The first ever Play Away Festival took place in Scotland from Monday 22nd February – Friday 5th March 2021. It offered two weeks of events exploring all of the ways in which videogames are inspiring other areas of the creative world.
The Scottish Games Network was a proud partner in the event and interviewed many of the speakers, panelists and contributors, across the course of the festival. The editorial team joined as many of the sessions, talks and panels as possible and were amazed, impressed, and fascinated by every part of Play Away.
Here are our individual reviews for your consideration and delight:
Where do you even start? An illuminating chat with three of the most talented game designers in the UK? Going on a group date to a care home with a ghost and dozens of other Zoom call participants? Using neural networks to create an uncanny 3D doppleganger that can’t be identified by facial recognition software?
Eclectic doesn’t quite do justice to the sheer variety of eye-opening and left-field content in the PlayAway Festival programme. From VR, to choose-your-own-adventure style zines, to educational games, to artwork made specifically for Zoom – PlayAway explored games in the broadest, most inspiring sense of the word, making for a fortnight full of discovery that left me reinvigorated by the possibilities of our medium and by fantastic people who are leading the way.
The Spaces Between
Malath Abbas of Biome Collective probably put it best when he explained why he loves working with people outside of games during the Game Design Panel. “I’m always interested in the spaces inbetween, where we can push the medium,” he said. “I’ve always found it much easier to get on and be creative when working with people outside of the games bubble.”
This idea of cross-boundary collaboration was the beating heart of PlayAway (a games festival run by a collective of musicians) and was also what made it so much fun and genuinely educational to attend. I probably learned more, not only about games, but also about music, AI, community-building, accessibility in software and much more in the last fortnight than I have in the last 12 months.
It’s not about bursting the “games bubble” as Abbas put it. It’s about expanding the bubble and bringing all the bubbles together in one big soapy basin of joy and creativity. That’s when the really exciting stuff start happening.
Anyone who listens to our podcast will know that we have been infatuated with the Play Away festival. Every waking moment from 22nd February to 5th March was spent attending events, checking the festival programme for the next day, getting our tickets and starting over the following morning. If that doesn’t tell you how enthralled we were with Tinderbox’s love letter to gaming, I honestly don’t know what will.
There were three standout days for me within the festival’s two weeks, that’s not to say that the rest weren’t incredible, I just personally found myself drawn to these:
The 25th February… the entire day
How to do this entire day of interesting and thought provoking panels and talks justice? From 11:30 to 21:00 there was non stop content coming from the Play Away Festival. What I’ll do is boil it down to the basics and urge you to go to the Play Away webpage and get yourself caught up. Videos of all the panels and talks are there, do yourself a favour and watch them. We had experienced games researcher talking about what they had done and how to get into the sector and postgraduates explaining what they were currently working on. This range of topics ensured that there was never a dull moment.
We couldn’t talk about this day without mentioning Gabe Elvery taking us speed dating with ghosts and explain the importance of parasocial relationships within video games. This was thought provoking, funny, entertaining and … I’m running out of adjectives to use in this section. Just go watch everything I just mentioned and thank me later.
Games and Empathy Mini Talks:
We all love games, right? We want others to appreciate them and engage with them as we do, yes? Well some people just can’t for a multitude of reasons. This series of talks discussed everything from intuitive design and what that means to the struggles of dyslexic gamers and so much more. These talks were inspiring, informative and entertaining, the perfect combination for a good presentation. if that appeals to you then its well worth checking out. (side note: being dyslexic, Ally Low’s talk on dyslexia in games was a personal highlight of the whole festival)
What’s a festival without a kick ass after party? Sending the festival off with a bang, the final night of the Play Away festival was genuinely one of, if not the, best Friday night I’ve had since March of last year. Music, laughs and meeting new people, what more could I ask for? Well there is one thing… our very own Andrew Gordon surprising us with a couple of original tunes played beautifully on an acoustic guitar. It’s fair to say that Brian and I were both surprised and amazed at Andrew’s incredible performance, how has he hidden this talent from us?! This one might of been a “you had to be there” moment but it perfectly closed out an amazing two weeks and I cannot wait for Play Away 2022 (hopefully in person).
