During PAX I attended a panel called “Boss Level: Meet the Brains in Charge of the Aussie Games Industry,” which was a Q&A between the audience and several individuals that influence the Australian gaming industry, including WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. Scott was once an avid gamer himself and has recently taken a keen interest in supporting our local industry. Enduring a continuous strafing run of tourism helicopters overhead, I was able to speak with Scott at a cafe outside of the Melbourne Exhibition Center following his panel. We spoke about what the Government thinks of games, how they think about them, what we can do to improve the Australian industry and his experiences within the culture.
One of these guys is really stoked.
You said during the panel that, since the senate inquiry, you’ve been going around to a lot of different events, and you were at Play Up Perth not too long ago – what’s your impression of PAXAus been like?
It’s made my head explode a little bit. I was here last year for maybe an hour, and it was quite late on Sunday so I didn’t get to see very much. This year I’ve spent a bit of time looking around and it’s interesting from a technology perspective where the platforms have gone and looking at people do the kind of stuff you never would have dreamed were possible before. I’m interested in the cultural side of it as well, it’s really fascinating.
You’re are a gamer yourself, and have been for awhile, right?
More so when I was younger, I came through on Commodore 64 and spent years playing stuff on that. I played RPG’s with my mates, and making games – I spent a lot of time making stuff, board games, and whatnot. All the way through to when I was running a small business in the 1990’s as a web developer when that was first a thing. But since then, this job kind of occupies every corner of my life. My Canberra housemates just bought a PS4, so maybe I can get back into the groove a little bit. I’m more interested in making stuff and figuring out how I can use some of these tools to tell the stories that I want to tell.
What kind of stories?
Well, part of our role as a movement is to try and persuade people that there’s another way of organizing things like energy networks, public transport, public housing, the health system. We’re trying to introduce people to a world that’s kind of being born all around us, then I look over here, and I see all of these extraordinarily creative and interactive storytelling tools and I think “I need to find a way to bring these two things together.”
It was said during the panel that there are actually a few gamers in government, what’s your experience been with that? Do you ever speak to other people in government about games?
Only recently, since this thing started, and even then not very much. I don’t want to pretend that I’m some kind of “Archie insider” who’s been doing this stuff for years. I haven’t really been involved in this community for awhile, and it’s almost never seen or heard inside parliament house. It’s just really not. It’s why I think this is such an interesting opportunity too; we’re moving into ground that hasn’t been very well trodden.
A point was raised that things will inevitably get better as “new blood” moves into parliament, do you think that’s the natural progression of things?
Yeah, I think that’s right, there’s generational overturn that occurs in a slow way, a new generation of not just MP’s, but staffers and advisors as well. We should never forget that we would be useless without our staff and advisors, and people with expertise in different areas – that goes for all pollies. That crew tends to be a bit younger than the MP’s, and so there’re heaps of people who we work with that we can talk to. So, there is a generational overturn, which is slow, and then it’s about being really strategic – Ron and Tony are good at this stuff, with a very limited pool of resources and people, and they think about “What are the best buttons to push?” And, you know, gamers are problem solvers (laughing).
Pictured: Problem solvers.
Ron Curry said during the panel that “Government works really slowly,” and you said yourself that it’s not great at keeping up with fast moving industries. What do you think needs to change in government before the Australian game industry starts receiving the support it needs?
I don’t know if there’s any magic trick that we could pull off, it’s just going to be persistence – we’ve got to make the argument that there’re some really talented advocates who obviously really care about the industry. We just need them to spend more time on this. There’s been a changing of the guard on a federal level, and there’s possibly some more imaginative people who’ve been put in charge of key portfolios. So, I don’t think there’s any shortcut – we’ve just gotta do the work, we’ve got to lobby, and we’ve got to prove to a skeptical audience the potential of what can be done. I’m actually quite hopeful; I’m more optimistic now than I was before.
Is that because you’ve been to some of these events and seen the community support?
Definitely that. All of the events and places that I’ve been to since we started down this road, you get a strong sense of the culture, and it’s really… It’s hard to put my finger on. It’s very welcoming and very diverse, it’s actually really wonderful, and it’s a bit infectious, I reckon.
On that note, something that’s happened recently was the removal of an arts program that supported gaming and developers. What’s your opinion on that situation?
