Turning off our screens

This is the presentation I gave at GCAP 2011. It’s drawn from other blog posts & thoughts I’ve had, notably on industry, culture, and the language we use. There are some new ideas and facts – notably the early analysis of Film Victoria’s game funding program, which I hope to dig into more detail on soon – but it’s the first time I’ve collected it all together in a single talk. It also hit some of the beats from Mike Acton’s keynote, which was fortunate as we went on just after each other at the conference.

I’ll be uploading the talk I gave to the Government Round Table on the importance of maker communities to creative industries in the next few days, as well as the data I’ve collated from the Film Victoria reports.

My name is Paul Callaghan, I’m a freelance writer, developer, the director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival, and for the past few years I’ve sat on the board of the GDAA. I’ve been working in games for around 13 years now, and in that time at my various jobs, I’ve been called a:

And I’m sure if I’d chosen any other industry, I’d have been met with the same reception, so I don’t think this is unique to working in games.

But in putting this talk together, I’ve been thinking about what these mean – the length of time and the names I’ve been called – and came to two conclusions.

1) I have a perspective that hopefully sits a little outside of the mainstream industrial system

and

2) I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.

It felt only right that I start off with both of those in mind, because I’m going to be asking a lot of questions about the established order of things and it seems only fair that I open myself up to the same criticisms.

So, with that in mind, let’s begin with an anecdote.
At Freeplay last year, Brandon Boyer, the current chairman of the IGF was talking about Limbo and someone stuck their hand up and said ‘they couldn’t understand why anyone liked it because it was just a trial and error platformer’. Brandon thought about that for a moment and replied that maybe it was, but that it was also the first game to give him a serious Lord of the Flies vibe.

When I finally got around to playing it, I discovered something really interesting. It is just a trial and error platformer. But it also succesfully communicates that Lord of the Flies vibe. Both are valid opinions of the game, but require a certain perspective in order to view the game as one or the other or as both.

I didn’t have fun for a lot of my time playing Limbo. I was frustrated, exhausted, confused, but I persisted because there was something beyond just having fun in the game. A gestalt experience that said something through it’s mechanical nature as a trial and error platformer and a uniquely aesthetic work.

My games literacy, and I assume the literacy of the person asking that question at Freeplay, had evolved alongside the technology of games. When you think about it, it’s only really been what, around 30 years that videogames have existed in their current form. I’m 34, so, what I consider a game has been shaped by the evolution of the medium up to this point. My tastes have formed at the same time as games have formed. And the sorts of games those were tend to skew towards mechanics over aesthetics.

This was one of those lightbulb moments for me because I realised that if my own games literacy had evolved alongside those massive changes in technology, culture, industry, and art, then other people’s probably had too, and that maybe there was something happening at a macro level that was reflected in my own personal experience.  I started to think way more seriously about what that meant, questioning how I spoke about things, how I thought about things, about the things I took for granted. I started exploring my own personal philosophy of development and observing other people’s. I found myself frustrated by some of the wider discussions about games from both our external critics and our internal champions and what I’ve realised recently is really similar to the experience of Limbo.

At the same time, it’s possible for me to be both be completely wrong and have unique perspectives because it’s all about our personal philosophies – the stories we tell ourselves about what matters, how true they might be, and whether or not they’re useful for what we want to achieve because, in the end, not everybody wants the same thing. As much as we might fight it or wish it weren’t true, we simply aren’t all in this together.

Because, I think, the biggest challenge facing local developers isn’t tax breaks, isn’t a crowded app store model, isn’t the shrinking of licensed titles or the threat of new console hardware. Those are symptoms. What’s actually a challenge is the underlying philosophy of what we do, the reasons for doing it, and whether or not we have the conviction of those philosophies to push through.

Because creative industries – and artforms – are volatile – and our philosophies will be the only things that we have any control over.

So, to start, it’s worth looking at the history of development in Australia, the sort of philosophies that ight be ingrained, the stories it tells, and whether or not after 30 odd years, there might be new stories to tell.

This timeline, taken from the now gone Australian Games Innovation Centre, is a little out of date, but contains most of the major industrial beats of local game development.

And there’s thirty years buried in here amidst the ripples of studios as they rise and fall, and still manage to ship hundreds of games on everything from the ZX Spectrum to the Xbox 360 – and we are all part of the continuity of that history. People talk about Australian game development and they can’t help but evoke this timeline in some fashion. The studios that we’ve all worked in have grown out of this, and the people who hired us grew out of those, and it’s possible – as I believe tsumea did at one point – to trace the lineage of studios and people and the cultural history of local development.

