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By Dan Charles

Towards the end of last year, my mother sent me a picture that she had just taken of the men in my family sitting on the couch and playing the copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe that came with the Nintendo Switch gaming console that they had just finished setting up. In the picture, my father is smiling with a look of awe and soft child-like glee. My brother is focusing intently on maneuvering through the rapid-paced virtual racetrack while my two-year-old nephew is nestled between the arms of his father, peering over the controller with his eyes transfixed on the luminescent television screen where all of the action is taking place – his young face beaming with the wonder of discovering something new. 

Attending Playtopia at the end of last year reminded me of the last time that video games had led me to feel a wonder similar to the kind that emanated from my nephew in that picture. Established in 2018, Playtopia is the first festival and conference of its kind to unite and celebrate the small but budding independent gaming scene growing in South Africa while also building bridges between the industry here and developers from industries across the African continent and the rest of the globe. Over the course of three days, attendees of Playtopia 2023 were welcome to scour the grounds of Cape Town’s Homecoming Centre, which had mostly been converted into the festival’s “Super Friendship Arcade” –  a grand assemblage of indie games ready to be explored by anyone intrigued enough to immerse themselves in them. 

The conference aspect included talks and panel discussions from some of the most lauded experts in the gaming field of South Africa and abroad. Although the talks did focus on the fascinating intricacies of certain aspects of game design, the talks that appealed to me the most were the ones that highlighted the power of the immersive storytelling through video games. South African game writer Jon Keevy gave a short 5 minute “Hyper Talk” on falling in love with NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) and how that love is cultivated within a game’s story and how that reflects how love is expressed in the non-virtual world.

Nyambura M. Waruingi, the Founder and Creative Director of Akoia & Company Ltd. elaborated on the design and production of hybrid immersive and interactive experiences with the audience journey and access in mind. Paolo Perdicini guided the audience through the 20 years of creating games under the critically lauded moniker Molleindustria while also exploring how the concept of dystopian worlds have shaped games in the past and how gaming can possibly help us explore ideas around what a utopia might look like outside of gaming.

Unlike other modes of storytelling, video games depend on your interaction with them in order to progress the story being told. A movie will play on in the background even while no one is paying attention to it. A song will do the same. You can skip to the end of a book without glancing at any of the pages leading towards its conclusion but a video game requires your full interaction in order to progress. It takes commitment. It takes investment. It takes an intimacy between you and the world that you have entered. Seeing the groups of friends clustered around the blinking monitors of the different games in the Super Friendship Arcade also reminded me how sharing in that immersiveness is also an act of intimacy.

I have always felt closest to my brother when we played video games together. When I was born, my parents presented my brother with a Golden China gaming console that they told him was “a gift from the baby” in the way that parents sometimes do when attempting to ease the introduction of a newborn child into the life of an older sibling who might be resentful of having to share the love and attention of their parents. I was born to be his Player 2. By the time I was old enough to participate more actively in the world around me, my brother had graduated from the Golden China to the slightly more advanced Sega Genesis console that would form the core of some my earliest memories. I was still too young and my hand-eye-coordination was still not developed enough for me to play well alongside him but I was more than content to sit by his side and watch him spin-dash through the world of Sonic the Hedgehog 2. I was endless enthralled by his ability to tactfully maneuver through each level as they became more and more treacherous and being by his side made me feel like I was a part of his heroic journey.

The camaraderie cultivated between us in those early days would carry on as we aged into the more complex and narrative-driven 3D games that were introduced to us via the Play Station 2 and then the Xbox 360. At this point, I had honed own skills as a fairly competent gamer in my own right but I would still gladly take my place at my brother’s side as I accompanied him through darker and more mature stories that unfolded in the games of his choosing – stories that intrigued me but also intimidated me unless my brother was leading us through them together

As one gets older and the world continues to seemingly fall apart around us, the simple joy of something like playing video games can tend to be written off as insignificant. However, there is absolutely nothing insignificant about the things that bring you closer to the ones that you love by immersing yourselves into each other’s worlds. And I am glad to see that my brother and his son have discovered new worlds to share with each other. After rediscovering my love for video games at Playtopia, I am also glad to know that there might be a controller still waiting for me at my brother’s side.


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