Well, credit to Tony [Reed] and Ron [Curry], and also credit to Simon Crean, who spotted the opportunity and doing something with it. I think it was good advocacy met with a bit of good policy making. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, and as Tony reminded us on the panel just now, they weren’t intending it to be a twenty million dollar bucket that was going to be empty by the end. It was a cycle, and it was going to be full at the end of the cycle, and you’d roll it over.
It was working, I think the only thing that you could say from the first year of it’s operation is that it was working, so we’ve got one good model that was killed only one year into the program cycle so it couldn’t prove itself. But, we’ve got data, and we can put back on the table that that’s a model that we could use. I think we need a range of different things, I think a tax offset for producers, having the sector taken seriously as a creative sector and being a bit specific when we’ve got ministers out there talking about start-up culture, incubators, innovation in digital technology, disruptive blah blah blah. Well, these are the kinds of people they’re talking about, so what kind of support do they need directly? That’s why I’m getting a bit more optimistic, maybe things are converging in a way that’s a bit more positive.
One thing said during the panel is that kids are learning to use more advanced technologies and we’re already facing an issue where qualified uni students are about to enter the workforce where there are no jobs for them. What sort of changes need to make to accommodate for this and do you think we’ll be ready by the time primary school kids now reach that same point?
That’s a really interesting question, isn’t it? There was a report that was done earlier, a couple of months ago, that showed how many jobs we’re training people for that won’t exist by the time they graduate. It’s a staggering number of different professions as the economy is changing really rapidly and technology is evolving; we’re training people up for jobs that aren’t going to exist when they get there. Rio Tinto now runs its entire coal truck fleet remotely, there’s nobody in those trucks anymore, but there are people writing software to help stop the trucks from banging into each other.
So, we’ve actually got to start taking that really seriously and make sure we’re training people for the jobs that exist, or that will exist, but you don’t have a ten year or twenty year time limit to work with because stuff is changing so quickly. One of the things that’s becoming really obvious to me is that we’ve got to start smashing the TAFE and VET sector, it’s being hammered at the moment, it’s being really badly treated. Money’s being pulled out of them and it’s being overrun by private providers. Some of them are actually really… You know, there’s a certain amount of fraud and predatory behavior, and yet these are the people we’re relying on to train people up for these jobs and guide us into the 21st century.
We’ve got to start treating people with a bit more respect and to my mind – it’s going to sound a bit old fashioned – but it means a good, solid refocusing of energy and resources back to higher ed and back to public education services.
On that point of communicating what the sector’s about, it was brought up during the panel that maybe the terms we use to describe gaming inhibit our ability to communicate what the medium and the culture really means to people who might not already understand. Do you think we need to change the way we talk about it, or the terms we use to describe it?
I honestly don’t have a strong view, but I think that the point was made really well. As soon as you say “games,” you quarantine a number of really diverse things into a quite a tightly constrained box and people won’t necessarily understand how diverse that category is. So, I don’t know if it’s time for a rebrand, those sorts of activities are fairly fraught, you can spend twenty million bucks popularising a new term that wouldn’t catch on, I’d rather see that money spent on supporting developers. I think in a way, it’s about patience, persistent pressure, and showing people, not telling people. When I say “game,” I mean twelve really different things and showing people what that’s about.
“All of the events and places that I’ve been to since we started down this road, you get a strong sense of the culture, and it’s really… very welcoming and very diverse, it’s actually really wonderful”
Ron said was that there are plenty of people who play games, such as mobile games or virtual solitaire, but don’t see themselves as gamers. Do you think that we need to spend more time educating the wider community by just discussing these issues and having a conversation about it?
That’s definitely a part of it – it sounds a little adversarial in the sense that it sounds like we’re on the outside and we have to convince a bunch of insiders of our point of view. I think we can be a bit more ambitious and occupy the inside. Let’s get gamers into positions of influence, where they can advocate directly, rather than try to persuade a bunch of people who are either hostile or indifferent. Let’s occupy it, let’s get people in there and talking about it.
Gaming as a medium is, in some respects, starting to be seen as an entirely separate digital medium from anything else, even overtaking mediums like books and TV in their traditional roles. Do you think the government would consider creating a department and minister for gaming?
I think it’s a bit too soon, I don’t know if we’re going to see that. The way I conceive of it, in a sense, is television is over here, print’s over here, radio’s over here, and the internet is over here. The internet is now visibly absorbing these other platforms, drawing them inside and changing them, but the gaming community was born in there, that’s it’s natural platform. It’s why I think, eventually, all of these things, as they continue to draw together and fuse, will totally take over the world. So, it’s still a bit early for something like a minister for gaming, what we want to focus on is setting up camp inside these various departments and ministers’ offices and making sure we’re not invisible.
