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.