This year I had the opportunity to spend a couple days at the Music and Gaming Festival or MagFest to those that are hip. The festival is held annually in the DC metro area and this year it was at the Gaylord Convention Center in the National Harbor. The festival celebrates all that is video games, video game music and the overall culture that surrounds gaming. This was the 15th event that had been thrown since its inception, but I also learned that smaller more intimate conventions have sprung off from the main MagFest such as MagFest Classic etc.
I tried to go into MagFest with an open mind, but it was hard not to think that I would be walking into a convention center full of the stereotypical game nerd dressed as his favorite character face pressed to a monitor or arcade screen. While this was present, what I was not ready for was for the massive mix of people that I saw. What you would considered the typical “nerd” or “gamer” was completely shattered upon walking through the door. Now I am not going to pretend like I don’t play video games because I do. I don’t have the same attention span as some when playing videos games or the same devotion to spending the hundreds of dollars a year it takes to enjoy that hobby because photography takes up most of my income. I saw so many different types of people from the die hard gamer to a casual Joe that you would see on the street. All different races, sizes, and shapes both male and female. I instantly knew that my previous notions of what this experience was going to be like would be changed.
MagFest takes up the entire convention center from Thursday-Sunday. You could not get away from it anywhere in the hotel. From video game shirts, bags, and accessories to the intricate cosplay that was done by some of the more creative guests it was everywhere. I had never seen so many people having so much fun and most of all feeling so at home in a place full of people they did not know, but were connected to by the activity of gaming. Saturday saw a lot of the cosplay get ramped up because the hotel has a huge open ceiling atrium where a lot of photos were happening of some of the most well-done costumes I had ever seen. The detail on the costumes could stop you in your tracks as you would see both classic and modern characters come to life right before your eyes. A lot of people dressed up as popular game memes as well which I wondered if that was a more recent thing.
The biggest attraction, in my opinion, were the dealer and game rooms. The dealer room is like the world’s best video game bizarre. They had tons of vendors selling video game merchandise, art, and custom made wearables inspired by video games. Of course, there were vendors selling actual games for current and nostalgic systems as well. You could spend hours walking around this room that I can safely say would have something for everyone and anyone if they walked around long enough. The game rooms were dimly lit and you were instantly hit with a cacophony of sounds from different games, some familiar and some not. The clicking of buttons and the sounds of friendly competition were everywhere you looked. I stood there for a second and just closed my eyes listening to what was essentially the biggest arcade I had ever been in. A few tournaments were going on at specific arcade games which made for some very entertaining scenes as friends cheered on friends and different groups moved from title to title. I saw parents and their children having fun and sharing the joy of gaming together which I think was the biggest surprise. I did not expect this to be a family environment, but it seems that a lot of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and in some cases whole families come out to enjoy the event.
Aside from the gaming that goes on, there are also a lot of different types of panels that go on 24 hours a day. You can hear things about your favorite games and meet people who have prominent YouTube channels in the gaming community. What I was most impressed with were the panels that dealt with issues in the gaming community. I saw panels for how to deal with anger during gaming and a very good documentary about the racial discrimination that goes on in the cosplay world that was done by a group of young women. I attended and watched the film and was there for the question and answer session afterward where people asked questions and gave personal experiences they have had both good and bad in the community. It is strange to think, but not surprising, that in an activity that prides itself on being a place for all outcasts of society to have a common ground and level playing field that there would be any type of discrimination. I have heard more about discrimination against women in the tech and video game industries in recent years than I have about racial discrimination so this was something that was completely new to me and very informative. Every group has their issues, but it seems like the gaming community is working very hard to deal with those issues and they are doing it all on their own. I learned of many support groups for those who need to have an outlet to voice these concerns and talk with others in the community to make this type of discrimination and abuse stop from occurring.
Once you boil down all the gaming and nerd-ness that is MagFest you get to its core. It is essentially a 4-day party. This was the most surprising thing that I found. Every hotel room is stocked with booze and some of the hallways are filled with the smell of pot. As much fun as you saw people having just playing games etc. there are that many people who are drunk and having fun with friends they do not see often. Tons of yelling from the balconies of hotel rooms and signs/flags flown over banisters. I don’t think I entered a hotel room where I was not offered a beverage. At the end of the day, you realize that most people are the same and they just want to have a good time, party with friends and do things that they really enjoy. I got the idea that a lot of the people at the event attend every year and it is one of the highlights of their year. A place where they can be themselves with other like-minded individuals, blow off some steam, nerd out, and get a little tipsy all the while.
My experience at MagFest was a very positive one. I learned to think differently of people not only as a photographer but as a person. It taught me a very valuable lesson of going into an assignment with an open mind because any preconceived notions you have can affect the way that you shoot and affect the story that you want to tell. I tried to photograph MagFest as I saw it. It hooked me in and I can see how the people who have attended year over year keep coming back. It is a place to be free and a place to bring the world that they love to life in real time.