It was day two. I stood in a darkened conference hall, blinking wetly into the burning lights of the main musical stage, rocking awkwardly back and forth on my feet to alleviate the pulpy bruised feeling in my shoes from walking around nearly nonstop since mid morning. I was at the Music and Gaming Festival, one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast, a four-day extravaganza of game culture, web content creators, and NES inspired musical acts. At the moment I was waiting for DJ Cutman, who I was assured by the people I was sharing a hotel room with was one of the people worth coming to the festival for, currently on stage with a cluster of fellow electronic artists setting up the tangled mess of computer equipment for the show. It was at this time, quietly irritable and feet graduating from moderately uncomfortable to mildly painful, that I saw someone that I realized to be a sort of spirit animal for the festival. He was tall, skinny, and pale; thin glasses and dark hair arranged in no discernible haircut style, just washed and combed to a bare minimum 'not gross'. He looked like the shy kid who would quietly contribute to group projects in his high school English class, most notable for how completely he would try to go unnoticed. Of course what made him stand out here was his bony chest was bare in all of its milk colored glory, crossed with an S&M rig of belts, with a black faux leather duster flapping behind him as he strutted past with all of the confidence and pop of an LA drag queen. MAGFest is a very different place.
I was convinced to visit the festival by my brother, a former visitor two years ago trying to start a tradition of annually making the pilgrimage to Maryland. Not being a particularly avid gamer it wasn't a culture I was familiar or a member of, but seeing a number of animators and web content creators on the guest list gave me the extra incentive to give the four days a shot. The festival was held in National Harbor, Maryland in the Gaylord Hotel at the heart of a MGM brand lakeside resort. The cultural parallel of the extravagant and inarguably pretentious resort to the invasionary force of gamers was immediately apparent and amusing, with stern-faced security guards wearing withering looks that spoke of their internal debate of whether it was worth surviving their tour in Afghanistan to watch two grown men enthusiastically thrashing a Daytona USA cabinet at three in the morning. The resort did cause for some mild inconvenience as it was comfortably removed from walking distance to other less expensive locales, making you rely either on take-out, the contents of coolers brought from the outside, or braving the haughty resort shops that saw a Himalayan art retailer as a necessary staple. By far the funniest offense was a restaurant called Colt .45 whose cheapest menu item was a bowl of assorted warm olives for $6. In this economy a place like that should be hit with a cruise missile, but I'd spare them if only to protect the more affordable and charming sandwich place that resided directly underneath.
The main draw for the festival was the game room, taking up half of the convention center's main floor with arcade cabinets, pinball machines, vintage and modern consoles, computers, tablets, and even a pair of Oculus Rifts. The cheap speakers and compressed sound files rush together into an intimidating roar, like massive electronic waves endlessly crashing against a shore. While going to find something specific would likely result in disappointment, the sheer variety of titles and methods of play were impressive. There were DOS games like Space Quest II and Oregon Trail, X-Ones running 'Killer Instinct', a Japanese 'Fist of the North Star' game that operated like a boxing version of Whack-a-Mole, Playstations running 'Katamari Damacy' and 'Jak III', and even a squat Virtual Boy. There was quite a bit of technical failure; the pinball tournament was cut short by mechanical problems in over half the machines, but throughout the con you could spot arcade cabinets opened up with technicians working dutifully to fix them, performing the electrician's salute of the one hand in the pocket as rivers of festival goers flowed by.
Of course there is the music part of a Music and Gaming Festival, though the inclusion in the title is rebranding rather than spiritual, as MAG originally stood for Mid-Atlantic Gaming and the music is still almost entirely game related. Still, music played a major part in the feel of the con, with amateur Djs and electronic artists squatting near entrances to fill the air with thumping beats from Daft Punk to Deadmau5, often gathering clouds of cosplayers eager to dance. One of the first big acts of the festival was Mega Ran, a nerdcore rapper with a loveable enthusiastic stage presence that immediately endears him to a crowd followed by slick craftily constructed rhymes about Final Fantasy and Mega Man. The DJ Cutman headed show seemed to be a source for some disappointment for some congoers, with a series of complaints ranging from an underwhelming tempo, technical issues from other artists, and an unhelpfully poor speaker system that communicated vocals and guitar fine but couldn't seem to handle the fine tuned sound of electronic music.
The Merchant Floor was a bit smaller than I expected but had a nice mix of gems and things to look at. Besides the predictable tables selling Japanese region Playstations and $60 copies of 'Luigi's Mansion' the floor was dense with fan art, full of mash-ups and tributes from 'Adventure Time' to 'Fatal Fury'. One table featured some beautifully repurposed PVC figures of Harley Quinn and Gurren Lagann's Yoko, as well as a grab bag of hentai DVDs that were worth sifting through for laughably bad titles like 'Fox-y Nudes' and 'The Hills Have Size'. Another had an artist using brightly colored LEGO bricks to make vibrant pixel art. Of particular note were Spaghetti Kiss Apparel, selling clothing with tightly rendered robot squids and Fizzman Industries, a Sculpty artist specializing in unique takes on iconic video game characters, most memorably a series of Shy Guys who pull of their masks to reveal a variety of nightmarish faces underneath.
