MAGFest

I

probably heard it a dozen times, always faintly in the distance before growing to a healthy roar. Though difficult to represent with words, the sound should be familiar to anyone who frequented an arcade in the 90s. You might spell it like this, as one t-shirt did:

“Woooooaaaaagh!!”

It’s the Colossus roar, from the X-Men arcade game, and not at all rare at The Music and Gaming Festival – usually just called MAGFest. The Colossus roar can start up at any point, from anyone, and festival attendees are obliged to contribute en masse. The roar is ostensibly a video game reference, though really not anymore. It’s become a MAGFest tradition. This, the 9th MAGFest, was my first time attending, and I was warned ahead of time about the roar. I wasn’t given any real explanation besides, you know, it’s just this thing that happens. I heard it the first time on the first day, while waiting in line to register for the festival.

MAGFest began in 2002, originally called the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival. Unlike the most recognizable gaming conventions, such as E3 or the Penny Arcade Expo, MAGFest is a fan-run, fan-supported, non-media event – a festival, in other words, organized by a few dedicated souls with help from volunteers and a $40 registration fee. It is “dedicated to the celebration of video games and video game music,” with “no corporate sponsors, no over-crowded showfloors, and no hour long lines.” Instead, you find gaming concerts (such as the Minibosses and Metroid Metal), 24 hour gaming areas, tournaments, vendors, fan-run panels, and assorted guests. For the past few years, MAGFest has taken place at a Hilton hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, where nerds congregate, share hotel rooms, and make the best of a long weekend. “MAGFest is built from the ground up to be a party-like atmosphere with focus on community and fan creations,” the website says. Though this year’s MAGFest boasted around 3000 attendees from across the country, the original MAGFest grew out of a mere 250.

MAGFest is in many ways typical of gaming conventions. Cosplayers roam the halls, some in authentic, high quality outfits, and others in less impressive garb. Nerds of all stripes crowd vendor tables, browsing handmade sprite screen prints, video game t-shirts, jewelry, and vintage game cartridges. You might stumble across a table of Magic: the Gathering players, or a stranger might approach you and ask, out of the blue, whether you own a Pokéwalker. (True story.) I lost count of the number of fedoras, and you’ll also see an incredible amount of men wearing shorts for a festival in Virginia in January.

Of course, people play video games at MAGFest – a lot of games. In one area near the vendor tables, a couple dozen arcade cabinets were arranged in rows, all set on free play. A few pinball tables sat nearby. Another room was dedicated to LAN play. Dimly lit, cool, and quiet, the LAN room was oddly serene, almost intimidating, like a shrine to a religion that worships modded PC cases. Gamers sat in near silence, crowned with headsets, faces aglow with neon light.

The Game Room, though, was the festival’s hub. Located in a large hall, where you might normally find a wedding reception, the Game Room housed dozens of consoles and arcade cabinets. TVs and monitors were arranged in stations of two to eight, each station dedicated to a certain game. To enter the Game Room was to cross into a totally different space: what was a busy hotel lobby transformed into a hot wall of sound. Gamers crowded the floor, shouting at each other to communicate over the ubiquitous Game Room sounds – the beeps and boops, the clack of joysticks, the shouting of names for the next Halo tournament, and every other gamer trying to hold a conversation. To merely be in the Game Room was a physical experience, as any large gathering of people is. Given a little time, you would start to sweat from the collective heat of so many nerds. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so totally overwhelmed by gaming culture. I heard more Colossus roars in the Game Room than anywhere else.

But MAGFest has grown out of the niche nerd circle of gaming music, providing a unique atmosphere. Several music forums host meet-ups at MAGFest, including Overclocked ReMix, and the gaming concerts are a large draw. You’re just as likely to meet a trained guitarist as you are to meet a Street Fighter devotee. Hotel pianos scattered around the lobbies were invariably occupied by someone plinking out a gaming tune. I met people who barely play games, or who haven’t even touched a controller in years, who still enjoy the music scene that has emerged around games. Two members of a chiptune band shared my hotel room, a guitarist and a drummer. Both played live instruments in accompaniment to chiptune music. The guitarist had two classic Game Boys, the famous bricks, one modified with a red backlit screen and a glowing blue cartridge dedicated to chiptune. The screen showed only an obscure series of numbers representing the programmed sounds. We talked about music and games, but the band members’ gaming experience experience was years old, totally detached from any modern games. When I asked what drew them to chiptune, the drummer offered a simple explanation: it’s “awesome shit to drum to.”

