Published: Sept. 14, 2018

Matt Bethancourt (left) and Danny Rankin discuss their upcoming event: Whaaat!? A Festival for Games and Experimental Interactions.


That's "Whaaat!?," not "what?".

Urban slang dictionaries define the term as one of amazement and disbelief, combined with delight.

It’s what organizers of ATLAS Institute’s “Whaaat!? Festival for Games & Experimental Interactions,” hoped festival-goers would feel while attending the Sept. 29 event. The all-day festival was open to everyone, for a fee of $1.

“‘Whaaat!?’ is the reaction of someone playing an amazing game,” says Matt Bethancourt, director of the Technology, Arts and Media (TAM) program and the new ATLAS Institute’s Whaaat!? Lab, where experiments are designed, refined and tested. “We are interested in the delight others get from these experiences.”

Bethancourt and Danny Rankin, ATLAS instructor and recent graduate of the institute’s Creative, Technology and Design (CTD) program, created the festival, where participants sampled experimental tabletop and electronic games, and learned about the art form of game design through speakers, panels and workshops. The event was geared towards games that “don’t fit in traditional boxes,” says Rankin. The goal was to leave people “surprised, maybe confused and hopefully delighted.”

Keynote speakers included gamemakers Mattie Brice, an independent video game designer, critic and industry activist, whose games and writings focus on diversity initiatives in the games industry, and Pippin Barr, assistant professor in the Department of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montréal, where he directs the Technoculture, Art and Games (TAG) Research Center. Additional speakers included Jason Tagmire, founder of Button Shy Games, and ATLAS Professor Daniel Leithinger, who led a two-hour workshop using the Nintendo Labo. 

Arcades in the ATLAS Black Box and lobby, including collaborative, multi-player tabletop games, sound-music experiences and a kinetic video game that involves a lot of jumping around, will stay open throughout the day, and attendees will be able to play at their leisure. There will also be a large vintage arcade from the 1970s and 80s, with old Atari, Commodore 64 and Vectrex consoles, courtesy of CU Boulder’s Media Archeology Lab.  

“It will feel like your “cool friend’s basement in the 1980s,” Rankin says.

Festival attendees were able to sample production copies of “Ravine,” a cooperative, tabletop, wilderness survival game that Rankin and Bethancourt created; “Busy Work,” developed by Bethancourt and his wife, Lisa, which employs phones, keyboards and a shredder, and won the 2018 IndieCade Media Choice Award; and “Please Hold,” a narrative adventure done through a custom-designed phone, also created by the Bethancourts and Rankin.

“We want to show people that games can be more than what they think, and hopefully leave them really excited and pumped about the future of what’s happening in games,” Rankin says.

“The idea is delight,” Bethancourt adds. “The best thing about games and interactions are the times when they surprise you, and you have this total Whaat!? experience. That’s what we are focusing on.”

Whaaat!? was sponsored by the ATLAS Institute and CU Boulder's Engineering Excellence Fund.