The guest list was full of repeat favorites and web content makers, headlined by veteran MAGFest favorite Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem and James Rolfe, an influential YouTube star and critic. Popular game critic Jon Jafari's panel was pleasantly low-key if punctuated by some sheepishness on Jon's part about the slow amount of content released the previous year, something the enthusiastic crowd was more than willing to overlook. Later the same day, Dan Avidan and Arin Hanson's 'Game Grumps' panel was a burst of energy, featuring a silent cameo from Ninja Brian, live recreations of 'Game Grumps' moments, as well as a fan application to Hanson's now infamous D-Club. Meanwhile, many gaming celebs not on the official Guest List could be spotted walking the floor, including ProJared, Peanut Butter Gamer, and the members of the game review show 'Continue?'.
However, if there was one take away from MAGFest for me it wasn't a feature of the festival but rather realizations about the fans. I'm not a gamer, and for the most part was incredibly out of depth with the wide variety of skilled gamers. With kids not even able to get a driver's license more than capable to demolish me at Smash Bros. Brawl, every multiplayer experience was an opportunity for mild personal embarrassment. This meant while I would experiment with some of the weirder or more obscure cabinets for the most part I settled comfortably into the role of an observer, trying as an outsider to understand this other arm of geek culture that seemed to both reside within and stand distantly apart from the geeks I knew.
Immediately you are struck by a very high school theater club vibe, a special variety of dorky extroversion with a taste for DIY crafting, gimmicky fashion, and a practiced disregard for other people's judgements. The stereotype of the antisocial gamer was almost entirely absent, save for the small union of 'Call of Duty' players that seemed to rarely leave their table, the only people who seemed slightly out of place during the Festival. With amateur DJ's seated cross-legged along the walls the convention hall pumping out house and dubstep music late into the night, public displays of dancing was common, with cosplayers joyously laying down their awkward moves together, from only a handful to numbers as high as thirty. At first I was surprised and amused by the sheer number of people with crooked necks bent towards their Nintendo 3DS, seemingly missing the point by playing handhelds instead of interacting with their fellow festival goers. What I learned later was most were using StreetPass, a handheld networking system that incentivized handheld-to-handheld communication, with rewards and opportunities for trading resources. With this new information, walking around I understood that this festival was as much an electronic communion as it was a physical one. Whatever your go-to stereotype of a dedicated gamer is, whether the FPS jock with skin pickled by Slim Jims and Mountain Dew or the quiet glaze eyed anime fangirl in her cat eared hoodie locked perpetually to her 600 hour plus Pokemon file, the truth is more interesting and infinitely stranger.
In spirit MAGFest is absolutely what a gathering of geeks should be. One could draw parallels to a gay pride parade, where people who are used to restraining themselves to social conventions are allowed to explode with vibrant, ridiculous, untouchable life. This may sound like hyperbole but I was genuinely impressed. I've become a little weary of American comic conventions, every year feeling more and more like they are becoming mere hubs for financial transaction, with lines for artists not filled with bright-eyed fans but Ebay shills looking to increase the value of their towering stack of back issues. Admittedly, quite a bit of the difference is the younger average age of the MAGFest attendee, but the American comic cons could learn something from this crowd. You never get the feeling of big corporate investment in MAGFest, no panels organized just to drop little hints for the Internet to tear apart or towering advertisements for crap you've already decided to watch or not. There is a purity of purpose, a joining of spirits, all magnified by how rare a gathering like this is.
That same second night as the Mega Ran show I made my way downstairs with some of the people from my hotel room to the game floor. It was quiet, a lull before Saturday's rush. The lights were on in the adjoining convention hall room, where larger projector games were set up. One gathering caught our interest and we wandered over; a ring of people surrounding six or so smiling people holding the goofy looking Playstation Move controllers. Projected massively on the wall were beautifully animated cartoons of Victorian musicians, each representing one of the players who would play at two tempos, frantically fast or slurringly slow, with the players having to match the speed in their movements. The players would then have to tag each other to get the Move controllers to go off-balance, kicking the losing player out with a sudden thunderous boom and the applause of the crowd. It was a bizarre sight, without words or explanation, resembling a cut scene from a 70's sci-fi movie. We took turns theorizing to one another what the rules were as the players switched places with members of the crowd, putting theatrical curtseys and twirls into their performances. I'd never seen anything like it before and was immediately grateful that something like it existed. It was the genuine play at the heart of MAGFest, where gaming goes beyond entertainment and reveals itself as culture and community. Where people stop being gamers and become a tribe of fun.