In the week leading up to the federal election, it's fitting that news of the Australian Interactive Games Fund has cropped up again. I say that because before Australians are mandated to head to the polls for their traditional democracy sausage, I've been chatting with one federal candidate who firsthand understands the benefits of the fund.
Dr Penny Kyburz is a candidate for the Greens in the ACT, running for one of the two senate seats that are up for the running every federal election (senators in the Northern Territory and ACT are only appointed on three-year terms, as opposed to the six-year terms for senators in the rest of the country).
It's an uphill battle: at the last federal election, Labor and the Liberals had more than double the first preference votes of the Greens. To make things worse, the Greens copped a three percent swing against them in the ACT: every other candidate, even unendorsed candidates and members of parties like Rise Up Australia and the Animal Justice Party, had a better result from the last election.
But in a world where digital privacy, climate change, and dismay at the lack of technical knowhow amongst politicians is increasingly on the forefront, Dr Kyburz hopes voter appetites have changed.
Before entering the political arena, Dr Kyburz was part of the AAA-era of Australian game development, working on the Medieval 2: Total War, BioShock 2 and XCOM: The Bureau Declassified.
When publishers began abandoning the country, Dr Kyburz and her partner started a studio in Canberra of their own. Called Iron Helmet Games, the studio would go on to become one of the beneficiaries of the Australian Interactive Games Fund (AIGF), using the funds to hire artists and writers to help build out the ruthless Neptune's Pride 2 strategy game that became a sleeper hit.
Gaming is an intuitive hobby, and there are some problems in the gaming world only a human can solve. Whether a game is "fun", is wholly subjective. But through the use of a fun spreadsheet trick, it's possible to achieve near perfect balance by isolating a game's overpowered strategy. For fun, I used it in Neptune's Pride 2 — and became overpowered in the process.
A few years after the launch of Neptune's Pride 2, and after some experience volunteering around the ACT, a job ad appeared for a position within the office of Scott Ludlam, who was Greens co-deputy leader at the time. The senator was after someone who could advise more deeply on digital rights and policy. Dr Kyburz wasn't experienced in the political arena – she'd been lecturing at the Queensland University of Technology and, more recently, ANU – but the topics of interest were in her wheelhouse, and she wanted to contribute more to the national conversation.
"There was no one in the parliament who understood the issues, was listening to the experts, and acting on their advice," Dr Kyburz explained to Kotaku Australia via email.
"I realised that [Ludlam] had been one of very few people in our federal parliament who had any idea about technology and digital issues, and certainly the only one there who was advocating for privacy and human rights online.
"I thought it was a good chance for me to put my domain specific knowledge to good use and work towards improving our laws and opportunities for the tech sector and game developers."
But only a few weeks after Dr Kyburz began working for Ludlam, the Greens Senator dropped a bomb that would go on to devastate the federal arena: he was a dual citizen.
The Section 44 scandal - named for the part of the constitution outlining reasons for disqualification from Parliament - caused 15 MPs and senators to seek re-election, or leave the parliament altogether. None of those voices immediately replaced Ludlam, whom developers and gamers often saw as the lone voice of reason and understanding within the walls of Canberra, although Greens senator for Western Australia, Jordon Steele-John, has advocated repeatedly on behalf of the gaming community since.
But Ludlam's departure still left a void. A lack of technical knowledge, particularly around coding, AI and digital rights, is scarce among politicians, evidenced by the chaos surrounding the encryption legislation that was rushed through Parliament at the end of last year. So Dr Kyburz decided to have a crack at filling that void.
"It was apparent to me, in my time working in the Senate, that very few parliamentarians had any knowledge or understanding of tech policy, and ever fewer cared about the implications for the sector or the impact on people using the tech," the Greens candidate explained.
"I spoke to so many privacy experts, programmers, game developers, and other tech people who were desperate for representation. We need people in our parliament who understand technology and implications of the legislation that they are creating. I'm running at this election, because it is only going to become more important in the future, as technology further underpins every aspect of our lives."
Climate change has dominated the mainstream conversation this election, overtaking health, the economy and education as the most important issue for voters this financial election. But voters barely rate digital privacy and security as a factor, with the topic not even registering in pre-polling from Essential Report and ABC's Vote Compass.
Despite the still-fresh memories of the Census Fail, the nightmare around My Health Record's implementation and the encryption legislation savaging the international reputation of Australia's tech industry, digital privacy barely registers as an issue. ABC's Vote Compass, which polled almost 120,000 Australians, didn't even rank digital privacy, digital rights or online security as an issue.
