MAGFest: Three days of geeks and music

By Jacob Rich, Daily Film Editor
Published February 4, 2015

National Harbor, Md. — “WELCOME BACK, BRO! WELCOME BACK TO THE BIG DICK PARTY!”

Less than two minutes after checking into the convention and getting my badge, two very drunk and very happy geeks had their arms around me.

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

I looked over to where the two lanky fellows were walking. Several other inebriated gamers were hammering away at gamepads, huddled in front of 20-inch HD monitors.

I was hoping it would be longer before the MAGFest culture shock set in. I had three newcomers with me (my girlfriend and two of my best friends), and I wanted their transition into convention culture to be smoother than it was. Perhaps a subtler welcome wagon to a first con experience than two touchy-feely “Guilty Gear” players would have been nice.

“MAGFest is so many things to so many different people. I sometimes like to say that MAGFest doesn’t exist, there are actually 15 events going on at the same time in the same building” said Nicholas Marinelli, the promotions and public relations official of MAGFest.

“My business card says ‘promotions and public relations,’ but really, it’s everything. MAGFest has a very flat organizational structure; it’s not very deep hierarchically. I’m on the Board of Directors; I’m the only one that really does the promo.”

The Music and Games Festival happens once a year in the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, — a kitschy, ritzy town of restaurants, bars and oversize convenience stores seemingly constructed entirely around the hotel’s economy. It’s a 30-minute drive from Washington D.C., and it likely wouldn’t exist if not for the hundreds of office retreats and trade shows that happen in the Gaylord Hotel yearly.

Marinelli summarized the event quite well: “It’s a three-day long party dedicated to video game music and gaming of all types.”

MAGFest 2015 was the 13th event of its name. Well, of its acronym. Originally called the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival, it was “back-ronymed” to Music and Games Festival a few years into its life.

For one weekend a year, National Harbor is a different planet. It’s a 96-hour party that never sleeps. It’s a festival. It’s a convention. It’s absolutely insane.

But you might not want to call it a convention. On MAGFest’s website, it explicitly states that MAGFest is not a convention, it’s a festival.

“That’s me. Everyone always busts my ass for it, every time they say convention I say festival!” Marinelli said. “I’ve been going to anime conventions since high school, and then after you’ve been going to these things for however long, you start to ... it’s a different crowd at MAGfest. Anime conventions are fun especially if you’re into that, but MAGfest is a bit of an older crowd, it’s a more relaxed, less manic crowd. I mean, the festival thing is really just a tagline, and if the IRS asks, we’re a convention. It’s basically just meant to denote that it’s not your typical anime convention.”

Later in the interview, I mistakenly said “convention” again, and Marinelli promptly corrected me. Despite the reluctance to call it a convention, there’s actually quite a lot about MAGFest that’s consistent with convention culture.

The music festival and gaming con aspects of MAGFest coexist fairly well. The hotel certainly has its standard gaming con accommodations: gigantic show floors lined with expensive arcade cabinet collections; panels featuring YouTube gaming celebrities like JonTron, The Angry Video Game Nerd and Game Grumps; areas for tabletop games; and of course, huge tournaments.

Simultaneously, a big part of the hotel is a dedicated music exhibition. There’s a jam space for impromptu band formation for congoers (read that as con-goers or congo-ers, either works) and a giant concert hall where virtually every major videogame cover band (as well as many hopeful DJs) comes to put on what has to be their favorite show of the year — I can’t see how playing for the exact niche audience your music was made for wouldn’t be.

As a frequent listener of video game music, it was pretty damn incredible to attend an event dedicated to its exhibition. The success of MAGFest is a testament to the genre’s diversity and longevity. Even so, it can be difficult to explain what makes the genre great — or even listenable — to people not in the know. Marinelli credits the appeal of the genre to the frequently limited tools game composers work with to improve their craft.

“It had very complex, interweaving melodies and harmonies. When a composer is forced to create music under those strict limitations, he or she has to make damn sure it sounds good, otherwise you’re just gonna want to mute it, and that’s something that always appealed to me about it,” Marinelli said. “It’s cool that the constraints made it so that the composer had to exercise their creativity as much as they could, yet at the same time, the simplicity of the sound palette made it so that today you could have so many different interpretations of the same song, and they could all be so radically different that you could listen to the same song 10 times in a row and not get tired of it.”

There’s not much synergy between the “music festival” and “gaming con” sides of MAGFest, other than the ability to stroll between the two sides of the event at will. But perhaps it’s the overall culture of MAGFest that’s synergistic.

So, apparently conventions have their own culture? They do, and it’s fascinating to witness, especially within the walls of an ornate hotel.

