Freeplay 2011 Wrap-Up

So Freeplay happened this past weekend and it was a grand old time. Meeting the Melbourne set was a fantastic experience and they are, to a person, exceptional and lovely – a consistent theme across all game critics/bloggers that I’ve met here and abroad.

It’s to the organiser’s credit that every session I attended  was worth attending, and that for such a small festival (attendee numbers couldn’t have been above 300, I think) it felt like it was much ‘bigger’ or more ‘important’ than it was.

On the Saturday night the unKeynote feature slides generated by invited speakers who couldn’t attend as well as being opened up to interested parties. I submitted a slide on the nature of games criticism. The text read out from the presenter notes of my slide was the following:

It’s become a meme that videogame criticism is “in it’s infancy”. It’s not. There are just not enough critics. There is no “right” way to write about games critically, though there are several wrong ways. We still don’t have enough right ways, but there are not enough critics. There is no way to ‘automate’ or ‘script’ or ‘program’ criticism, so videogame criticism is handmade. Videogame criticism will always be handmade. We need more hands. We need more critics.

And to accompany the words, I posted a link to a list of games criticism I sourced from a bunch of contacts in the critical videogame blogosphere. That list is here, and it still feels like a half-complete survey of the field, despite running for a total of hundreds of thousands of words worth of writing: http://iam.benabraham.net/freeplay/

On the Sunday, the sessions kept up their quality – particularly good session was Luke Muscat of Half-Brick who candidly discussed how his PSP game ‘rocket racers’ (?) nearly sent the company bust, and inspired the design strategy behind the wildly-successful iOS game ‘Fruit Ninja’. Leigh Harris at MCV wrote up the session for interested readers. Hilarious takeaway for me: the “do everything the opposite of our failed game” strategy was like a How-To guide for “how to make an excellent game”. Productive failures indeed (which was the point of another session, by Ben Britten, which received a Gamasutra write-up by Saul Alexander)

In the afternoon I tweeted some ambivalent comments from the audience of Alexander Bruce’s interview (he of Antichamber, formerly Hazard: The Journey of Life fame) in response to some perceived Pollyanna-ish statements, and Bruce asked me to come talk to him so I could hear his perspective directly. He explained that he’d had a terrible University experience, and some fantastic industry ones (as well as some bad ones) so his position was much more that of a realist than I’d guessed from his interview responses.

And yet, the tension in himself is evident to anyone watching him demo his game. He is very much ‘hands on’ and acts like a correcting teacher. He almost visibly yearns for players to ‘get’ his game, even if it is hard, complicated and mind-bending(I didn’t get a chance to play it, sadly) and so any failure on the part of the player seems to be felt as a personal failure by Alex. Having been delayed for months and months to improve this or that aspect of the game, it’s clearly approaching the point of diminishing returns, and I hope Alex gets the game out soon so he can sleep better at night.

The second-to-last panel of the festival was the now-infamous, ‘The Words We Use’ panel which had the potential to be something really useful and amazing but which failed to live up to its promise. Brendan Keogh struck first, in response, and discussed the failure to differentiate criticism from reviews/journalism, etc. Katie Williams discussed the panel similarly, and resolved to focus on the positives and not let one disappointing panel mar the rest of the conference. Saul Alexander wrote up the session for Gamasutra, noting the general outrage the panel provoked, and Searing Scarlett responded with some thoughts of her own on the panel.

Yesterday I was a little unhappy with the way the Gamasutra write-up missed talking about the issue that sparked the consternation and anger, so I wrote about it myself. “Games Criticism, Women Critics, And Challenging Sexism” is the piece and it’s attracted some of the requisite madness and insanity as with all posts about injustices and inequality, but it’s also been a chance for lots of people to come out in support of the need for challenging sexism (and other -isms).

That’s about it for Freeplay, I hope to go back next year and make some more memories. In the meantime, rather than leave on a sour note, here’s the GameTaco crew’s capture of the #Freeplay11 twitter stream, which gives a really interesting sense of the bubbling thoughts and feelings of attendees as the conference went on.