I asked Dr Kyburz why more Australians don't care about digital privacy, and she responded that while a lot of people do care, explaining its importance on a broader scale is challenging. "One thing that did hit home to more people was the privacy implications of My Health Record," she explained.
"I think because it's a more personal topic and people have a greater understanding of the real-world comparison – your medical records held by your GP, hospital, etc. Digital rights are only going to become more important in the future, as we live more and more of our lives in the digital space, and government and corporations push for more surveillance and data collection."
Beyond the lack of public interest, there's also a generational gap amongst parliamentarians. MPs and Senators are typically baby boomers or older, are unlikely to be first adopters and, in some cases, actively antagonistic towards technology. That attitude has been especially prominent throughout the development of the NBN, with legislators deriding or downplaying the transformational value – and the need – of modern internet infrastructure.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that Canberra has been less than eager to support the expansion of the Australian games industry.
The Senate's cross-party inquiry into loot boxes delivered their findings late last year. Late last night, the Coalition government finally tabled their response.
The news about Labor's support to reinstate the Australian Interactive Games Fund (AIGF) was strongly welcomed by local industry, but it's not the first time a party has suggested the fund make a return. The Greens, who pushed for stronger action on loot boxes and microtransactions in video games, pushed to reinstate the fund back in 2016.
Following the success of the original AIGF, which generated a positive return on investment for the government as studios repaid their loans ahead of schedule, the Greens pushed for the fund to have a $100 million budget. Perhaps more crucially, they proposed that the producer tax offsets for film and TV studios – which gives companies up to 40 percent of money spent on feature films, and 20 percent of expenditure on non-feature films produced in Australia through their tax return – be extended to game developers.
An explanation of how the Producer Tax Offset program works, from Screen Australia.
The biggest part of the tax offset is that it's only paid after a project is completed, which incentivises companies to finish what they start. But Screen Australia also offers location incentives and other offsets that would help local developers employ more staff, which is especially crucial given that the Australian landscape is filled with studios that have 10 or fewer devs.
"Extending the film and TV tax offsets to video games is such easy, low-hanging fruit in terms of stimulating the industry," Dr Kyburz said. "It would go directly towards incentivising foreign investment in Australian studios, creating more jobs for developers, ensuring that there are jobs for the many talented graduates from our universities and institutes, and keeping our talent in Australia."
She also highlighted the success of co-working spaces for local developers, like The Arcade in Melbourne and Canberra's Game Plus, which has become a model for governments helping startups in New South Wales, Queensland and Adelaide. "They are not just a collection of desks, they are actively creating and shaping our Australian game development culture, promoting collegiality and cross-pollination between developers and studios, and bringing a new life to our industry, which saw such a dramatic fall following the [global financial crisis]."
Someone with Dr Kyburz's experience is interesting, if only for its rarity. Most parliamentarians are career politicians, lawyers, investment bankers, or from some other kind of white-collar background. There's nothing against anyone from those fields seeking political office – in many ways, those experiences are essential to the day to day machinations of how laws in this country get passed.
But those backgrounds rarely have much in common with the regular Australian. That's especially true for gamers, and younger Australians that care about digital rights and digital privacy, who often listen to political discourse that fails to understand basic tenets about the internet and how technology works. That ignorance has fuelled the passage of laws that are toothless out of the gate, internet filters that children can bypass in minutes, or an approach to a national broadband infrastructure that has remained chaotic at best and disastrous at worst.
What's the plural for bullshit?
The kicker for Dr Kyburz, however, is that Australians might not care enough about those issues just yet. Climate change is the biggest issue for the Greens by far, but will that be enough to win one of the ACT's two Senate seats? Going off the 2016 results, and where the current betting odds sit, it seems like a long shot.
But it's been rewarding for the Australian game developer, who says the experience has been fulfilling nonetheless. "There's been a lot of hope and inspiration in this election, not from the politicians, but from the community and young people, school students in particular," she explained.
"I've seen a number of school kids coming in to early voting with their parents, telling them how they want them to vote, talking about their future. It's not something that I've seen before and it's really quite humbling. It's such a good reminder that every decision we make will affect the kids, and future generations, the most."
Younger generations certainly appreciate and understand the renewed focus on digital rights, the internet, and support for future industries like game development. Those topics haven't been much of a focus in this election at least - but the issues and people they affect aren't going away.