GameCity's Iain Simons

The festival organiser on exposing the humanity at the core of the games industry

Nottingham's GameCity started four years ago with the intention of bringing videogame culture to a wider audience, expanding the medium's social reach while focusing on creativity, learning and above all, fun.

Here, original founder and director of GameCity, Iain Simons talks to about this year's event, what it has achieved over the past four years, and what the industry needs to do to make the leap to mainstream cultural acceptance.

Q:Let's start with you telling us a bit about your role at GameCity.

Iain Simons:I'm the director, so I've been around since the beginning. This is the fifth year that it's happened, so we're kind of delighted and surprised that it's survived - and not only survived but blossomed. So I've been with it since the beginning and we're really excited that we've reached this far in, really.

It's quite unusual for any festival to last this long, I think, and for a games event to last five years, particularly in the current climate is fantastic. I guess again we're delighted and surprised that the city's been as behind us as it has been, it's been a real key factor in being able to move forward and develop.

Q:Nottingham is a city which has seen a lot of development and investment in recent years - what were the reasons behind the choice of the city as a venue and how has it shaped the way which GameCity has evolved?

Iain Simons:The whole event came off the back of a weekend gig I did at the National Film Theatre in 2005, at which a sort of a model for what GameCity would become, a city-wide cultural games festival, was drawn up.

This was pre-London games week, so I spoke to Sheffield, and London and Nottingham and quite honestly, why Nottingham, was because they seized on it and invested in it.

Nottingham Trent University, which GameCity is a project of, really got behind it 100 per cent and took a not-insignificant risk. Not just in financial terms, but also in terms of what a videogames festival might actually be.

For a civic authority to get involved in videogames culture in the way that it has, and become involved in the videogames industry in the way that it has, is pretty unique - so really it's because Nottingham decided to get behind it, and committed in the way that it did.

In terms of how it's developed - you're probably aware that with the university we've launched legacy projects such as the National Videogames Archive on the back of the activity and energy which the festival generates. So looking forwards, we're really thinking about how GameCity, the National Videogame Archive and videogame culture can provide a more meaningful cultural tourism legacy for the city.

So, what the city's finding is that it's getting a lot of overnights, a lot more people coming into the city centre for the duration of the festival - which really has a positive impact on the city's economy for that month. So for the future, especially during these austere times, it's about finding ways in which GameCity can develop that in a more meaningful way, or at least a more long term way than just those four days in October. I think that's what the next few years are going to be about.

Q:What sort of relevant companies are operating around Nottingham? Do you have much contact with the studios up there?

Iain Simons:Yeah, Crytek UK is in the city centre, there's Monumental, Outso, Simple Lifeforms, quite a lot of smaller iPhone developers in the city. There's also Nerf Games, who are a new start up in the city. Just outside we've got Codemasters, Freestyle and Blitz - really it's in 'danger' of becoming what they call a 'cluster', in public sector speak [Laughs]

Q:So how closely are those companies involved with GameCity? Presumably they'll all be there in a recruitment capacity, but do you have much of a direct partnership with them?

Iain Simons:We do, and it's very important that we do. This year more than ever, but always in the past, we've tried to make GameCity a platform, to ensure that it's useful for the city and the industry, as well as hobbyists and fans, lots of different people can get lots out of it.

We work very closely with the companies who support us in our monthly programme, we do a thing called GameCity nights, which forms a sort of industry networking and social event which they support and invest in throughout the year.

The thing that we get most of from the developers, above and beyond the HR stuff, which tends to work out brilliantly for them because it's a real magnet for student developers coming to the city - is almost a staff development opportunity for them: a chance to actually get in front of the public and the people who consume their games in a broader sense.

The kind of E3 model, of gamers coming to play games at pods, is something we don't really do a lot of, so at GameCity events they tend to be able to get in front of parents and families and other sorts of consumers, to talk to and engage with them about their work - they seem to find that really helpful.

It's a way to participate in the culture of the rest of the world, I think, games can be a little bit sealed and a closed shop, so we try to be the opposite of that, really.

Q:Tell us a little bit about what's happening this year specifically - the OpenGameCity events sound particularly unusual.

Iain Simons:OpenGameCity is a really big, strategic change for us. What we're trying to do is create a sort of API for the festival. So, think about the festival as an open platform, what would that actually mean if you tried to describe a festival in those terms? So, in terms of content platforms and content assets and how they need to be passed around the city.