The videogames industry is not short of events. From Gamescom, GDC and Develop, through to PAX, Rezzed and EGX, the calendar is overflowing for developers to meet peers and colleagues, or get the public playing their games.
However, Scotland isn’t home to any of them. Despite the size of the industry, the number of colleges and universities producing games graduates, and the thriving digital and creative industries meetup scene, the games sector hasn’t had a large-scale industry event since the heyday of ProtoPlay, or the late lamented Game In Scotland.
So the understated announcement at the beginning of 2021, of a new videogames festival – being created by a musical collective – was unexpected to say the least. The initial email, mentioned a festival, focusing upon the ways in which games are inspiring the rest of the creative world, but not a whole lot else to go on.
Hot on the heels of that email, the festival started to announce its programme and speakers. As soon as I read it, I knew the festival would be something special.
Opening with a keynote from the genuinely wonderful Jane McGonigal, Play Away went in a different direction. From a foundation of videogames, the festival explored areas of gaming that I’ve rarely heard mentioned at any of the major global games events.
The programme pulled together indie developers, designers and creators, with industry leaders, academics and performers. The individual talks, panels and presentations, were thoughtful, left-of-field, and opened up areas, and applications of gaming that ‘the industry’ doesn’t feature in many of the mainstream events.
…and it all came from the Tinderbox Collective, an organisation which is primarily focused upon music, composition, collaboration and performance. It was thrilling, fascinating and by far the friendliest games festival I’ve ever attended (and I programmed the Edinburgh Games/Interactive Festival for years).
The programme was perfect. It included performance, play and a range of voices that I’ve not heard at larger gaming events. Every session ran like clockwork, there were collective members there to help the audience, the speakers and panelists were helped and supported throughout and – better yet – almost every session began and ended with some live music, courtesy of the Tinderbox team.
I chaired a panel on Videogames for Health, Wellbeing and Education, so I can say hand on heart that it was organisationally awesome. The panelists were excellent. We had a chance to meet and prepare beforehand and make sure we were all ready to go. I’ve no doubt the other chairs, speakers and participants were equally well supported.
This event was special. It pulled in talent from across the whole of Scotland, people who have not had this sort of showcase to talk about their work, their research, their challenges, or their experiences, within a gaming event.
It took an organisation outside of gaming to pull this together. It took people who don’t see the usual suspects, the usual topics and the usual talks to create something so delightfully off the wall, yet ferociously focused.
I like to think that I’m reasonably wll informed about the videogames sector in Scotland, yet every single day of Play Away I learned something new, surprising, or heard from a person that I’d not yet met, or who’s work I didn’t know. It was thrilling.
I love videogames events. I go to many of them. I’ve spoken at and helped to organise many more. After a while they tend to begin to blur together. At the root of them all, it’s the videogames industry, talking to (or complaining about) the videogames industry, to an audience exclusively composed of the videogames industry. Play Away explored more of the games ecosystem than any other event we’ve had. It investigated the impact of games, in terms of cultural impact and their influence on other areas. It was excellent.
We have far too few events, which explore areas of gaming which are of interest to a broader and more eclectic crowd. We don’t – ever – open and close all the sessions with live music.
Play Away Festival – 5/5 Must Happen Again
The Play Away Festival is something special. We need it to happen again. We need to continue its work in giving a platform to people across the industry, who we rarely hear from.
Finally, we need to acknowledge the work of Luci Holland, the programme director and driving force behind the whole event. Luci’s enthusiasm and passion are what sparked the whole festival. While the whole Tinderbox team made Play Away happen, it was Luci who built the programme, found the speakers and created something so unique, and inspiring.
Thank you Luci. Thank you Tinderbox. Here’s to Play Away 2021.
If you missed any of the Play Away Festival, fear not. Most of the sessions were recorded and they’re now available online to watch at your convenience. Find them, watch them, and love them.