“You should go to Magfest”
I remember the first time I was told this, way back in 2012. As someone who attends a lot of conventions in a year, names of new events are tossed my way by friends eager to show me something I hadn’t been to before. Most of them are, of course, anime cons: because when you write your thesis on anime convention culture, and spend countless weeks traveling to said cons to speak, everyone you have met AT the con wants to tell you about their favorite events here and there, in hopes of bringing you along and sharing the love. This is nothing new, and is a lot of fun when your friends come along with you.
But Magfest was something else. I had a lot of friends who would “boost” for the convention, telling me about how laid back it was, how it felt more like a party than a con, how it was a lot of music and a lot of games, so there was always something happening. And of course, it was always finished by “you should go to Magfest.”
I almost went to Magfest in 2013, but a con invite pulled me down south for two awesome weekends. I almost went to Magfest in 2014, until Otakon Vegas came calling and I flew out west (which, ironically, was the result of the same friend who first told me I had to go to Magfest). I almost didn’t go to Magfest this year, due to budgeting issues and other lovely consequences of being an adult. This fabled oasis of music and multiplayer “mayhem” shimmered in the blinding sun, and faded almost as I was approaching it.
Then fate intervened, and I finally had the chance to “go to Magfest.” As I sit here, one week (and three snowstorms) removed from the festivities, I have two very different thoughts going through my head: 1- that everyone was right about the party thing; and 2- I really need to play some Dreamcast. (You should never be surprised by comments like the latter, I get them all the time.) Magfest is exactly what everyone says it is, a straightforward, relaxing weekend, full of the same energy and fun one can find at any fandom convention…just far more laid back, “informal” if you will. And definitely worth making the trip for.
My Magfest odyssey started on Friday, twelve hours after I traveled from NY down to Baltimore to hitch a ride with that same friend who kept telling me to go to Magfest. I’ve learned from previous trips to Katsucon that the Gaylord National Harbor (where Magfest calls home) is nigh-inaccessible via mass transit, and while it would have been a bit easier to take a Friday bus versus do cerebral battle with a cat over who got to sleep on the sofa, I wasn’t about to attempt to navigate the DC metro with two huge bags and an air mattress. So instead I engaged in battle with said cat, and took a nice car ride down the beltway Friday, reaching my destination at a welcome hour. I had three items on my agenda as well: get some music, find a copy of Grandia 2, and relax (which I hadn’t done at a con since 2011). Let’s see where this goes…
Rule 1 of Magfest: Go with the flow
First thing that I need to say about Magfest is the party is always in full effect. Seriously, everyone who says that Magfest is more social than convention is not lying. While there is live programming (which is very well attended), the bulk of the con seems to focus around the arcade, dealer’s room, hallways, and tabletop gaming area. Go there at any point during the weekend, from wee hours of the morning to prime wandering time, and you will always find a gaggle of costumed attendees posing for shots, playing board/RPG/CCGs, or just navigating the gigantic, 80s-devoted light show called the arcade, that never shuts down. It really is just one huge party most of the time.
(There’s even a Prom, though why they call it such makes no sense- there’s no dress code, and the nearly hour long soundcheck drove me out of the room at one point. But I did get some peach Schnapps from my “date,” a girl dressed as Jem, out of the deal.)
This party never ends. Magfest is billed as a four day event, with 24 hours worth of stuff to do each and every day. But much of that stuff is catered to the mission statement: music and gaming. And it’s skewed very heavily in favor of the “gaming” part. Not just electronic games either- the con has a healthy number of board games for “rent,” tons of tables, and no shortage of players looking for their next fix. If one was so inclined, they could easily eschew on sleep entirely, and just game for the entire 96 hours. Not healthy for said attendee, but definitely possible.
There’s also so much music to go around. From concerts to side stages, to DJs setting up in the middle of the hallway, there is always some form of musical entertainment on display. String quartet in the gazebo first thing in the morning? Yep. Random flute-playing Zelda on the elevator? Totally. Yahoo with a cell phone playing the “Potatoes and Low Asses” remix from Over the Garden Wall everywhere he goes?…I regret nothing. That song is awesome. There’s so much music going around, that is often facilitates the party vibe itself, breaking the ice in ways that no form of conversation ever could. It really is a blessing that the Gaylord is an enclosed resort, otherwise this crucial part of the weekend might be missing, which would be a damn shame.
I managed to tick off the first item on my agenda fairly quickly with a Protomen album, and a wonderful chat with a guy at the music merch tables. He too reiterated that Magfest is a party weekend, and that I should just take it as it comes, go where I want to go, and not be beholden to some schedule. I took this to heart over the next few days, when I never even downloaded the Guidebook app (or saw a paper schedule), and just kept walking until something fun happened, at which point I would stop, appreciate what was happening, and move on afterwards. This is really the best way to experience Magfest: spontaneity enhances the entire experience.
Rule 2 of Magfest: it’s a Festival, not a con
I’ve been violating this rule a lot in the preceding paragraphs, but it needs to be mentioned that Magfest is at heart (and name) a festival. “But how is that different from a convention?” one might ask? Well, as a counter, how is the Warped Tour different from a day-long concert? And the answer to that is variety: with a con (cert or vention) there is a set schedule that everyone partakes of, with little in the way of variation. With a festival, there are no rules (except the ones I’m pointing out here), and a huge amount of stuff to do, both scheduled and not. Again, see above.
