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.
At the first glimpses of home computing technology, games could be made by small teams or individuals, but there was still a barrier of entry due to the technology which meant that the types of people drawn to game development as creatives tended to be drawn to the novelty of the technology. They were, for want of a better term, nerds – people, as Douglas Adams put it, who would call people up on the telephone to talk about how great the telephone was. Those early tech adopters were interested in what the technology could do. Those commodores and spectrums, then later amigas and ataris. Those old machines came with programming languages built in and libraries were full of books about how to make them do things, but you had to be pretty dedicated to learn how to make a game because the core skill at the time was that you needed to know how to program.
But still, an individual could do it. Could make something, write the code to a cassette tape, and sell it through the mail kind of like a really slow version of the App Store.
And because the barrier to entry was suddenly there – anyone with a computer and a will and some talent – could make a game, there was a whole bunch of crazy, experimental stuff within the audio-visual limitations of the medium. A whole bunch of experimental work that formed a lot of the gaming foundations that someone like me who grew up during that explosion of work has as the basis of their games literacy.
Initially, these computers had the same sorts of graphics and sound capabilities of their console counterparts, and that fact coupled with duping parents into the idea that a computer could be used for schoolwork as well as playing games meant that they enjoyed a lot of success, at least until console manufacturers found ways to differentiate themselves with different controllers, better graphics, better sounds. Thus the era of the NES, the SNES, the Megadrive, the Playstation (1, 2, and 3), then the XBox, and the Xbox 360 was born.
Thus the era of the NES, the SNES, the Megadrive, the Playstation (1, 2, and 3), then the XBox, and the Xbox 360 was born.
For developers, this was the start of the transition into an industry and away from the artisan model of the early 80s. Development for these consoles required pricey pieces of hardware and steadily larger and larger teams. It became trickier for individual people to make games, and the artisan model was gradually replaced with the industrial model, which became the dominant model of development locally through the 2000s.
But people had grown up with games. Adults about my age had played them their entire life. Those adults were having children, and those children were being born into a world where videogames were the norm and where they formed part of their development.
And some of those adults still harboured the dreams of creating their own individual, unique, personal, creative projects – and as those children grew up, they found themselves wanting to express themselves through the medium of their childhood.
And technology came full circle, enabling these things to happen through platforms like flash or iOS or the Unreal Development Kit. Digital distribution came of age with things like Steam or the App Store. And the foundations of those early experiments started to form into a concrete videogames literacy that new artists and developers knew intuitively because they’d grown up with it.
An awful lot of the discussion that you’ve probably heard has been about the economic possibilities of games as a creative industry, about studio growth, about the need for the development of original IP and about the funds required to make that happen, but one of the priviliges of the work that I do is that I get to interact with other creative industries and the part that’s often ignored in games is the part that sits in the middle of this quote – the bubbling, frothing, sometimes unseen and unheard, community of makers.
Every creative industry has them – music, writing, film, theatre – they’re all built on people who make things because they want to make things, either because they have something personal to say or because they want to experiment within their chosen art-form.
Games have been different for a very long time. Games have been an industry. Games have been the AAA or more recently the iPhone.
But this is changing.
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.
Miranda Sawyer, The Guardian, Jan 30, 2011
And so I thought rather than trying to talk about games and their place in culture, or trying to combat some of the misconceptions that gatekeepers of established artforms might have about the medium, I’d just show you what the community of makers in Australia currently looks like.
Freeplay is a yearly festival that takes place at the State Library of Victoria. Started in 2004 by Next Wave and taken over by us in late 2008. Since then it has grown from 600 people at the 2009 festival to over 2000 at the recent 2011 event with an audience that comprises developers, artists, writers, critics, students, and the general public. We’ve also expanded out from just a conference style event to playful sessions looking more broadly at games and play, a public expo and arcade with locally developed independent games and their creators, and relationships with the Wheeler Centre, the NGV, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and State of Design.
The focus of the organisation and the festival is about the place of games and play in art, culture, and the wider creative community.
Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney have active chapters of the International Game Developers Association running meetups, game jams, show and tells, and talks throughout the year.
Running as part of AVCon in Adelaide, the Indie Games Room is “a non-competitive demonstration and celebration of locally and nationally created video game entertainment.”
Let’s Make Games is a non-profit association in Perth that works to support WA game developers through events, resources, reports, roundtables, and other events. Most recently, they worked with their community to contribute to Kate Lundy’s Digital Culture Public Sphere.
Which brings us back to games as a creative industry. While we talk about the shifting audience demographics or the projected growth in revenue or about how games are the next evolution of the film industry, we also need to look at ways of connecting, engaging, and enabling the communities out of which the next generation of content and skills and talent will emerge.