Insomnia! Despite unfettered attempts to stave off the condition with a large stick, this weekend I actively went and SOUGHT OUT Insomnia. Which sounds mental, doesn’t it. Regrettably this wasn’t a brash attempt at gonzo journalism, forcing the ravages of sleep deprivation upon myself in the name of writing something half decent for a change. In fact, I’m not talking about the inability to sleep at all, but instead my inability to function as a useful human being at popular games events! Yes, Insomnia is actually, supposedly, the UK’s Biggest Gaming Festival, and I imagine that bold claim hinges on what counts as a festival, but nevertheless; number 54 took place this weekend, and they were kind enough to slap a press badge on me so I could bumble about the place pretending to be a journalist. i.e. drunk.
I’ve never been interested in Insomnia before, chiefly because I know the core mechanic of the event is something that scares me to the core of my mechanics. Far from its Eurogamer and Rezzed counterparts; Insomnia is a gaming festival in the truest sense of the idea. With a certain type of ticket, you haul along all your own gear; PC/console/maniacal variation thereof, you get given a seat and a desk in a large hall, and from there you LAN yourself to death for 48+ hours.
Of course, this format presents a number of problems to someone like me:
1) I’d have to play multiplayer games. With other people.
2) I’d have to be somewhat reasonable at any games I took part in, because other people would be there depending on me
3) I’d have to put all my own stuff in the car, and take it to Coventry; something nobody should do with anything/one they care about.
What I didn’t realise is that, after 54 instances of the event (presumably less but I’ve not paid any attention since forever) they’ve gone and mixed it up a bit. There’s a whole other section to Insomnia these days, a section that your neurotic, anxiety-ridden, oft-reluctant EGX-attendee will be right at home with. For the most part.
Yes, with just a day ticket, otherwise known as a Doesn’t Play Well With Others (Or At All) Ticket; you’re granted free roam of the main hall, which is full of stalls selling mechanical keyboards and outrageous PC cooling systems, Tshirts with in jokes on them and novelty hats. There’s also a decently proportioned collection of (mostly indie) game stands to hover about and have a go on, given your propensity to elbow other people out of the way in a queue, and then publicly embarrass yourself via any means necessary. There was also a Mortal Kombat stand that, bafflingly, people were queuing for.
Aside from the enthusiastic presence of stalls selling their wares in comparison to the other big name gaming events; the main difference was the children. And the YouTubers. And this weird utopian playground-like hum that seemed to curdle in the middle as a result. I’ve seen the numbers, I’ve even seen pictures, but until you’re there in a huge hall, with potentially more than a thousand seated attendees, watching a lone YouTuber on stage cavort about cloyingly in Minecraft, you really can’t attest to its consumption.
Kids as young as six were haring about the place, clutching their foam Minecraft axe and sword replicas, awash with YouTuber signatures. Personalities that looked barely years older than their adoring pre-pubescent fans, came out for signings and Meet and Greet sessions, and the whole cavalcade was jarring and weird. It felt like something out of Black Mirror; a digital world through a hyperbole lens. But of course, there wasn’t a lens, because this is reality. A reality that, in that place, seemed drunk on the power it had gifted YouTubers. Indeed, at the Ricoh arena in Coventry, at Insomnia54 at least, Minecraft enthusiasts of all types, creeds, colours and ages seem to have carved out a corner of the universe just for them; where their heroes are idolised, where their game is a lofted deity; a plane wherein an exuberant, digital existence suddenly takes on a much more real form.
I felt like an outsider, which is fine. I do at most of these events, and also when doing ordinary run-of-the-mill, day-to-day things. To be a spectator to it was strange though, because I’m used to events that look almost identical, less this child-driven, YouTube scented, atmospheric buzz. It needs to be iterated that although this probably sounds like I’m tarring it with a negative brush, I’m absolutely not. This strange paradigm is the direct result of the players being able, and being encouraged, to create their own content. It’s a testament to how mainstream games in their various guises have become, the markets that they’ve battled their way into for years. And yes, that is a good thing. It’s good for prosperity and for industry and for growth.
With a table-top area, a pretty all-encompassing retro zone that had games and consoles for sale, as well as a shed load of CRT tvs hooked up to old consoles out to play, and talks and events happening on the mainstage, I had a brilliant time experiencing Insomnia. It’s right on my doorstep too, and even without getting involved in the LAN gaming aspect, there’s plenty on show for the ticket price. With EGX now in Birmingham it’ll have fiercer competition come the end of the year, but it’s worth remembering that Insomnia is resolutely an individual beast. Did you go? Are you going to the next one in August? Did my dystopian description of a world in which YouTubers are real life celebrities rile you to the edge of reason? Leave me a cripplingly vociferous rant in the comments why not.