(Author's Note: This article was originally written for the Alexandria Gazette, a community paper in Northern Virginia. Thus the assumption made is that it was being read by people who are not gamers and is written as such. Also those quotes are from things called sources. I know many bloggers have never heard of them but they're really important when writing a story. Look at me being an arrogant print journalist. My words are on paper! I'm better than you!)
From Jan. 3-6 for 86 hours straight the Hilton Mark Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, will be stuffed with gamers; gamers listening to live video game music cover bands, gamers jamming together, gamers watching movies, gamers sitting in on panels and discussions, gamers playing in tournaments and, most importantly, gamers playing video games together. That is the weekend that the Music and Gaming Festival 6 (MAGFest 6) arrives in Alexandria, delivering a place for anyone who loves to play video games to go to and immerse themselves in almost every aspect of gaming.
“MAGFest, more than any other convention I’ve been too, is by the fans for the fans. MAGFest has pretty much anything a gamer could want,” said Paul Good, the logistical chair for the event.
Anything a gamer could want includes a 24 hour, 10,000 square foot gaming room with 40-50 televisions, 8 projectors and 10-20 big screen televisions all set up for playing a variety of different videogames and video game systems. It also includes a LAN (local area network) gaming room, two concert rooms, a host of panels with discussions on topics from Macs to film, gaming tournaments, a gaming auction and a collection of game representatives from game studios around the floor. MAGFest, though, is far from other conventions where gaming companies come to advertise their games; the focus is on the people who play the games.
“The vibe that comes from MAGFest is a place where you can go and have fun with your friends and rock out two of the nights and just meet interesting and cool people. We don’t want people picking a track and gong down it like you have to do at other conventions, we don’t want people going around to panels and having the guests act more important than them. These guys are just normal dudes and we want people to be able to have fun with them,” said Brendan Becker, who has been running MAGFest since he took it over in its second year.
Even the gaming studios get a different feeling from MAGFest than other conventions notes Brian Colin of Game Refuge, one of the game studios at the festival. He hopes to attend the conference more to play games then advertise his companies software.
“It’s much less hyping products,” he said, “There are a lot of festivals and events that claim to be ‘player events.’ With MAGFest it really rings true.”
The games and gamers are large part of MAGFest but the festival has become known as a hot spot for hearing the best videogame cover music in the country. The festival will feature two nights of gaming music performed by bands with names such as Arm Cannon, Select Start and Powerglove.
“There is the enormous scene of people who enjoy hearing and playing videogame music,” said Eli Courtwright, the festivals treasurer and a former Alexandria native, “A big part of MAGFest is about these bands that are playing this music and being able to hear them.”
Video game music cover bands rework classic video game themes, such as the theme from Mario, into the band’s style, making it into a hard rock version or perhaps something jazzier. In recent years the video game music scene has grown thanks to festivals like MAGFest and a strong following of the bands on the internet says Dan Beherens, one of the band members of Arm Cannon who will be releasing their new CD, “Leg Vacuum,” at MAGFest.
“It has always surprised me how big the videogame music scenes is,” he said, “I didn’t realize there was such a market for this but there is a huge community.”
“Gaming music in the last five years has blown up,” said John Chen, the cello player for the group Select Start, “There are tons of bands out there doing great stuff. We just want to show that good music can be found in any medium.”
Bands will perform a variety of songs, starting around 6 p.m. on both nights and usually ending somewhere around midnight, some even diverging from the gaming tract every once in a while to cover television themes or popular movie themes. While many of the groups are straight up rock bands, Becker and the other festival planners have been trying to add more variety to the show.
“We’re constantly trying to find more variety in the music. Hard rock is great but we want to show the whole spectrum of how good videogame music can be,” said Good.
To this extent Becker has invited bands like Select Start, who is a six piece group that plays more classical versions of gaming songs, but this year they will be starting a new part of the festival called the Jam Space.
