There are many reasons that Melbourne has, for the last few years at least, felt like the focal point for videogames culture in Australia. Among these, though—the game jams, the huge amateur and professional community, the cultural and educational institutions—the Freeplay Independent Games Festival stands out as a clear exclamation point.

Freeplay is for Australia’s videogame culture what the Melbourne Writer’s Festival is for literature, or what This Is Not Art in Newcastle is for the experimental arts. Yes, critics, designers, and players from all over the country journey to Melbourne for a weekend of panels, presentations, and play, but they also come to Melbourne for a chance to meet with each other, to realise in person the sometimes disparate community of videogame culture that usually only exists online.

This year’s festival, which will run from September 19–23, at ACMI, Federation Square and the State Library of Victoria, has the theme of Chaos and Grace.

“Specifically, it’s about the chaos of the systems that surround us—politically, creatively, economically, industrially, content—and the way we find the moments of beauty within those, even as they try to strip us apart,” said Freeplay festival director Paul Callaghan, speaking with me for Crikey.

“It’s also about the way we choose to act within those systems, about finding a personal path to follow, and about telling new and diverse stories about who we are as individuals and what we personally want out of making games.”

The conference program, structured around these dual ideas, is bookended by two keynotes: an international, who was announced last week as Mare Sheppard, of the Toronto-based Metanet Software; and an Australian, Morgan Jaffit of Defiant Development.

Yet for Callaghan, it is the festival as a whole that speaks to a kind of diversity of form and content unusual for videogame culture: “This year we have a much broader mix of people, including very experienced developers, emerging practitioners, poets, animators, theatre-makers, academics, critics, musicians, writers and performers.”

“We’re also working with new venues and partners such as Federation Square and ACMI across the five days,” says Callaghan, “and trying out some new session formats in our weekend conference program at the State Library of Victoria.” Such new collaborations will see Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the celebrated designer behind Rez and Child of Eden speaking at ACMI in partnership with Freeplay’s Playful Program.

Outside of the conference, developer and playful programs, there will be a number of free workshop events, including discussions of game design and theatre and social media storytelling. In addition, a curated selection of games will be played in the State Library’s Experimedia area, including Nidhogg, J.S. Joust and Proteus. And as usual, amateurs, indies and educational institutions will be on display for free in Experimedia throughout the weekend.

2012’s Freeplay also has the distinction of being Callaghan’s last as director, a position he has held since 2009 (and jointly with Eve Penford-Dennis until 2011) when the festival branched off from Next Wave. There will be time to reflect on Callaghan’s role in shaping Freeplay after September, and for thinking about where a festival like Freeplay might go in the future, but for now, his hopes for Freeplay 2012 are clear.

“I’d hope that whether or not people agree with the event, with the direction it takes, with the choices made within it,” says Callaghan, “that they remember it as a thing that creates a very specific and unique space for people interested in games and in making them.”


NOTE: I am a member of the Freeplay Programming Advisory Committee for 2012. This unpaid position means 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 content for this year. This left me with two clear options, ethically: to not cover the festival at all, or to acknowledge and manage the conflict as best as possible. I’ve gone with the latter, as I think Freeplay is too important an event for Game On to overlook entirely. I’m going to try and cover the festival as impartially and deeply as possible while nonetheless acknowledging the conflict of interest at play. Therefore, I will try to avoid commenting on program events that I was specifically involved in, and to try and get outside voices in on the blog during Freeplay as much as possible.