Back in the 80s some incredibly successful and experimental projects. I still remember playing the hobbit and waiting for the green door to fill in, getting lost in a maze just beyond that door, and endlessly listening to Thorin singing about gold.
The 90s. Lots of new studios. Pretty good mix of original and licensed titles in there. Halloween Harry; Cricket; Manx TT; Dark Reign; Powerslide. Seems like a pretty healthy and diverse space.

2000s. Loads of activity, but the mix seems to be leaning towards the licenses. Still some original titles in here – Freedom Force & Ty – but also Starship Troopers; South Park Rally; Transformers; Jurassic Park; AFL; Saddle Club. It feels like the beginnings of the licensed, work-for-hire industry we’ve found ourselves in.And this continuity of development – this cultural history – influences us even today. Conversations begun way back at the dawn of Melbourne House very likely still resonate today, although after thirty years the root of them has probably been lost, but they are still there in how studios are run, in how people think about the various disciplines, and in the stories we still tell ourselves.

But so much has changed since then. Technology, artistic practice, the role of games in culture & society. And if we don’t question some of those same assumptions of that cultural history – just as if we don’t learn the lessons – we run the risk of not moving forward – as well as the risk of taking some of the issues from the old industrial models and transplanting them straight into an emerging ‘indie’ model.

So, let’s start with industry, how we talk about it, and what it actually might be.

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation recently released a report titled “Working in Australia‟s Digital Games Industry” and there’s some great stuff in there for anyone interested – including what other countries think of Australian development – but there’s also this very concise description of what the Games Industry is:
I think that’s a pretty good start, and I think it narrows things down into what I would describe as the studio system, and which also excludes things like festivals or education, or the audience, or journalism. It also puts itself separate from people who make games because they care about them or because they are trying to create an artistic statement or anything other than making games for audiences and getting those games into the hands of consumers either through bricks & mortar or digital distribution, along with marketing them.

I like this definition because it focuses on the ways that Industry is a very specific thing, designed to solve a very specific problem, and which tells a very specific story about itself. What is the story that Australian industry tells us? Well, it used to be that we were good at licenses and handhelds. Now it’s that we’re good at mobile or iPhone.

Except that’s not really true, I don’t think. The reality is that some companies are good at iphone or mobile – skills don’t transfer through osmosis – and that other companies are good at other things, and others are good at different things, and we’re all pursuing, hopefully, the things that we’re good at and the things that we want – perfect illustration of what I said at the start!

I think the more we reach for a unified industrial story, the less likely we are to tell a more nuanced, perhaps larger one, but perhaps one that doesn’t connect with that industrial line, and which might not carry the same weight within it, and which might be at odds with what developers want.

In that same report that I mentioned, it has the most brilliant box out that shines a light on the differences between what we frequently want as developers and what the industrial system wants:

We all want different things. That’s okay. But not everyone wants to be part of the industry.

And lest anyone things I’m just complaining for the sake of complaining, here’s a specific example taken from The Age’s Screenplay blog.

I return to this line quite a lot in writing and thinking about these ideas because, while it’s just a single opinion, it does reflect a narrow view of development. It didn’t take me long to come up with a list of games that don’t fit into this thin measure of success – either Flight Control or LA Noire – Machinarium; Limbo; Sword and Sworcery; Stacking; Costume Quest. All with strong story-telling elements, all critically succesful, and all neither AAA nor a mechanically driven iPhone title.

I think it’s really important that we challenge that narrow band, both in how we think and critique public voices, but also in the games that we make. Plenty of people want to make – surprise – those different things that might be small scale story-driven games.
But it isn’t just industry that struggles along with what might be incorrect assumptions that we’ve carried with us. There are others.

Government in particular views games through two different lenses, both of which carry baggage – and both of which encourage developers to think along certain lines.

The first of these is the technology metaphor.

We are not a technology sector. We aren’t even a technology industry really when you think about it. We’re only partly a software industry too. Sure we make use of technology, but it’s kind of like arguing that car companies are in the road industry or that book publishers are in the paper industry or that the filmmakers are in the camera or set-building business. It’s a broken metaphor, but one that we persist with.
Technology is absolutely part of digital creative economies, but it’s only part of the presentation layer.  It’s also restrictive, both in terms of how it puts the mainstream coverage of a creative industry in a box, but also in how we think about it as practitioners because we end up attracting people who care about the tech.  This was fine back when we had limited technical resources, but technology has stopped being the limiting factor in our ability to make games. Technology now has become about the creation of tools for crafting experiences.

