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Like the cultural forms that came before them, videogames overlap with everything. Axel Pfaender

Freeplay reminds us videogames matter: the ‘culture’ debate is over

Last week’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne served as a reminder that videogames – all videogames – are culturally significant.

Freeplay, which gives people from Australia’s videogame scene an important chance to celebrate the past year’s creations, has mutated and ballooned in the seven years since its inception to become a five-day program of events, including:

  • an interview with renowned developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi (creator of Rez, Child of Eden, and Space Channel 5 among others)
  • a stand-alone developer’s conference on Thursday and Friday
  • a public display of local, student and international games in the public library, and
  • the traditional weekend convention, more focused on the intersections of the videogame “industry”, the videogame artform, and culture more generally.
© Freeplay 2012; photo by Robert Young

The multifaceted events on the program, and the vast variety of speakers present – from developers to journalists to critics to architects to musicians to students to comedians – aligns Freeplay less with the game developer/industry-focused conferences such as Game Connect: Asia Pacific (GCAP) or Game Developers Conference (GDC), and more with something like a writers’ festival.

At the end of the day, Freeplay is about celebrating videogames as cultural artefacts, and the playing of videogames as a culturally significant activity.

And, frankly, videogames are culturally significant. Videogames are cultural. Videogames are political. Videogames are art. Videogames are not somehow distinct from or purely unique from other cultural forms that surround them. Instead they are connected to other cultural/creative forms in a variety of ways.

Videos such as SuperMario, Sleeping, 1997 are an example of the intersection between traditional art and videogames.

Simply because of the vast number of people that engage with them, videogames matter. And because videogames matter, they demand attention from those that want to understand culture, and those that want to enrich it.

Freeplay is not just about validating videogames as art by placing on a pedestal those few “arty” games – such as Jonathan Blow’s Braid or Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus – everyone always holds up to those who would narrow-mindedly claim videogames can’t be art.

One of the most fascinating sections of this year’s Freeplay was a strand of conversations that saw someone “learned” in videogames (a critic or a developer, usually) paired up with an expert from another field. Games & Theatre, Games & Music, Games & Architecture, Games & Images, and so on.

While videogames are often seen (both by their naysayers and their supporters) as unique and distinct from other media, these talks contextualised videogames alongside other creative disciplines, showing other disciplines have a lot to learn from videogames, but also that videogames have a lot to learn from other disciplines.

© Freeplay 2012; photo by Robert Young

The most interesting session of the entire week, for me, was the Games & Images discussion – a conversation between internationally renowned Australian game journalist/critic Tracey Lien and senior curator Lubi Thomas.

Together, Lien and Thomas talked the audience through several significant moments of art theory, giving examples of those movements, then tying those movements effortlessly to different videogames, showing the aesthetics of different videogames (visually, audibly, participatorily) clearly intersect with the centuries of art history that came before.

For instance, they explored the role of the audience in participatory art pieces – such as Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” or the works of Marina Abramovic – and compared this to videogames that intentionally reflect on the player’s actions. Such games include the Super Nintedo title Chrono Trigger which lures the player into picking up items as you would in any such game, and then dragging them to court for stealing.

In a similar session, academic and critic Dan Golding spoke to architect Claire Hosking about the similarities and differences between building the virtual worlds of videogames and the actual structures of this world. They spoke of the ways tools determine the spaces made, the ways bodies determine how spaces are perceived, and the way spaces determine people’s actions.

Freeplay guests and patrons explore games at the Arcade Expo in Experimedia at the State Library of Victoria. © Freeplay 2012; photo by Robert Young

What these conversation panels (and the rest of Freeplay more broadly) showed by contextualising videogames within broader cultural forms isn’t simply that games are merely the same as what has come before.

Videogames are special, yes, but what is special about them is not that they are utterly new or different or unique.

Instead, videogames are new variations and combinations of what has come before, and they have plenty to gain from accounting for their similarities with other media, and not just focusing on their differences.

For decades, fighting against apathy and superstition, videogame scholars and enthusiasts alike have had to talk up their creative medium of choice as special and significant, convincing naysayers games are worthy of time and criticism.

Consequentially, videogames have (for some) ended up on a privileged conceptual pedestal, seen as entirely distinct from other cultural forms, on a tropical island away from the cultural mainland.

What a festival such as Freeplay does is bring games back to the mainland. Not simply assimilating videogames beneath film or visual art or music or theatre or non-digital games, but simply showing that, like all cultural forms that came before them, videogames overlap with everything.

To paraphrase Thomas in her talk with Lien, videogames are the art of their time. They are not better for being “interactive” – a word which somehow excludes a film audience choosing to look at a screen or a book reader choosing to turn pages – but they are culturally significant in the unique ways that players engage with images and sounds and narratives and meanings.

Crucially, a videogame does not have to be intentionally arty/cultural/political to be arty/cultural/political. Just by existing within and spreading through society, every single videogame is all of these things.

From the beautiful, five-minute Ann & Beanie (created by an RMIT student, see video above) to the tens-of-millions-selling Modern Warfare series.

Both games are art, both are cultural, both are political. Each demands a cultural criticism and attention that accepts their significance and which also holds them accountable.

Harry Lee accepts his award for Best Game at the Freeplay Awards presentation. © Freeplay 2012; photo by Robert Young

Freeplay opens this door, not just for the Australian industry but the videogame art form more generally. By bringing videogames and those that make them to cultural and public institutions such as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and the State Library of Victoria, and by deliberately contextualising videogames alongside and overlapping other cultural forms, Freeplay is the festival that a cultural form as significant as the videogame demands.

Some people will disagree – both among the zealous anti-game lobbyists and the traditional “hardcore” gamers. What these people want videogames to not be doesn’t matter.

Videogames are already here, are already culturally and politically active, and have been for quite some time.

We no longer need to debate if they deserve a spot at the cultural dinner table. We just need to recognise they are already there.

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