I’d like to tell you about a desk. It’s a plain piece of furniture with two uncomfortable roller chairs drawn up to it, and a box full of wooden spoons underneath. On top there’s not much except a whiteboard, a phone, and a bunch of old posters. It doesn’t look like much, but to me, it says something about where video games are at right now.
This desk is the Freeplay desk. Freeplay is Australia’s longest-running games event, dating to 2004 - an Independent Games Festival founded here in Australia only a year after Eric Zimmerman had provocatively asked the San Franciscan developer’s conference whether independent video games existed at all. I’m the Director of the festival and have been since 2014; the desk is, despite Freeplay’s robust outward appearance, all that is actually concrete about the festival. It’s not much, I guess.
It isn’t always used - Freeplay doesn’t employ anyone full-time at the moment - but it sees a small hive of activity around our calendar of events every year. It’s crucial for getting stuff done, and for being in the right place at the right time. You see, this desk is in the Wheeler Centre, one of Australia’s major cultural hubs - it’s where the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Emerging Writers Festival, Express Media, and the City of Literature Office live. It’s where stuff happens. We’ve worked with all of these organisations over the years in a variety of ways. Despite ostensibly being about books and literature, these people are really interested in supporting games. Just a few weeks ago, the City of Literature Office, noticing that there was an upcoming State Creative Arts forum coming up and that no-one from the world of video games was attending, bought two tickets for Freeplay and gave them to us, no questions asked, and no reciprocality expected. They did it because they wanted video games to be at the table.
That’s a story we’re hearing more of lately. Video games are back at the table, whether that’s via the recent Senate Inquiry or renewed press attention. Video games tick the in-demand boxes as an innovative, ‘disruptive’ media form.
Last week every resident organisation of the Wheeler Centre had their funding cut by the Australia Council for the Arts. Express Media - an organisation that exists to give young writers a break and a head start - now has no organisational funding. The Emerging Writers Festival - who have run sessions of video game criticism, who have broadcast an interview with an Australian game maker inside their own video game - now has no organisational funding.
The list goes on. It goes on so long it becomes nauseating: sixty-five arts organisations had their funding cut last week. Sixty-five. Many of these will not be able to survive without it. The list is long and varied beyond those already mentioned: Ausdance, Black Arm Band, Cultural Partnerships Australia, Meanjin Literary Journal (something that has been funded since 1961), the National Association for the Visual Arts, and Red Stitch Actors' Theatre, just to name a few more.
The Next Wave Festival was also defunded. This is extra important because Next Wave actually created Freeplay in 2004 and ran it for its first three festivals. It is no overstatement to say that without Next Wave, Freeplay would not exist. Without Next Wave, Australia would not have been able to begin an Independent Games Festival while the rest of the world scratched their heads and wondered if it was even possible. This stuff has a measurable impact on Australian games culture.
Although maybe we’d like to think that we’re self-sufficient, Australian video game culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Every Australian game, every local studio has deep ties to the way that Australia is a creative country in ways that very few people realise. It goes back right to the start - Beam Software, Australia’s very first game development company, was actually founded as part of a book publishing house. The whole Australian video game industry was in effect kickstarted by writers.
Australia’s thriving arts community has helped make our video games industry what it is. It’s shown game makers that creativity and critical thinking are the keys to success, that we don’t always have to follow the international model, that there are always other ways to make video games, that we can create and hit our own standards and goals. It’s this kind of context that has made our industry the envy of the world - creative, intelligent, and unwilling to lie down and take bad news without a fight.
Australia’s biggest cultural institutions - the orchestras, the theatre companies - are still okay for the time being. What this looks like instead is all support being pulled like fraying twine away from the organisations meant to help young people.
If Australia’s young people are locked out of arts and culture like this, then video games will be all the worse for it. We may be - as the recent Senate Inquiry into the future of the Australian Games Industry reported - an agile, innovative industry that should be on the government’s agenda. But that doesn’t mean that we can exist by ourselves. In the best-case scenario, in a future where Australian video games thrive, this still means a nation where there are fewer collaborators, fewer writers, fewer critics, fewer artists, and fewer mentors to make Australian video games great.
We’d be collateral damage, left as an exciting industry stuck in a culture-less nation. Maybe the Freeplay desk would still get use, but it would be work done in an empty building. There’s no point in growing an Australian games industry that isn’t also part of a thriving cultural community.
We do, of course, have the chance to change that - a chance to help our friends in the writing, theatre, and creative communities. The Australian games industry, as we know, votes. We should tell our politicians that our arts and culture are more important than ever.