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Attendee badge from Super MAGfest 2024.
My attendee badge from Super MAGfest 2024.

Folklife, Videogames, Cosplay, and More

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Back in January of this year I made my way from Capitol Hill to National Harbor carrying a bag of take-out burritos in order to join my colleagues from Folkwise for a panel at the Super MAGfest. That sentence may not make much sense to Folklife Today readers, so I suppose I should back up a bit—especially since it all barely made sense to me on that day (and in the weeks running up the event)!

To tell the tale, I’ll approach a series of questions. What is Super MAGfest? Who are Folkwise? What was I doing there? Here we go.

Man in superhero costume stands next to man in suit.
Cosplayers graciously posed with attendees of all sorts—including me! Photo courtesy John Fenn.

MAGfest is short for “Music and Gaming Festival”, and is also the name of the nonprofit that runs the festival along with a series of other events. This annual event “super” because it’s huge, with about 30,000 attendees transforming the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center into an alternate universe that is hard to describe. I was not prepared for the scale but game for the experience, and my Folkwise friends were generous guides. Some basic info about the event provides context:

  • Super MAGfest runs for four days, 24 hours per day (no kidding)
  • The convention features console, arcade, tabletop and various other kinds of games to play—thousands of these spread through a cavernous arcade!
  • Cosplay and related activities are ubiquitous
  • There are multiple live music stages with video game cover bands, original music, chiptunes, and various kinds of drop-in jams
  • A massive vendor space contains booths of all kinds and has a multidimensional flea market vibe
  • Across the program there are many speakers, workshops and panel sessions

On to my friends at Folkwise, who coalesced during the COVID-19 pandemic as an outlet for multimedia outreach projects focused on folklore and the celebration of everyday culture experienced online. The team currently comprises Daisy Ahlstone (CEO), Dom Tartaglia (Creative Director), Kaitlyn Kinney (Communications Director), Kerry Kaleba, Shirly Shields, Chrissy Widmayer, and Caroline Miller. Founders include Anna Morrel, Sam Kendrick, Jared Schmidt, John Price, and David Tauber. Folkwise promotes the study of tradition non-traditionally through digital content creation, public education and direct community engagement. Starting off with video essays and panel discussions via their YouTube channel, the group began streaming live every week on Twitch in 2021. The format for the weekly show pairs a guest folklorist with a videogame that intersects with their life and/or their work, with the episode featuring a combination of gameplay and interview.

Group photo of four people
Folkwise team at Super MAGfest. Kaitlyn Kinney, Dom Tartaglia, John Fenn, and Daisy Ahlstone (left to right). Photo courtsey of Kaitlyn Kinney.

We arrive at the core question: why was Folkwise at Super MAGfest? Both Daisy and Dom are longtime attendees, and active participants in the various communities that inhabit the convention, and they were determined to have a live episode of the Folkwise show onstage at Super MAGfest. As they told me, the festival features a significant number of video game enthusiasts who have academic interests in video game music and ludomusicology, so they wanted to speak to that corner of the fanbase through their own approach to folklore studies. In a sense, they wanted to give the festival goers who want to have an academic encounter with video games a cool and unexpected learning experience by hosting a panel in which one of them played a video game and one of them interviewed a guest. That guest was me, and the videogame was Metroid.

The narrative web connecting Metroid, Folkwise, and me is short and reaches back to the 2021 annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in Harrisburg, PA. At that conference Folkwise ran an after-hours session during which they conducted short interviews with attendees about their professional work in the field and their experiences with videogames. I volunteered for a slot, and when Dom asked me if I’d want to come onto the Twitch stream at some point in the future I half-jokingly said only if they played Metroid–the only videogame I’d had any ongoing interaction with as an adult (well, as an 18-year old, and with limited success). Turns out Folkwise wasn’t joking, and in the fall of 2023 I received an email from Daisy and Dom with the subject heading, “We have a big idea…”. That big idea was the panel proposal: a session of live play in a recent version of Metroid with Dom at the controls (it would have been a short session if I was playing) and a parallel discussion/interview between Daisy and me about cultural practices and identity surrounding videogaming. By early December we were on the program with an in-person episode of Folkwise! Check out the video from the MAGfest official YouTube channel:

My preparation for the panel led me down some intriguing paths and into various corners of the Library, solidifying intuitive hunches I had about relevant connections to LOC collections. For example, through colleagues in other parts of the Library I knew that staff had some presence in the realm of video game preservation and that LOC held video games of all types in its collections. A few webcasts are relevant, too, with one about the LOC game collections and one providing a DIY tutorial on preserving video games. I was also aware that the Library had initiated a few public engagement projects encouraging users and various segments of the public to create video games. One of these was a 2023 challenge from then-Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jason Reynolds, and the other was a contest featuring cash prizes for developers who created video games related to civics that incorporated LOC resources.

A bit of digging in the LOC catalog turned up a few fascinating online collection items, as well. First up is a 1983 video game proposal from Carl Sagan in which he writes, “The question is how to design a home video game which could teach a great deal of astronomy in a context as exciting as most violent video games.” Read the full two-page document. A second collection item I found is held by AFC as part of the Omaha Powwow Project Collection (AFC 1986/038). It’s a photo by our own Carl Fleischhauer from a 1983 powwow in Macy, Nebraska. Carl was part of a team working with the Omaha to document the powwow and he took this photograph on the grounds.

Several youth playing video games and pinball under an awning at an outdoor event.
Booth with Videogames. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1983. From Omaha Powwow Project collection (AFC 1986/038: FCP/0-CF1-14).

I’ll close by juxtaposing Carl’s show with one I took of one section of the gaming pavilion at Super MAGfest. Many thanks to the Folklwise team for having me along on the ride!

People playing video games in a large room.
A portion of the gaming arcade space at Super MAGfest 2024. Photo by John Fenn.

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