Saturday, August 21, 2010

What I Learned at Freeplay 2010


 
“Melbourne’s got a hipster-only policy, right?” I quipped at Fraser on Twitter, in reply to a motherly message about wearing enough layers. In the middle of winter, Melbourne’s weather can be a bit of a shock to us Queenslanders.
“Pretty much. The dress code is black clothes and no outward signs of enthusiasm.”
I was on the shuttle bus from Melbourne Airport to the city, thirty-six hours before the commencement of the second Freeplay Independent Games Festival. I’m not sure what I expected the festival to be like. It just seemed like the kind of thing I should be going to. If nothing else, the ideas of ‘Melbourne’, ‘indie’, and ‘games’ were enough to sell me.
I could not tell you where in relation to the CBD Melbourne’s airport actually is. While waiting for the shuttle bus, I sent out a simple tweet asking any Melbourne friends for directions to my hostel. By the time I was seated on said bus, I was engaged in at least five conversations, replying to an inundation of direction suggestions, public transport timetables, and phone numbers.
This set the mood for the entire weekend: friendly, insightful, and strongly reliant on Twitter. I met some incredible people, listened to some inspiring discussions, engaged in some mind-blowing conversations, and realised that the only thing holding back the art form of games is myself. 

Friday
Okay, perhaps I should rewind a bit.
Before Freeplay was to begin, I had an entire day to mosey around Melbourne by myself. Twitter gave me some tips for coffee, for food, and for things to do, so off I went.
Thanks to Dan Golding, I ended up at the Screen Worlds exhibition at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). All kinds of screen media were on display, exhibiting the diverse history of the screen. The pseudo-film student inside of me found it all interesting, but of course I levitated to the videogame tables. I spent most of my time at the exhibition playing Tempest, Asteroid, Super Mario Bros 3, and Tomb Raider under televisions flashing glimpses of Mass Effect, Shadow of the Colossus, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and Katamari Damacy.
What really struck me was the complete lack of self-conscious justification for why videogames were part of the exhibition. It seems silly now, but I have come to expect any inclusion of videogames in any kind of art gallery or museum to come with an excuse-filled placard blabbering about ‘why’ games are there, as though they are the awkward kid at the party no one really wanted invited. Screen Worlds, though, and the diverse people it attracted, all just assumed that the history and art of videogames belonged there along side the old cameras and monochrome cathode ray tube televisions. I felt somewhat guilty that I had not made the same assumption myself.

Saturday
Freeplay Day One! I’ll be honest: I was freaking out. Not only was there the pressure of having to meet people I have never before met in real life (something I was greatly looking forward to but fretting about nonetheless) but also the nagging anxiety about the reports I was meant to be writing. You see, I was yet to convince myself that I was actually writing for Gamasutra. I was worried about the most irrational things (such as not being able to fit in the theater and completely missing the keynote). All this anxiety led to me waking over an hour before my alarm went off, showering, and rushing out of the hostel a good two hours before registration for Freeplay even opened.
This turned out to be a good thing as on the complete opposite side of the city I found a café in an alleyway selling ridiculously good coffee ridiculously cheap with (wait for it) soy milk for no extra charge! They also just happened to be the only café in the entire city open that early, I swear.
Anyway, 9 o’clock came around and with the course for my Neptune’s Pride fleets set for the next twenty-four hours, I headed off to Freeplay.
To begin the festival Paul Callaghan, one of Freeplay's two orgainsers, took the stage. Paul is a glorious, humble, modest man around which you cannot help but feel good about videogames. Bissell could remove all the pages from Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and just replace it with a photo of this guy.
Paul, together with Eve Penford-Dennis, had effectively built this year’s Freeplay out of nothing. You could tell how much time, dedication, and effort both of them had put into the event from the way that started at loud noises. All of a sudden, my few reports didn’t seem like quite such a daunting task. These two people had sweated blood to get this festival running. It is a horrible cliché of a metaphor, I am aware, but totally appropriate. [Update: Okay. So I got a bit hyperbolic and vague in my writing. As Paul has clarified in a comment: "Just wanted to point out that this is the 2nd Freeplay that Eve & I have organised, but it's the 5th overall. Next Wave started it in 2004 and ran it again in 2005 and 2007. Without their foundation, I doubt we'd have been able to build it from scratch." Though, this does not change my emphasis that it was clear that they had put a lot of effort into this year's event.]
“Hello!”
And so it began.
Between seminars, I met some staggeringly awesome people. Particularly the GameTaco crew, Fraser Allison (from RedKingDream), Dan Golding (kinda from RedKingDream but also from everywhere, we established), and James O’Connor (from Hyper, Pixelhunt, and others). With these guys I had some great discussions. It sounds silly, but speaking out loud, with your actual voice, about ideas and concepts you have only ever written about is an incredibly empowering feeling. Simply being able to have a meaningful conversation about the map design of X game or the narrative of Y game was alone enough to justify the entire trip.
We were talking about videogames. In real life. This is a big deal. We weren’t hiding out on websites and social networks; we were in public spaces and shamelessly talking about our passions. Perhaps this does not seem like such a big deal, perhaps you live in closer proximity to fellow enthusiasts than I do, but it is not something I have often had the chance to do, and something that I did not realize I had been craving.
After lunch, Saturday afternoon saw how really interesting presentations. The “Beyond the Controller” roundtable looked mostly at augmented reality games (interesting and significant, but not my area), but also included a presentation by the incredible “game activist” Truna who gave a thought-provoking speech challenging our unconscious acceptance of the physical game controller. She did not so much argue that we should abolish the controller, but insisted that we must understand just what the controller is actually controlling: us. This is a topic I will be following up with its own post.
Next was Brandon Boyer’s keynote. Boyer’s speech was a quiet revolution and I doubt there were many in the audience not inspired. I had given up on the actual creation of games years ago but Brandon’s speech forced me accept that the actual act of making games is something I still desire. Not just another platformer or another shooter, mind you (ultimately what all my early game attempts ended up as), but something experimental, something personal. We each have an obligation to make the game we wish to make and from that the videogame medium as a whole will continue to evolve.
And indeed, upon returning to Brisbane, Unity and its various tutorials was one of the first things I downloaded and its learning has become a serious side project.
Though, at the time of Brandon’s speech, the main thing I was thinking was, “Geez I have to do this brilliant talk justice in a report!”
So, of course, I followed everyone to the bar as soon as the talk finished. Long story short, by 2am, after several drinks and several drafts proofread by my awesome girlfriend back in Brisbane, I emailed off my first report and went to bed with Brandon Boyer’s words still ringing in my ears (partially a consequence of listening to his talk on my iphone over and over as I parsed for quotes).
And the report actually got posted! Fortunately, Leigh Alexander is a phenomenal editor and squeezed the odour of gin out of my words and rendered my report readable. But that wasn’t until Monday. For now, I was still stressing out about the report I had just sent and the two more I had to write. But beneath that was one of those vague, buzzing feelings that I have come to associate with the earliest formings of a new idea.
At the time I assumed it was a new article I would want to write, but it would turn out to be something much more meta: a shift in the very way I think of videogames.