The other side of the technology metaphor is that in all of our mainstream media, games find themselves nestled up against stories about televisions, internet bullying, security, twitter, or mutant genes. And amidst that confusion, games are covered in the same sort of homogenous way that industry is. Issues of business, culture, development, players, commentary, and reviews, are all shoved together as though some of these are technology related. It’s a strange lens to view them through – although understandable – at least until things go wrong and technology writers find themselves writing about tragedies with only tangential links to both technology and gaming culture as they did earlier this year when writing about the tragic Oslo shooting and connecting it to our local R18+ discussions.
One of the other broken metaphors is Screen.

Film began around 1895, as a sort of technological curiosity.  Those first few decades weren’t particularly interesting from a storytelling or expressive space, it was really just a curiousity – and strangely as we see with all emerging forms, people were convinced that it couldn’t be Art.

As the technology stabilised, people began to experiment with the form & the medium, including lighting, staging, framing, etc, but it wasn’t until the development of editing & cross-cutting, pioneered by D.W. Griffith that film properly established the process of building its own grammar.  From there, film evolved into the dominant cultural storytelling force, becoming industrial, influencing everything it came into contact with.

Television is obviously one of the primary influences of that, building as it did on ‘screen’ as one of, if not the, dominant cultural and creative metaphor of the past 100 years

But in 1961 – 66 years after the experimental film capture of a running horse -  some researchers in a lab created a game called ‘Space War’ running on an oscilloscope and what we would consider video games were born.  And now, 50 years after that, games have evolved into a massive commercial industry (worth $50 billion), and have taken from, and added to, the screen culture that came before them.

And this is both a good and a bad thing.
Because since 1895, what people think of as screen culture is defined by its storytelling abilities, the grammar adopted from theatre, and the unique language of film.  Games on the other hand, don’t really have the same strengths as a storytelling medium as theatre, film, and television, which makes it hard to engage with the unique properties of the medium – because screen remains the dominant metaphor, and is also part of the presentation layer of the medium.  It also makes it difficult because where the majority of funding & focus for game projects is embedded with the traditional screen industries, who have a much broader mandate, and one which is dictated by the shape of that ‘Screen’ metaphor.And the core of that metaphor is what causes trouble between game developers and the gatekeepers of film, but at the same time game developers locally haven’t really presented an alternative argument for why games should be treated differently or receive similar treatment. In previous calls for government support in particular, the argument hasn’t really gone beyone ‘well, film have it, so we should too,’ which isn’t a particularly compelling argument.

However, I think there are two really good ways of engaging with that.

The first is to look at the language that’s used and reframe it slightly. Screen Australia just did some research that showed 9 out of 10 people thought that ‘it was important for Australia to have a local film and television industry producing Australian Stories’. Hard to disagree with that, but if we reframed that for film away from ‘telling Australian Stories’ to ’Helping Australians tell stories’, it shifts away from the storytelling metaphor that sits at the heart of screen thinking and also lets us frame our own argument away from ‘making Australian Games’ to ‘Helping Australians make games’ – which is something far more achievable and engages the heart of what the medium might be capable of.

The other way of engaging with it is to strip the storytelling piece away entirely. Games might not be great storytelling mediums, but other artistic and creative forms such as dance, opera, visual art, or sculpture aren’t necessarily storytelling at their core enjoy government, creative, and cultural support, so it seems weird that we’d focus on that particular dividing line.

But this requires us as developers to commit to that, and to push it forward.  The removal of the screen metaphor is a good step forward in us attaining greater cultural acceptance – or at least sidestepping the well-trodden criticisms of established gatekeepers.

The idea that we’re even, necessarily, part of a digital culture is, sometimes not that useful. It creates a narrow view of what we are, what games are, and how we fit into that mode of thought and philosophy when there are other modes of engagement that exist in a more analogue world that might be more useful. It also binds us to technology arguments – again, publishers focusing on the properties of paper rather than what’s printed on them.

