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Play Expo: An Ageing Geek's Idea Of A Perfect Day Out

14/08/2014 16:55 | Updated 22 May 2015

Last weekend the geekdaddy and I took advantage of the press tickets we'd been given and headed off to Event City in Manchester to attend Replay Events "Play Expo". It was an event I'd only become aware of recently, having managed to completely miss the inaugural one last year, but as an enthusiastic gamer who loves to see events like this happening outside of London I was very keen to check it out.

We originally planned to take the kids with us, but then through a serious of fortunate events we ended up with them going to stay with the family of one of the geekdaughter's school-friends for the day.

I appreciate that a games expo might not be everyone's first choice for a child-free day, but for a games-loving geek couple it was heaven!

Play Expo describes itself as the UK's most diverse video gaming expo. I've not been to any other video gaming expos to compare, but diverse is certainly a word that came to mind over and over again as I wandered around the exhibition hall.

The hall was split into four main areas: re.play (retro systems and arcade/pinball machines), now.play (previews of the latest games and hardware), pro.play (casual and competitive tournaments) and cos.play (costume competitions and dealers/traders).

It was busy, but not unpleasantly so – there always seemed to be a console or system available to play, although if you were after a specific one you might have to wait a little while. As well as the gaming systems there were a selection of trade stands where you could purchase all sorts of things – I had no idea there was quite such a thriving market for retro gaming accessories.

The Cosplay (costume play, or dressing up for those not in the know) meant that at any time you could walk past someone dressed up as a video game character, and it all seemed completely normal.

I could tell the geekdaddy had had a good day because he turned to me in the car park as we left and said quite forcefully "we're going next year!" And I wasn't going to argue with him, because I'd had a great day too.

Here, in no particular order, are the things I loved at Play Expo Manchester 2013:

Getting a picture with Pikachu

The first thing that greeted us as we walked through the door was a larger-than-life sized Pikachu. So I got my photo taken with it, as you do! In fact there was a bit of a Pikachu theme going on the whole day, as I found a Pikachu shawl for sale on one of the trade stands (I resisted buying it, if only because I'd have to fight the geekdaughter for it. And to round it off at the end of the day I treated myself to a Pickachu cupcake (it was yummy!)

The entire re:play section

I found so many memories flooding back as we walked through the retro gaming section. There was a huge collection of old arcade game cabinets which the geekdaddy kept going up to and stroking like they were old friends. I spent many happy hours at University standing next to him whilst he played R-Type or Splatterhouse, and we slipped very easily back into that pattern again! We spent the longest time in this section, with many happy cries of "oh look, they've got that one!" and "do you remember that one?". All the machines were set to free play, and it was lovely having the chance to play some old favourites again. There was also a huge collection of home consoles, from the Sinclair Spectrum right up to modern machines, all set up and ready for anyone to play. I discovered that the best console conversion of R-Type is on the PC-Engine, and I'm surprised the geekdaddy didn't pressure me to buy one.

The Addams Family Pinball machine

I was always more of a pinball player than an arcade machine lover, and my game of choice was always The Addams Family. We had one in our student union and I have very fond memories of happy times playing it. There were not one but TWO Addams Family pinball machines at PLay Expo (as well as several rows of other pinball machines), and the geekdaddy very gallantly queued on my behalf so that I could get a go. Yes, it's still the best pinball machine I've ever played, and I've told the geekdaddy if he ever does something really bad that he has to really really grovel to me to make up for, he can buy me my own machine!

The geekdaddy got to meet one of his heroes

Ever since I have known him, the geekdaddy has played, and raved about, Jeff Minter games. Starting off with Llamatron and progressing through everything else he's ever written. We hadn't realised Llamasoft were going to be at Play Expo, so the first clue we had that they were there was walking past a stand with a large model sheep on it. They were there to give the first public view of the upcoming Llamasoft game TxK which will be coming to the PS-Vita. Whilst the geekdaddy was trying the new game out (which I can see we're going to have to buy a PS-Vita for!) Jeff Minter himself came over to see what he thought of it. The geekdaddy came over a little star-struck, but still managed to shake him by the hand and tell him how much he's enjoyed his games over the years. After we'd moved away he told me he wasn't going to wash his hand for a week!

Fuze

This term the geekdaddy started running a Code Club at the geekdaughter's school, which he is really enjoying – he loves having the chance to teach kids about programming and coding. At the moment he's teaching Scratch which, as I understand it, is a very simple drag and drop kind of programming language. Nice and easy to get the kids started, but at some point they'll need to learn about "proper" coding. Now when we were kids we learned our first programming in BASIC – the geekdaddy on his Commodore-64 and I on my Acorn Electron. We hadn't really seen a modern equivalent until saw Fuze at Play Expo. Basically Fuze turns a Raspberry Pi into a home computer, by putting it inside a case which contains a keyboard and a solder-free breadboard, and getting it to run BASIC. So the kids can learn BASIC programming, but can also learn simple hardware control with the integrated bread board. Importantly they've wired this all together so that the kids can't accidentally blow up the Raspberry Pi, and then they provide project cards to take kids (or anyone who wants to learn) from writing their first "hello world" program to making lights flash on and off. I think this would be a great device for schools and for parents who want to encourage their kids to try programming.

Soapasaurus

The stereotypical image everyone has of a gamer is a spotty youth, sitting in the basement of his parents house. Probably someone who doesn't wash very often, which is why I thought Soapasaurus (hand-made soap for geeks) was such an inspired idea. I had a good sniff of all the samples, and would have happily bathed with any of them, although my personal favourite was "Game of Thrones – Winter is Coming" – it had a lovely fresh smell.

Diversity and Inclusion

I love the gaming community, they are so welcoming. and non-judgemental. Attendees at Play Expo ranged from aging gamers, which I guess now includes the geekdaddy and myself *sigh*, through the younger generation and all the way to families with young kids. There was something for everyone, and no-one was made to feel unwelcome. Whilst I was glad I didn't take our kids, because they would have got bored and we wouldn't have had as much chance to play on the machines, it was a completely family-friendly event, and I would take them in the future. Given the amount of hands-on play, I would prefer them to be a few years older so that they could really enjoy the games, but there was plenty for kids of any age to enjoy.

Replay Events are running another gaming expo in Blackpool on the 3rd and 4th May 2014, and you can find more about that and buy tickets at the Play Blackpool website. This is in addition to another Play Expo in Manchester in the fourth quarter of 2014, which I shall definitely do my utmost to go along to again.

Ruth Arnold is a geeky, tech-loving wife and mother of two (aged 5 and 3), trying to juggle working part time with running the home and organising the family. When she gets any spare time she likes to share tech tips and family milestones.

Blogs at: Geek Mummy

Twitter: @geekmummy

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