Manchester Gaming Festival Review

Events where gamers voluntarily leave the comfort of their consoles and journey out into the real world in search of companionship, food and banter are such a novelty in the North West of England. But the 5th June was one such occasion, the setting being Manchester's Gorilla bar - a place where a showcase of nostalgia, hybrid music and gaming culture would beautifully converge. Welcome to iPlayGaming.

Featuring an array of games from both past and present (and future in the form of untested beta product Beyond), the venue was at first glance smaller than expected. I also had the entry price in mind when I arrived. £15.00 for a ticket felt a little steep for any event, but this was a one-off so I tried not to think on it too much. The music, which was wonderfully rendered by Auricle, featured an assortment of familiar, traditional gaming jingles mixed together to form a fun, techno party anthem. With decent priced drinks, a grill behind the bar, and Mario Kart only metres away at any given time, I was ultimately unsurprised by the huge turn out. Here's why the experience was worth every penny.

The venue was filled with life-long gamers and, with competitions beginning and ending every half-hour throughout the night, it was easy to mingle with new people even for the more estranged of hermits (which, thanks to The Witcher 3, I had recently become). Being a resident of Manchester all my life and a regular patron to several of its well-stocked bars, I already knew that we had some of the best and well-mannered bartenders in all of Europe (and by the way, I've travelled a lot of it), but those in Gorilla really emphasized that fact. Every member of staff was friendly, forthcoming and seemed genuinely interested in gaming culture and those who had committed themselves to it, even the security personnel (a profession which, at least in Manchester, can be a little notorious). Not being a football enthusiast it was strange to me that so many people could gather together in one place where it was equally fun to be both competitor and spectator, and I was distinctly aware that being a gamer amongst certain social circles had meant - at least in my experience in my work life and education - being the outcast. It was something I had grown accustomed to, so to be in a place brimming with love for the culture and its history was personally liberating. But here we were, hundreds of us, and we were all on the same page. The room was lined with a multitude of consoles and games, with one entire wall dedicated to just Halo: Combat Evolved multiplayer alone, and the tournaments, which included games from right across the major console generations (SNES, N64, PS3, PS4, etc) were held out in the open for all to see, meaning that you always had an audience or were an audience to someone else.

For the victors this meant that success was all the sweeter, but it also meant that any loss would be laughed away. Every experienced gamer knows that competition in the gaming world can be dangerous. Relationships can burn. Friendships can be crushed. Controllers can be destroyed in an instant. But here, it was actually fun to lose. To any gamer those words would sound almost blasphemous, but it was oddly true.

Gaming can of course be an intense experience depending on the game and the gamer, and as a consistent mental sport in a person's life, and having witnessed such a gamer fling an Xbox 360 controller across an event-sized room at Game Expo in Trafford a few years back during a beta run of Halo 4 (and in front of thousands of bewildered spectators no less) I had to be open-minded about what to expect at another such public gathering for our people. Perhaps it was the simpler numbers or maybe it was the amazingly comfortable atmosphere or even the professionalism of the staff who had organised it, but I could never imagine anything like that happening here. Not once did I come across someone who wasn't immediately sociable, not even after I got my arse handed to me on Mario Kart 64 and Golden-Eye's multiplayer. Playing such infamous games together made me harken back for a simpler time. The festival was a stark reminder of something that a lot of gamers have forgotten in the modern age of FPS dominance and such online compatibility. Gaming isn't about winning or losing. Not really, anyway. That's just the icing on the cake. Gaming is really about bringing people together, and the whole event seemed to stem from this basic idea. Whilst western society might have other preferences by keeping gamers gaming in their bedrooms, it was nice to do things the old fashioned way again for once.

By the time the smaller competitions had subsided and a larger competition had replaced it on a big screen, most people had formed into a crowd of spectators in the centre of the room. First, the Mario Kart 8 time trials took place. Soon enough we realised that this was merely the warm-up however, as once they connected the PS4 up they inserted Mortal Kombat X. All of the little friend groups in the room suddenly become a collective, just like Roman citizens gathering on the stands of some great arena. Brave volunteers lined up along the wall, fighters hoping to unleash gruesome specialist fatalities upon one another for everyone's entertainment. No one lasted more than four of five matches each, and consistent victors were often booed by the crowd in favour of the newer underdogs. It was a spectacle.

My group and I left at around ten, two hours before the event was set to finish, with a shared mind to end the experience on a high. Here's hoping iPlayGaming organises round two quite soon. I know where I'll be!

Ben Mapp