Which isn’t to say that digital technology doesn’t offer us the opportunity to create amazing audience experiences, because it does, but it is a tool – and a tool that has so many facets, from distribution to creation to engagement to communication – that summing it up under just one banner isn’t helpful from a creative industry perspective. Even looking around this conference we totally miss out on some of the brilliant playful stuff that’s happening in other sectors: played at GDC, the Metagame was a card game on top of the overall conference; Hide and Seek in the UK who recently launched The Show Must Go On and who also run Sandpits and create large-scale games; The Agency of Coney, also from the UK, who run Playdays and create playful experiences; The Copenhagen Games Collective who do everything from card games to the Dark Room Sex Game; and lastly Freeplay’s recent Game/Play exhibition at NGV Studio that combined art, digital, physical, and pervasive games.

There’s a lot that can be learned from digging away from the digital side of what it is that we do – and through which we could expand our cultural and intellectual reach. Original IP is one of those things that, I think, sounds like it has a lot of meaning and is one of those things that the industrial voice has long championed as the holy grail of development which would naturally emerge from increased investment or government support – something I’ll come back to in a bit.

Stepping sideways though, having been through other events with filmmakers, writers, poets, animators, artists, and critics, I’ve discovered that they don’t really talk about ‘IP’ in the same way as game developers. Sure, they harbour the same desires to make money out of their creations and to make unique things, but most of the conversations I’ve had have been about the thing itself – the book or poem or film or song – but for some reason game developers have attached themselves to this particular frame of reference, which I’d argue means very little when you actually have to produce something.

When you pull a wikipedia, there’s nothing that really illuminates what is being talked about.  Is it the characters, the world, the game mechanics itself? Is it some sort of exploitable elements that can transition into other forms, something frequently touted but which rarely if ever materialises?   It’s potentially all of these things – or none of them – which is a real danger because this call for original I.P. has become an abstraction from the final artifact itself itself.
Just like industry and screen and technology, this use of language sets up certain expectations – whether intentional or not – in how we discuss our work. Original IP conjures up, at least in my mind, images of nothing because it is something inherently intangible. It has no boundaries, and that’s what makes it a difficult thing to discuss.  If I’m writing a novel, I know the strengths and weaknesses of what I can do within the form.  If I’m creating IP, what are the edges?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of what I can evoke?  What do I really mean?  Tell me I’m making a game, and suddenly, I know the parameters, have 30 years of history and over a decade experience to draw on with a clear sense of the possibilities.

And I think this is important because cultural product – or Art – isn’t defined by I.P.  There may be elements within a title or a franchise such as a character or a moment or a story that could be described as I.P., but audiences respond to things in a far more visceral, experiential way to how they were moved or transported or affected emotionally.  Movies can do that, books can do that, songs can do that, and games can do that.  I.P. on its own can’t.

The other side of that desire for original IP, is the question of where it might come from. Historically, the industry has championed the creation of original IP, but the amount of it has remained consistently pretty low even as the number of total games has increased. Obviously, this has changed in the past few years as the App Store has changed the landscape and local developers have seen significant success with original titles, but over the preceding 10 year period, the amount of original titles generated by Victorian companies remained pretty low – and actually shrunk as a proportion of total games as we moved towards 2009.

Which raises the question – where would the experience to create these original titles come from? Is there a culture of original product? Of ideas? Who should we listen to when they say original IP is the way forward?

The other aspect of the Original IP is the idea that if there were only more funding around, creating it would be so much easier, the implication being that either a) there aren’t any government funds for it for studios or b) if there were simply more investment, it would magically appear.

There probably isn’t enough information to properly question the second part, but you can find out enough to figure out the first as funding agencies are required to publish their funding decisions. I dug through Film Victoria’s annual reports for 2008/2009, 2009/2010, and 2010/2011 to see where the money had gone. Here’s what I found out:
Game projects – not including some digital content funding projects in 08/09 – received a total of $4,401,820.00, covering 46 projects from 39 studios & individuals, and of that I’d say $2,223,455.00 – just over 50% – went to original projects from established studios. By established studios, I mean those ones that have been around for a while, have built a base on licensed IP projects, and which are trying to break out of it.

To say that there’s no support, or it isn’t enough in light of that, seems a little weird. The money is there, and has been pretty forthcoming in terms of what is out there. Sure, there could be more, and I’m sure more studios wouldn’t mind, but it’s there.

And I’ve only done this for Film Victoria, which was more a question of the availibility of their reports, not any sort of comment on their choices, submissions, or anything like that. I just wanted to point out the disconnect between a call for funding for original IP projects and the amount of funding that actually does exist.

