Like the Game Devs of Color Expo, the BostonFIG Fest was one of many events that had to adapt and change their show in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In typical circumstances, the annual games event is hosted around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, as noted in my recap of a previous year’s Fest. But because a pandemic simply does not magically disappear into the transition of a new year, the BostonFIG Fest went virtual in 2021, hosting its festivities on Gather.

Gather is an online platform where event organizers can rent a server for an allotted period of time and host a free-roaming chatroom where attendees and exhibitors alike can customize avatars, walk around, and interact with things like they would in an RPG. The Fest’s team fashioned their server to be similar to a typical convention layout, featuring aisles of booths that exhibitors could have their avatars stand behind and be idle by. Different spaces were mapped out to serve different purposes—one screen on the server’s map was dedicated to tabletop games, while another featured digital games. There was also a theater room to view ongoing livestreams and a separate room to hold private conversations and games, similar to destressing and unwinding rooms that have become more recently available at some in-person conventions.

Hovering near a game’s booth would provide you a picture-in-picture option to watch a trailer. In addition, crossing paths with anyone in the server would show whether or not they may have a camera or audio on, but anyone participating can adjust their personal settings as to whether or not they want these features on. Further interacting with a booth or stand took you to an external site with further information, such as a merchandise store and a complete list of the exhibitors. Staff remained on the clock in the general chatroom to announce anything coming up on schedule and to deal with any questions and concerns.

Even prior to the event date, BostonFIG’s team had already set up a Discord server for interested participants to begin networking, and it remained active when the Gather server went online. The Discord continues to remain up even after the event, hoping to serve anyone in the BostonFIG community who wants to remain connected, all while hosting freeplay gaming. The team went into great detail breaking down the organization and setup of the Fest into this virtual world.

Breakdown of the floor map for BostonFIG Virtual hosted on Gather.

A breakdown of BostonFIG Virtual’s mapping on Gather’s server.

Given that the event had such a huge, unprecedented list of exhibitors compared to the numbers of their previous shows, they and all of the presented projects are catalogued online.

This was my first time experiencing an event through Gather’s platform, and it certainly was another interesting, creative means of bridging our distances from each other online. Gather is by no means expansive or meant to be something like VR Chat or Minecraft, but it is an especially fitting way to hold a games-focused event.

The best part of a virtual space is that there is no limit to how many people can show up, avoiding concerns of crowding or physical discomfort—the only real limit is how much its server space or memory can withstand processing those numbers. The entry into the event itself had a flexible pay model, and the team released a report on the successful results of using it.

But the issue with the many events that have transitioned online in the past year and continuing into the next, is that digital fatigue can still make keeping track of and following things just as exhausting as with in-person events. In some ways, the near-limitless structure that allows anyone to basically show up might be too overwhelming.

Thankfully, if anything was missed, BostonFIG’s team has also made it known that a lot of recordings shot during the event—and even past ones—are always archived after. This footage, such as interviews and some livestreams, do eventually get shared on their official channels.

A virtual showcase of different booths and tables against a tiled floor on a screen.

A section of BostonFIG Virtual’s expansive showcase.

The BostonFIG Fest is one of many smaller shows that continue to upstage the big expo giants when it comes to going above and beyond to maintain connections in the games community in the midst of a very difficult time. BostonFIG Fest Virtual served as a great, unifying stand-in for an experience that would otherwise be currently impossible.

Like many, I do miss big, in-person gatherings, and hope to soon return to their physical shows and exhibits myself. In the meantime, I am okay with spending more of my time online, building up anticipation to the day I can stand in line again for some greasy grub from a food truck on the freshly mowed MIT green.