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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.

GamesIndustry.bizLet'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.

GamesIndustry.bizNottingham 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.

GamesIndustry.bizWhat 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]

GamesIndustry.bizSo 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.

GamesIndustry.bizTell 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.

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