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Game on: Nottingham launches its fifth gaming festival

Nottingham is set to host its annual games festival this week but the organiser suggests "it's not really about games". So what is GameCity's purpose?

Nottingham is a rather curious city, it has to be said. Once dubbed Shottingham during a spell in which it was named the gun-crime capital of the UK, it is nevertheless famed for the legend that is Robin Hood, remembered for the success of Brian Clough and his double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest and revered for its lace making.

For the past four years, however, it has also made a name for itself by hosting one of world's quirkiest videogaming festivals. Tomorrow night, the fifth GameCity officially opens, promising another mix of big name keynotes, interactive events and cosy debates with top industry figures over a bite to eat and a few drinks.

Last year, Japanese games designer Masaya Matsuura, producer of the astoundingly brilliant rhythm-based game, Parappa the Rappa, gave a speech in Nottingham's cutely named Council House. In a venue that is perhaps more closely associated with dry chatter from the city's councillors, Matsuura dished our kazoos among the audience and conducted them as they played a rather tuneful rendition of The Beatles' Hey Jude.

Another Japanese developer, the equally leftfield Keita Takahashi, creator of kookily named Nobi Nobi Boy and a game called Katamari Damacy in which gamers play a character who takes everything laid before him and rolls it up into a ball, is this year making his third GameCity appearance. But he's not going to be announcing a new game. Rather he is providing an update on a children's playground he has agreed to design for a Nottingham park.

And yet for all all of this inventiveness, GameCity still remains largely on the outskirts of the videogaming circuit, frequented by few press and attracting far smaller crowds than the current major events appear to command. The likes of E3 or the Golden Joysticks are spoken about in greater detail than Nottingham's gaming festival which must surely be frustrating for organiser Iain Simons, an animated chap who, at times, works a microphone is a similar manner to former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher.

“We always wanted GameCity to be different and it began an experiment into what a videogame festival would be,” Simons says, adding that he didn't want it to follow the traditional method of packing a big hall with games. “It seemed like there surely should be some kind of alternative; some other ways into game culture than just standing up and playing them with strangers.”

The experimental aspect of GameCity has been stark since its debut in 2006. In previous years, the organisers have used a cinema and a nightclub to host events. Neither worked massively well. Last year, a huge tent was put up in the town's main square and all events were free. Such was the prominent nature of the venue, it attracted a host of passers-by. And all of this has, in previous years, been achieved without a massive input from the gaming industry's major publishers.

“Originally, I think we were really beholden to the games industry itself,” Simons reflects. “I think we imagined that they were going to be a deep well of ideas of how they might want to engage with the public - and it took a few years to come to terms with the fact that they operate in a different way to other cultural industries.

“Once we made the leap that the success of the festival wasn't contingent on their explicit endorsement or involvement, things got a lot easier.”

Not that GameCity operates in isolation and this year the industry has started to come round to the event. Deals have been struck with Crytek and Nintendo. Electronic Arts has teamed up with the NHS to showcase the health benefits of gaming. “The spread of developers showing work is far wider than ever before, and I think the audience mix is going to be much broader,” says Simons. “The establishment of the OpenGameCity platform for extending the festival and showing work on has been rolling out very well and has yielded a number of very interesting projects, particularly bits of work from the public themselves. This year feels a lot like a coming-of-age for the programme for us, I think. We used to have a strap-line about "we're trying to find out what a videogame festival could be", well now I think this is what one is.”

GameCity tries to break the paranoia of the industry by knocking down the barriers between those who create and those who play. You frequently see gamers walking around the city with big names – something that would never happen in film and music. Intimacy is rife - last year, Robin Hunicke sat in the midst of a closed shopping centre in the 7pm glow of darkness to play her game, Flower, surrounded by hundreds of gamers. She uttered not one word as she did so and yet there was an undoubted connection with the audience.

“The dirty secret about gaming is that a lot of the games don't really work very well for spectators,” suggests Simons. “It sounds stupidly simple, but the important thing about interactivity is that it's you interacting – so for that reason the spectatorial demands of a festival can be pretty tricky to meet.

“I don't really see a gaming festival as being different to any other kind of festival, and I guess that might be where we've had whatever limited success we have. Festivals are about creating exciting period of time, in specific places, where people interested in the same stuff can come together and have fun / learn / hang out. We're just trying to do that, really. It's not really about games.”

* GameCity runs until Saturday and you can find out more at : http://www.gamecity.org/