And leads quite nicely into…
This is another of those long-term refrains that has tended to focus on bringing parity to games investment and development with film. This centres around tax breaks and how the Canadian development industry has thrived with them. The most recent piece of movement here was the introduction of the new R&D Tax Credit which replaces an old R&D Tax Concession, and should hopefully be a pretty important step in helping econonomic growth.

However, one of the main things to bear in mind when comparing the Australian environment to Canada’s is that economic policy is only a part of the whole equation. Although it’s rarely reported, the studios who set up in Canada are very aware of this and are also quite open about it.

THQ’s Danny Bilson in an interview over at gamesindustry.biz late last year said:

There’s more than one reason! There are actually two main reasons – first of all it’s a phenomenal digital development community. There are 2000-3000 game developers there that have been working in studios over the years, and they’ve been building out a really robust talent community there.

 

Also their university system offers a lot of training in the digital arts, so the province has a world class community there and they’re determined to grow it.

 

And along with that comes a fantastic subsidy to make it more economically feasible for us – they’re giving us thirty-seven and a half cents in every dollar of labour there, which is a huge win in the world of blockbuster games, which is what the core division of THQ is about.

or more succinctly:

“It’s the combination of talent, resource and then funding.”

As the local development community, it’s our responsibility to support those first two. How do we grow talent? How do we increase resources? If Australia was on the same footing as Canada, what would seperate the two? How can we create a culture that encourages inward investment? If that’s even what we want to happen? It’s also worth thinking about what other support government could offer outside of these economic incentives. If you look at the shape of other creative industries, there’s a raft of initiatives and programs that support creatives at various stages of their careers in ways beyond helping them to startup development studios.

Writing has the Wheeler Centre, which runs events throughout the year and also houses the Victorian Writers’ Centre, the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and other organisations.

Brisbane have The Edge as part of the State Library of Queensland which explores digital culture in a really expansive and inclusive way.

Film funding agencies have a much broader range of options including short-film funding, support for festival attendance, script development, and internships.

In Victoria, there is Open Channel which hires out equipment and runs short courses for film-makers

There are also things like education partnerships, artists in schools programs, cultural exchange programs, regional partnerships, and a whole bunch of other models beyond simply looking at building or expanding studios. My day job is as a writer, and one of the things you learn as a writer is that stories are instruction manuals for life. The way characters – and archetypes – deal with problems is supposed to show us ways of dealing with problems. Years ago I read The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler and he discusses how the structure of the monomyth and jungian archetypes helped him make sense of his life. At one point, he found himself in conflict with another writer and realised that the man was acting as a threshold guardian in his life – someone who stood on the edge of one state of being to another. He knew that the way to deal with threshold guardians was to fight and defeat them or learn the lesson they were trying to teach. He chose the latter in this specific case.

The story of Australian development is at a tipping point. There are threshold guardians everywhere who want to tell you what to think, what to do, how to operate. They want to tell you about marketing and free to play and microtransactions and gamification. They want to talk to you about product over culture or they want to talk to you about building studios rather than making art. They want to tell you the story of the past 30 years of industrial development and how it’s going to save the future.

And they might be right.

But we can take a look back over the past 30 years in a post-constructed narrative of what has and hasn’t worked, of the stories and metaphors used and whether or not they’re still useful. We can also look to the rest of the world and see what they’re doing and pick and choose the best parts. We can also look beyond videogames to an emerging creative culture that wants to play with us in theatre, in literature, in museums or galleries or libraries or schools.  And we can start telling our own story of development formed through our own personal philosophies and reasoning. Maybe you disagree with everything I’ve said. Maybe your personal development philosophy is completely orthogonal to mine. Maybe we agree on some stuff but not others. I’m okay with that because I think the important thing is that we find ways for a wider range of distinctive, critical, informed, and individual voices to be heard.

Creative industries thrive on disagreement. On argument. On evolution. I want to hear more voices. I want to hear more challenges to the status quo. I want to question existing gatekeepers – myself included – and I want to be able to do it publicly. I want different people doing different things in different ways. I want the options and opportunities for people to create the type of creative and professional life they want. And I want more people to make more things and then to reflect critically on what they’ve made  to go on and make better things.

But like I said at the start. maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about.

But that’s what I believe. And that’s what I’ll be pursuing.

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