+ has been played by – I’m guessing here – but I think it’s something in the hundreds of thousands of players. I think something close to a million people have experienced either N+ or N++. And yet, we don’t really reflect on that, or celebrate that, nearly as much as we should.
So, everyone will run pieces about GamerGate, but they won’t stop to say, “oh my goodness, there are some amazing female developers in Toronto.” Or, “What kind of community is here?”
And that’s been part of the struggles we’ve had with Gamercamp. Thank god for the OMCD, I think they’re fantastic for having supported us, but other agencies are not there yet. They would be very happy to fund more traditional art forms, and I think it’s a shame that they can’t see that something can be commercially viable but also have artistic merit.
Over the years, Gamercamp has changed a lot – sometimes it got bigger, sometimes it got smaller. What do you think was the coolest part of Gamercamp’s evolution?
JW: I think redefining the showcase experience has been an amazing experience. And being able to bring a collection of games which I think would be the envy of any other city with a gaming population. Sometimes people don’t realize how forward-thinking these games are. And then they hit big in a year or two, and it’s great, because attendees can say, “I saw that at Gamercamp before it came out.”
That’s been very cool to see here. Also all the developers coming here, like even this year we’ve got people here from Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Washington, New York, Vancouver – people are here from all over the place. Before Gamercamp, this did not happen. That’s something I can absolutely say: before Gamercamp, we did not have a lot of visiting developers coming to see how great this community was. And I think that’s the thing that makes me saddest: is that we will have a void there after it ends.
Do you have a personal favourite moment from Gamercamp? And was there one big misstep?
JW: In the last few years, it’s been fantastic to just see how kids and their parents react to the games. I mean, there was a little boy in a Lego backpack who’s just dragging his dad along the hallways, to go from game to game, and yesterday we had two girls with their moms – they took their shoes off, hopped onto the beds, and just started playing games. And that, to me, is amazing.
At the conference, we had to high school students who came up to me and said, “You’ve blown our minds. This is amazing! I can’t wait to get into games.” And it’s not just boys who are into this; girls are getting into games too. So that’s my favourite part – all the times you get to see how the next generation can improve on what we’re doing.
Were there any missteps along the way?
JW: It was maybe too weird for its own good. [The National Post’s] Daniel Kaszor asked me this, he said, “Hey, every year you change!” And he liked that, but I can understand for an attendee, that can be really tough. Some people went with it, going “Oh yeah, it changes every year! I can’t wait to see what happens!” But I don’t really know if that was the best business idea, to constantly change it. But it had to evolve as I did. I never saw this as an “institution,” for better or worse.
What’s next for you, and for the people working with Gamercamp?
JW: I feel like I’m kind of in a mother hen situation right now, because with everyone, it’s been amazing to see our volunteers, many who started in school, and now have full-blown game careers out there. So I’m definitely never going to stop championing all their work.
But I need some time to just be able to not always be thinking about the next Gamercamp. I take a couple of months off, and all of a sudden it’s GDC, and I’m off to scout for games, or whenever I can I go to another city to meet the developers there to see what’s going on there. So for me, I’m going to take the next couple of months and just savour what I’ve done, but also let myself process the last six years. Because I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do that, not when there’s another one coming up.
Could Gamercamp return in some form in the future? Will the name “Gamercamp” survive in some other form?
JW: Sure, of course. I was just joking with [Pix the Cat‘s] Nadim Haddad that maybe I’ll turn Gamercamp into a board game. During the weekend, I do all these little things – even with the placement of the games. Last year when we needed to figure out how to move traffic, I put a couch right in the middle of the direct route to something, so people had to go around it, and I learned that from Theme Park! Because when you’re queueing, you have to do it in a way so that people see other things around the park. I think it would be a hilarious game. I don’t think I’d do it for commercial reasons, though. So maybe we’ll see a Gamercamp board game in a year or two.