Freeplay, and THAT panel

If you’re an Australian who follows games development, it’s likely you knew about last weekend’s Freeplay, an independent games festival held annually here in Melbourne. Spread across conferences, workshops, interview sessions with notable developers, and a room in which to play local developers’ games-in-progress, it attracted people of the gaming persuasion from all over Australia, and even more followed along via the Twitter hashtag, #freeplay11.

So it’s likely you’ve heard by now about that panel, the embarrassing session titled ‘The Words That We Use’ that, perhaps, was an example of what happens when the wrong words are used. This session was one of the most anticipated by myself and some of the other games writers I’d met at the festival, not least of all because it applied to our trade.

We were largely disappointed. In short, a potentially interesting panel chose instead to focus on the amateurish complaint of review scores, and soon devolved into bukkake jokes, the importance of toilet humour in gaining an audience, dismissal of games writing that “tried too hard to be intellectual”, and sweeping, sexist pronouncements on women’s place in games criticism. When looking over the tweets later, I would realise that some audience members were also vocalising some pretty ignorant statements of their own regarding female critics.

I was angry, as were all the people surrounding me. A full day and a half later I am still simmering, but I don’t wish to discuss either the criticism or the sexism issues today. Brendan Keogh has already done a long, eloquent write-up on the criticism angle, and it doesn’t need any further contribution or elaboration. As for the ignorance surrounding female critics, there is plenty I would like to say – so much, really, that I need some time to let my thoughts solidify. The panelists angered me, yes, but I was nearly as angry with myself; my own awful flaws as a female games writer were exposed, something I’m growingly grateful for in hindsight. It certainly got me thinking in a way that I’d like to be as eloquent and honest as possible about when I do eventually get my thoughts down.

So today, I want to focus instead on Freeplay as a whole – and why we shouldn’t let one bad panel mar its importance and influence in the local games scene.

Yesterday morning, I had an interesting time going through the #freeplay11-tagged tweets from yesterday. The ‘Words That We Use’ panel generated more tweets than the others, of course, and given the panel’s derailment into contentious territory, these tweets also happened to be the angriest.

To my horror, overseas games people who weren’t present at Freeplay began to weigh in on the whole mess as well. One prominent States-based developer with nearly four thousand Twitter followers expressed concern at how poorly-constructed the panel sounded.

“Sounds like Freeplay just crapped out,” said another Twitterer in Los Angeles.

The saddest comment of all was from someone who said he was “glad [he] didn’t go to Freeplay”.

I’d like to get this straight. Yes, that panel was certainly the one that non-attendees would have heard about most. As humans, we’re naturally more vocal about things that offend us rather than things that we pleasantly agree with, and such vocalisation would certainly apply to platforms like Twitter too. But do not mistake us for believing that there was nothing else of importance in the festival.

I only attended one day of the weekend, and even I absorbed enough information to leave me completely exhausted by sundown. I attended panels about indie game funding, learning to embrace failure in game design, and Brisbane IGDA’s 48-hour game competitions, all lectured by people with commendable expertise in their areas. I met so many other games writers I’d only conversed with via Twitter until Freeplay: Ben Abraham, Dan Golding, David Wildgoose, Tracey Lien, Mark Johnson, and more. I played some terrific games-in-the-making by local developers. I even finally got to meet Farbs, which was awesome after having interviewed him for my Indie Kombat piece (terribly nice guy, and just as funny in real life).

I also attended that one panel. Yes, it made me seethe, but I will not except or deny its place as one of the festival’s highlights. It turned out completely differently to how we expected, but I’m glad it devolved into what it did. Some people – both in the panel and the audience – needed the wake-up call that was Ben Abraham yelling passionately about how women in criticism couldn’t be swept under the carpet any more. And, like I said, my own response to the travesty got me thinking quite seriously about my approach to games writing. It was exactly the sort of thing I expected from Freeplay, however sharp the kick in the gut was.