“We are going to have two music areas this year,” said Becker,” one is the main stage for the concert and then a place we are calling Jam Space where smaller one man bands are going to perform or where you can just sit down and jam with someone else.”
Becker, Good and Courtwright hope that the new room allows for some new gaming music to emerge as bands such as the Smash Brothers, with players from New York to Seattle, actually emerged from meeting at the show. Even band members from the main stage concert will say that they will probably find themselves over in the Jam Space room.
“I’d love to get over there and play,” said Beherens, “It seems like a really cool idea.”
Chen agrees that the jam space is something that would be really interesting, “That is how great music starts, people just sitting down and playing.”
Of course the games and music are what draw people to MAGFest, but those people who come are what make the festival stand out. Most attendees are just regular gamers who want to meet some new people and play games with them and MAGFest’s creators know this.
“People shouldn’t look at it like a convention; there is nowhere you have to be at a specific time. If you like video games you’ll find stuff you’ll like no matter when you show up. We do have panels and we do have people showing off games but that’s not the point. You don’t want to look at this like a trade show; we don’t want to be known for that trade show feel. We want to be known for being able to communicate with the people and allowing them to have a good time,” said Becker.
To accomplish this the festival is arranged in what may appear to be a disorganized manner. One pass gets participants into any room or panel and that person can come and go as they please, allowing for gamers to work on their own schedule instead of the festival's and creating an atmosphere where gamers can simply have fun with other gamers. Unlike conventions like the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), where most events are scheduled and participants must be places at certain times, MAGFest allows for a sort of free flowing convention experience, where the gamer decides what is next.
“Anyone who wants to registers can at MAGFest.org or at the door, then you just show up and you’re in to do whatever you want for the next four days,” said Courtwright.
A social gathering of gamers may seem odd to some as the group is often pegged as both loners and anti-social, but MAGFest and other conventions allow gamers to experience a shared passion together and create new friends from across the world. Whether it be the competitive tournaments, for which there are trophies for the winners, or more laid back gaming in the game room, MAGFest allows gamers to come together to do what they love.
“The focus for videogames for me has always been having fun with friends,” said Colin, “It’s about brining players together and MAGFest seems to do that very well.”
MAGFest is no stranger to the Virginia area. The festival got its start in Roanoke, and was in Vienna last year, but has moved to Alexandria after the Hilton Mark approached them.
“This is the first hotel that came to us, which is great,” said Good, “The place is perfect for us and the staff is really into it.”
Becker made sure the staff at the hotel knew what they were getting into as the festival can get a little rowdy thanks to the 24 hour gaming and the concerts but the staff at the Mark said it was now problem. The hotel is also offering a discounted price for rooms to attendees of the festival. Aside from the hotel being perfect for them, Alexandria is one of the best locations the festival could have asked for.
“It is really metro accessible, which is great, but more importantly it is just a lot less of a headache to do things in Northern Virginia than in D.C.,” said Becker.
Less of a headache means easier parking and far lower costs for the festival and the attendees all while having access to a nearby international airport the industry of a nearby city.
“I always wanted it close to the Beltway but outside of it,” said Good, “it’s more accessible and far more affordable.”
Affordable is one of the main goals that the MAGFest organizers have, as many of the people attending can’t always spend much money, and when costs rise then the show becomes far less of a social outing.
“We are really hoping to stay in Alexandria because it’s close enough for people to get there from the airport or anywhere in Maryland, DC, or Virginia but the price isn’t obscenely expensive like it gets in the district,” said Courtwright.
No matter where MAGFest ends up in the future, one thing is for sure; it will always be about the music and the gamers. Everyone talked to wanted to make it abundantly clear that this festival is for playing games and not selling them, which makes MAGFest one of the few places a gamer can go simply to game.
To register or for MAGFest or for a full list of events at the festival, Jan. 3-6 at the Hilton Mark Hotel, 5000 Seminary Road, Alexandria, visit magfest.org. Pre-registration is $35, passes are $40 at the door.