If you work in the games industry in Australia, you’ve likely noticed that the folks in charge of the place are not really fans of games (save for a few, like Senator Scott Ludlam). In Western Australia, where I live, our state level arts funding specifically excludes games. After Screen Australia cancelled their Interactive Games Fund last year, game developers outside of Victoria (where 47% of Australia’s games are produced, thanks to strong support for the games industry from Film Victoria) where largely left to fend for themselves.
In October, word spread like wildfire among those in the games industry that Screen Australia and the Canadian Media Fund (CMF) were launching a joint incentive, worth over $800,000 AUD (if you take into account the exchange rate), to encourage collaboration between the two countries on new and innovative interactive projects… which by its very definition has to include games, right?
The CMF is a huge supporter of Canada’s vibrant games industry. Since 2010, they have awarded $52.5m CAD to 235 interactive digital media projects in Canada, a large number of which have been games, including The Long Dark, which has been estimated to have made more than $5m USD on Steam early access.
As Gizmodo reported, the incentive's definition of interactive media was quite broad, and would include games. According to Screen Australia’s Investment Manager, Mike Cowap, the incentive has been designed to "facilitate the production of truly innovative and original narrative pieces… [that will] push the boundaries of how a story can be told in an interactive way, whether it is in an app, online, virtual reality or any other mind-blowing idea…”
So you’ve got a broad definition that includes innovation, interactivity and storytelling. You’ve got a funding partner that loves games, gets their value and has a long track record of supporting them. Slam dunk, we’ve got federal games funding again.
But then the funding guidelines came out:
I posted this on my twitter account. These were some of the reactions from the games industry, including developers, artists, academics and journalists:
— Luke Plunkett (@LukePlunkett) November 17, 2015
@oceanpark <expletive deleted>
— Brendan Ragan (@lordmortis) November 16, 2015
@oceanpark There's a lot of tech vs. art portfolio nonsense, but mostly I think lack of understanding about what games ARE?
— Liam Esler (@liamesler) November 16, 2015
@oceanpark how did that pass my sarchasm filter! Off to design a non interactive non experimental game :)
— erik champion (@nzerik) November 16, 2015
@oceanpark What the shit
— Leena (@LeenaVanD) November 16, 2015
What is striking here is that the requirements essentially give the definition of many games as what they are looking for, then in the very next paragraph, specifically exclude any form of game. As the reactions above suggest, it’s incredibly frustrating for those working in the Australian games industry, who often feel marginalised and unsupported.
As I’m writing this, another funding program is just being announced: Catalyst, the Australian Government’s new arts funding program. The program will fund "high quality projects irrespective of scale in all art forms” and yet again, games are explicitly excluded. Because of course, games are not art.
Why is this happening? And more importantly, what can be done about it?
The answer lies in another question: "what’s wrong with games?" Or more precisely, what is it that the powers that be think is wrong with games?
Some context: I run the Games and Interactive Program at FTI, where my job is to support and advocate for the Western Australian games industry. I’m also a game designer and run my own game consultancy, Games We Play, where I’ve spent a fair bit of time investigating and applying for grants and funding in Australia and internationally. In both roles, I’ve spoken to numerous stakeholders, funders (both potential and existing), potential investors and government. Within Australia, and perhaps more so in Western Australia, there is often lack of knowledge about just how big the market is for games. But that’s easily addressed with the magic of numbers ("Bigger than Hollywood? Wow.”)
What the core issue seems to be is a complete misunderstanding about what games are and what games do. It’s the view that games are all a waste of time, they’re all violent and most importantly, none of them have any cultural or artistic merit. Why? Because Grand Theft Auto.
It is these misunderstandings that are harder to overcome. There’s no stats, for example, that we can easily whip out that prove that, actually, many games can and should be considered art. But my first response is usually that even though movies like The Saw or Waterworld exist, we don’t declare all film to be violent, unartistic wastes of time.
The other thing we can do is give examples. I’m thinking about Katamari Damacy (which actually started out as an art school project and was even part of the curriculum when I studied at the Canadian Film Centre) or The Stanley Parable or even the Australian-made LA Noire (which was an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival).
Even my own games have been celebrated by arbiters of established art: at the London Theatre and Toronto International Film Festival’s Sprockets, where a game I co-created as part of an art collective, was an invited selection.
Indeed, if we bypass the art argument all together, Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain exactly fit the Screen Australia/CMF funding requirements of pushing the boundaries of interactive storytelling, except for the one tiny detail: they’re both also games.
So, if we want games funding it’s going to take education — not just about the value of diversifying our economy and creating jobs, but the cultural and artistic merit of games. Imagine what would happen if we supported games made in Australia, that told our own stories and shared our culture with the world.
So, if you’re a politician or work for one of Australia’s arts funding bodies (hello!), try the games I’ve mentioned above. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. And if you know anyone in these roles, tell them about the games, or maybe even invite them around to have a go.
Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie is the Director of Games and Interactive at FTI and the Founder of Games We Play. She was named one of the most influential women in the games industry in Australia and New Zealand by MCV magazine. Twitter @oceanpark