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Talking through mediums: conversations at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival 2012

The speakers and attendees at this year’s Freeplay Festival pushed beyond the dialogue that we’ve been rehearsing for years about videogames and other media, aiming for something a little deeper, a little more rewarding, and hopefully, a little more honest.

For a long time now, we’ve been talking about videogames like they are something else.

The cultural conversation has gone like this: how are videogames to gain entry into the same club as film, as literature, as architecture, as art?

It’s a natural thing to want to compare something new to something old. Progress-based industries do this all the time: here’s a new iPhone, better than the last; here’s a new car, more efficient and luxurious than the last. You’ve never had it better than you have it now. Our product stands alone as proof of the newness of now.

The same goes for media. The invention of new cultural forms is littered with people talking about the old ways. In fact, as media theorists Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin argue, describing a new media technology in relation to others is often the only language available to people in the beginning, and acts almost as a media rite of passage. Those behind a new media must “claim that it was better in some way at achieving the real or the authentic. Until they had done this, it would not be apparent that the device was a medium at all.” All things are in comparison: something doesn’t really shine until everything else looks dull.

At the Freeplay Independent Games Festival last weekend, there was a subtle, but palpable shift in this kind of conversation.

It happened most clearly through quite literal conversations. In Freeplay’s workshop room, two speakers—one from videogames, one from another discipline—would come together to talk about things in a sometimes too-warm, sometimes difficult-to-hear, but always full seminar room at the State Library.

One of the most interesting conversations was about music, pairing Melbourne Symphony Orchestra artistic administrator Andrew Pogson with sound designer Emily Ridgway, who worked on sound for Bioshock and a number of the Double Fine games, (Brütal Legend, Costume Quest and Stacking). The dialogue here was accessible, but very quickly reached a level of depth unusual even for Freeplay.

Immediately, Pogson and Ridgway leapt into discussions of dynamic versus pre-set music in games (with Ridgway suggesting, unusually, that dynamic music doesn’t always even out as better for videogames), and Ridgway recalling her decisions when selecting the licensed music for Bioshock (the whole game was originally to be musically silent, she said, but the melancholia of 1940s pop won out in the end). Pogson and Ridgway also spoke about the musical differences between Japanese and American symphonic scores, and remarkably remained insightful while avoiding the usual exoticist discourse that punctuates these things (American scores have become rhythmically-focussed, suggested Pogson, while Ridgway elaborated on the jazz-influences in Japanese orchestral videogame music).

Another conversation saw journalist Tracey Lien paired with Lubi Thomas, senior curator in digital media at QUT Brisbane, to discuss videogames and visual art. As with the session on music, Lien and Thomas seemed to barely consider the usual kinds of conversations we have about games and art. The only nod was at the beginning from Lien: “We’re not going to talk about whether games are art or not,” she said. “If you think games aren’t art, you can just leave right now.”

What followed was a whirlwind tour through art history and videogames that found its surest footing when talking about performance. That Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present or Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece might have something interesting to add to the conversations of what we do when we play videogames doesn’t need to be laboured; Lien and Thomas recognised this, gesturing towards links rather than dwelling on familiar points of significance.

The satisfying thing about both of these sessions was how effortless it was to find the shared ground, to find to the common conversations, to talk through mediums rather than at them. It’s worth noting that I’m using medium in an intentionally wrong sense in this article—usually, I’d tell my own students off for using ‘mediums’ as a plural instead of media (a cardinal sin), but here I mean it to also mean something in-between, like a mediator, or a psychic.

That’s because at Freeplay, these conversations seemed less focussed on the surface comparisons we often make between media, and instead were interested in the deeper dialogues that encompass all creative forms. It signifies a willingness—and I’m not sure where this stems from at this point—to push beyond the same dialogues that we’ve been rehearsing for years now, and to aim for something a little deeper, a little more rewarding, and hopefully, a little more honest. Although some sessions at Freeplay threatened to return to well-trodden ground (or worse, to allow veterans to just reminisce over war stories), there seemed to be a general hunger from both the speakers and the audience just to move on.

Against all expectations, Australia is now flush with gaming events to the point of overflowing. But while GCAP (Game Connect Asia Pacific) holds the industry ground, and EB Expo and the recently announced Penny Arcade Expo fight it out for consumer show space, Freeplay is now well positioned as the place where cultural conversations about videogames occur.

At Freeplay, people talk through mediums.

 

NOTE: I was a member of the Freeplay Programming Advisory Committee for 2012. This unpaid position meant that I had input into this year’s selection of speakers and events for the festival and was generally involved in thinking about the festival’s program for this year.

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