What we're trying to do is make this accessible to as many people as possible, in a way which can be understood. This means developers and publishers and indie devs, but it also means people who turn up because they've knitted a Mario jumper or because they bake Sonic cakes, all these things which are really, really important for videogame culture at street level, that help people to understand and participate in it.

We realise that this is an iteration - it's going to take a whole lot of development, a whole lot of input from the people who use it, but it's our attempt to really throw open the doors of the festival, to remodel the way the industry might participate and collaborate with the public and others part of the sector.

We're also doing a whole load of work with EA, with Sports Active 2, we're doing a big project with those guys and the NHS in the city - looking at research and consumer projects taking place across the city, we're basically making the world's best health club in the city centre.

We're linking that to explore how games can be, not a special option you do as part of your exercise programme, but just as something you just do as part of your fitness or recreation calendar throughout the day. That project's going to extend beyond the end of the festival into the rest of the year.

Q:Sounds like you're really extending your remit.

Iain Simons:I guess what we're trying to stress is ways in which the festival can be of help throughout the year, not just those four days in October. I think, if you're going to do something like this, it's important that it has some kind of legacy.

We're also doing a big concert event with James Hannigan, who's the composer for the Harry Potter games and Command and Conquer, in St Mary's church - last time we did an event there was in 2006 when Richard Jacques did a SEGA retrospective, which was fantastic.

We're also finally unveiling the Takahashi Playground plans and launching the charity Built together, and we've got Adam Saltsman, who created Canabalt. He's going to be doing a project over four days with the city's kids - they're going to be drawing assets for a couple of days then he's going to be turning them into a game - coding in a box, David Blaine style. That will be playable on the site on the Friday and Saturday.

Then we're building a bunch of lounges, in the town square, which will be decorated live by various artists. We've got Rex Crowle, from Media Molecule doing one, and Barbara Lippe from Papermint - various different artists will be decorating these living rooms which people will then play videogames in.

A ton of other stuff, with LEGO, 24-hour game jams, Guardian games for breakfast - and the National Video Game Archive, there'll be a second summit on Wednesday 27, which I think will be a key thing for the industry.

We don't really talk about it (the National Videogame Archive) much, but it is kind of a big deal, in terms of the projects that we do, we really want to talk to the industry more at the October event about what they can do to get involved with it. We held a summit earlier this year around the whole theme of digital preservation, with a lot of the stakeholders from around the country there - so the Tate and the Science Museum, the BFI, National Archives etc, and they've all gotten behind the NVA as the sort of policy leader for digital preservation in this sort of area.

So this is a key moment for the industry to get involved and participate in a broader cultural agenda with a real legacy - this is a permanent collection.

Q:It's interesting, the way you've been talking about your projects, you seem to position very much as a bridge between industry and audience, trying to engage people from both sides of the equation. That seems like quite a benevolent position.

Iain Simons:It's one of the things we find most difficult. Historically we've found it quite frustrating - it's something we find difficult to communicate to the industry - this is a public project, a civic project. It's about what games mean and contribute to people's lives. It's very important that it's not limited to how they feel when they play them - it's more about what the games industry can do in its broadest sense.

My broad frustration with the industry in the past is that, if it came forward a little bit more, was a little more human, it would be attacked a lot less. There's some amazing people work in the games industry.

In my experience the more that parents, and people who are suspicious of games are exposed to those people, because they're intelligent, insightful and creative people, because you can't make games without being those things, that tends to foster a whole load of understanding and, as you say, bridge building.

I guess that's why we try to do what we do, not because we're apologists for the games industry, but because it's really interesting, and the people involved are really interesting. At the end of the day, we just want to go to interesting events! [laughs] It's sort of quite selfish really.

Q:So not that benevolent then...

Iain Simons:We're really aware that this is a public event. The city part of GameCity is just as important as the game bit. So being able to build a playground and work with the NHS, they're really important things for us to be able to do.

I would love it if the games industry understood that we really are as open and benevolent as you say, as we attempt to be. I hope through our sincerity, and our actions, that we demonstrate that - we'd love to do more of those sort of projects, whatever they may be. There's a real place for videogames to participate in the world.

It's difficult to say this without sounding a bit like a pompous idiot, but I'll try, the opportunity for videogames to participate in modern culture, without feeling the need to say "we're videogames" and be defensive and apologise for being videogames, is often missed. There's no need to apologise.

Our position has always been: these things are interesting, and here's why, and move on from there. Not, these things won't turn you into a sociopath because of A, B, C and D - let's just get on with it, because any intelligent person can tell that these things are interesting.