Rather than rely on schedules to drive the masses, Magfest instead seems to have “times” the further one delves down into it. There’s shopping time, panel time, concert time, and party time, but those are more like suggestions than schedules, and tend to be personal choice. Bands play more than once (and on alternating sides of the concert hall), and there is always the chance to make up for a missed opportunity later on in the weekend. And there’s also the ever-present skew of attendees: some forego late night shenanigans in favor of sleeping, and for them panel time is morning and afternoon, while those that like to party are usually asleep. This actually helps the event flow smoothly: while some are busy indulging in concert time, it leaves plenty of space for gamers and panelists to enjoy their own thing, while offering events that can draw large numbers of people at prime “shift slots,” where one facet of the day comes to an end while the other revs into gear.
It’s hard to explain without experiencing it, really. Like a good festival, everything sort of just happens independent of everything else, and that dictates how much one would enjoy the weekend. Freedom aside, it’s actually liberating, knowing that you never need to be somewhere, and you can always make up for lost experiences some other time. There is no real crunch to speak of, and that makes the weekend far more relaxing.
By Saturday, I had only managed to tick off the one box on my agenda (albeit repeatedly) because I discovered how many bands like to do metal covers of old game music, which set me up for the largest purchase of tunes I’ve made since I worked across the street from Tower Records. When they say Music and Gaming fest, they are not lying- I haven’t spent this much time in a Dealer’s Room ever in recent memory. But Grandia 2 evaded me, because the one copy I found was marked up over $40, and I was not willing to spend that on a Dreamcast game I should have bought ten+ years ago. Que sera sera, life goes on.
But the concerts…oh my, the concerts. By the end of the day I was deaf, and could not have been happier.
Rule 3 of Magfest: Don’t be afraid to try something new.
This is a convention general rule, but with regards to Magfest, it revolved around one of the more chaotic (and unscheduled) events of the weekend. By late Saturday, I had developed something akin to a sequence of events in my head. I had done some tabletop, played some card games, got my ears blown out during concerts by such cheeky-named bands as Dethlehem and Powerglove, and watched Bit Brigade blast out the entire soundtrack to Metroid while their frontman completed the fastest run of the game I’ve ever seen. I even reconnected with an old con buddy I hadn’t seen since Otakon 2011. But as Sunday unfolded, I found myself standing in the cold day air, holding a rifle, and getting read for the Nerf War.
This is some type of annual tradition, whereby organizers dump a ton of darts on the ground, and attendees proceed to shoot the hell out of each other. It draws a few spectators, but is mostly one of those events for participants to really let loose and enjoy. I had a few friends taking part, and one of them had an extra shotgun, so I shrugged and joined the fray. I normally avoid any type of play that involves projectiles because I’m boring, but somewhere deep down, I knew I had to do this. It was so random, so…fandom, that when it called my name, I answered.
This ended up being the highlight of my Sunday, and not just because it was the last big event I did. This was the type of frenetic fun that I used to do all the time at cons when i was in High School and college. I got to turn my brain off and shoot randomly into the air, laughing as the electric guns (there are electric nerf guns now…where were these when I was a kid) shot up a wannabe Katniss wielding the old Nerf bow from the 80s. I laughed when Agent Coulson, with a single shot handgun, won the freeze round. I laughed when I shot up the friend who lent me her jacket just because I could. And I cheered when Link won the melee round. After three days of going with the flow and ignoring the schedule, this was the best way to cap it all off.
By the time I wandered into the Dealer’s Room for the last time on Sunday, 3/4 of the vendors had left. Including the guy selling translated rom cartridges of Blood of Bahamut, the game that was competing with Grandia 2 in my head. I still saw a Sega Saturn on display, which I almost bought, but decided against. I had just left the Protomen concert, and my room was going to pack up and leave National Harbor in front of an impending blizzard (that dropped less than an inch of snow on the sidewalk the following morning). But I was still at Magfest, determined to squeeze some last-second fun out of the weekend. I settled for hitting the arcade and playing Crazy Taxi for the 100th time, because I love that game, and it was the only one that didn’t have delayed controls. My lack of practice showed greatly, but I still relished the chance to drive a steering wheel, instead of a Dreamcast controller. And on the ride back, we got a chance to listen to the Rare Candy album I got that morning, which will go down as the purchase of the con, if only for the awesome Chrono Trigger suite on it.
While Baltimore escaped the blizzard, New York did not, and I was stuck there for a few more days, more than enough time to talk about my weekend with the friends who had invited me. They were veterans of both staff and attendance, experiencing Magfest from many different sides. And of course, they asked what I thought of the convention. After three days of constant gaming, deafening concerts, rationed food, nerf projectile combat, a mountain of albums (but no Grandia 2), and an atrium room (complete with balcony) at the Gaylord, I had just one reply.
“I should go to Magfest.”
And in case anyone was wondering, I did manage to click off the final two boxes on my agenda: I haven’t felt that relaxed at a con in years, and it recharged my batteries beyond what I had been hoping for. And I found a copy of Grandia 2 on eBay a few days later, for the princely sum of $25, shipping included. All in all, an excellent experience.
You should go to Magfest.