The final few sessions of this year’s Freeplay Independent Games Festival had a strange feeling about them. They were Paul Callaghan’s last as festival director, signalling another shift for a festival that has already grown and altered significantly since it was founded in 2004 by Marcus Westbury and Katharine Neil. The mood through the sessions was reflective and circumspect at Callaghan’s departure (who will move into a position on the Freeplay board), but also intensely curious about the future.
Today, it was announced that two co-directors will be taking over the helm of the festival: Katie Williams, freelance games journalist, writer, critic; and Harry Lee, independent game developer.
The new co-directors are young and exciting appointments that offer the promise of a fresh and important voice for Freeplay over the coming years. Neither has particular affiliation with either the mainstream games industry nor the status quo of independent development—with Williams’ appointment in particular serving as the first time a non-practitioner has been at the helm since Westbury in 2004. It also continues an interesting tradition of co-directors for the festival—from Westbury and Neil in 2004, to Callaghan and Eve Penford (who stepped down in 2011), to today.
“Freeplay has a very personal meaning for me,” Williams told me earlier this week. “Before I first attended Freeplay in 2010, I was a directionless games student. It was coming to Freeplay that made me realise that games are something I want to be an active part of, something I want to influence—something I want to spending my life working with.”
“Since then, I’ve tried to pursue that kind of writing, those kinds of ideas that I found at the festival,” continues Williams. “Freeplay was that turning point for me, so I’m really happy now to actually be a part of it. I hope, under our new directorship, that Freeplay will continue to be as influential and inspiring to its visitors.”
Lee also argues for the agenda-setting power of the festival. “Freeplay aims to address a lot of the balances and tensions of the videogames world. It’s a conversation that needs to be had to develop richer games, so that we develop a better culture, so that we can have better conversations.”
“The word ‘independent’ [in the festival’s title] is super important, in that it describes not just the games we focus on but the festival itself,” argues Lee.
“We feel we’re offering something different to other conferences in Australia,” adds Williams. “Freeplay has generated some quite serious discussions that have not just taken place here, but all over the world. I’d love to be able to continue doing that same sort of thing, and to explore other issues that we’re not really discussing right now.”
Issues of diversity and openness within videogame culture are an area that the new directors hope to continue to press. “At other events,” says Williams, “I’ve often been the only girl in the room, or the only non-developer in the room; I felt like I didn’t quite belong there.
“We’ve talked a lot about accessibility, about getting non-gamers involved too,” she continues. “If there’s still a barrier by the time we finish our time at Freeplay, we would be really depressed about that.”
Lee agrees, suggesting that one of the challenges the new directors are setting themselves is to continue to break down obstacles that cause more demanding explorations of videogame culture to hesitate.
“We need someone to champion these causes, and we need these avenues to exist,” says Lee. “If we don’t have these avenues, and we don’t have these particular voices, then we run the risk of developing a monoculture.”
Callaghan was in the job four years (three of which were with Penford). If Williams and Lee are to last the same length, what would the festival look like in 2016? What would they hope to have achieved after four years at Freeplay?
“Paul [Callaghan] has always been behind the line of ‘We don’t all want the same thing’,” says Lee, after some consideration. “But my addendum to that is that we can all celebrate the differences and diversity that we have. That’s what I think Freeplay is about.
“It is about community, it is about culture, and it is about challenging all of us to be better,” he adds.
“If we lose that voice then we’ve lost something very important.”