Press Fire to Win: gaming culture in the heart of Brighton

On September 18th, at 7pm, the second Pop Up Arcade launch party began. The opening event of a weekend of video game talks and workshops, it’s a Friday night designed around an esoteric collection of local multiplayer games, live music, and of course the obligatory well-stocked bar.

The launch party does feel like the main event, and if quizzed it’s what most attendees would probably focus upon, but it’s worth noting that the following Saturday and Sunday feature a range of free talks, ranging from Unity development sessions to lectures celebrating games as a cultural form. Between talks, a range of games from the launch party, with a few others swapped in, are available to play.

The Pop Up Arcade is run by Press Fire To Win, a Brighton-based games events organisation based right here in Brighton. Press Fire To Win is the work of Jo Summers, aka @profaniti, and we have her to thank for Brighton having an event like this at all.

“I’ve always had an interest in games, gaming and game creation, so [it became clear] I would run ‘Press Fire to Win’ as a kind of generic umbrella for games stuff… as well as a way to try and bring all the different parts of game creators / players / curious together.”

It’s an approach that works. Regular attendees of other Brighton games events may recognise familiar faces from, say, Brighton Indies, the monthly pub meet-up for indie devs (actual and aspiring). But there are also plenty of people who simply heard about a party featuring games and chiptune DJs and thought that sounded like a pretty good night out.

It is at that. Throughout the night Chipzel and Shirobon share duties behind the decks, providing an upbeat chiptune party soundtrack. You may know – you should know – Chipzel from the sublime/frustrating Super Hexagon, if nothing else, whilst Shirobon shot off for a Japanese tour the week after the Pop Up Arcade.

The event itself is held at Otherplace at the Basement, an underground (literally) arts venue that’s always had a predilection for leftfield and esoteric events, and is part of the Brighton Digital Festival hosted across the city throughout September.

Jo is pragmatic and enthusiastic about the Pop Up Arcade being a part of the Festival. “In the early days of the festival, I saw it as a good way to get wider publicity for things to a game curious audience. The digital festival has been great as, unexpectedly, it has attracted lots and lots of kids and families – and I feel it also offers a little wider legitimacy to the whole thing!”

There is more to this than just riding coattails as a promotional tool; Jo is serious about both broadening and deepening understanding of games. “I also ran an event this year called pixels and prosecco – celebrating women’s contribution to the game industry – as part of ‘we spring forward’, a digital celebration of women’s history month.”

She’s also keen to keep pushing forwards with her events. “[I’m looking], so far fairly unsuccessfully, into how to make development of games which push at the edge of culture and criticism more sustainable. I am currently in discussion with a number of parties in both academic, artistic and cultural funding areas to try and find out what might work out here.”

Reining in her enthusiasm a little, she also candidly acknowledges that it would be great to be able to make a living out of running events like the Pop Up Arcade.

“Now Play This in London this year was my first proper paid gig with this stuff, really.”

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For my money, a centrepiece of any multiplayer game event is JS Joust. The worst kept best secret of gaming parties, by which I mean everyone who plays it loves it but most people I mention it to have never heard of it, JS Joust involves distributing eight PlayStation Move controllers to a revolving set of players and has them compete to unbalance or jar other players. When the Bach soundtrack speeds up, players have much freedom of movement, and when it slows down it’s time to move very carefully indeed. It’s a tremendously quick, physical and surprising game. About the only downside to it is the short battery life of the Move controllers it entirely relies upon.

There are also plenty of non-physical games on offer. My favourite of the night was undoubtedly Push Me Pull Me, a co-operative and competitive game in which teams of two take control of each end of an extensible, collapsible sumo-sausage and try to capture a ball in their half of the arena – with their similarly telescopic opponents trying to do the same. This may sound as if it makes no sense; I would not blame you for thinking that. It’s one of the funniest competitive games I’ve played in ages, and its weird physics make for a game with a surprising range of strategies.

Then there’s Gang Beasts. Another favourite of events like these, I suspect quite a few folks reading this will have played it, thanks to its appearance in a recent Humble Bundle. For the uninitiated, it’s a slapstick everyone-for-themselves wrestling match between up to eight colourful rubber figurines. Its QWOP-esque controls allow for fairly fine control on paper, but in practice mastering your avatar’s interaction with the environment, let alone other player avatars, makes for a glorious, hilarious multiplayer mess of flailing and falling.

