Yesterday, Freeplay 2012 was announced, and along with it, the news that it will be my last festival. The decision to leave and the launch has got me thinking about the roles of festivals as they relate to other creative realms, to me personally, and how Freeplay fits into both of those things as well as the surrounding game creation & playing culture and community.
This is the presentation I gave to the government round table at GCAP. Present there were representatives from Screen Australia, Film Victoria, The Office for the Arts, State Government, and others. During the discussion, PricewaterhouseCooper presented details from their Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook, the IGEA talked about their recent Digital Australia report looking at changing audience information, and I was asked to talk about games and culture.
Unlike last year’s talk where I tried to give a reframing argument of how to think and talk about games and culture, I – quite last minute – decided to look at the part of creative industries that haven’t had as much exposure in recent discussions about games and government support or interest – that of the essential maker communities.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will have seen me post this recently:
Thinking out loud: if someone started a smart, adult, critical site for writing about local gaming, would anyone write for it? Read it?
While I was only thinking out loud in response to this reactionary article from The Age (and yes, I know I shouldn’t read mainstream games coverage), I think it’s worth exploring, as much for my benefit as anything else, what I meant.
So, what did I mean?
Other creative sectors have a plurality of voices that run the gamut from news, reviews, criticism, and analysis, but for whatever reason (and I might not be looking in the right places), there seems to be a dearth of critical analysis and insight in the games space.
To illustrate, some of what I’d like to see in response to various events / articles are:
A deconstruction of the recent 60Sox / ISIS numbers and whether or not they’re truly reflective of the state of things and whether or not a meaningful comparison can be drawn with previous studies
A deeper look at state and federal funding decisions and the subsequent trajectories of both the projects and the studios
A breakdown of Canada’s development infrastructure before the tax breaks were introduced and whether or not the same conditions exist here
Something like this 2010 summary of the games sector in Scotland
Some of these I’d like to write, others I’d like to hear other perspectives on, and others I know I’m not qualified to do, but I’d like to read all of them as part of picking apart some of the long held beliefs about local game development – industrial, indie, and cultural – and seeing whether or not they hold water as well as responding with a greater degree of insight when new issues arise.
Is there enough there? And is there an audience?
I don’t know, and I have questions around whether there are enough people interested in writing or reading content like this or would those sorts of articles actually find a constructive audience or would it degenerate into comment flame-wars.
Where does it belong?
Somebody on twitter suggested that this might be the place for that and I should ask guests along. I don’t think that model works because I (occasionally) like talking about other things here, deconstructing games, posting half-formed thoughts, sometimes about my writing, so I think it should be a completely new space. There’s also the question of responsibility – if someone says something contentious, I’d rather not be held entirely responsible for that. Happy to take the lumps for my own thoughts; others not so much.
This doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that would bring in vast amounts of wealth for contributors, but I also know having written some fairly substantial pieces that the ability to be paid for them makes a huge difference to their quality. I’d suggest a mix of short pieces that were unpaid, punctuated with far longer and more in-depth pieces that would be paid.
Raising the money is trickier, but I’m really interested in the Pozible model that New Matilda used to relaunch. I’m not sure how much would be needed, but it’s worth thinking about as a way of proving not only that there’s an audience out there, but that it’s an engaged and interested audience.
The question of time.
Freeplay is my main focus, but I’d like to see something like this happen perhaps as a contributor or as part of an editorial team, but I suspect if I tried to drive it I would burn myself out more than I already do with trying to build and grow a festival.
These are really just thoughts of something I’d like to see rather than a manifesto or a detailed structure. The first step in building something new is to figure out what the hell it is and this provides us with a bit more space than Twitter to talk about that.
The Australia Council for the Arts late last month published a report on Arts and creative industries. I’m only part way through reading it, but it’s worth reading because games are a fairly significant part of the first section and it continues what feels to me like is a broader conversation which is going on just outside of the games establishment and which could be easily missed.
What this raises for me in particular in a half-formed sort of way is: where do game developers fit into this conversation? Is it an industrial issue? Is it an audience issue? Is it the weird space in between those two? Or is it something new entirely?
The point is that most people – especially those outside the high-culture capital of London – are involved in culture of their own choice, often of their own making. Professional critics spend their time whizzing between private screenings and secret gigs, opening nights and exclusive playbacks. Everyone else just does stuff they like, with people who like it too.
In my half-formed world, it seems to me it should be the people who just do the stuff they like. I suspect though that they’re a bit like I’m learning to become and are focused on just making the things they want to make. I do wonder though what value could be gained from injecting some of their voices into this discussion.
Well, I guess Amnesia Month is well and truly over…
I wasn’t going to weigh in to the R18+ issue largely because for a long time I’ve maintained that it didn’t really affect developers, and there was already a well-motivated and very vocal contingent of gamers who had the time and the energy for the fight. I also couldn’t find a way to add anything more to the argument than has already been stated elsewhere.
But now I think I can.
