Friday, May 27, 2005

Rational Technology: Breaking Conventions

Not more than a week after I'd arrived from Manila I was back there again. It seemed quite a frivolous trip to make because this one wasn't for business. Instead it was a promise I made to some friends that I would be there.

What was this trip about?

My friend Ranulf Goss is president of the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Last year he organized the first UGotGame convention, a gathering of local game developers and game enthusiasts. Following up on that event, IGDA and other computer organizations ran the second UGotGame last May 21 at Greenbelt.

Two days later, on May 23 and 24, the New Worlds III would also be holding their science-fiction convention in Glorietta. The convention, third year in the running, would be a showcase for science-fiction buffs. Sci-fi books, movies, games, costumes would be up for display, hawked by the fans who love them most.

So there you go, two events right up my alley: how could I pass up the opportunity to make new friends and talk shop with like-minded people?

UGotGame wasn't just a convention for gamers, it was also a chance for local game developers to show off their wares. It may come as a surprise to some, but yes, there are small companies and individuals struggling to make it in the multi-billion dollar game development industry.

The group isn't large, mind you, and for the moment it's driven more by passion than by profit. Students, artists, musicians, programmers, and IT professionals by day, they turn in several nights crafting games that they themselves would like to play. And maybe, just maybe, they can gain entry into the prestigious elite of game developers, or even find a publisher for the game.

And these weren't just shoddy copies of existing games, these were professional-quality productions. Locally-developed games in the showcase were: Away Agila, a fighting game with a Filipino twist; Truck Defender, a shooting war between tanks and UFOs; Robobots, with dogfighting space robots; Chaos, a horror game in a maze; and Republika, a robot war with Megamall in the background. All games were in stunning 3D.

Of course, the local gaming mainstays were in the convention. Philippine gaming leader LevelUp was promoting its new game, R.O.S.E. Intel also sent a representative to talk about the gaming industry, something they have a strong vested interest in because most popular games run on PCs. One of the Japanese developers of Final Fantasy IX even made a surprise appearance (even the
organizers didn't know he was there); he spoke onstage twice, commending the efforts of the Filipino game developers.

Arguably, one of the main draws of the event were the cosplayers. Cosplay, or costume play, is one of the more popular subcultures among the Filipino youth. For events like this, they dress up as live versions of game or anime characters. The quality of costumes varies, but for the more well-made ones, the visual effect can be quite stunning.

After UGotGame came the science-fiction convention. Cosplayers were again one of the main attractions, this time with a traditional sci-fi/fantasy bent. The first day was dedicated to the Star Wars universe, and Darth Vader and his stormtroopers invaded the mall to capture Princess Leia and the Ewoks. The second day was more free-flowing and featured characters from Star Trek and
Lord of the Rings.

But New Worlds III wasn't just about costumes. Science-fiction fans from across the different sub-genres came out in full force to meet kindred spirits. The biggest groups, of course, came from the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Tolkien fans, but other worlds were fairly well-represented.

For those with eclectic tastes, there were: Arkham Philippines, for lovers of horror-fantasy along the lines of H.P. Lovecraft; Philippine Harry Potter, for the Hogwarts fans; the Order of Narnia, for fans of the C.S. Lewis books; Highlander Philippines, for devoted followers of the immortal McLeod; Charmed Philippines and Philippine Slayers for the fans of "Charmed" and "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer"; Matrix Philippines, for the action/philosophy fans; and the catch-all Sci-Fi Philippines for those with interest in multiple genres.

Organized on a shoestring budget, the fans' love for their respective books and movies really shone through and gave the event a professional shine. Trivia contests, scavenger hunts, Elven weddings, and swordplay enlivened the proceedings.

So, yes, I had fun. All this was a guilty pleasure. At the same time, I couldn't help but think how necessary this all was. Games, stories, books, and movies: granted, to a certain extent, these are escape mechanisms, but more than that, they are expressions of how the world could be. Leisure, as the philosopher Josef Pieper once said, echoing Aristotle, is the basis of culture.

Everyone I met on both events were cheerful, articulate, intelligent, and well-adjusted people, a far cry from the stereotypical image of withdrawn geeks who could quote sci-fi trivia from memory. I am quite sure the structure of the make-believe worlds, coupled with support from fellow fans, had a lot to do with these happy dispositions.

Which leads me to wonder if there aren't a few science-fiction fans lurking out here in Dumaguete. If you're one of them, I bring you good news: you are not alone. Drop me an email at dominique-dot-cimafranca-at-gmail-dot-com, and we'll see what we can do about breaking conventions in this rather mundane and unimaginative town.