Sunday
Writing one keynote obviously did not alleviate my anxiety as I still managed to climb out of bed and leave the hostel well over an hour earlier than needed (despite only having gone to sleep four hours earlier) and ended up at the same café in the same alley on the same opposite edge of the city.
Adam “Atomic” Saltsman (As I believe I am meant to call him) kicked things off right away with the second keynote, “Play & Games & Videogames & Us”. He had a lot of ground to cover, yet he somehow fit it all in. If Brandon Boyer had convinced me that I should make personal games because they are meaningful, Saltsman convinced me making games is integral to our existence as human beings.
Following this, the “Twisted Space” panel complemented Adam’s ideas perfectly. A very broad and eclectic yet deep and thorough exploration of what we can do with space came with the broader theme of just how much untapped potential still exists in our medium if we are willing to explore it.
Though I had heard of it before, it was this seminar where I first got a good look at Hazard. Hazard is the supermutant brainchild of Alexander Bruce. This man is mad; his game is mad, and they are both exactly what the future of videogames need.
That whole vague buzzing feeling I mentioned before? Well this seminar is where I finally figured out what it was. Specifically, when Alexander said, “It’s a game. We can do whatever the fuck we want so why not do something cool.” This, coupled with the themes of the keynotes that we have an obligation to create ‘something cool’ would be the beginning of a subtle yet seismic shift in how I view videogames.
That night at the after party I was fortunate enough to be part of a conversation with Bruce about his game and what he is trying to achieve. This will also be a later post (though much brutalised as I was not taking any notes, sadly). Suffice to say he is absolutely mad and brilliant.
And, well, you get the idea. The two days of Freeplay 2010 blew my mind. There was something for everyone. In fact, everything was for everyone. A lot of the talks were only vaguely related to videogames but that was the point: play is everywhere and we as videogame makers and thinkers and perfectly positioned to tap that energy.
Throughout the festival was this empowering sense of self-worth. Not conscious self-worth, but assumed. This mattered. Games mattered. Not once did anyone try to justify games as art. It was presumed and things advanced from there.
That is the most significant thing I took out of Freeplay 2010: to not question how important videogames are, but to outright assume it. “Games are Art” is not the topic of a debate worth having, but a presumption worth making because beyond that is events like Freeplay and thinkers like Brandon Boyer, Adam Saltsman, Alexander Bruce, and the rest of the weekends speakers, and not the potential of what games can do, but what they must do, what they will do, and what they are already doing all around us.


2 comments:

Paul said...

Hey,

Thanks for the very kind words :) Glad to be so inspiring.

Just wanted to point out that this is the 2nd Freeplay that Eve & I have organised, but it's the 5th overall. Next Wave started it in 2004 and ran it again in 2005 and 2007. Without their foundation, I doubt we'd have been able to build it from scratch :)

Paul.

Brendan said...

Hey Paul, thanks for the clarification. That is what happens when I write sweeping, vague statements without really researching what it is that I am claiming! Regardless, it was clear that you had both put in a lot of effort to the event and all the tales of what people got out of it really exemplify that. :)