Chatting to the event organiser, Paul Callaghan, directly after the panel was calming and insightful. Paul’s a very open, honest person and it was clear that he didn’t intend for the panel to veer in such a direction. The panelists were chosen for their expertise in various areas of criticism, and I believe that the original intention was to perhaps compare games criticism to that of other mediums and explore why ours differed so much, as well as where we planned to take it in the future. It’s a pity that the discussion meandered so far from its intention, and that two of the panel members took over without the chair reigning them in, but it demonstrated some of the exact issues that panel member Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw had highlighted earlier on in the talk: that overly immature and humourous opinions will be given higher consideration by a general audience than serious, detailed criticism. We did not come away without a sense of this irony. We did not come away thinking that we didn’t need to work even harder on our intellectual, serious, lengthy criticism to overcome the immaturity that gives non-gamers such little incentive to take us seriously.

So to the guy who said he was glad he didn’t go to Freeplay: you should be very sorry to have missed it, especially the derailed panel. Yeah, it was a little prickly at the time, but like all the other panels and workshops there, it taught people something new about games and their community – which is exactly why a festival like Freeplay exists, and why I’m hoping that I’ll see you there next year, too.


17 thoughts on “Freeplay, and THAT panel

  1. Very well said, Katie. And far more fair to the festival as a whole than my rant, which I feel somewhat sorry for.

    All of Freeplay was an inspiring event, just as much as the previous year. Even the rare panel that I disagreed with (most obviously The Words We Use) was insightful and educational, and I am glad I saw all of them. That such talks have sparked such debate only make me more excited about next year.

    Please let me know if you decide to write further on the gender issues of this panel or the festival as a whole. I didn’t feel the right to address them myself and thought it best to let one of the many, many, MANY female videogame critics/journalists in the room to approach it instead. So I look forward to you possibly doing that.



  2. To be honest…

    Yes, it was a standout panel from Freeplay… it stood out as unusually frustrating and in-effective at really dealing with the topics that the panel blurb suggested it would talk about.

    It was on the other hand very effective at getting people emotionally charged, and certainly caused a massive Twitter swell, which actually got people really connecting with one another there, which was great!

    My summary would be that…

    A female games journalist should have been on the panel, not a female theater journalist (even though I think theater as an art form has very interesting connections to games).

    I felt Yahtzee would have had more interesting things to say, except that I think he was trying to stay a bit quiet, to give everyone else room to talk, because he knew that his (famous) words might overpower the event. However, when asked to speak about the topic of female journalism in the industry, he made a few offhand commends about the strange (?) phenomenon of female YouTube games journalists who show a pronounced bust and get thousands of hits, and tasteless comments left on their videos. He wasn’t really making a judgement about that, just saying “that’s out there”.

    The guy behind “Jump Button Magazine”, I thought, had an interest in intellectualizing games, which is all fine and well, except that he waffled on in the manner that gives intellectuals a bad name, and makes you wonder whether intellectualizing games is really worth anything after all!

    The guy on the left seemed to not have much to say, but that’s perhaps because the whole panel didn’t seem to be about what the blurb had suggested it would be about (I thought it was going to be more focussed the issue and concepts around “Games Criticism and Internationalization of Games and Culture”, which it didn’t really seem to dig it’s teeth into much at all).

    I felt the tense awareness of many women (and men) in the audience getting frustrated, because the panelists themselves seemed to be “weighing in” on topics about gender and journalism, that was not particularly informed, or interesting, or connected to actual data, research, deep contemplation. It was more like just being forced to listen to a random conversation happening in a pub at a table nearby… mostly just a collection of opinions and bumbling through topics that are somewhat interesting, but not really chaired and focussed, or powered by experts.

    I’m glad that something came out of it, even if that was a whole lot of hub-bub!

    More girls in the industry please. I’m bored to death of space marines and shooters. I’d like more story, more emotional depth.

    I started to imagine myself as a game designer, as a child, because of Roberta Williams, and those early Sierra games such as King’s Quest.

    I miss all of the potential in the medium that has not really been explored because of a majority-focus on graphics, shooters, car games… which is at least in part due to a history of male-domination (or at least a perceived male-market) throughout the industry, from the players to the developers. Roughly put.

    I want more from games, and I think that more passionate women developers would help to bring a broader variety of experiences to the medium.

    I started reading female fantasy book authors such as Robin Hobb and Jennifer Fallon, because they bring a richness to the worlds, to the characters, and their interactions, and that’s what I’m looking for in games, too.

    Rock on. Freeplay was cool, and it’s great that some good writing, like the article above, has come out of it! :)

    Murray Lorden
    Game Designer

    • Thanks for your comments, Murray.

