We visited A MAZE. / Berlin, the 7th International Games and Playful Media Festival, and talked to the director Thorsten S. Wiedemann about the festival, games and the community.

A MAZE. / Berlin is an international festival focusing on the art and culture of games and playful media. From the 25th to 29th of April everybody was invited to the Urban Spree in Berlin to explore inspiring talks, workshops, and an exhibition showcasing new independent video games, virtual reality experiences and playful media projects. Professionals and creatives from diverse fields shared their visions and projects, exchanged knowledge, played, connected, and collaborated.

Part of the festival are the A Maze. Awards which were awarded for the 7th time. 25 games and playful media pieces were nominated by international professionals from the games industry, judged by an independent international jury in six categories, and honored during the A MAZE. Awards Ceremony.

We visited A MAZE, enjoyed the open and creative atmosphere, learned a lot during the talks, experienced playful art and talked to Thorsten S. Wiedemann, the founder and director of A MAZE: 

 

Farina: “Hi Thorsten, maybe we can start with summarizing what A MAZE is.”

Thorsten: “A MAZE is an international label for alternative and independent game developers and playful media artists.”

Farina: “You often make a difference between playful art and games. So you are not talking about games but about playful media. Could you explain why?”

Thorsten: “It’s because most of the stuff we are showing at the A MAZE are not classic games anymore and I prefer a title which embraces not only games, but all kinds of installations, playful interactions, and virtual art spaces as well. It is a more open minded wording than just games. I actually cut out the names independent and indie as well, because with the term playful media everything is together and gets its attention.”

Farina: “You mentioned that you cut out the word independent, what else has changed? If I’m right, A MAZE is here for ten years now.”

Thorsten: “Yes, we celebrate ten-year jubilee of the label and of the name A MAZE, so we do it since 2008, but since 2012 we are officially inviting and showing independent games and playful media in the perspective of art. For us it is very important to look into the medium as a new form of artistic and personal expressions, political and socially critical statements. We are looking really deep into the content and the narratives, much more than at the game mechanics themselves.”

Farina: “What else changed over the last years? For example we noticed it’s all in one place now.”

Thorsten: “It is changing every year. We started with A Maze. Indie Connect. We did it for two years, we had just one award and we showed twenty-five games. Just fifty people showed up as professionals, some people from Berlin were coming. Now we have 1300 professionals and press people here, we have corporations with wonderful cultural institutions like Goethe Institut, Insitut Français and the Polish Institution in Berlin. It’s growing into a direction I really enjoy because it’s a cultural thing. Games and playful media are cultural tools to communicate in new ways to archive and document our real world and put these into kinds of playful scenarios.

We call it A MAZE. / Berlin now as I do one in Johannesburg for six years, and now the festival is moving to Cape Town. I do some Pop Ups around the world, do game jams and try to spread that everybody should do games and show that it’s possible, because people don’t know that. The tools are there and you can learn it by yourself to make games.”

Farina: “So you don’t need to be a programmer to make games?”

Thorsten: “Actually you don’t need to learn programming nowadays to make a game. Everyone who is interested in expressing themselves artistically can also make a game. Like one artist from Israel who’s nominated and shows Homescape, he’s an animator and a photographer. He just had this dream to make a game because for what he wanted to show, a game in VR was the perfect idea. He learned everything by himself from scratch.”

Farina: “That is why you also have workshops here to get people into making games?”

Thorsten: “Yes, we also have the game jam now. Everything is changing. We also have new awards every year. This year we have the Humble New Talent Award for example. We are always learning from the community and this makes the festival powerful. We are listening and looking what is happening out there at the moment.
There is a movement we like to embrace and show it to the public. That is why we have days open for the public on Saturday and Sunday. It’s also new that everything is here in one space and nobody has to leave or go to a different location. People have more opportunities to meet, to talk and to chill out and this is very important and engaging.”

Farina: “What is important to you when you are looking for artists, exhibitors and speakers?”

Thorsten: “For us it is very important to always look into diversity. We want to bring everything on one page, check that everything is there, that we are very international and that we show what is happening. Of course it’s a lot more work than always taking the same speakers but when you have a passion in something you should do it right. This is why we always try to find new speakers and making an interesting program.

For the games we have a submission process so we can’t really influence what people are sending in, but over the years, people understood what A MAZE is looking for and what A MAZE stands for. It is definitely something like art house. We are looking for non-commercial content which probably will not work on Steam but on itch.io, feeds a community and reaches out to other players.

We like to show the potential of games and what is happening right now. Since the beginning in 2012 the quality of the games and the selection also changed completely which is very interesting. New trends are coming up and we want to keep this overview.”

Farina: “I guess you can say Virtual Reality is one of those trends …”

Thorsten: “Virtual Reality is a trend I’m very interested in, not only because I was hanging out 48 hours straight in VR in 2016. Virtual Reality is a perfect medium to find ways to collaborate, it is a new way of creating stories and immersive narratives. Now it’s actually everywhere and people are trying and experimenting. And we also like to showcase all those experiments at A MAZE.”

Farina: “Maybe Virtual Reality is something you can show better in exhibitions because it is more like an installation. There are many games here that wouldn’t work at home because there are alternate controllers, local multiplayers and virtual reality fits very well in this setting.”

Thorsten: “Yes, but it is always complicated to showcase Virtual Reality, you need much more space. Actually, I don’t like how other conventions are doing it inside these booths. Instead we try to keep it a bit more open.

If I would have more exhibition space there would be definitely some kind of decoration as well that fits to the game and work much closer with the developers and authors to create something around the games because every game has a story and a link to the outside world. VR can be better presented than just with a computer and headset.”

Farina: “We noticed that universities and research are part of the talks and projects. And some public intuitions are sponsoring the festival as well. So what does the public sector mean to A Maze?”

Thorsten: “Public funding is very important. There is the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg which is sponsoring the whole Gamesweek in Berlin. They support A Maze since 2012 and let it become this international core festival. Conversely, we bring a lot of people here to Berlin, even people who move to Berlin, which is very important to funding institutions.
We work together as they can change something for the future, for example get funding for game developers. A festival like A MAZE is helping to show the potential and that this is something worth to fund.

We also had the premier of Homo Machina yesterday, which is the first co-production between Germany and France. We already know this from film but for games it’s new. When different countries have a game fund then people can work together over the borders and this is wonderful.”

Farina: “What do you wish for the future for playful media in general and for A MAZE in particular?”

Thorsten: “For me as director of A MAZE, I love to let it grow naturally and don’t want to push it too hard. I care about the community. This is why during the days it’s just for the community and in the evenings we open up to the public. I am also always asking for feedback. I want to take the community with me. I don’t want to lose them because without them there would be no A MAZE.

For the future I would love to work closer together with them, I would like to see more people be aware of the scene, the games, and the content. I want to see more press people coming here, finding a language to talk about the games, and getting deeper into conversations with the authors and developers. And I want to define a new market to allow people to make a living out of that. We don’t want to be poor artists.”

Farina: “Absolutely, there are many games here you need to talk about and not just look at them for five minutes.”

Thorsten: “Yes, but a festival is more about showing games and of course you can sit there and play for one hour, but it’s more about teasing. You get a little bit of an idea, a glimpse of what the creator wants to say and maybe the person remembers the name and then buys it somewhere.”

Farina: “What happens with the community for the rest of the year?”

Thorsten: “There is also one A MAZE in Cape Town in November and here are other festivals like IndieCade. Of course they also have to work on their games. I stay in contact with the community. So after the festival is before the festival.”

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