I’m writing this article from the la-la-land of time’s meaninglessness caused by jet-lag, in this case that most extreme of lags caused by hopping to the other side of the world. I was in the antipode to attend GaymerX Australia as one of their “Bosses of Honor”--essentially a guest of honor.
Though my sleep schedule is shot to high hell I don’t regret a second of the long journey or my all too brief time Down Under. All Gaymer X conventions are magical, after all. They’re a place where LGBTQ gamers can come together and be simultaneously nerdy and, well, queer together in a field where we’re often told to choose between one or the other.
Liam Esler and Joshua Meadows brought the GX franchise to Australia just two years ago, but sadly 2017’s was (at least for now) the last one. Citing the cost and strain of running the convention, where everyone from top to bottom is an unpaid volunteer engaged in complex event-management, Esler and Meadows said their emotional goodbyes to several hundred attendees who flocked from all over Australia and New Zealand. But, Esler said forcefully at the opening ceremonies, “this isn’t a funeral, it’s a celebration.” Thus he set the tone for our big gay geeky party, and celebrate we did.
My main role in the convention was to give its opening keynote. Conscious of the event’s finality, I wanted to give a send-off to the mostly ANZ crowd that would resonate with them. Among them were many local game developers as well as people aspiring to become devs. One of them was an endearing young trans woman, an IT professional from Sydney, for whom this GX Aus was her first time going outside as her true self. What could I say that would stir her spirit and reassure her during these troubled times?
As regular readers of my column know, I’ve taken a keen interest in Australia’s game industry (and hope to take a closer, proper look at New Zealand’s sometime in the next year). It’s a unique scene for how indie-dominated it is. Its very existence gives me hope for the industry’s future. For all its imperfections and all the attendant drama and status-jockeying that accompany any artistic community, there’s something special about it, and I want it to keep going.
I spoke about the importance of gaming as an art form, with an eye towards reassuring this politically-minded audience that game development was not a waste of time in our turbulent age.
Losing GaymerX Aus was a blow to this community, certainly. Many Australian gaming luminaries, indie darlings, and up-and-comers turned out to sponsor the convention, demo there, or just wish GXers well. Though much of what I said felt obvious to me, like any variant on the words “I love you,” they deserve to said loudly and clearly rather than left to lie in the furrows of implication.
There’s a lot I wish I had said, though. Even though I tailored my speech to an Australian audience by peppering it with references to local events, I should’ve gone a step further and spoken about my other hobby-horse: representation of Australian culture in Aussie games. To date there are so many games made in the country that give no hint of their origins, or that tell any of the wild and colorful stories that pockmark the continent.
In 1992, then Prime Minister Paul Keating gave a short, blistering speech to the Australian House of Representatives about what he thunderingly called “that awful cultural cringe… that held us back for nearly a generation.” The phrase--which denotes a certain Australian inferiority complex relative to British and American culture--didn’t originate with him, but he gave it a powerful new spin, casting it as a force that threatened to hold the country in a stagnant, neutral position, forever inward-looking and nostalgic but woefully unprepared for the coming century.
In my many conversations with Australian game developers, the cultural cringe often comes up in discussions about the themes of Aussie games and why so few are self-consciously or proudly Australian. But there is a magic to the “lucky country” that its residents are prone to underestimate. Far from being toxic to international sales, Australian culture and its exotic locales can generate interest far afield.
Certainly the stereotypical paraphernalia of Australia, from the accent to the fauna to its vistas, exercises a powerful grip on foreign imaginations. But more complex matters can find interested audiences abroad as well, I reckon. Contemporary issues in Australia--from immigration, to housing prices, to indigenous rights, to urban sprawl--are broadly relatable, even as they tell a locally unique story.
In the twilight of GaymerX Aus, I’m comforted by the endurance of all the devs there. Giant Ant, Stirfire Studios, League of Geeks, Flat Earth Games, and all the indies great and small who turned out. There are also games coming down the pike that are uniquely Australian, which I covered recently, and others that are already available--like Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze, which gives us the Melburnian flapper super sleuth in action on iOS.
But it certainly can’t begin and end here. Videogames are uniquely placed to tell moving stories about Australia’s early days as a penal colony, for instance--origins that are often effaced by a collective search for more respectable tales of how the nation came into being. We have the book, Robert Hughes immortal “The Fatal Shore,” but where’s the game that brings it all to life with a vivid story that you’re intimately involved in? This is but one of several rich veins to be mined in the nation’s history.
It’s not all “cringe” to get over, though. For many artists on the continent, there’s an understanding that real success comes with appealing to Europe and America (and for games, perhaps China as well). There’s a similar, equally tragic situation in Canada where artists in every industry know that something considered “too-Canadian” will be a hard sell in those all-important markets. There’s hard won wisdom in the Australian games community that I don’t mean to gainsay with my words. But I entertain a, perhaps, naive hope. If nothing else, it is because I have so much faith in the places I’ve been, and the history I’ve learned, to dazzle, inspire, madden, and move audiences everywhere.
A nation’s art bares its soul. For a country blessed with so robust and unrestrained a gamedev scene, it’s past time for it to let it all hang out.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.