Games are different.

While there are certainly art forms that struggle for recognition and which critics often fail to engage with (dancing about architecture, anyone?), no other sector of the cultural industries manages to be as misunderstood as the gaming sector.

As John Lanchester remarked in a London Review of Books article in 2009, “there is no other medium that produces so pure a cultural segregation as video games, so clean-cut a division between the audience and the non-audience.”

And yet games are a large and significant cultural industry in their own right in Australia, despite recent studio closures. Many games are, of course, highly artistic — whatever the Richard Mills of this world may say about them.

Which is why the Freeplay festival is attracting growing attention. Freeplay is Australia’s longest-running and best-known independent games festival, and really the only event that addresses the specifically artistic and cultural aspects of games on the calendar. The festival is slowly bridges between gaming and the rest of the arts community.

With Freeplay about to kick off in earnest at the State Library of Victoria, Freeplay’s director Paul Callaghan took time out on Wednesday morning to speak to me about this year’s event. We started with who he sees as the audience for the event.

“It’s split into about five different parts,” said Callaghan. “We have the conference program, that’s for independent developers and studio developers and people who are interested in games as cultural and artistic products. But since we moved to the State Library we’ve also expanded to anyone who plays games, so we get a lot of families.”

The focus of the program remains what Callaghan calls “a conversation” about the cultural value of games. That’s particularly noteworthy in a time of considerable flux in national cultural policy: games were in fact mentioned in the National Cultural Policy discussion paper released last week.

Despite this, arts funding bodies have been slow to realise the potential for games as cultural expressions. Freeplay receives no funding from arts agencies like the Australia Council or Arts Victoria. Callaghan says the difficulty of explaining the artistic and cultural value of games remains the biggest barrier to the festival receiving funding from such sources. “It’s quite a hard event to sell to arts funders,” he observes. “The question I find myself asking, even as someone who runs the festival, is, ‘where is the art?'”

“There’s a lot of what could be classed as commercial art — there’s a lot of studio people — but where is the art is something we’re thinking a lot about. Arts agencies do have an interest in games, but I think it’s just how does it fit in with a common conversation?”

So are games artistic — or artistic enough?

“They definitely are cultural, whether or not they are commercially driven, or whether they are what would be termed an art game, they definitely are a cultural product that reflects an aspect of the environment they are created in,and the people who’ve created them,” he argues.

“The reason we are seeing these smaller-scale games on the iPhone that are experimental is because that platform has emerged and people are asking, ‘hey what can we do that is cool and interesting on it?'”

Callaghan thinks that there is a shift going on in the sector away from the big studio model. “We’re right now on this tipping point of a big shift from games as being technology-driven — which is where they’ve been for the last 30-35 years — to a point where technology is not becoming the limiting factor to what you can create. We’re slowly seeing people who’ve grown up with games as a dominant part of their childhood, who have these relationships with [gaming], and who are starting to say, ‘what is it I want to say?, and ‘what is it I want to make? Suddenly it stops being a tech sector and becomes an artistic sector.”

Of course, there is still a big divide between the big games studios — two of which recently shut down, with significant job losses — and the independents and solo developers. “There is still a divide,” Callaghan agrees. “The big studios employ hundreds of people for years on end, the projects are multi-million dollar projects with million-dollar marketing budgets. And then when you get sort into indie games as culture, it’s just one or two people or four people tops, so there is still this strata.”

“I think that’s akin to other creative industries where you have your blockbusters and then you have your smaller studios, and then you have those people making stuff because it’s cool to make stuff. That’s the end we’re interested in with Freeplay.”

When asked to give a couple of examples of the type of artists he means, Callaghan nominates Farbs and Alexander Bruce. “Someone like Farbs from Canberra, he’s come out of the studio system, he used to work at 2K in Canberra, he basically self-funds his own games, he does freelance stuff on the side for other people. He’s just one guy making the kinds of games he wants to create, he’s really inspiring.”

“Alex Bruce  is working on a game called Antichamber which is really personal and very experimental and philosophical in its approach.”

But Freeplay is not just about the games themselves. Callaghan notes that “we’ve got a lot of people from outside games, so we’ve got Alison Croggon.”

“I really wanted to bring in a critic and a writer from other fields in to talk about how they engage with their community. That’s a conversation that’s becoming more important for games is how we engage in product critically.”

Freplay has grown in recent years and Callaghan is keen to put the festival on a more sustainable footing. “We’ve increased our ticket prices this year, but we always want to have a free bit and a ticketed bit … it could also be about how to value-add to other organisations, there is a definite interest in games from other cultural organisations.”

Freeplay runs until Sunday evening at the State Library of Victoria, the Wheeler Centre and other venues in inner Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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