The National Game Space

09 October 2013 | 0 comments

This is a copy of a talk I gave at NESTA’s Futurefest on 28 September. Thanks to Pat Kane for the invitation. It’s my personal view on the importance of a National Game Space, communicated at a time when there are stirrings of interest in the idea from a number of different places. Hopefully it will help to move those discussions forward. Many thanks to Dean Vipond for the logo work.

To set the tone for this talk, I’m going to begin by quoting a Catholic Saint, a conservative philosopher, and a game critic.

Today, I’m going to talk about the need for institutions to support our common game culture. Cara is right. We need monoliths built for our artists. Game culture is over fifty years old.

I’m going to start in the future – imagining what a National Game Space might look like, what it might contain, and what people might do there. I’m then going back to the past, to look at the conditions that supported the emergence of other public interventions into our common culture such as the British Film Institute and Channel Four.

And finally, I want to talk about our present. I want to talk about the state we’re in. As someone who’s been attempting to make games in cultural institutions in London and around the world over the last five years, I want to share some of my experience about what that’s been like, and what I think must urgently change.

If you were expecting ludic jollity, I apologise. There are no secret cards taped to the underside of your seat. There will be no moments of epiphany where we can all laugh and clap. No pictures, no gags of any kind. Just dry, practice led policy suggestions, set in the difficult context of the austere, conservative cultural landscape of 2013.

In the future, game culture will move alongside the other types of culture that lay claim to public space in our towns and cities. As well as cinemas, opera houses, art galleries and theatres there will be game spaces; places where the continuously-evolving practice of games and play can be experienced as part of our civic life.

There will be big ones, in places like London and Manchester and Glasgow, and smaller ones, anywhere where there are enough people to sustain them. Game spaces by the beach. Game spaces in villages. Game spaces nestled on the edge of national parks.

Going out to play will be as common an activity as going to eat or going to shop.

These game spaces will, inevitably, be sites of action both in the real world and on digital platforms and devices. The infrastructure of the building will be conceived by architects and engineers to enable play. That means, more than anything, plasticity. The ability to admit different kinds of play, of players, of technologies.

Games, more than any other form of culture, teem with systemic and technological diversity, making use of every different kind of technology that humans have ever invented. As Eric Zimmerman put it. Media and culture in the Ludic Century is increasingly systemic, modular, customizable, and participatory. Game spaces will be conceived and built to support this multifaceted culture, enabling each individual player to set their own relationship with the space they are in.

In these game spaces, there will be people. People playing, people not-playing, people doing whatever it is they do. In doing this, they will gently lay to rest the ghost of the word ‘gamer’. Game-playing will be a cultural literacy that will simply be taken for granted. They will be comfortable with the complexity of the games they encounter, playing the ones that suit them.

The playing public will be supported in this by dedicated, salaried professionals who care about how games are presented, who reach out to people with passion and enthusiasm, who solve problems of display and interaction in ingenious ways.

These people will decide what games you should play. They will make recommendations based on their insight and experience, and they will argue vehemently, using the force of the space they inhabit, for you to see their view. We will invent new job titles for these people, as words like ‘curation’ will lose some of their meaning.

These game spaces will be in turn supported by national and maybe even supra-national organisations who’ll care for games in other ways. They’ll take responsibility for archiving games and preserving hardware. They’ll focus on education, and ensuring equality of access to the tools of game-making. They’ll create platforms and business models that co-exist with those owned and maintained by companies, and invest in games with a view to creating different kinds of value.

In this landscape, it will be possible for game-makers from diverse backgrounds to receive training, support and encouragement at every stage of their career. They will be encouraged to develop an individual voice, in the context of a public service framework that supports the provision of a broad range of high quality and diverse games which, in particular:

- demonstrate innovation, experiment and creativity in both the form and content of games

- appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society

Creators will still work with publishers, with brands, with investors, and of course they will still make games independently, distributing and charging for them as they see fit. The National Game Space will merely offer an alternative, one where different kinds of support are offered.

Finally, it’s important to talk about resources.

All the things I have described cost money. It will be expensive to do these things. But the money will have been found, and the British Government will have secured the ongoing existence of the National Game Space indefinitely, in the public interest.

The National Game Space can, and should, operate commercially. It will derive revenues from multiple sources, and make use of concessions from the Government that enable it to plan for the long term. Again, all of this resource is ultimately put to use in the service of cultural creation and access.

The good news, we don’t have to look to far into our history to discover models for this future.

