(This started off as a short Facebook post. It mutated quite rapidly into something far more extensive than that; so bear in mind that this is even more stream of consciousness than usual…)
For the last three years, one of the few cons I go to has been the UK Games Expo. For the first two years, I went as an ordinary visitor. This year, I went as a volunteer. And I would never go as a normal attendee again...because volunteering is so much more fun. Yes, of course, there were moments when I (well, mostly my feet) was longing for my shift to be over, but now it is over, I just want to do it all over again. (That the Wetherspoons I walked past to get home was playing 'Moon River' almost made it seem like I was living through the credits of a movie...somewhat surreal.)
I used to work in one of the Circles of Hell. I won't tell you which one, for reasons of anonymity, but I will say that there was one reason I stuck it out for as long as I did. The people I worked with were one of the greatest groups I've ever known, each and every one of them. (And no, I wouldn't go back there. Nice try.) This has exactly the same feeling to it. To an extent, I suppose, it is a self-selecting assortment of people, because you really need a certain level of insanity to volunteer for something like this.
And yet, it added so much to the experience, that I really wouldn't want to take part in any other way. Not just the chance to see what happens behind the curtain (and I'm the sort of person who finds the process of filming a movie more interesting than the movie itself, as a rule) but to take part in it yourself. I spent a lot of time on ticketing, and when I was walking around the hall later on, I couldn't help but think that I'd met a significant portion of the people, had paid a part in making their experience possible, perhaps even given them a little smile or a chuckle on their way in. (Tip for anyone doing it – you're going to be spending twenty to sixty seconds a person. You've got time for a quick one-liner, something to give them a good start. Even if it is just wishing them a fantastic Expo, or explaining the failure of the lanyard harvest.)
Among the volunteers, I didn't meet a single person that I would not be happy to hang out with at any time. It really was a great crowd of people. It's hard to imagine that one of the largest gaming conventions in the world could be run by a volunteer staff – no legions of event coordinators here – but it is so, and I think it adds to the feeling and spirit of the event. We've all been to cons that have obviously been run to service the almighty dollar, a bid simply to raise money from the unsuspecting public. This is run for one simple reason – to celebrate and enjoy gaming, whatever form it takes, and I think that shows phenomenally well.
Wandering around the trade hall, it seemed largely the same case among the exhibitors. (Though if I was to make one critical point – people, we've done something I thought impossible. We've reached Peak Cthulhu. Sometimes you could look in every direction and see tentacled horrors ready to destroy the Earth. At this rate Francis Thurston is going to have to tell them to take a number and get in line.)
But I digress. The point I was trying to make was that so many of the stands seemed to be devoted to passion projects. This isn't the movie or computer game industry, where profits are usually the goal – these are people with dreams and ideas of their own, an outflux of tremendous creativity, and with the drive, dedication and determination to bring those ideas to life. Yes, of course, the big dogs are there as well, but I found the smaller stands far more interesting. That's where the real vibrancy of the industry is. That's where it began, and that it is still such a strong element of the industry can only be a good thing.
And then there are the live events, and I'd encourage and urge anyone involved to get to them. This is almost becoming a Gaming 'Fringe', and the more of these available, the better. I managed Knightmare Live, which was hilarious. ('Are you a lizard', for anyone who was there…) the MMORPG Show, in which Take That Grannies were put to the...trebuchet, and the Dark Room.
Which deserves a paragraph in its own right. With any sort of improv, there's always risk. It has to spark, the performer and the audience have, at least to some extent, be in sync. And at 11pm on Saturday, they all did, and it has to be one of the best live comedy shows I've ever attended. It just worked, on every level, and that it overran by more than half-an-hour is no surprise. I don't think anyone in that room was particularly watching the clock. And yes, we are all Darren. John Robertson put on one hell of a show, and even if he puts on 'Phone Book: The Reading' next year, I'll happily be in the audience.
Would I do it again? Yes. (That was easy, wasn't it.) I have every intention of volunteering again next time, and that the bulk of the volunteers return time and again just about says it all. Do I have any criticisms? Not a one. A few thoughts, maybe, but that's all. No complaints from my end. (Except that the rubber band is the greatest invention in human history, and desperately needs to be used far more often than it is – and I think a few people will know what I'm talking about!)
In short...go to UK Games Expo if you can. But don't just buy a ticket – volunteer. As far as I'm concerned, it's far more fun, and gives you a much greater experience than just schlepping around the trade hall. There's so much more to it than that, and a chance to experience the hidden, secret underbelly of the event is not to be passed up.
And yes, this blog post was pretty much 'My Big Day Out'. All those essays I wrote in primary school had to pay off sooner or later...