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What's the secret to pulling off a good games show?

There can no longer be any doubt that games, as a form of entertainment, occupy a secure place in the public consciousness - even in public affection. With every passing year more people play more kinds of more games more of the time. TV executives stir nervously in their seats at the thought of the mindshare and sheer viewing hours they're losing to the younger medium, advertisers eye our hours of gaming time hungrily, and Hollywood locks the games industry in an ever-tighter embrace of mutual admiration (and profit). Games have arrived. But there's a problem - they've done it without actually leaving the house.

For such a popular medium, games have terrible trouble engaging with the public in public spaces: exhibitions, events and that most public space of all, the media. Put games culture in front of an audience or a camera and, nine times out of ten, it will scuff its feet, stare at the floor and blurt out inanities like the socially-inhibited teenager everyone assumes it is.

This preternatural awkwardness was evident during last month's London Games Festival. A brave and well-meaning attempt to bring every church of gaming under one roof, the Festival was built around useful industry sessions like the Games Developers' Conference London and the Games Careers Fair, but when it turned to face the public it got its knickers in a twist.

Getting involved

The Lizards' Lair pitching session - where members of the public could put their games ideas forward to a panel of industry luminaries, Dragons' Den style - was a good populist twist on the Festival's theme of involvement, and exposing the creative process behind games. But it wasn't possible to buy tickets or to attend at all without prior knowledge and an idea to sell.

The Fringe events hearteningly explored high-brow aspects of games culture that rarely form a part of its public profile: philosophical (a debate on AI), artistic (an exhibition of interactive visual art), social and psychological (a workshop exploring the universal impulse to play).

But these events were scattered across town, often poorly publicised, and rather intimidatingly aimed at special interest groups. They badly needed to be hung on a more approachable hook. The screening of machinima and games cutscenes at the Prince Charles cinema might have been that hook - if it hadn't been largely recycled from last year's onedotzero showcase.

Mostly however, the problem with this event - as with so many others - was how to put the games themselves on display, front and centre. Gaming isn't necessarily a solitary activity, but, taking place as it does in the home, it isn't a public one either.

It's extremely rare for games to be made available to play in a public environment without it descending into the chaos and queues of a trade show. Admittedly, it's always going to be difficult to exhibit interactive media to their best advantage to large numbers of people, but exhibition spaces say something about the viewer as well as the viewed, and this is where the Festival could have done better.

Shopping around

In terms of opportunities to actually play, there was a strictly commercial demo-pod showcase at HMV, or the World Series of Video Games e-sports tournament in a dark corner of the Trocadero centre. There was an uncomfortable, if unintentional message: you're either a consumer or an unhealthy fanatic. Take your pick.

It's one thing to want to raise the profile of videogames as a creative culture and industry, quite another to rehabilitate their image. The centrepiece of the Festival, the British Academy Video Game Awards, was a valiant attempt by BAFTA (which recently, and rightly, recognised games as the 'third pillar' of Britain's exceptional audiovisual creative industries) to do both.

Its success was mixed. The presence of C-list celebrities with no connection to the field (Paul Gamabaccini, anyone? Krishnan Guru-Murphy?) unavoidably added an air of condescension to the proceedings. Unfortunately this was amplified in the excruciating E4 broadcast of the event, as interviews showed a string of semi-famous names embarrassedly trying to distance themselves from the medium they were supposed to be celebrating.

The individuals responsible for the work being rewarded were never named, an unthinkable slight at any other awards ceremony. We didn't even know who it was giving the acceptance speeches, which in any case were cut from the E4 show.

True, game developers are never going to be celebrities, and the new Best Character award was a brilliant recognition of who gaming's real stars are (delightfully won by Loco Roco, a truly interactive hero, not a virtual film star). But if, as it says, BAFTA wants to recognise gaming as a creative industry, then it surely has to publicly recognise the industry's creative individuals.

That responsibility is the industry's, too. The BAVGAs remain a great opportunity, a prestigious, peer-reviewed celebration of excellence like no other in the games world, and more companies could have shown it the respect it deserves by ensuring their stars, not their suits, were on hand to accept the applause.

The appliance of science

So how do you get it right? Happily, the answer followed a couple of weeks later, and technically as part of the very same festival. The triumphant return of Game On to the Science Museum - in a refreshed, refocused form that actually improves on the original Barbican exhibition of several years ago - is a masterclass in how to exhibit and celebrate games culture to a public that, when treated with respect, is only too happy to respond in kind.

Game On's simplest but rarest feat is simply to provide games - dozens and dozens of games, of every conceivable vintage and style - to play to your heart's content in an environment that isn't uncomfortable, off-putting or seedy.

It also remembers that the gaming aesthetic expands beyond the screen, so it showcases arcade cabinets, consoles, manuals and artwork. It understands that play isn't passive, so it turns the public's gaming into performance, with four-player Halo arranged as a round-table face-off, or Guitar Hero in front of a projector.

It's bright, exuberant, accessible, and gives every visitor something to latch on to; John Burgergman's excellent mural, an illustrated history of videogames, locates it in the universal language of popular culture and politics - the advent of Barbie, the Stylophone and the Vietnam war.

The curators even raise difficult questions like violence and health issues honestly, without defensively joking about them or shamefully sweeping them under the carpet. And at its press launch, the organisers didn't trot out celebrities but true gaming legends: Archer Maclean, David Braben, Richard Jacques... People who could make up for their lack of name recognition with eloquence, passion and insight.

Winning formula

The way Game On constructs and presents itself is everything most public games events aren't: confident, coherent, intelligent, proud, and aimed at a universal audience.

Nintendo has done itself a great favour with its sponsorship of Game On, and hopefully the rest of the industry will see the PR advantages of such a welcoming, professionally staged cultural event.

It shouldn't be impossible to imagine a yearly festival with a contemporary focus along the same lines, and indeed last month's Game City in Nottingham looked to be taking several steps in the right direction with its diverse but resolutely outward-facing programme of events.

Here's hoping that others learn from shows like Game On, because once games culture learns to stand up and celebrate itself out in the open, it might find that more people love and understand it than it ever realised.

Author

Hugo Reed

Contributor

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