Q:How close do you think we are to that? Liam Fox's recent attack on Medal of Honor seemed like an important turning point because, for the first time, a lot of the people who often end up attacking games, i.e. his party colleagues and some of the press, actually turned around and defended them, saying he was over-reacting and taking things out of context. The industry didn't need to get defensive because it was viewed almost unilaterally as something of a faux-pas on Fox's behalf. Do you think that's indicative that we're getting close to a level of social acceptance, as a culturally valuable medium?

Iain Simons:I think we're edging there. I think it was an important moment, but I think the problem was that it was isolated, and in response to a particularly and inflammatory and typical kind of case. So I think it's a step forward.

I think when we're at the point where that sort of dialogue is happening around something like Angry Birds, and these things become part of everyday parlance, then we'll be closer. I don't want to subtract from it, because it was an important moment, but not attacking is not necessarily the same as defending. I think there's a lot of other dialogue which could and should be happening about that sort of game.

It's all about literacy, at the end of the day. Those things being promoted and explored at a policy level. The weird thing we've found, when dealing with things like the Archive, we're dealing with policy makers at DCMS level and big institutions throughout the country such as the Science Museum and National Archive.

Those guys are all completely fascinated and completely interested in videogames and see them as being incredibly valuable, but they don't necessarily understand them - I don't know where to point them to go to in order to understand them. I think there's an absence of entry points, which is what we're trying to provide, other than just being able to play them.

That absence of a real critical dialogue, and I don't mean that in an academic sense, but just a broader critical dialogue around these things. It's really growing, but I don't think we're there yet. So it's important to keep pushing. It's important for the industry to get over its paranoia, to a certain extent, in working with other agencies to help that come about.

Q:Do you think that there's a level of wilful obfuscation on the industry side as well as some reticence and fear on the behalf of politicians and other bodies who see it as a bit of a niche and overly defensive industry? That maybe they even feel they'd be ridiculed for attempting to understand it?

Iain Simons:Yeah. We did a thing with the New Statesman last year, which I write for quite a lot, NS were working on a supplement at the time looking at video games, and they sent out an informal email to their contacts - so this is Westminster circle journalists, civil servants and indeed MP's - asking them how many played video games. I don't think anyone responded to say that they did.

A second email was sent to the same people, telling them this was anonymous and that they wouldn't be named as part of the piece, and this time lots of them got back in touch and came 'out' as gamers. I don't have any of that correspondence available to me at the moment personally, so my reasoning for them not wanting to be identified as gamers is entirely my own: but my supposition would be that to be identified as a gamer (in 2006, at least) was incompatible was being a 'serious' civil servant or member of the Westminster set - be that journalist, MP or whatever.

So I can well understand why the industry would be suspicious and a bit paranoid about the media and parliament, having had the kicking it's had for the last twenty years.

I can totally understand that, but, in order move on, we've got to much more pro-actively build those bridges and have dialogues about things other than tax-breaks, which are really important - and that's not in any way to subtract from those, but there are other discussions which we should be having as well.

I think the problem is that a lot of the dialogue, at policy level, tends to only be about that at the minute - I think it's in danger of being a bit myopic. There's a lot of other things we need to talk about that are also important in terms of public understanding because the only message that people get that isn't about, you know, the new Medal of Honor, is about tax breaks and to do that is to draw a little bit too much attention away from the amazing things that are happening and the amazing things that are being made.

Q:It's interesting that you mention that, because it has become a huge topic - there are a lot of people who think that the tax break issue has become overblown, specifically in terms of what's happened in Dundee with Realtime Worlds. How damaging do you think that the focus on the tax break issue has been?

Iain Simons:It's difficult for me to say, because I don't make games, so my understanding of the economies involved is simplistic at best - it's not what I do. From the point of view of someone who reads a lot about them, and obviously consumes all of the press around them... I don't necessarily think that they're a red herring, I just think that it consumes too much of the policy debate around what games are.

There's only so much bandwidth that the non-specialist press will give to videogames, so let's assume that about 50 per cent of that is going to be about Manhunt, Medal of Honor type stuff, reactionary stuff, if the rest is left over to tax breaks then I think that's a bit of a problem. We shouldn't necessarily neglect tax breaks but we need to talk about other sorts of games too.

I think the strategy for doing that isn't just about PR management, it's about participation - I think this a big thing. Going back to the sort of things we try to do at the festival, it's simply about participating in culture, in the way that other art-forms do. It's about exposing the humanity at the core of the games industry.

