When given the choice to move to Los Angeles for Ignition or stay in Jacksonville, he chose to teach video game development at the University of North Florida. However, Jacksonville didn't offer much to those seriously looking to break into the video ...
Ryan Thompson is a lifelong gamer — he even briefly worked for video game publisher Ignition Entertainment — and the Jacksonville gaming community holds a special place in his heart.
When given the choice to move to Los Angeles for Ignition or stay in Jacksonville, he chose to teach video game development at the University of North Florida. However, Jacksonville didn’t offer much to those seriously looking to break into the video game industry at the time. When students asked him what they could do at the end of his class, the general advice was to move to a different city.
“It just kept being that same story. That there was nothing here,” said Thompson.
He was tired of hearing that story among the aspiring video game creators and gamers in Jacksonville. He saw the gaming community teeming with creativity and potential. All they needed was a space to gather and show off their work.
He founded and organized GAAM (Games, Art and Music) in 2012, an annual adult-only art show pairing traditional art with video game demonstrations. Thompson based it off of the gaming launch parties he attended in Los Angles while working for Ignition.
The first GAAM show centered around “Super Mario Bros.” and featured an interactive exhibit recreating a level of the game, an art gallery of video-game inspired pieces by Thompson and other local artists and an area for local video game developers to showcase their latest games. It attracted 340 people, and attendance quickly grew with each consecutive show.
Since 2012 GAAM shows have included representatives from Microsoft, Nintendo, Naughty Dog and Yacht Club Games, among other video game publishers and developers. Thompson said that convincing publishers to promote at the first show was a challenge, but it became a lot easier once they saw there was a thriving gaming community in Jacksonville.
The show also organizes the gaming community to donate to local nonprofits. Past GAAM shows have partnered with Extra Life Jacksonville, First Coast No More Homeless Pets, WithLove and JASMYN to promote these organizations and run charity events during the show to benefit its spotlight nonprofit.
GAAM shows expanded along with attendees. Consecutive shows added a cosplay exhibit, live DJs, food trucks, a charity art auction and live bands.
Klara Cu, GAAM vice president of photography, said that the cosplay exhibit was a turning point for the show. It expanded the show’s art showcase, giving costume and prop creators and photographers a chance to display their work. Even the cosplay exhibit auditions expanded to include other artistic talents like singing and dance.
“A consistent thread of feedback that we see is people saying how they find themselves. Just feeling at home with people they can connect with or the people who feel like they can be themselves in our community,” said Cu.
Thompson never imagined how much the community would support the show. He’s not only surprised that people consistently attend the show every year, but also come out in numbers that support large-scale events and even smaller GAAM events throughout the year.
He said people doubted that an adult-only video game-themed event would be successful while he was organizing the first GAAM show. Since then, he’s seen the gaming community mature and grow with gaming initiatives for charity and in the diversity of talent for the show’s art, cosplay, gaming and music.
“Adults show up, and I think it’s a testament to the culture that being a nerd shouldn’t be aligned with these awkward years of your youth or for people who just liked comic books and were really smart in school or anything like that,” said Thompson. “This is this era’s art, this is this era’s communication, it’s one of the ways that we’re social with each other, and I think it’s tremendous to see just our community here in Jacksonville grow with that and actually become an older community and a more mature community.”
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