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Life After Freeplay

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

The delicate bouquet of Eau-de-Nerd still lingers in the air of the State Library of Victoria as the custodial staff quietly sweep away the scattered remains of litter, lanyards, and feedback forms. Paul Callaghan and Eve Penford-Dennis fall into a heap for a well-earned rest, as game designers walk away with a motivating force to get their idea out of their heads and into the ether. For this was the weekend that was. This weekend saw this year’s installment of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Over 60 speakers from far and wide came to discuss every element to games making, from programming and art to design and gaming culture, under the theme “Play Is Everywhere”. A conscious effort was often made to avoid the discussions (outside the workshops) getting too technical or centered on just video games but to try and focus on the broader notion of “Play”. By understanding our fundamental need for play and where that comes from we can get a better appreciation of what it is about games that strikes a chord. Knowing precisely where your “fun button” is (you disgust me) means you can hit it more frequently and with greater ease, leading to more a more fulfilled, happy life.

During the sessions I attended I had a few “Neo moments” that took me by surprise. I went along thinking I was there to learn more about video game development (specifically writing). How someone takes an idea and sculpts it into something living and interactive. It fast became evident that the focus was on the user, the experience presented to the person playing – and how ‘play’ is such a fundamental part of existence. Adam Saltsman explored the notion of play as being completely independent of species, something not exclusive to humanity. Puppies play tug-of-war and wrestle with an inherent set of rules by which to abide. Cats jump into boxes, and hide around corners to give their siblings a fright. This innate desire to play and learn through play is found everywhere. Javier Candeira was fascinating with his contention that play is more than just a leisure activity, play can be even used to dictate societal behaviour. Whoa. Play as crime prevention? Whaaaat?! Play as a way to nudge citizens to do the right thing? Mind… blown… He cited a sequence of speed bumps in Japan that when travelled over at the right speed resonate a certain melody, where play is used to make people obey the speed limit by means more interesting and engaging than being lectured at. Looking at our water use targets and aiming for a “score” turns water saving into a game, spurring our competitive urges. Play can make the world a better place. I couldn’t get enough.

‘Neoteny’ is the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult, most of the time looked down upon as unrefined or immature. Adult gamers are frequently branded as stunted or immature for this reason, because our need to play (something normally associated with children) is still intact. Being in a concentration of other people that find themselves fueled by the demand to play and seeing the fruits of their labour first hand was inspiring, invigorating, and left me with a sense of family and belonging. Hell, I’m not even a game developer and I left inspired to make something out of nothing! I felt like this theme was saying “Embrace your lust for play, and do something with it”. I always say that games are a massive part of my life, but really I should be saying that play is a massive part of my life. Whatever form it takes, I crave play. Whether it’s through a structured medium such as a video or board game, or making sure I don’t step on the cracks on the pavement. I frolic through the world looking for ways to be playful, and I hope I never ever grow out of it. I went in trying to learn about the making of games and found myself unexpectedly thrust into a zen state pondering the bigger picture. Thank you Freeplay for further exploring the notion of play, your uplifting and electrifying speakers, and for underscoring the heart-warming sense of community and common ground we all have under the umbrella of “Play-er”. I look forward to next year and hope the theme is equally satisfying brain food.

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