Videogames have a money problem. Or maybe it’s money that has a problem with videogames, I don’t know.
Whatever the case, videogames have been about commerce since day one: remember that story about the first Pong machine? The one where the budding Atari crew leaves the machine in Andy Capps Tavern, only to be called to fix the ‘broken’ machine days later, only to discover that in fact it’s not broken but too full of cash to take any more?
Remember the arcade machines that followed—the ones that had such a perfect balance between ‘insert coin to continue’ impulse play and reward for skill? Remember how videogames came home with us, and we bought expensive consoles and computers that at first offered arcade-like experiences, but then quickly morphed into expectations about value for money, and how much we’d spent on this cartridge thing versus how many hours of entertainment we were likely to get out of it?
Remember how the App Store then opened its rivers of gold for designers, which promised hope for creativity and cleverness in a sea of same-same console releases? Remember how once we eagerly spent $120 on a freshly manufactured cartridge, yet we now um and ah before a 99 cent microtransaction?
We all know what videogames look like when money leads. Even the most diehard of capitalists among us has perfectly rehearsed the pained groan that accompanies pre-order bonuses, exploitative microtransactions, and sequels that only carefully stage-managed focus groups asked for.
The obvious question is therefore this: what would games look like without money? Or at least with money taking a backseat?
Well, as it turns out, we do know what they look like.
At the Freeplay Independent Games Festival, we’ve been giving game designers of all stripes the opportunity to talk about their work for years—ten years, to be precise. We hear from designers who work in studios. We hear from emerging voices who are still finding their craft. We hear from creators from other disciplines who are trying to figure out how they feel about videogames, and what they might do with them.
As an independent festival, though, we’ve also seen a rise in people making games who don’t think about money at all. That’s not to say that they’re non-commercial games, per se. Many games that have come through Freeplay are released and sold—many are huge successes. But at certain events, we can afford to take the time to try and look for games that aren’t just about money—and hopefully, aren’t primarily about it either.
That’s what we do at the Parallels Showcase, which we’re presenting for the second time at ACMI here in Melbourne, this Saturday the 24th, as part of the opening salvo of Melbourne’s International Games Week. When we’re putting it
together, we look for the creative, the challenging, the experimental, rather than the surefire hit or the latest work from a successful studio.
We don’t even have to imagine a world where videogames aren’t about money anymore. It’s right here, in front of us, begging to be seen. Here’s what it looks like:
Videogames are made by students, and they’re made by veterans. They’re made by women and also by men. They’re made by people who have questions. They’re made by people who have something to say, and turn to games not as the means of paying the rent, but instead as the most logical way to speak. They’re made by people who live in a world where computers are everything, including the most obvious language of creativity.
Videogames look like Paperbark, a game by some third year RMIT students who wanted to create an honest representation of an Australian landscape, taking inspiration from iconic Australian artists and children’s literature.
Videogames look like Intergalactic Space Princess, a game where you can stick googly eyes on a tomato to get an answer from a talking cockroach, and have a rap battle with your arch nemesis Whitney. In space. As a princess.
Videogames look like this untitled work by an artist and her historian mother, based on interviews that the mother did with former Australian Prisoners of War in the 1990s.
Videogames look like Knuckle Sandwich, a semi-autobiographical RPG by Andrew Brophy about life as a teenager working in hospitality.
I think these videogames look pretty good. We’ve got more, of course—this is just a preview. We’re showing ten projects in total, all equally as good as these four, but the most striking thing for me, as festival director, is that I know of at least another ten games more that we could show too.
So why is the showcase called Parallels? I suppose it comes down to this: we all know what videogames look like in the mainstream, with big budgets, big ambitions, and big audiences. It’s up to us, though, to try and show you what they look like under the surface, where there’s no production manager worried about a team hitting targets, no sales leader pushing for monetisation strategies, and no hordes of people at Andy Capp’s Tavern clamoring to drop another coin into your Pong machine.
It’s not an imaginary world, or an optimistic vision of the future. It’s right here, and it coexists with the blockbuster-driven, global commercial enterprise that we think of when we talk about videogames. Sometimes it even intersects with it, and filters through to influence it. It’s not hidden, and it’s not going anywhere. It just runs in parallels.
Freeplay and ACMI will present the Parallels Showcase on Saturday October 24 at 7.30pm. Tickets are still available.