GET BETTER: Freeplay Indie Games Festival 2013

Here’s a screencap from my phone that shows the email I sent to myself right after Steve Swink’s keynote speech on Sunday at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne:

get better

If, for some reason, you can’t read pictures, it says: “GET BETTER.” That’s it. That’s all I could write.


Freeplay 2013 left me feeling upset. Disturbed. Confused. Challenged, I think, is the best word. The discourse present at the event wasn’t one that I was used to; I’m mainstream, veering onto the safe edges of weird. I’m a straight white able-bodied cis male. The deck is shuffled in my favour and it’s easy to grow complacent and lazy. I make games, and they do okay. I write about games, sometimes for money, and I do all right out of it. I’m not breaking down any walls.

Outside of Freeplay, the discourse is focused around my people. Inside Freeplay, we’re discussing how to wrest control from me. How to get marginalised voices into games. How to unmake things that I’ve been complicit in making.

I’m ashamed to admit that, at first, I felt anger. It started slow; I’d be angry at a talk because it was boring, or up itself, or because I felt it talked about privilege too much or focused on issues that I didn’t care about. I’d find people and say “Oh, yeah, X talk was really intelligent and well-researched, but… well, I wouldn’t want to get stuck in a lift with it.” I made jokes. I parcelled off bits that I didn’t agree with, weaker parts, and discussed those, and boy did I feel better about myself when people agreed with me.

I just enjoy games, I thought. I just want to play games and talk about why they suck or why they’re great. That doesn’t make me an arsehole. I’m not one of the bad guys. I’m laid-back. I’m easy-going.


I stared daggers at some guy who insisted on giving a standing ovation to Friday night’s polemic fireworks, How To Destroy Everything. It was a tremendously difficult, tremendously clever talk. It discussed the fragmentation of what we think about as “videogames,” how the culture as a whole doesn’t exist. It advised a massive paradigm shift from traditional viewpoints to something that rewards the artists involved. It was a presentation full of barely-contained fire and rhetoric and it was delivered by students much younger than me. It sang the praises of indie games, of art.

That was the talk, I think, that messed me up the most. I have a desire not to be moved by things I see, to open up on an emotional or intellectual level and let something take up space inside my psyche. That’s why I don’t make friends so easily. That’s why I don’t watch films or read books or do difficult things. I think a lot of people, men especially, feel the same way. Feelings are weakness. Changing is weakness. Opening your mind is weakness.

I didn’t stare daggers because they were wrong. I stared daggers because I felt threatened.


I sent an email to a friend of mine who’s visiting and said “Jesus, I’m in a talk about privilege so convoluted that if you were here you’d start fires, mate” and went to a party, and got drunk, and talked to people younger and less experienced than me and I realise, now, that it made me feel better. I played a game where you wrestle for control of a 50 cent piece on a wooden floor using only your full bodyweight and one hand wearing an oven glove. That was fun. I hurt my arm trying to lift two men at once one-handed. (I can’t lift one man two-handed.)

Steve Swink gave the keynote on Sunday morning, as mentioned. I’d presented a games design workshop with him on Thursday. It was the first time that I’d been involved in such a thing – while I’d lead groups in making up NERF gun games at cons before, this was much more involved. I talked about making your own tabletop roleplaying game, about story feeding into mechanics and vice-versa. Before it all kicked off, I asked Steve what sort of thing he was doing, what he’d prepared.

Kind of sad we didn't get UNDEAD MECHA but getting a team of people to write rules for bullshitting your way through a wine tasting was surprisingly fulfilling
The aim of the workshop was to get people thinking about the sort of actions that their players would take to tell certain stories and focus on those and those alone. Also to tell stupid jokes about D&D 4e

“I haven’t prepared much.”
“I’ve taught a bunch of game design classes before, so I’ll just throw something together from those.”

Dread. Despite all that, my section went pretty well. I lead the groups through creating mechanics for tabletop roleplaying games we made up on the spot by choosing two options from a list of genres that’s available here – we had “cyberpunk politics” being a game about robot senators and “pulp spies” being misinterpreted as a game about vineyard espionage. I got them to think about mechanics as creators of story as opposed to Steve’s workshop on mechanics as interesting meshes of rules that are themselves fun to play with.

It lit a fire in me. I want to teach more. I left the room thinking that I could do this again, that I could do this better; but surely, to be any sort of authority on tabletop games, surely I should at least publish one of them in a semi-professional format?


But, anyway – Steve was talking about making games, and talking well about it, and while he didn’t push my angry buttons in the same way as some of the other people did, he made me realise what I needed to do.

I spent Sunday lunch at a Japanese restaurant with some people I know and respect from Twitter and an ex-director of Freeplay and some other people who all seemed fairly important and they were talking intelligently and I thought, I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here. I need to get away.

