When I last wrote here I was about to attend this year’s Freeplay festival and was trying to avoid the dreaded impostor syndrome. I’ve been meaning to return here post-Freeplay and write about how it actually went but I’ve been sick so I never got around to do it.
So, before the year finally ends I want to write down how my fears were unnecessary and Freeplay was wonderful.
The first keynote speaker was Erin Robinson. She’s a Canadian independent game developer who was actually a catalyst for me realizing that I wanted to make games myself and that it was an achievable goal. It was a few years ago now that I played her game Puzzle Bots. It was charming and it reminded me of the LucasArts Adventure Games that I played when I was a child. It was her game that was the spark that convinced me to investigate other indie games and made me aware of this whole world of indie games out there and that mainstream commercial triple A games weren’t the only games worthy of my time. Seeing what other people had made also convinced me that I too could make games that would be the type of games that I’d want to play and be able to express myself through their creation.
I had a chance to speak to Erin at Freeplay and tell her this. They say you should never meet your heroes, but they, whoever they are, are wrong, and I’m glad I was able to meet her and tell her how she helped inspire me to make my own games.
Speaking of which, her keynote speech spoke about games as self expression. She showed the audience a list of mostly independent games about personal topics such as cancer, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and drug addiction to name just a few ( see the full list of games mentioned here).
This appealed to me and reminded me that I was in the right place. I love that independent game developers can make games to express themselves and tell their stories and reach out to other people experiencing the same issues. I love that game creation is more accessible now than ever before and even though the themes in these games are less likely to be found in the larger commercial videogame market, they can still be made and appreciated by an audience. I didn’t initially understand what the topic of this year’s Freeplay – Volume of Revolution – meant, but listening to Erin Robinson’s talk it made sense to me. This is a revolution in how we see and make videogames. As I listened to the person who inspired me to realize that I could make games myself, I felt I had come full circle.
She then spoke about her own games that she has made and how each game represented something personal in her life at the time. For example, she spoke about how her game Spooks was about her in college trying to find her way into the world and how Puzzle Bots is about her experiences with dating and relationships. She next showed the audience her latest game Gravity Ghost that’s currently in development, and how it also is about something personal. She played through a few levels of the game and in a moving soliloquy told the audience about someone who had previously harassed her online and in person and made her feel small and helpless. She was the girl in her game who tries to break free of the forces pulling her down. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience. It was a beautiful presentation and demonstrated how making games can be cathartic and healing. There’s a lot of justified negativity about videogames and the toxic culture that surrounds it, but we can replace that and build something better.
The keynote speaker for the following day was Steve Swink. He built his keynote inside his game Scale which was a rather inventive way of giving a presentation. His talk was equally inspiring as he spoke about having impostor syndrome himself and my ears shot up. The terrifying thing is that it may never go away. I’ve heard from professionals who have achieved success in many measurable ways, and yet they still think to themselves, “am I any good?” As he explained though, you get better by struggling, and it’s hard. “Things that are really worthwhile tend to be hard”, he said. “You have to spend those hours being mentally engaged”.
The Twine Revolution
The next talk I attended was about Twine and how it’s being used by indie devs to make their own games and tell their own stories. I’ve yet to explore it myself but I’ve played a few games made in Twine which have impressed me.
I was reminded during the talk of how I used to play MUDs during high school and university, which like Twine games are composed of text. I had a friend during school who struggled with education. Whereas I was hanging out at the library and borrowing books every week, he never read books for fun. However, when I introduced him to MUDs, he took to them like a fish to water and his literacy abilities weren’t a barrier at all. Soon he was learning to code for MUDs and to create descriptions for areas in MUDs that we played. Here was someone who would never have been interested in creative writing or programming in the context that those topics were taught at school, but on MUDs he excelled.
When I was in primary school, having read books about videogame programming at the library, I excitedly asked the headmaster if we could learn videogame programming in school. He rolled his eyes and scoffed and told me to wait until high school which disappointed me greatly. So it was exciting to hear one of the speakers Paul Callaghan say how Twine is being used to schools now in Australia as an educational tool and that the kids enthusiastically embrace it.
A further inspiring talk that day was from games student Izzy Gramp who talked about making games to help create empathy in people so that we can understand other points of view. She showed us her game Faceless which felt really poignant in the current climate of Australian politics where refugees are sadly treated by many as faceless people not deserving of our attention and respect.
Another game of hers in development that she showed was All Your Fault – a game about victim blaming. I think this was a common theme at Freeplay, how games can create empathy and allow people to understand different perspectives that they may not have considered.
Anna Anthropy writes in her fantastic book “Rise of the Videogame Zinesters” how so many commercial games are about big men shooting other big men in the face with guns, and because of this, the videogame industry has become bland and saturated and new voices and perspectives are not heard.
I think Freeplay however this year showed that it doesn’t have to be like this. People are making different games that tell personal stories, that inspire people, and create empathy, and THAT should be encouraged and supported.
So Freeplay was fantastic again and my apprehension and anxiety about attending were unwarranted. Kudos should go to Katie Williams and Harry Lee, the new co-directors of Freeplay, for making it happen.
Next year’s Freeplay topic is cats. Apparently.