In the ten years since its establishment Freeplay has made its mark. Australia’s largest and longest running independent games festival has a strong focus on representing new and upcoming titles, and a welcoming environment, where everyone can ask questions. Freeplay has fast become a proud symbol of Melbourne’s Independent Games scene. Monday night saw the festival partner with public talk centre The Wheeler Centre to provide a panel entitled ‘Level Up: Going Deeper Into Video Game Culture’. The goal of the panel was ambitious; to “explore the prevailing issues and opportunities of game culture”, with a particular focus on the inclusion of games as an art form – a controversial statement in many circles.
Panellists Lawrence Leung, Vanessa Tholka, Scott Edgar and Leena van Deventer attempted to answer a slew of interesting questions about the potential of video game culture. Although the panel’s one hour slot was nowhere near long enough for these interesting thinkers to fully explore each point raised, they nevertheless provided a thought-provoking start.
Leung acted as moderator, coming from the perspective of someone who had loved video games as a child, but felt they had fallen out with the explosive culture over the intervening years. Vanessa Toholka, a “knowledge management’ consultant” with a diverse range of experience working with technology, described herself as a long-time lover of games. Since the days of her childhood – when her programmer parents had enthusiastically nurtured her interest in the family computer – Vanessa and her siblings had formed their own mini gaming community, working together to install and modify early games so that they would run at full potential. She described the interesting way that the emergence of online gaming drastically altered how she experienced games. As her ‘gaming community’ evolved it eventually led to her to losing interest in some genres because of the considerable social commitments playing online involved. She, like so many other game-lovers, experienced programming as a prerequisite to playing games, and hence developed a deep interest in it.
Leena van Deventer, a game developer, writer and teacher, regaled the audience with the turbulent story of her first gamebook writing experience. Gamebooks are works of fiction which allow the reader the agency to interact and influence the plot of the story, often via puzzles or other game mechanics. This makes them far more divergent and difficult to write than traditional fiction. Although Leena’s project was never released, the moral of her story was a testament to the amazing ability games have to tell original stories, and how you cannot afford to underestimate just how different they are as an art form.
Scott Edgar, one of the three members of the comedy trio ‘Tripod’, was perhaps the most familiar face on the panel – for those who had grown up on a healthy diet of Australian television comedy anyway. While Vanessa represented technology professionals and Leena game developers, Scott’s role was that of the gaming fan who has no experience developing games. He told the story of one of his custom-created characters from Bethesda’s fantasy action role-playing game Oblivion. When Scott’s tough warrior character was deceived into killing a village full of innocents, the storyteller in Scott thought the most fitting reaction for his character would be total retreat from society. Pushing the storytelling capacity of Oblivion to its limits, upon learning the truth of his actions, Scott’s character let out a heart-wrenching roar of frustration, dropped all his tools of violence and sprinted into the forest, eventually emerging to re-make himself as a pacifist magician.
Scott recounted this tale in order to highlight the unique ability games have to allow players to craft personal story-telling experiences such as this. He posited that for something to become an art form it must be capable of allowing people to experience things in a new way – which games can do. Games are an art from which allow imaginative input as no other creative medium does. Once the product is finished, the player has the opportunity to craft a unique experience, working in strange tandem with the designers of the game. It is this kind of “emergent narrative” which validates games as an art form for Scott.
Leung was a well-selected host. As a comedian, his ease at speaking in front of a crowd set a relaxed and inviting tone for the panel. At PAX 2014 I attended an average of four panels per day and noticed the huge difference a good moderator can make.
Many interesting points were touched upon during the discussion, including how fighting games such as Soul Calibur allow for self-expression through fighting techniques, how agency in games makes it almost impossible to craft a story the way a script-writer or author can, and gamification and its potential applications in daily life. Scott made the interesting observation that contemporary indie game developers are sort of like the garage bands of the 80s and 90s – equipment is so cheap that anyone can take a stab at creating games, and sell what they have made. An interesting way of looking at indie game dev and one that seems to resonant truth in the age of mobile gaming.
The composition of the audience was surprising. I expected a mix of Wheeler Centre regulars, game developers and gamers. This mix did describe the crowd, but the ratio was something like 10:1 in favour of the devs and gamers, opposed to the 50/50 split I had expected. Although I greatly enjoyed Freeplay’s ’Level Up’ panel, I did wonder if it was as accessible as its advertising proclaimed it to be. As if by fate, my question was answered – immediately after the panel I thought the fluidity with which all the speakers used a wide range of gaming terminology and game titles must have been overwhelming for non-gamers in the audience. However, on my way out I happened to bump into a friend who had attended the panel with his non-gamer mother, and she seemed to have enjoyed the talk just as much as we had.
Freeplay runs April 10-19, with a range of physical events throughout Melbourne, and just as many events online. For more information check out their website at www.freeplay.net.au.