      I actually felt that Yahtzee was the least qualified person to be at that panel. A more fitting panel member, in my opinion, would’ve been someone who writes the “intellectual” criticism that the others dismissed so quickly.

      I think Alison Croggon’s input was valuable, and could have been more so had she been allowed to speak during the second half of the panel… But the question isn’t whether she was a games critic or not, nor was it whether the panel’s games critic was female or male. The discussion was never meant to enter gender territory.

  3. OK, one more comment…

    Why didn’t ANYONE on stage know the names of at least a handful of women games journalists?

    I mean, sure the panel was not ABOUT that topic. But surely, there should have been someone on stage who knows that there are women games journalists out there, that indeed, there are 3 or 4 or 5 or more just sitting in the audience?

    I know that journalists live “behind” their words a lot of the time, and many people don’t necessarily actually look at the name of the author. Fair enough.

    But anyone who’s actually a journalist themself, in Australia, would surely be aware of a handful of women games journalists????

    Perhaps JUST as strange, was that none of the women in the audience seemed to raise their hands when the topic came up, and kept going, and going, and going, …

    It suggests to me that PART of the problem, is that women, or journalists in general (?), don’t necessarily actually want to be known, or openly vocal, in the real world!?!??

    – Murray

    • Very good question.

      I was one of the women in the audience who did not raise her hand. I know this pissed off at least a couple of people. It’s something I plan to address in a second blog post.

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  5. What’s interesting is that Drew Taylor, the guy on the right who did at least half of the talking, *did* know good female journalists. Speaking to him afterwards, he said that the game journos he respected were more often women than men, some of whom he had worked with.

    He also knew where to find game criticism that was worth a damn: he brought up Kill Screen and Edge by name, and acknowledged the existence of good games writing on the web. On top of that, the guy created JumpButton, a magazine that positioned itself as “an Australian-based, gender-friendly magazine that focuses on the art and substance of videogame culture”. And this was in 2006! How many people were talking about games in those kinds of terms in 2006?

    He gave every impression of being an earnest feminist, sober thinker and all-around cultured guy. He disagreed with Ben’s yell-it-to-the-rooftops approach to social change, but only because he preferred to do the good work quietly. He said the panellists and chair had discussed gender considerately and in depth a week before the day, and all agreed to treat the topic with care and respect.

    So what happened? How did it turn into such a teeth-grinding clusterbomb?

    Drew’s version of events was that the questions the chair was asking, like “Do you know any female game critics?”, were so embarrassing that he preferred to brush them off than engage with them, partly so as not to embarrass the chair (who is by all accounts a nice guy, albeit oblivious). He said he thought it was better to skip past those topics than lend the more ignorant ideas credence by talking about them – not knowing that parts of the audience were already pissed off and now looking at him as a collaborator.

    Do I take that on face value? I don’t know. It remains hard to reconcile that explanation with how teeth-grindingly antagonistic the discussion really was, from the very opening sentences. I really don’t know.

    • Ben also tweeted some similar things about Drew’s knowledge of criticism, alongside a sentiment that Drew simply didn’t care to stand up to defend excellent female critics in the face of a noisy nerdbro. This is what I am tempted to think as well, and I was extremely affronted by his snide response to Ben’s passionate speaking out against sexism that day (as well as the comments he left on Brendan’s blog).

      It would be nice to hear things from Drew’s point of view.

      • Hi there, Katie.

        Well constructed article, and I appreciate that you are trying to put what happened in context and raise some really important issues.

        The truth is that I was blindsided by the Twitter-storm that we, as a panel, had no idea was going on. As you point out, a lot of really poorly worded stereotypes were put forward. I baulk at the idea of male gamers being positioned as masterbating, pimply teens who live in a basement, and I don’t choose to respond to that: it’s someone’s perspective and not mine. I’m almost 42. I have four-and-a-half year-old triplets, and during the day I work for The Salvation Army, as a features writer/reviewer and designer for a kids mag. Similarly, when a statement (–which is what I heard it as, not as a question–) is made about there being no women in games journalism, I see it as an individual’s perception, perhaps intentionally rhetorical. If someone had actually stopped for five seconds and thought about my PR background alone, they would have known that I’m more than aware of women in games writing, even worked with them.

