Political gamesmanship is common at the Statehouse, but on Wednesday, legislators played games of a different kind. That afternoon, a group of local video game developers set up their iPads and gaming consoles in Room 11, and invited lawmakers to stop by and play.
It took some convincing — more than one onlooker muttered comments along the lines of "I don't play these things but my kids and grandkids do" — but eventually some of them got in the game.
Montpelier Mayor John Hollar took a turn at Swamp Talk, a word game developed by Montpelier-based programmer Chris Hancock. Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) learned the finer points of Overflow from Zach Bohn of Birnam Wood Studios. And Montpelier voice-over artist Jackie Weyrauch convinced Treasurer Beth Pearce to try Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, a console game Weyrauch worked on with Insomniac Games.
Organizers of the pop-up Statehouse arcade included members of the Vermont Video Game Developers' Association, along with students and faculty from Champlain College and representatives from the Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation. They hoped to raise the profile of the local gaming scene and convince lawmakers to support it.
The $52 billion-a-year industry presents a big economic opportunity for Vermont, these advocates claimed in a press conference in the Cedar Creek Room earlier in the day. Pollina kicked off that gathering. He told reporters that the video game industry provides "clean jobs" that appeal to young workers. He wants the state to do more to attract those workers here.
"The way we market our ski areas is the way we should be marketing our digital economy," Pollina said.
Weyrauch was one of two industry veterans who spoke to reporters. She worked on bluckbuster titles for Insomniac Games and Electronic Arts in Montréal before moving to Vermont, after coming here once on vacation. "When games do well," she told a crowd of 20 or so reporters, lobbyists and legislators, "the payoff is enormous."
The other gaming professional at the press conference, Edmar Mendizabal, enumerated the reasons why the industry is poised to take off in Vermont. First, the state is located near gaming centers in Montréal, Boston and New York, and programmers there might be interested in Vermont's "unsurpassed quality of life." Mendizabal left Manhattan to live in Montpelier, and telecommute. He suspects there are others like him who are burned out on urban life and looking for a change.
Vermont is also home to Champlain College, whose game- design program was recently named one of the country's 10 best. Vermont still doesn't have any large gaming studios, but as Mendizabal pointed out, even small teams of two to four people can create high-quality games for mobile devices. He urged the state to work harder to reach out to those types of entrepreneurs.
"The time is right for Vermont to jump in on this," he said.
To that end, Mendizabal asked legislators for $75,000 to spend on networking efforts, buying ads in gaming magazines and sending Vermont "ambassadors" to industry events to promote the state.
Sen. President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) was enthusiastic about the idea. He ended the press conference saying how excited he was by the possibility of luring more game developers to Vermont. "Economically, it's a massive win," he said.
But Campbell balked when asked to play some of the games on display in Room 11.
He led a reporter there after the presser, but said he doesn't play many video games anymore. He used to, though. "I liked Dig Dug," he said with a smile.