This is part of the broadcasting licence for Channel 4. Prohibited from making its own programmes, the channel was a powerful platform for independent voices and ideas, a commissioning fund available to artists, performers, journalists and producers whose work demonstrated adherence to the channel’s founding principles of innovation, diversity, education and distinctiveness.

Going further back to 1947, this set of recommendations for the British Film Institute sparked the rapid growth of the organisation under director David Forman, including the creation of the Telecinema, later the National Film Theatre, on the South Bank as part of the Festival of Britain.

Fast forward those developments to the present day, and we can witness the effects of that policy making in the rise of extra-ordinary film-makers like Clio Barnard and Steve McQueen. They both had successful careers as fine artists, were both supported by Channel 4 in the creation of their first films, and are both enjoying international recognition their latest features, wowing festival audiences around the world, and tipped for commercial and Oscar success. Their unique and distinctive talent and vision was able to flourish, in part through their own energy and endeavour, but also because there was a context in which their particular work could grow.

To locate us in the problems of the present, I’m going to ask you to engage in a little thought experiment. What would it be like if we had cultural institutions who had successfully adapted the core of their mission to include games already? What might they be called?

I hope that I’ve shown a little of how  the function of our cultural organisations, and the policy-making, access to public funds and civic space that surrounds them, have an enormous effect on our culture.

My experience – and, as director of Hide&Seek, I’ve worked with all of the organisations whose logos I’ve just messed about with- is that it’s impossible for an organisation whose entire purpose is organised around the production and promotion of one type of culture to fully turn their attention to a different kind. Organisations, no matter what the intentions of the brilliant, wonderful people who work in them – have a prevailing direction, and no wonder. Making things is hard. It’s completely understandable that processes and attitudes spring up in an organisation to support and enable making of a particular kind.

So I just don’t understand why policy-makers and funders operate the way they do. Why do we ignore the lessons of history, which show us so clearly that it’s possible to imagine and create new cultural institutions, and instead ask the ones we’ve already got to take care of the new?

Hide&Seek has operated in a landscape dominated by policy that requires existing cultural organisations to change. They have to become digital, adapt their business model, embrace new technologies, chase after participating audiences. To ‘innovate’. The policy makers set targets to measure their success. So the cultural organisations in turn looked to outfits like Hide&Seek. Our work proved useful, in this context, for their instrumental effects in achieving those targets. Games get the kids interested. They make money. They create ‘participation and engagement’.

That means never being asked to create a game for its own sake. Never being part of a conversation where the value of the game itself is something under consideration. Always hedging one’s own creativity and ideas in the service of another artform’s values.

If all you’re asking is for existing organisations to adapt, you’re not allowing for the possibility that new cultures can develop. That suffocates the possibility of a more perfect union between our common culture of 2013 and the civic culture at play in our cities. Game culture has been left to the mercies of the digital marketplace – to the App Store, and to global publishers, and to the determination of independent studios who find a way to make work that they value, and that also sustains them. Game culture deserves better than that. It deserves support, challenge, access and presence.

I have been searching for an appropriate metaphor to describe game culture’s current relationship to the publicly funded civic culture of the UK. The best I can find is to imagine a group of clinical scientists attempting to transplant new organs and limbs into a healthy, aging body, in the hope of prolonging its life and enabling it to fulfil new functions. And that means that we, the pioneers of game culture, were treated as implants, foreign bodies. Bundles of unruly growth, admitted in error and rejected in panic.

I would contrast that reality with the vision of the policy-makers in 1982 and 1947. Years of austerity and crisis in the UK. Yet there was still sufficient energy in the political body to observe the values at play in the cultures of television and film, and attempt to harness them for the public good. There was an imagination that enabled them to see the need for vigorous, independent support in the form of institutions, not initiatives.

We need to reframe the entire debate. We need to start supporting games for what they are, not for what they can do. We need, first, to reflect on the reality of game culture in 2013, we need to listen to game-makers and artists, and we need to believe that it’s possible to build a permanent, visionary, well-supported game culture in this country.

I could, at this stage, point to green shoots of development around the country and the world. Playstation’s renewed commitment to independent game-makers, the triumphant partnership between Nottingham and Game City, the successful crowdfunding of the L.A. Game Space, the pioneering work of Gâité Lyrique in Paris. But my purpose here today is not to leave you with sufficient material to assume that this is going to happen. Without teamwork, without a shared vision that brings in everyone from games industry heavyweights to festival directors to policymakers to private investors to independent artists and of course game-makers, without imagination, persistence and humility, I think this is a dream of the future that will remain just that. What I do know is, I’m in if you are.

Thank you.

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