When Toronto residents Jaime Woo and Mark Rabo sat down over coffee, their shared love for video games would always come up. They talked about their favourite games when they were young, which ones they liked or didn’t like, and what they could do to change the things they didn’t like in the future.

Out of those conversations, the pair agreed that there weren't enough places in the industry where people could talk freely about games without worrying about marketing and competitive pressures. So they founded Gamercamp, a Toronto festival that in four short years has grown tenfold and now includes speakers and exhibitions from around the world.

Canadian content

Canadian themes and locations have been appearing in videogames with increasing regularity, mostly as nods to the home base of the development teams.

Mary DeMarle, narrative director of Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, said the team working on the game made it a priority to include Montreal at some point in the game, which is set in a technologically advanced 2027. Time constraints ultimately led them to scrap a section in which the main character traverses the city’s plateau region, but it did include one Montreal area: the Olympic stadium.

"I think there’s a lot of room to explore more of the Canadian locations and just the Canadian culture itself," says DeMarle, who left marketing work at Hanna Barbara to write for games at Ubisoft and later Eidos. "Because I think a lot of people tend to group it with

[the U.S.] ,but it’s not the same. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in games for that."

"We thought that there must be other people like this who want to talk this intricately about games the same way that people who love film can talk about film," says Woo, the director of Gamercamp 2012.

"We’ve got to continue changing the way that game players relate to the industry," he explains. "And I think coming to Gamercamp, it’s not just that you get to play games, but that you get to think about the entire creation of games as a whole and realize that the consumers, in the end, hold the power."

Gamercamp started in 2009 as a one-day event at the Lower Ossington Theatre. Five speakers from the local game development community talked about their projects, and arcade games provided some communal fun afterwards. Woo and Rabo hoped for a modest showing of about 50 people; more than 125 showed up.

"I think it demonstrated that there was a desire for this kind of conversation," said Woo.

Since its inaugural year, Gamercamp has grown faster than anyone in the local games community could have predicted. In 2010 the number of attendees swelled to 900, and the festival expanded from one day to two of presentations and workshops inside a packed venue at George Brown College.

Woo expects attendance of roughly 1,200 for the 2012 event this weekend. The Isabel Bader Theatre and Victoria College at the University of Toronto will host 14 speakers, game development workshops, and showcases where anyone can play new, upcoming and offbeat video games.

And Gamercamp is branching out beyond the annual festival. Organizers have launched a print magazine with articles about featured guests, their games and the burgeoning games industry in Canada. And Rabo is currently directing Gamercamp Jr., a kid-centric festival in the spring.

Growing Canadian presence

While the organizers weren't expecting it, Gamercamp’s exponential growth isn’t surprising if you look at how quickly the videogame industry has expanded in Canada over the past decade.

According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, 58 per cent of Canadians now say they play videogames on a regular basis. Among kids and teenagers, the number is 90 per cent.

The games industry itself is a big player in Canada, too, employing about 16,000 people and contributing $1.7 billion to the Canadian economy.

As Gamercamp's audience has grown, more and more studios have been paying attention to it. This year's roster of speakers features a diverse collection of developers on the industry's cutting edge:

  • Montreal's Vander Caballero created Papo & Yo, which was hailed as an innovative puzzle game that also served as a deeply personal memoir, delving into his young life growing up with an abusive and alcoholic father (listen to an interview with Caballero on CBC radio's Q).
  • Toronto indie developer Jonathan Mak’s music-based game Sound Shapes was released worldwide on Sony’s PlayStation Network, and earned near universal praise by critics.
  • Ubisoft Toronto's Patrick Redding is game director for the upcoming big-budget spy thriller Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
  • Mary DeMarle is narrative director for the 2011 Eidos Montreal hit Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

The eccentric side of games

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Jaime Woo, Gamercamp co-founder.

Another of this year's speakers, Charles J. Pratt, is an instructor and researcher at New York City’s Game Center, and the curator for its No Quarter Arcade exhibition. Many of the games Pratt will bring to showcase at Gamercamp are more experimental than the big-budget blockbusters you’d find at your electronics store.

Deep Sea, for example, is played with a rubber mask that obscures the player’s vision, tasking them to navigate challenges using only their sense of hearing.

The discussion of eccentric approaches to video games is one of the things Woo has encouraged at Gamercamp. When Woo was a boy, he gravitated towards videogames with unusual protagonists or settings.

One of his favourites, he says, is Toejam and Earl for the Sega Genesis, which features a pair of alien rappers and a jumble of mismatched clichés from the 1990s. Another, Ecco the Dolphin, featured an abstract storyline involving aliens, time travel and the lost city of Atlantis.

Woo says he enjoys showcasing the innovative and sometimes bizarre new ideas in gaming. He sees Gamercamp as an inclusive space for video games, one that doesn’t cater only to hardcore gamers who spend 30 to 40 hours a week playing the latest Call of Duty military shooter.

"We really want to just provide a space for people who love games to come together and do whatever they want to do," says Woo, comparing it to similar festivals in the city such as Luminato, Nuit Blanche or – though not to the same scale – the Toronto International Film Festival.

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A player at Gamercamp wears a gas mask that obscures all vision, a requirement for Robin Arnott's game Deep Sea. (Wesley Fok,)

"We don’t ask that people who go to TIFF must have industry experience, or they must be film aficionados. Similarly, Nuit Blanche is this one night where everyone can dive into some really modern contemporary art, and they don’t have to worry that they aren’t knowledgeable about every single thing that’s out there. Just an interest or passion for it suffices, and we’re trying to do the same thing."

It's an approach that has resonated with players and developers alike.

"What I particularly like about Gamercamp is that it's a show open to the public that's not focused on selling or advertising specific games," says Chris Harvey, co-founder of Toronto-based DrinkBox Studios. 

No Quarter and Gamercamp "ultimately have the same goals," according to Pratt: "To help the independent game scene thrive, to showcase incredible games in an accessible space, and finally to foster the exchange of talent and knowledge."

For Pratt, speaking at Gamercamp is a logical next step for both himself and the festival. "For any scene to thrive it needs to be exposed to ideas from different people and places."