In writing and thinking about these posts on games and their place in the Australian cultural landscape, I found myself digging into the notion of what makes uniquely Australian content, and more specifically what might make a uniquely ‘Australian Game’.
There have been attempts at games that focus on Australian elements, most notably Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, Escape from Woomera, or some levels in Flight Control, but in the main the bulk of the work done here in industry and independent development contains none of that, making us easy fodder for those who maintain the argument that games have no cultural relevance – an argument that, at least in my research, never seems to meet with much resistance beyond ‘more people play games than ever before’ or ‘other mediums are supported so we should be too’.
I think there is an answer, but it requires a reframing of the entire question of what might make an Australian game.
But before we do that, let’s begin with our other screen industry’s big goal – and the one that is so often used as why games aren’t culturally relevant – which is to tell Australian stories. What this means can be defined by looking through Screen Australia‘s Significant Australian Content guidlines.
There criteria are:
- The subject matter of the film
- The place where the film was made
- The nationalities and places of residence of the persons who took part in the making of the film
- The details of the production expenditure incurred in respect of the film
- Any other matters that Screen Australia considers relevant.
The first criteria contains the content guidelines, and it reads in part:
Screen Australia interprets ‘subject matter of the film’ as requiring it to determine if the ‘look and feel of the film’ is sufficiently Australian or the film has a significant creative connection with Australia. For example:
- Is the film ‘about’ Australia or Australians
- Does it reflect a cultural background that is particular to Australia or Australians
- Does it reveal some aspect of Australia’s or Australians’ cultural background or experience, or
- Did the project originate in Australia and/or was it developed by Australians?
These are the questions that sit at the heart of the debate – how can a game reflect those particular values? How can a game be uniquely Australian without expressing some aspect of these? Can it? Should it even try?
Screen Australia have recognised this difficulty, and in their recent submission Australian Government’s 2010 Review of the Independent Screen Production Sector they recommended games be eligible for the producer offset without the same content restrictions. Even with this change though, the discussion built around these guidelines is so ingrained within the screen sector, and dominates our discussions on cultural relevance, that we need to find a way to reframe the whole question.
So, let’s ignore for the moment that games are not necessarily a storytelling medium, and look at reframing it from their perspective – let’s change Telling Australian Stories to helping Australians tell stories.
It’s a subtle shift, but one that takes a bottom up view of cultural production and storytelling rather than a top-down one. And it’s one that the screen agencies seem to be moving towards. Here’s how Film Victoria and Screen Australia describe themselves:
[Film Victoria] support[s] the retention and development of a diverse Australian voice
[Screen Australia is committed to] supporting marketing and screen culture initiatives which focus on engaging audiences with Australian content
In a country with 22 million people, there are a vast swathe of stories that wouldn’t fit into the traditional ‘Australian Story’ mould, and in order to create a diverse cultural voice, I’d argue that this bottom up approach of building culture is far more empowering and interesting than trying to funnel everything into a narrow, prescribed band.
So let’s reframe the same topic for games. Let’s defuse the storytelling / cultural bias and put the focus on individual creatives and the expression of their experiences by turning making Australian games into helping Australians make games. Again, shifting from a top-down approach to content and empowering, even subtly, individuals to contribute to the wider culture.
When we were pulling together this year’s Freeplay Festival, one of the themes we kept coming back to was ‘enabling and encouraging more people to make more things’. In thinking and talking and writing about this topic, I’ve realised that there’s an extension to that. We need to enable more people to make more things, but we also to support them in reflecting on what they’ve learned and using that to make even more things, all better than before.
A uniquely Australian game might emerge from a top-down, prescriptive approach to development, but it’s just as likely to grow out of prototyping, experimentation, and the expressive interests of a group of individuals following their own interests. By taking that latter route though, we have the added bonus of the interesting and engaging projects that’ll emerge along the way, that will find an audience, and which will add their own unique perspectives to what defines the Australian culture.