Peter McCaughan visits the annual gaming event at Queen's University
On the steps of the Queen’s University Students’ Union, a staff member cautiously inspects a six foot long homemade axe/guitar hybrid before returning it to its owner. Meanwhile, the Joker walks past hand in hand with Harley Quinn and Darth Vader, exchanging phone numbers with The Riddler. It can only mean one thing – its Q-Con weekend in Belfast.
Now in its 20th year, Q-Con has become one of the largest gaming and anime convention in the UK and Ireland, drawing in over 3,000 ardent fans, and offering a densely packed program of events, over three days every June.
Entering into the spirit somewhat, I attend dressed in a Conan The Barbarian t-shirt (I leave the loincloth and muscle oil at home). Cosplay (short for costume play) is now a central conceit of such conferences, and it's great fun trying to guess who has come as what. But Q-Con is not a purely aesthetic event – there is much more to it than that.
Kicking off on Friday, June 28 with a gaming-themed comedy night, at face value the convention offers a chance for likeminded souls to play video games, table-top war games and traditional pen and paper role-playing adventures (think Dungeons and Dragons and the like).
There are also a series of seminars and workshops conducted by industry professionals throughout the weekend, informing upcoming writers, designers and artists, as well as good old fashioned fans, on everything from how to find work in an increasingly competitive industry, to the intricacies of medieval combat training for live-action role-players.
Riffing on the popular TED (technology, entertainment, design) talks – which are organised by the non-profit Sapling Foundation and streamed live online for free – there is a jam-packed program of ‘Q-ED’ talks, workshops and panels from luminaries such as developer Owen Harris of bitSmith Games and Avatar VFX director Greg Maguire.
Elsewhere Chipzel (the alias of 8-bit musical artist Niamh Houston) runs a class on ‘making the bleep-bleeps’ that score the games we know and love, with renowned Belfast-based comic artist PJ Holden offering a technical guide to graphics programs.
As I make my way around all four floors of the Student's Union hosting Q-Con, there is an overriding sense that gaming is an industry on the rise. Marketing director Jeremy Bennett is overjoyed with the impressive turnout (which has smashed last years' figures), with many upcoming game developers seeing the event as an opportunity to have their products play-tested by those most in the know – the fans themselves.
Arguably the most heartening aspect of the conference is the sheer volume of displays on show and the diversity of the programme as a whole. I spend an inordinate amount of time appreciating the quality of the fans’ handmade costumes, the dozens of locally designed games available to play, and the incredible detail on intricately painted miniatures exhibited.
There is truly a staggering amount of talent and creativity involved in Q-Con XX. I don't even get to stop off at the origami and short film competitions – better luck next year, perhaps.
It would be easy to dismiss such gaming-orientated events as the realm of the neck-bearded nerd and his Dr Who-obsessed girlfriend, but to do so would be to dismiss a rising sub-culture that could, potentially, provide thousands of creative industry jobs in the future. Q-Con manages to prove that while retaining a spirit of the fantastic and the fun.
Images courtesy of Leigh Forgie.