Matt Bethancourt and Danny Rankin started the Whaaat!? festival in order to geek-out with a group of like-minded game developers; in just their second year, they managed to attract 250 participants to the all-day event, assisted by 5280 magazine designating it as an "Editor's Pick" for their "Best things to do in Colorado in October" listing.
"We’re really excited to expand the discourse around games and play," said Bethancourt, co-organizer of the event and director of the Technology, Arts and Media (TAM) program. “Generally people focus on the business or entertainment-value of games, but we’re more interested in areas where games can function as art, cultural artifacts, storytelling tools and other areas."
Overall the annual event is geared towards games that don't fit traditional boxes; the kind of experiences that make you say "Whaaat!?" That's not "What?," but "Whaaat!?," defined as an expression of both amazement and disbelief, combined with delight. They include weird new games, old clunky games, overlooked gems, games with bizarre controllers, games that live in art museums and even games that may start arguments over what a game actually is, says Rankin.
Guest speakers included game designers Colleen Macklin and Jason Rohrer. Rohrer's work includes the first full-scale museum show devoted to videogames of a single artist at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in 2016 and his 2007 game Passage is included in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Macklin is an associate professor of media design at Parsons The New School for Design and founder and co-director of PETLab, which focuses on games for experimental learning and social engagement. Her work has been shown with Come Out & Play, Creative Time and the Whitney Museum, and she’s co-authored two books: "Games, Design and Play" and "Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure."
In addition to talks Macklin, Rohrer and others, the festival featured workshops, an all-you-can-eat cereal bar and the Whaaat!? Arcade—a large collection of tabletop and digital games that filled the ATLAS Black Box Experimental Studio.
The festival was sponsored by the ATLAS Institute and CU Boulder's Engineering Excellence Fund. Conference organizers Bethancort and Rankin co-direct the ATLAS Whaaat!? Lab for Games and Experimental Interactions.