        Where was the research? Did anyone check my FaceBook profile to see names such as Jessica Citizen, Tracey Lien, Vanessa Morgan, or any number of amazing women who work in the games industry? Helen Stuckey and Janet Carr are two of the people I admire the most. Did anyone read any article I’ve written? Was anyone who was ranting present when Tracey and I discussed her upcoming online opportunities the night before? Were they there on the Tuesday night when Leena and I met and discussed games journalism over beers? Do they know all my friends? Wonderful, creative women, such as Amy Flower.

        Worse still, did anyone bother to approach me after the panel to ask that very question?

        No, they just yelled at me. At the panel. They tweeted rage, and they went on to present to an international audience what was essentially an untruth about the panel and topics that I hold dear to my heart.

        In fact, sadly, I was only aware of this rage, when Ben jumped up and made his accusation. What you took as a snide remark, was actually a gob-smacked question on my part: ‘Are you asking us that we know them?’ To which, of course, if he’d said yes, I would have replied, ‘I’ve known Tracey for ages’. I’ve been a big supporter of her since day one. Apparently, though, that wasn’t Ben’s question; the discussion moved sideways, and the twitterverse exploded.

        I’m going to be horribly open and vulnerable right now. The last three days have been some of the most awful of my life. I’ve been sick to my stomach, unable to stop thinking about what happened. I see now that we failed at the topic, we failed to recognise what people wanted us to talk about, and I’ve already apologised on my FaceBook profile for that. But the rest is unthinkable; it has nearly destroyed me. Publicly, only Fraser stepped forward and suggested that there might be something more going on. I can’t thank him enough for that. I hope he reads this.

        Perhaps, by way of bringing this back to the issues at hand, here is a link to an article (as a PDF) that I wrote back in 2005, for the first issue of my magazine, JumpButton:

        It’s not perfect, but I hope it gives you a little bit of an idea where I’ve been on this topic. And I hope it furthers understanding and discussion.

        I’m not going to be replying to every blog post like I am here. What I respected was that, in the comments above, you offered me the dignity of reply. For that I’m grateful.

        Thanks again, Katie. All the best.


        • Nice to read your response Drew.

          It was a bit of a shit-storm there, where no one quite seemed to be playing the same game on the same field. :)

          What made things a bit tense was that a few offhand examples of X, Y, Z, suddenly became examples of opinions about A, B, C, which I think put everyone’s back up, one way or another.

          I think it’s great that a lot of awareness and discussion has started up, but I honestly don’t think that anyone on the panel itself should feel sick in the tummy about it!

          All the best Drew. And I’m sure you can include an article in an upcoming Jump Buttom Magazine that could further discuss the issue. :)

          – Murray

        • Thanks for speaking out, Drew, and apologies for the delay in my response. I appreciate that you were the first to come forward and truly engage with the audience, even in spite of how angry some of us were. I did not approach you after the panel because I was in shock, and hurt; I left immediately afterwards. My blogging about it a few days later would probably have been far prettier than me ranting immediately at you and the others post-panel, anyway.

          Yes, you’ve worked with a lot of talented women in the industry. So has Yahtzee. So has Leigh. And yet, the question was still posed. I think a lot of people weren’t angry that the panelists couldn’t name female critics, but rather that female critics had been brought up in the first place, further segregating them from their male counterparts.

          I took what you said to Ben as a snide remark because I felt it was clear that what he said was not a question for the panel, but rather a comment on the topics you’d discussed. Your asking what his question was seemed more like a way of side-stepping the issue, while also getting the audience to laugh at his expense. I understand that the panel may have been put on the spot by Ben’s rant, though.

          I’m sorry you’ve felt so awful since – I can only imagine how bad it must have been. I hope your speaking here helped you feel a little better.

          I have to admit, I disliked your JumpButton article. Sorry. It’s well-written, but as a female, I just can’t relate to “hot” 15-year-old gamer grrls writhing with their controllers in a bed; it actually feels rather isolating.

          Nevertheless, I’d like to thank you again for coming here to speak your thoughts, and if you should ever start a blog or a Twitter, let me know. I’d like to follow you.

  6. I really wish I did go. I’ll have to attend next year.

    When I saw on Twitter what was said at that panel it was bizarre to me since at a guess I would say that of all the game writers I follow on Twitter, it’s a fairly even mix of males and females.

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