…if the latest surveys about the average gamer being a 32-year-old single male who sits at home and plays games all day are correct, then what I am proposing is not going to have much impact at all.
The Six Steps from Scott Mcloud’s Understanding Comics.
MTV’s Multiplayer Blog recently interviewed Trey Smith, Creative Director at Electronic Arts working on NBA Jam. In it, there was the following exchange:
What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?
I think there are a number of problems we have with the way games are being developed today, but honestly, I think one of the biggest problems right now is the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there. You know who they are. If they spent less time spewing ignorant hate on the boards and in online games, and more time rallying behind the great games they love and helping to build a thriving community that welcomes everyone that shows up to play with them – everybody wins. Nothing wrong with a little smack talk here and there, just wish gamers respected each other more. I just got back from PAX Prime down in Seattle. I am of the opinion that if the people of PAX ran the world, it would be a much better place. Costumes optional.
The Age’s Screenplay blog picked this up and, significantly I think, changed the emphasis:
What’s the biggest problem facing the games industry today?
According to NBA Jam’s Creative Director Trey Smith, who just put the finishing touches on the slapstick sports game for Electronic Arts, one of the biggest problems right now is “the actions and attitude of some of the gamers out there”.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing the games industry today?
I’ve already written about this use of ‘industry‘ as a defining metaphor, and this is a perfect example of that. Trey points out that there are issues with how games are developed, certainly an industry issue, but his chief complaint is as actually quite removed from industry – it’s about a small part of the audience that exists in the wider gaming culture.
But this hasn’t stopped it being picked up by some local blogs. On GameTaco, Smoolander wrote:
I would like to respond to this sentiment by stating that this is not the biggest problem facing the games industry. The internet is synonymous with idiots, and this does not just restrict itself to gaming, but the internet as a whole. Hell, just step outside during the day, or night, and you’ll find your share of selfish idiots wandering around.
No, the biggest problem facing the games industry at the moment is suits. Corporate suits. Worn by people whose first thought is to their shareholders above anything else.
That’s what’s wrong with the games industry. Not the suits: they’d disappear in a month if we stopped supporting them. Not the angry ranty geeks: for all their lack of social graces, they often reserve their passion for the things that deserve to be supported. No, it’s the ordinary people who keep handing over their money for overproduced, soulless shit that doesn’t need to exist, either because they don’t know any better, or worse: even though they do.
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
As Trey pointed out, there is a lot wrong with how we develop games. No disagreements there. But, I do disagree with the framing of suits and audience because I think, even when they apply to ‘industry’, they’re not necessarily a useful abstraction – and that’s where Scott Mcloud comes in.
In his book, Understanding Comics – which if you haven’t read, you should – attempts to decipher the essentials of the creative process, breaking it down into 6 stages:
Idea / Purpose
In becoming an artist – in any form – Scott puts forward the argument that an artist works backwards from 6 – first mimicking the surface aspects of the work, then learning craft, experimenting with structure, then underlying genre & possibility, before leaning on the essential strengths of the medium or exploring the breadth of their own ideas.
At each of these stages during the descent, people fall away. The number of people sitting on the surface level is larger than those at craft, is larger than…well, you get the idea.
This applies to both our audience and our creatives. A tiny little fraction of people who choose a specific form will dig all the way down to Idea / Purpose – and a tiny fraction of an art form’s audience will be interested in exploring work that does.
The same goes for those who provide the financial stake in the ‘industrial’ aspects of games – the suits. The majority of them will sit with their understanding at the surface level, a smaller number at craft, and so on, and so on.
What these blog posts seem to be railing against is essential human nature, not some abstract money-man, or an audience that fails to appreciate creative work, but something fundamental in the way we develop as creatives, and in the way creative industries develop alongside that. Like quality, community, platforms, and projects, this is fractal in nature. Our ability to dig through those 6 stages as individuals is mirrored all the way through our gaming industry and culture – and not just ours, but every single creative industry & associated culture too.
So, how to address, really address, the root of this question of ‘audience’ and ‘suits’?
It appears to me that this is about the type and range and creativity of the projects that are made, not only by the industrial style of production, but the engagement of the independent sector audience as well. But in order for that independent sector to exist, there needs to be a critical mass of gamers – gamers who inevitably engage with the superficial aspects of the work, but who, sometimes, feel the need to dig deeper and deeper. Somewhere in the world, Halo: Reach will be a somebody’s first introduction to the world of video games, and if we’re lucky they’ll find something there to engage in, and if we’re even luckier, they’ll be drawn into the possibiltiy of the medium and want to learn more.
Since GCAP, I’ve been thinking a lot about community and the ecosystem that needs to exist in order for a creative industry and the associated culture to function. While the language we use is important – no scratch that, essential – in capturing the various facets of what we create, it shouldn’t be used to create divisions and artificial boundaries between ‘suits’ and ‘creatives’ between ‘developers’ and ‘audience’.