I need to get better.

Because I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I wasn’t punching at the same weight as these people who said things that I disagreed with, that mentally they had one hand against my forehead while I windmilled my arms ineffectually. Of course, it wasn’t a fight, it wasn’t a brawl; but that’s the only way I could frame it in my mind. My back is against the wall. I can’t shake these thoughts from my head.

I knew what I was feeling wasn’t quite right, that underneath the shield of anger there was a kernel of something else. That I disagreed with the topics raised on more than an instinctive level of backlash – that these were complex clusterfucks of issues and shrugging and rolling our eyes at them is, to be honest, backward. It doesn’t matter so much if you just want to play games, but if you’re writing about them or making them for a living – especially when, like me, you’re chucking around articles about the immaturity of GTA V or the ridiculousness of PR-laden launch events – then, fuck, you need to be aware. You need to be aware of the effects that your products, that the products of others, have on people who experience them.

I did the whole "we call them Gunman and Bagman etc because Gun Woman sounds like a rubbish superhero and Bag Person sounds even worse" but that joke went down like sparklers at a funeral
We got some volunteers to play a game of the Gobstopper Job while we talked about it on stage. It went slightly better than you imagine it did, but only slightly


And so – a plan. Or a goal, I suppose.

The goal is to GET BETTER. I need to make more things. I need to finish my book and overcome my fear of copyediting. I need to kick out games. I need to write. To make. To do. To watch and listen and experience and read and learn and create so next time, next time I end up in a situation where intelligent people are arguing against the things that I do I’m in a position to argue back. Or to support them. Or to make my own standpoint. Not just to froth incoherently because I feel uncomfortable.


It’s not a bad feeling, being so unsettled and wrong-footed by a thing. This is how we learn. This is how we get better; if we’re comfortable, it’s not working, right? But this is distressing. It shakes you, especially if you build your entire professional and most of your private life around the thing that’s being questioned. I heard there was a lot of backchannel chat, off the hashtags, saying how none of this mattered.

But there’s something inside me, now; a spark, an itch, a bundle of something that’s not quite anger and not quite joy and powered by jags of frustration and panic and a rare inquisitive desire. So I’m not going to continue to fight against these things that I don’t understand and can’t quite entirely disagree with; I’m not going to dismiss them, or make fun of them, or try to invalidate them. And I’m not going to blindly agree wholesale with them, either, for fear of looking out-of-place or uncool.

I am going to level up until I am good enough to give this shit the attention it deserves.





8 responses to “GET BETTER: Freeplay Indie Games Festival 2013”

  1. seb Avatar

    Entrenched systems treat change as death and fight against it.

    Mental, social, physical, biological, doesn’t matter.

    Read this awesome summary of Michael Pirsig’s Lila if you want a great mental toolkit for thinking your way through this stuff:

    My thought is that we’re seeing a set of social organisms (“SJW” is the shorthand formulation) battering away at entrenched social patterns (“misogyny/sexism in gaming”) in an effort to make space for better patterns to grow.

    This battering is in the cause of empathy, but is not in itself a particularly empathic process. This can lead to some qualms, where you agree with the overall goal but think people are being right twatnuggets in achieving it.

    However if you think of the excesses of revolutionary groups in the same terms as the self-destruct coding in cells, it makes sense. When social organisms have fulfilled their purpose they either make something lasting (art, books, laws, new ideas) or self-destruct (through excessive purity testing, schisming etc).

    Good luck in your mission to get better 🙂

    1. grant Avatar

      A lot of those big words were starting to throw me off, but the inclusion of “twatnuggets” really brought me back on-side

  2. Iralie Avatar

    I almost bought a book on white privilege, by a white guy, today.

    It seemed very interesting. The first chapter had sentences of people doing things and asked you to visualise them.
    Then it asked you what colour skin they had had.

    Then it did the bit on the default being white. I mean, I know these things but it is hard to remember them. I too need to get better.
    Though personally I think we should only stop getting better when we’re dead (hopefully a fair time in the future).

    Also is the How to Destroy Everything talk up somewhere? The small mention of it has piqued my interest.

    1. grant Avatar

      I’ve not found it yet, but I imagine that it’ll be around before long.

      1. Mary Hamilton Avatar

        They’re going to be putting it up later this week, I think.

  3. Tim Maytom Avatar
    Tim Maytom

    This reminds me of an Aaron Sorkin line: “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

    I know I’m guilty of falling into the same old patterns of thinking, but being challenged is good. It’s great that you’ve come out of the event with drive and ambition, and given how much I’ve enjoyed your existing games, I can’t wait to see what the New Improved Grant produces.

    1. grant Avatar

      Let’s find out, eh? I’m not sure where I’m going or whether I’ll change, but I’m keen to try.

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