So it’s more about winning hearts and minds than winning a war?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to wage a war, this stuff sells itself. We don’t need to be aggressive about it at all, we haven’t got a hostile story to tell, it’s a really good news story – it’s about a creative industry, screen culture, business, money to be made, and talent to be nurtured. That’s an exciting story to tell, we shouldn’t feel like we’ve got to punch people in the faces over it.
There’s been a lot of internal strife within the gaming community over the years, regarding a lot of social topics – transgendered people and gender identity, in general, women in gaming, homosexuality and stuff like that. Do you think once gaming breaches something more of a “mainstream” barrier that the community will be helped by all these different perspectives entering the medium?
I think the community is sorting some of those questions out for itself, in that sense that wondering around here at PAX – if ever there was a stereotype about it being a sector for young men, fifteen minutes in there will blow that to pieces. It’s a really diverse bunch of people – ages, genders, sexuality, everything is going on in there, and I think that’s a really hopeful sign. So, I get that these tensions and stresses exist, and then you have a hand grenade go off like GamerGate and that sort of exposes the lie of the land within this community. You know, we’re a part of society – all of those sorts of tensions and stresses are everywhere else as well, they’ll be in this community too.
Having had that experience as a gamer much earlier in the life of the medium and then coming back to it after so many years, what’s changed for you?
It’s so great! It’s been really good, there was something I saw, they had a big “Welcome Home” banner in the main concourse when you come in, and it kind of felt like that a little bit. It’s massive, it’s got those elements that it didn’t have before – it’s been a massive commercial endeavor. So it’s got diversity and a lot of grass roots stuff and the homemade cosplay – all of the really gorgeous elements of a bottom-up, grass roots culture. In the midst of that, in that showroom, are these massive, industrial endeavors vacuuming money out of people for the triple A titles and so on, that never existed before. It felt much more like a cottage industry, even with the big titles – it doesn’t feel like that anymore.
It’s totally changed, and I guess that’s just a part of growing up but what I like is that’s not the whole story. If you go in there, yes the big studios are there, and they’re pushing these huge titles but that’s not all that’s going on. These guys [Penny Arcade] have worked really hard to make space for the whole spectrum of the community, from the top end of town all the way through to people making their own stuff in their bedrooms. It’s really brilliant.
“Perth’s really isolated, and that’s created quite a powerful culture”
Finally, what’s your favourite game?
It’s going to be totally old school stuff. My favourite game, hrrmmm….
You’re giving this far more thought than anyone else I’ve asked so far.
I’ll have to think some more about it. The further back I go the more “favourite” they become.
Before we finish up then, going back to WA and our local scene, what’s your experience been of the culture in WA?
It felt a little bit like… I’d answer almost the same if you’d asked me about the indie music scene. Perth’s really isolated, and that’s created quite a powerful culture, and it’s not like Sydney or Melbourne, where it’s gigantic, and the scene’s a bit more organised. In Perth it feels like it’s small enough that people know each other, Kate [Raynes-Goldie] does a fantastic job and hats off to her, nurturing and mentoring over there. It feels small but really quite powerful, there’re some really interesting seeds that have been planted, I reckon, within the last two or three years.
So, have you remembered your favourite game?
I’m gonna have to call it Elite; it still exists in various formats. It was a game played on the Commodore 64, standing for 64k – it was this tiny little chip, but they worked absolute miracles with it. It was this kind of universe/space trading game, the first of its kind, it was the first time I’d seen vector graphics done well on a computer, and there were like eight hundred or a thousand worlds that you could do space trading on. This was back in ’83 or ’84, you’d load it up on a cassette tape – half of the population of PAX wouldn’t even know what a cassette tape was, apart from maybe the ironic iPhone case ones.
You’d load it up on one of those and.. I think I liked it because no one told you what to do. It just gave you this universe, and you’d start doing stuff. So, I played that for more hours than I care to count and it’s a bit embarrassing that I’m not choosing some spectacular, modern something-or-other. But that’s what you want out of a game, it gives you just enough that your imagination fills in the rest, and it just grabs you for hours and hours. No one can tell you what to do, like the actual world.