In reality, all of these parts need to exist, sharing a symbiotic relationship, enabling more people to make more things, which in the end is the only way to increase the number and ability of the people who dig all the way down to Scott’s core levels. This is simply the price to be paid, and I for one am mostly okay with that.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t continue to try & improve development practices, we shouldn’t stop trying to better educate our audiences, and we shouldn’t stop trying to be more creative developers, because we should.
But we also need to start digging deeper into all of those things to get to the core of why they happen rather than our arguments simply skimming the Surface.
One of the things I noticed post Freeplay is the uniquely personal experience of conferences and festivals. Every one who attends the traces a unique path through the content, and as such it’s difficult to plan before the event what the ideal experience is and post the event figure out whether it hit those. The best you can do is to hope there’s enough interesting content that everyone finds something in their path that connects with them.
This post is a little old now. I wrote it immediately before Freeplay and then let it sit there while I wondered what to do with it. I’m reposting it because it helps to frame my thoughts on GCAP, which I’ll get up in the next few days.
Freeplay 2010 was built around the theme of ‘Play is Everywhere’ and we approached it as a way of looking at the fundamentals of the creative process. As a result I ended up thinking a huge amount about the design of things – including a festival (and in light of GCAP, a conference too). Some of this is a little out of date where I’ve explored it in more detail since, but what the hell? It’s free content, right?
Over at Overland, Christopher Madden has a piece responding to Ben Eltham’s ‘Culture is bigger than the arts’, and anyone interested in both games in culture & government support should read it because it perfectly articulates two questions at the heart of these issues:
Eltham advocates government support for game design because it is ‘capable of breathtaking beauty and stunning leaps of imagination’, creating ‘entirely new worlds for gamers to explore’, and presenting ‘compelling moral challenges’. Without elaboration, this is a description of the joys of gaming rather than a solid argument to convince government it should support game design. There are many things that are beautiful and new that governments leave well alone.
More persuasive arguments for policy reform would allude to the benefits to society (the ‘public benefits’) or market failures associated with new media culture. Arguments would also need to overcome public cost perceptions of games as an addictive activity that encourages violence and time-wasting.
So, how best to answer both of these arguments without evoking the economic? And without heading into ‘well, they get support so we should too’?
First off, my condolences to everyone affected by what’s going on at Krome. It’s a horrible situation, and I’m sure an incredibly complex one, but in the aftermath there has been an expected volume of chatter analysing the situation. I don’t want to add to speculation on what lies at the root of the closure, but there is one part of the conversation that I think does need a more critical eye cast over it.
I’ve written before about how the language we use defines our ability to think about our industry & culture, and I think that, for better or worse, the discussion around government support has for a very long time dominated the public discussion and resulted in an almost knee jerk positioning of it as a solution to what’s going on. Some examples of what I’m talking about can be found on Screenplay and tsumea here and here.
Now, I’m not in any way minimizing the importance of that, but I do think the situation, like a studio closing, is the result of a far more complex range of influences – and worth exploring in much greater detail.
Sadly, I don’t have the time to dig fully into these and provide answers, so this post is more of a call for people to think about what they’re saying, to apply a bit more critical thought, and to consider things as they are now – not how they should be in some idealised situation.
So, with that caveat, rather than blindly saying government support, let’s look at what that implies and perhaps what deeper questions we should be asking:
What economic conditions enabled Canada to offer their incentives? What existing infrastructure was there to support it? Do the same conditions exist here? What other models exist overseas & how well do they function?
Why weren’t the lobbying efforts of the GDAA successful? Were they asking for the right thing? Was it well articulated? And when it wasn’t working, what alternatives were tried? (Disclaimer: I’m on the new GDAA board)
Does the local Film Vic funding actually help studios break out of the work-for-hire cycle? Granted the return on games is higher than film, but what is the actual shape of that – does the return belong to a small number of projects, is it across the board, and has it actually, significantly grown studios and employed people?
What is the end goal – inward investment of large publisher owned studios? More work-for-hire studios? More small-scale indie devs? To survive, there needs to be a broad ecosystem of developers, but how is that built? How does government support fit into any of these? And is it the role of a single agency, or is it split across a number of them? Are those efforts co-ordinated?
Does government support automatically translate into new, original projects? And are government best placed to evaluate those? Or is the industry best placed to evaluate those itself? What systems can be put in place to raise the standard of applications?
Why was the Film Victoria budget cut? Are there broader economic or cultural reasons for that?
As suggested on the screenplay article, is it really about the mobile market? Or is it also a quality issue? With the number of titles in the app store specifically, what makes Firemint’s or Halfbrick’s games stand out? Is it really a function of the market, or are there other quality & marketing factors there?
I’m not saying government support wouldn’t be gratefully received, because there’s no doubt that it would. What I am saying is that it does us no good to uncritically position it as the major solution to the current situation, especially when even if they were introduced, there would be a ramping up period before they became effective. It makes more sense, and helps us as a creative industry overall, to accept the situation as it is, to establish what *can* be done rather than what we’d like to be done, and then to respond accordingly. And the best way to do that is to dig deeply and honestly into the guts of the issue rather than skimming the surface.