What people don’t fully understand about geek conventions and festivals like MAGFest is that normal societal and social rules simply don’t apply to them. Obviously, courtesy and civility are still norms, but the ground rules of human interaction are inherently different.

For one thing, people will dance anywhere. Amateur DJs seemed to have speaker setups blasting electronic music (often video-game-themed) from every hallway in the Gaylord National Resort. Around them, small groups of sweaty guys and girls could be seen rollicking back and forth around their segment of carpeted hotel floor. I’ve never seen people dance like they do at conventions. None of them ever look like they actually know how to dance, but they move and jump and sing with the confidence of professionals.

Another oddity is the dominance of cosplay. Like many convention settings, around a third of the MAGFest attendees engaged in some form of cosplay — dressing in elaborate costumes emulating video game, comic book and anime characters. There’s no doubt that conventions are absolutely the greatest people-watching events in the world. Sitting or standing virtually anywhere in the event is like watching a costume parade, a rainbow of pop culture idolization, fur suits and out-there fashion.

I have to imagine that MAGFest is either a nice break or a royal pain in the ass for the hotel staff. For one weekend of the year, instead of having to deal with stuffy white people in suits, they instead cater to Hatsune Miku, the Raccoon City Police Department, Rei Ayanami, Belly Dancing Toads and the entire roster of Super Smash Bros.

This probably sounds like it would be pretty overwhelming to those not familiar with the con scene. You don’t have to be familiar with convention culture to appreciate the event, though. Marinelli noted that there are so many niche interests represented at MAGFest that it would be difficult not to enjoy any of them.

“Video gamers enjoy MAGFest, tabletop gamers, LARPers, cosplayers, musicians, people who like watching YouTube, academics, game designers, game composers, artists, crafters. There’s all these areas at MAGFest that you don’t necessarily see anywhere else,” Marinelli said.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of MAGFest — and the aspect most noticeable while simply walking around the event — is its absolute dedication to promoting inclusivity. MAGFest has absolutely the most diverse array of identities I've seen at a convention. While cons are normally portrayed in media as thoroughly white and male (for example, the Star Wars convention in Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy”), MAGFest entirely transcends that stereotype. MAGFest is a convention of geeks, to be sure, but its geeks are a rainbow of colors and sexualities, with an almost-equal gender ratio.

“We had a lot of different kinds of people coming into MAGFest (the last few years), it’s quite different from what it used to be when it was a bunch of smelly dudes,” Marinelli said. “I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but I’m very glad it did because we’ve evolved into this very diverse, safe space where people of any size, shape, gender, color, religion and whatever can come and feel welcome. It’s part of our code of conduct, our harassment policy, that we don’t take any shit when it comes to ragging on people for any reason.”

To me, MAGFest even transcends “college pamphlet” diversity. It’s not just people of different races and genders. MAGFest is the most inclusive event I’ve maybe ever attended because it’s tolerant of different lifestyles, ideals, manners of speech and more. It’s no wonder those dancers looked so confident — they felt safe and free.

“We have people in fur suits walking around our event. Whatever!” Marinelli said. That’s their bag, that’s what they do. I’m not gonna … I’ve actually learned a lot about that, because you know, most people’s exposure to fur suits is CSI, when they had the furry orgy (episode) or whatever. And it turns out, people who wear fur suits just really like Ninja Turtles and Star Fox. Like, all right, that’s cool, I can get behind that. I’m glad that so many people are welcome at the event, because in the current age of the Internet we live in, it is sometimes said that we shouldn’t need diverse representation of people in gaming, and I think that’s 100 percent false.”

Marinelli explained to me that the convention has difficulty capturing and selling people on the sprawling range of niche interests that MAGFest caters to.

“When I first took on the role of a main promo guy, I was really bad at it. Not that I’m not still bad at it, because I kept playing up the video game music angle. That’s what it was to me. I didn’t quite realize at the time how many different facets there are to MAGFest and how many different ways there are to enjoy it,” Marinelli said.

“When I finally twisted one friend’s arm into final coming, he thought it was the greatest thing ever. He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me all these arcade machines were here? This is so cool!’ And now he’s the head of our merchandise department. It just goes to show that no matter what your niche is, you’re probably going to find it at MAGFest. Unless it’s 19th century French literature. I don’t know what to tell you there.”

There was no lack of conversation in my car during the eight-hour car trip back to Ann Arbor. In fact, I’m pretty sure we could have gone for far longer reminiscing about what we just experienced.

If not for the wonderful culture of fun and inclusivity or the panels of famous YouTube stars, MAGFest is absolutely worth attending just to see. The endless parade of congoers in immaculate homemade costumes, the seemingly endless line of old-school arcade machines, the many after-parties in Gaylord hotel rooms with enthusiastic and excited people that are colorful in every sense of the word — MAGFest has to be seen to be believed.