Play of one match of Gang Beasts is briefly compromised when I get overexcited and wield my controller with a bit too much vigour, tipping a glass of water over the table. Oops. Fortunately everyone dives in to help protect electronics and mop up the spill, and we’re back playing in barely over a minute.

Operation: Gang Beast Cleanup is a great example of the vibe of the night, one that is openly friendly, helpful and approachable. It crops up again and again: friendly competition over Super Hexagon scores, explaining the rules of JS Joust to confused bystanders, collaborating with strangers to interpret the rules of wonky flatpack furniture assembly game Home Improvement, or trying to help a European man understand the “objective” of Realistic Kissing Simulator (“You just mess around and have fun doing it,” I helpfully explained. He looked confused, but seemed satisfied once we successfully probed both tongues into the mouths of our digital counterparts.) It’s heartening to feel a vibe like this, really, because I’m sure I was not the only person present who’s not a natural extrovert.

I’m curious about how Jo selects the games featured at the Pop Up Arcade. “All the games so far fall under: ‘fun to play and watch’, easy to access, and able to make people think a bit. So far it has been mainly what I think would be fun. However, as I continue to work on this I want to look at ways to bring more of a critical eye to it… and think about games which impact on wider culture, as well as exploring more artistic and critical areas. I’m trying to work out how these two things might play well side by side.”

Jo’s also keen to open up games to a wider audience: “the ‘game curious’, if you like. Presenting games which do not have a game controller, or a keyboard and mouse (which can act as a barrier to some people) and instead offering a big flashing button, or foot pedal, or wobbly stick… [this] is important as it means more people can interact and become engaged with this world of silly, playful games and experiences.”

I’ve already mentioned JS Joust, but it’s far from the only game which fits what Jo describes. Also present tonight is Line Wobbler, an Arduino-powered ‘dungeon crawler’. It’s easiest to understand this with a video, so here’s one RPS’s Philippa Warr shot earlier this year. A similar project at the first Pop Up Arcade last year was 1D Pong, which largely speaks for itself – it’s Pong played along an LED strip similar to Line Wobbler.

Also present this year is Codex Bash, a puzzle/pattern matching game involving brightly coloured buttons and simple onscreen instructions. Jo also mentions Punch the Custard, which I’ve not played but – yes – involves punching custard.

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Sorry about my rubbish photography, folks!

The Pop Up Arcade is a relatively new event, one of a number of community gaming events to appear in Brighton over the past few years. It’s not sprung unbidden from the ether, though. Its model is similar to events such as Feral Vector, Wild Rumpus or Now Play This. Jo has been involved to varying degrees with these projects, and others, as well as being involved with running all manner of tech events around Brighton for the last eight years.

“I was normally helping out with other people’s events, though, rather than directing the content and format on my own,” she admits. “I slowly became involved in the game community, and have been part of running a number of events.”

Whenever I’ve mentioned the Pop Up Arcade to friends who don’t live in or near Brighton or London, they’ve expressed (amiable) jealousy. Although recent years have seen an increasing number of events like this happening in cities around the world, they often feel concentrated in certain geographical areas – London and New York being the most notable examples. I ask Jo if she has any advice for people who are ready to seize the day and try to set up gaming events in their own area.

“Look at other events doing the kind of stuff you want to do (but don’t let the scale of them put you off)! I was inspired by events such as the Wild Rumpus, Amaze Berlin and Join Berlin. It took me about six years to convince myself I could actually do this thing – but honestly it is just about saying you’re going to do it, and going through with it.”

What about practical advice? “Borrow PCs and screens. Start small, get a free venue, ask people for stuff and help… people are generally very helpful if they think you are serious about what you say you are going to do, and can help make your project a reality.”

She’s on a roll now: “Decide the one thing you won’t compromise on, stick to that, and compromise on the rest to get it done. For example I will have only alternative controllers, I will have at least one chiptune DJ, I will have super fancy staff lanyards, I will always have a 50% gender split on speakers.

“Only you know about the things that didn’t go to plan – no one else does – so don’t fret too much over the details when you are getting started.”

Jo has offered to field questions via email from anyone who is seriously interested in getting started running gaming events. She also suggests that these presentation slides may be of use. Anyone who knows of a cool game she could put on, or who wants to hire her to run events, is of course also welcome to get in touch. As for the rest of us, well: we’ll get to enjoy the next Pop Up Arcade in 2016, and who knows what other events may grow between now and then?

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