Screenplay and Screen Australia

Over on the Age’s Screenplay blog, there are some comments from me about Screen Australia‘s new All Media Fund in a piece about how “Australian game developers may not be able to access critical government funding because of requirements for their games to have significant storytelling elements and cultural significance.”

I think the piece focuses a little too much on what are seen to be restrictions of the fund rather than on its possible opportunities for game developers as well as what it’s actually designed to support. I’d urge everyone interested to read the full guidelines which pretty explicitly outline what they’re looking for and to take a look at decisions from the old innovation program to see the types of project Screen Australia have traditionally funded – some of which are games, and many of which I’d expect would still be eligible under the new guidelines.

As my comments in the piece were mostly about the cultural question, I’ve put my full answers below to hopefully expand some aspects of the broader discussion. And in the interests of full disclosure: I’ve done assessments for Screen Australia in the past & have also worked on projects which have received funding through the old innovation program.

Do you think the All Media Fund could provide valuable assistance to an Australian game developer?

It depends. They do have a non-console restriction in there, which does limit the types of projects that could be applied for, but at the same time, those restrictions could spur creative thinking. My feeling is that the fund will best support developers who are trying to branch out of the core development space into more experimental territory or new markets. A good example is Defiant in Brisbane, who do a wide range of things. If you were more of a traditional work-for-hire looking to develop a new original core-gamer title, this might not be a good fit.

Because it’s a new fund though, there’ll be a period of experimentation & I assume conversation with Screen Aus, and probably a few decision rounds, before the type of project it takes on solidifies.

What do you think of the storytelling and cultural significance requirements for funding applications? Do you think they are grounded in an “old media” landscape?

I couldn’t see cultural restrictions in this new one, but perhaps I missed it.

I think that those specific requirements are trying to solve a specific problem of representation of local culture. Whether or not they achieve that is debatable, and whether or not it’s useful to restrict creation and support in such a way is debatable too.  Everyone who creates something in Australia is in some way influenced by the environment which manifests in the work. My position is always ‘help more people to make more things then encourage them to reflect on that process so that the next thing they make is better than the last’.

In terms of the ‘old media’ landscape, it’s worth reflecting on what the goals of the organisation – in this case Screen Australia – are. Film is still a viable creative and economic form. It’s still expressive, and it’s expressive in ways that games aren’t. An argument could be made towards the value of continuing to experiment with bringing the two together and either trying to create new work or to support practitioners in either medium in extending their skills.

I don’t necessarily see it as an ‘either/or’ argument, although it is certainly sometimes framed as one. ‘old’ and ‘new’ media can live side by side, can engage audiences in different ways, and can give new tools to existing and upcoming creators.

Do you think the storytelling and cultural significance requirements for funding applications would preclude you or other Australian games developers from applying?

If I had a suitable project, then I’d apply, definitely, but it certainly isn’t a fund for everyone – see question 1. It’s important to remember that agencies like Screen Australia are perhaps working to different metrics or with a different set of goals than the traditional games space. These goals may overlap, or they may be opaque, or they may not align with what people think they should be, but they are definitely there. This All Media Fund may restrict application from a certain class of developer or a certain class of product, but hopefully it will open up new ones and new opportunities.

In what ways do you think games contribute to Australian culture?

Oh, the big one. I could write an essay on this – and will in fact be talking about what it means to discuss culture at the IGDA Brisbane June meeting.

When we say culture, what we really mean is a shared set of values that a group ascribes to. Games are part of Australian culture purely because 68% of Australian’s play them, sharing the same values of playing and exploring technology through videogames. There are certainly subcultures within that, but the core of what we all share is that we all play games in some form.

Games are also – whether made here or elsewhere – fundamentally cultural products. They permeate our collective consciousness and both reflect and mirror those shared values. We talk about the games we play, comedy festival performers steal sound effects and actions from Street Fighter, street art mirrors pixelated 8-bit games, and writers reflect on their experiences of playing angry birds. Whether some like it or not, games are part of the Australian culture – and more broadly they’re part of a global culture now, something that the internet has changed forever.

But I suspect the question really is – do games reflect an Australian mythology? Because that’s what the SAC tests are really trying to find. Does it feel Australian? Does it tell an Australian story? Does it reflect the values of the 22 million people who live here –  an impossible task? Does it represent the cliches of ‘fair go’, ‘mateship’, ‘larrikinness’? Or is it connected to the specific details of the Australian landscape in some way?

Not really. But is that the type of things that games are good at? Not without strong storytelling (see Red Dead Redemption), and are the sorts of stories suggested by those above ‘Australian Values’ (deliberately in inverted commas) the sorts of stories that lend themselves to games? To create those sorts of ‘culturally relevant’ games, you really need to find stories with agency, identities that players can adopt that allow repeated action, or worlds that lend themselves to exploration. To take Red Dead Redemption again you don’t really play John Marston, you play a cowboy named John Marston. It’s the cowboy part that’s important. What’s the equivalent for Australia? And would people play that?

Mythology is different to culture, but I think the two might have become confused somewhere along the way. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are might not be the only stories that people want to tell. Same goes for games. The games we might make to say something about Australia might not be the only games that people want to make. And in fact you only have to look at the success stories that are pointed to by funders & media to see that in action.

Which sort of comes back to the previous question. If we tell people ‘make games that reflect Australian culture’ we are creating a top-down view of what that might reflect & what it might look like. If we help more people make more things, then inevitably – through sheer force of numbers – we can sift through that and find projects that do reflect Australian culture by virtue of them being made here.

As a writer, do you think that unique tales of a player’s emergent experiences in an interactive world can actually be as interesting as the fixed narratives devised by games developers?

Short answer: yes and no.

Long answer: It’s a combination of the two and how narrative is used to frame player action and give context to the choices. Portal 2 is a good recent example. Strong narrative, linear experience, no worse the wear for it. The original is the same (although I’d argue a stronger experience). The framing story for Red Dead Redemption is fascinating in how it explores the death of the west and through its mechanics makes you adopt that role of a cowboy in the old way so that you viscerally feel the change of the world around you. Bioshock’s power as a piece of fiction comes precisely from the way the emergent experience meshed with the game’s narrative element. Flower’s incredible moment of catharis is probably a good example of the experience (which is still a fixed narrative) coming out of the emergent playful elements. Eve Online is another good example – all the stories in that are emergent.

We’re still figuring out a lot of the rules of the game, the expressive power of videogame mechanics, the best ways to tell stories. We’re also still learning that writing is a skill, and that videogame writing is yet another layer on top of that skill. And we’re also still figuring a lot of what we can craft with systems as the dominant experience and a minimal fictional layer on top.

Games can be many different things. The written word gives us everything from poetry to novels, from opera to pop music. Games, mechanics, and narrative are exactly the same. They’re pretty much limitless in what they can say about the human condition – it’s just about figuring out how to say it.

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