That's really simple. We talk about this a lot at the show - it's about the fact that games are made by people. Every other creative industry exposes the people, parades the people the artists who make the work, and games don't tend to do that as much. That's why people are suspicious and don't understand them, to a large extent.

Q:Even people who are celebrities within games are probably strangers to anyone who isn't involved, I suppose. Do you think the UK industry needs more figureheads?

Iain Simons:Absolutely definitely. But... There was a thing going around a few years ago: the games industry needs more celebrities, and let's not conflate celebrity with people who are articulate and smart when they talk about games, but the obvious view on this is that, if the opportunities were created whereby people like Alex Evans [Media Molecule], Jonathan Smith [Traveller's Tales], those guys, were put in front of consumers or the public to talk about or explain their work - I think parents would be a lot more comfortable.

There's a lot more people, like Jonathan and Alex, who could be put out there, but they're kind of hidden away in the specialist press only, or just not treated as the sort of asset that they are. I think that's key, it's really key. We can't expect to be treated with the sort of respect that other media forms are until we start getting the people out there. People want to hear from other people, not PR guys.

Q:That's a good point. So much of the material which the industry generates fall into the PR category, which then gets reproduced via any number of other sources. It can get a bit bland.

Iain Simons:It tends to fall into a cycle of only expressing its cultural importance in terms of market - you know: "we've had the biggest opening weekend since Iron Man 4 or Harry Potter 9" or whatever, ergo: "we are now really important".

Economically important is very different to 'Coronation Street' important - something which really resonates in people's everyday lives. They are important, and their economy is important, but it tends to be all that gets talked about, which is a bit of a problem.

Q:Traditionally the UK has been quite a big international player, with some big studios, but the indie scene is a huge part of our game culture, too. Do you see the development of the indie industry as an important thing for the UK going forward? The return to the days of the bedroom coders?

Iain Simons:We were arguing about this in the office the other day, actually. We used to do a part of the festival which we described as the indie part of the festival - that would mean unpublished or only self-published small teams.

So, we were planning out what we knew at the festival this year, thinking about the sort of people that we've had before - guys like Hello Games with their Joe Danger project, even Keita (Takahashi), actually, with Noby Noby Boy, and you start to think: "I'm not even sure I know what indie is, now."

Actually, maybe the most interesting thing to do, which is what we're doing this year at the festival, is to kind of disregard the whole idea of it, because I'm not sure it's that helpful anymore, in terms of it marginalising bits of the industry by making them need to be consciously indie.

I think the big opportunity, or what's really missing is... For years, we've been banging on about how the games industry needs this Reservoir Dogs moment, or Sex, Lies and Videotape moment, we've got to find the new Tarantino. We'll have some kind of moment where some indie title really hits the public consciousness, where everybody's playing and there's a whole new scene formed around it.

I kind of think we've already got the Tarantinos, we've got the developers, we've got the talent. We've probably already got the games. What's missing is the Harvey Weinstein figure. None of those films would of made anything without Miramax. What we don't have, in any kind of cohesive way, is a producer almost.

I don't mean that in the sense of a producer of an individual game, but at the studio or brand level. There's no Miramax, no Rough Trade, no Factory Records pulling these things together to give it any sort of scene. So you get these isolated, brilliant pieces of work, but they're a little bit... Disconnected, maybe?

Q:So you think we need someone who's already got that established, mainstream market to pick up these titles and get people's attention?

Iain Simons:Yeah, I think so. Someone to get out there and pull them together in a credible way, a way that forms a sort of stable.

Q:Is that the responsibility of a publisher, or an event like GameCity?

Iain Simons:I'd love us to play a part in that, but I think ultimately it's an opportunity for some kind of publisher. I think if that can tie in with things which happen on the street, that would be brilliant. But, that's the thing that's missing.

And it's personality driven to a large extent, a Tarantino or a Weinstein - we're back to the human thing of having that in front of people - this isn't just about coming up with a good brand. This is about it being followed through by some kind of amazing personality who's going to drive it on.

But, sorry, going back to your question, about the indie thing - yes, I think it's really important and I think that the sort of opportunities thrown up by PSN and XBLA and the kind of work that PlayDead and Hello Games are doing is obviously are fantastic, but those things being bought together in some way that be made a bit more meaningful in a way for everybody feels really like an opportunity for someone.

Iain Simons is a director of GameCity. Interview by Dan Pearson. For more information on the festival, check the organisation's website.

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