I’m so incredibly grateful I got to be so involved in this year’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival, which concluded barely a fortnight ago. I was a speaker in the conversation session Games and Words, exchanging thoughts on the written word’s relevance to video games. On the panel Levels of Discourse, I contributed to a discussion of various aspects of games criticism. I was on the judging committee for the Freeplay awards, playing through dozens of excellent indie games from all over the world. I somehow even convinced director Paul Callaghan that it’d be a great idea to let me present an award at the Freeplay awards ceremony. (I hope he’s not too mortified I took the opportunity to slip the word “throbbing” into the script.)
I have a history with Freeplay, actually, and I’d say it’d played a pretty critical role in what I do now. At last year’s Freeplay I met a whole bunch of people I’d only admired from afar till then; now I consider many of them to be great friends, mentors, and alcohol suppliers of mine. The year before, at Freeplay 2010, I’d just begun writing about games, and it was all the cultural discussion at the festival that really guided the path my writing would take, each panel I attended and game I played at Experimedia shaping my path like wire on a bonsai tree – so being an actual part of the festival my third time around means an immense amount to me.
And this year, as in previous years, a lot of discussion was generated that has me thinking still, even two weeks later. Though the official theme was “Chaos and Grace”, I think several unspoken sub-themes also emerged in conversation, and there’s one I’d like to expand on today…
The question of legitimacy was something that permeated a few of the sessions I saw, and it was certainly, in two highly differing manifestations, a part in both of the sessions I spoke in.
On Levels of Discourse, both Jessica Citizen (who writes primarily news on her own gaming website) and James Dominguez (who writes daily for a national paper’s online gaming blog) shied away from applying the term “journalist” to themselves. I took issue with this, but I also knew their reasons for doing so well – gaming is not a serious, “real” enough area of coverage, arguments about the usefulness of journalists in the field could be avoided, they didn’t even have journalism degrees, et cetera, et cetera…
And that irritated me, if I’m being honest. It irritated me because I’ve long grappled with the idea of games being a legitimate area of focus myself. For the first year and a half of my career I’d dodge the word, instead ambiguously calling myself a “writer”. Never mind that my friends and teachers outside of the games industry 100% considered me a journalist; never mind that my dad, himself a journalist of over forty years, considered me a journalist, too. A part of me feared that others might think games weren’t a good enough area to cover, and I wanted to avoid confrontation. I wanted to avoid being challenged. In not defending their importance and value in culture, I legitimised the uneducated idea that games were not a “real” medium.
It was going to GDC this year that finally changed my thinking. “I’m a writer,” I would say when meeting developers and other games journalists, and they would say, “What the fuck is a writer? Call yourself a journalist, dammit, because you are a journalist, because what you cover is legitimate and needs to be read, and its prominence shouldn’t be eclipsed by this idea that not even you believe in the legitimacy of what you’re writing.”
After each of the two sessions I spoke on, I’d take a break to scroll through the #freeplay12 Twitter hashtag to see what people had been saying while I’d been speaking. And apparently, not a whole lot of people agreed with my view of journalism being a necessary part of the advancement of video games in greater culture. It upset me – not really in an oh god why did I read the comments way, but because it contradicted what people had tweeted during the Games and Words session the day before.
Games and Words, see, was one of a series of “conversations” designed around the idea of having two people – one familiar with video games, the other from a different discipline of work or study – coming together to speak about one aspect of games through a wider, less self-examinatory cultural lens. In my case, I got to speak at length with excellent Melbournian poet Katie Keys.
The nature of the speakers’ backgrounds was the most important thing about the conversation sessions, and the greatest generator of a unique kind of discussion still largely unspoken within the games industry. Bringing in the expertise of an “outsider” really helps us approach the medium in new ways; according to a recent interview I had with Peter Molyneux, it was a part of his hiring strategy for his new studio 22 Cans. How do you expect innovation, he said, if you’re asking the same people to do what they’ve already done a million times before?
Katie Keys, as a poet and only a casual player of games, had some frankly brilliant insight into the medium, and it was a conversation I was immensely proud to have been a part of. That’s why it bothered me, looking back over the tweets, to see people pinpoint use of words such as “real” and “legitimate” to distinguish a divide between mainstream writing and writing found in games.
I understand the criticism, but I also wish some consideration had been given to why that distinction might have been made. Why might someone unfamiliar with the medium say such a thing so flippantly, not realising that it’s something we in the industry facepalm at on a daily basis? Is it perhaps because not even our journalists, our mediators between games and the mainstream media, are willing to consider themselves “real” journalists? How do we get so indignant about the Herald Sun’s unfair portrayal of games when our own journalists don’t feel they can legitimise their own career choice?
You could argue that with racists picketing outside the State Library on the final day of Freeplay, there might be more pertinent issues for journalists to pick up on than, say, the problems that arise during the development of a video game. But look – there are other areas of entertainment journalism that don’t have nearly as much potential as games do. Why is it still not okay to be a games journalist?
We need journalism if we want gaming’s place in the broader cultural spectrum to be taken seriously, and we need our journalists to stand up and say, yes, we are goddamned journalists and we’re serious about the work that we do. How can we expect others to take us seriously if we can’t take ourselves seriously? The outsiders’ view of gaming isn’t going to change without a change in our own views; it’s not going to change as long as we stare at our feet and mumble, “Umm, I’m not really a journalist, I just write stuff about video games.” So let’s stop talking each other down, timidly dismissing our accomplishments and insights, and acting as if this career path we chose is just some hobby to be shrugged off. We know they’re important. It’s up to us to help others see gaming’s relevance to non-gamers, too.