There were still more people to whom the gaming seemed incidental. One person wandered the Game Room wearing a red cape and bow. A friend of mine told a story of a man with button-activated glow sticks who approached him at an ATM and, without a word, started to dance. I saw many, yes, stereotypical nerds, some of whom were kind of funny. (Like the person demonstrating high kicks in the hotel lobby.) But most of the attendees just seemed glad to be around others who shared their weird culture, who wouldn’t care or even be surprised if you approached them and asked if they had a Pokéwalker – others who might actually have one.

Because of this mix of people and purpose, no one activity at MAGFest defined the festival. Though there were plenty of gamers, not everyone was there to game, and those that were had different sorts of gaming in mind. Though there were plenty of musicians, not everyone was there to play or hear music. Even the proper name of the festival, Music and Gaming, was rarely said in full. Some people seemed to have no greater ambitions than getting drunk with those who also wore faded Jurassic Park t-shirts. (MAGFest marked the first time I have ever seen a Four Loko in the wild.)

I arrived at MAGFest a day early, when the hotel – otherwise rented out by MAGFest – still held normal, non-gamer guests. Throughout the course of that day, I watched the hotel transform from an unremarkable, D.C.-area Hilton to a full-blown gaming festival. Business people and middle-aged couples dressed in suit and tie were replaced by people who only wear ties when they dress as Spike Spiegel. Throughout this gradual assimilation, the mood grew buoyant. No matter how weird gamers can be (and I think we sometimes forget that gaming culture is pretty weird), it was hard to ignore the energy gathering in that hotel.

At one point on that first day, I was riding the elevator with a crowd of nerds and one elderly man in a suit jacket. The old man looked professorial, as old men in suit jackets do, and was clearly not a MAGFest attendee. He asked the elevator, “Is anyone here from Kansas City?” Nobody was, and he continued. He told the story of his son, now 40 years old and in the computer industry, who grew up as a nerd, and then transitioned to a geek. The old man was quick to clarify, though, that he wasn’t sure “what the difference is,” and I’m still not sure what he even meant. At the end of his story, the old man remarked that he “thought he might be here,” and that perhaps someone else from Kansas City might know his son.

A gamer responded, “You should tell him about it.”

The old man responded, a step ahead, “Oh, I’m getting on Facebook as soon as I get off the elevator.”

Though that conversation took place before MAGFest began in proper, before I had even set foot in the Game Room, it represents for me the core of the festival experience: the celebration not of gaming, and not even of gamers, but of a culture that exists outside of the media that spawned it – a culture that takes over a hotel for one weekend every year, that seems so recognizable and infectious and fun that a father thinks his 40 year son could theoretically be there. And, if not, would want to be there, even though that son might not be a nerd anymore.

If there is a difference between nerd and geek, between gamer and non-gamer, it doesn’t really matter at MAGFest. For many of us, gaming is a core part of our history, whether we play games or not. Many of us grew up with games, or met friends through games, or have a significant other who plays games, or just enjoy the music or the costumes or anything else even vaguely related to games. The act of playing games is only one part of gaming culture, and as gaming grows older and its influence spreads wider, playing games will become a smaller and smaller part of that culture. For many, the games themselves are already ancillary. MAGFest is about Colossus roars, not the game they came from – about nerds being nerds loudly and together. As the drummer sharing my hotel room said of his music, “It’s like playing music for an NES game that doesn’t exist,” a game he probably wouldn’t play even if it did.

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One Response to MAGFest

  1. Kirk February 4, 2011 at 3:38 PM #

    TLDR

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