More than 70% of Australians play video games, and I’m one of them. With its spread from computers to TVs to mobile phones, the global games industry is now worth over $100bn, with an Australian market alone worth $3bn.
But the value of games goes beyond just money. Interactive entertainment and the “serious games” that share lessons and skills have psychological and social benefits. We play to bond with other players, to build communities, to learn, to experience worlds beyond our imagination, and – as in the Dionysian theatres of old – to enjoy a temporary catharsis and channel feelings that otherwise preoccupy us into something vicarious.
Not gonna lie: after a day of heavy trolling on the internet, retreating into a fictional post-apocalyptic wasteland to shred super-mutants with a Gauss rifle does me – and everyone around me – a true world of good.
The mass popularity of games, whose players have an even gender split and an average age of 30, makes it unsurprising that tertiary training for video game vocations is in a boom period. Game developer and theorist Leena Van Deventer, author of the book Game Changers, claims that Australian colleges and universities are graduating 4,000 trained game-makers every year.
But while public interest and markets continue to flower, structural support for the industry is conspicuously lacking. For all of Malcolm Turnbull’s big talk on agile innovation, his government has had over a year to act on the recommendations of a Senate inquiry to invest in the future of the industry. The industry, writes Brendan Keogh, has been met with “deafening silence” instead.
Australian studios have persisted as lean operations, with successes including the ubiquitous Fruit Ninja – downloaded 300 million times in its first three years of release – and hits such as Flight Control, the number one bestseller in 19 countries when it was released in April 2009. Australian gamers are making big money through new streaming channels such as Twitch, and the eSports industry is finally being recognised by our major codes.
But day-to-day demands of game-making mean that to make a living freelancing, or to win one of the estimated 700 local full-time jobs across the industry amidst the graduate competition as it is, you have to be better than good; you have to be exceptional. Here are five of the best right now.
Delaney King: designer, 3D animator, art director at Tantalus
Even though she’s only 41, Melbourne-based Delaney King is one of Australia’s game industry veterans. The little girl who loved to draw monsters originally wanted to direct film, but, she tells me, “when I first started in Australia I couldn’t afford to get into AFTRS”.
King, who was born in England, did not have the money to shoot her own film for the application. With a shed full of homemade puppets and models “much like Peter Jackson”, King was instead “stuck in Canberra with no options, when someone pointed me to a Tafe course in 3D animation. At Tafe, all my loves and hobbies and interests came together in a perfect storm. Soon I was top of my class, and then top of my company. Within a few years I was running an art department.”
She has a right to be proud; only seven years into the industry, she broke through to the global games industry big time when she was tasked to redesign the iconic monsters and all the characters of the Unreal Tournament 2004 – which was awarded Game of the Year by IGN, Computer Gaming World and GameSpy. King, who’d been working from home, was making ends meet with a night job as an usher. “Suddenly my work was on the cover of every game magazine, all over the world.”
King’s dad, who’d once advised “You should stop drawing monsters and draw something useful that people will pay for”, had his mind changed on a visit to a cyber cafe; his daughter pointed him to a kid playing Unreal Tournament 2004 at a terminal, and finally he realised: “I guess drawing monsters has done you all right.”
King’s monsters, developed for AAA studio Tantalus, have since saturated the visual universe of games all over the world, including within massive franchises such as DragonAge and Dungeons and Dragons. She has expanded into film, too; King was one of the monster artists in Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, working on the surfacing and grooming of the digital version of Carol for Animal Logic. (She writes on her website that nailing his eyes – the lens distortion, the reflection, the wetness – were the hardest part.)
“Ironically, I ended up teaching special effects at AFTRS,” she says. “What we’re seeing now is that the disciplines and mediums are coming together – film, television, games, special effects, interactivity. My past, which I thought was pulling me away from being a director, is pushing me towards it.”
Leonie Yue: illustrator, studio artist, character designer
In an industry as new and competitive as games, the theme of parental trepidation is a common one. It certainly runs through the story of Leonie Yue, a 29-year-old illustrator from Melbourne whose quirky character creations have developed a cult following.
Yue always loved art, but sad family circumstances drew her away from it; her mother, who wanted her to study something stable such as accounting, died when Yue herself was still at high school. Yue quit art and instead trained to be a secondary school maths teacher. “I went to do emergency teaching,” she says. “The kids don’t know you and want to press your buttons. It was a downward spiral. And I thought, ‘I don’t want to keep living like this’.”
The self-described “introverted, quiet, shy” Yue returned to her passion. “I went to study 3D animation. I tried to push my studies towards illustration and concept art and then my team’s graduate film got into the Melbourne International Animation festival. And it went around the world, into the short film and animation festivals. And then I felt like I was on the right track.”
Yue is a successful product of the “game jam” scene: festivals that bring together disparate game-makers to develop playable new games within as short a period as two days. For Yue, it was a way to develop networks as well as hone skills. After struggling for two years as a freelancer, she received unexpected encouragement to apply for a job as a senior artist at a studio – a full-time position well above her qualifications. She didn’t get the gig, but the studio called her back. Would she take a position as a junior artist instead?
Her favourite work is in the illustrations that go around the game, for instance in comics and promotion. “Game art is is affected by how much memory the game has, and how much space and time you have to animate it. But with marketing art there are no limitations as long as you show off the game and make things pretty and awesome.”
Yue likes to draw female characters the most – her expression of them is colourful, quirky, and realises strikingly nuanced emotions. “I feel like I’m living through them somehow. I like to be part of something positive, hopeful, weird, silly, beautiful. It’s an immersion and then I can leave it behind and keep learning. My dream is to be one of the best character designers out there. One day!”
Kalonica Quigley: lead 3D artist at VRTOV, game developer
“I am of the age that I grew up playing games,” says 26-year-old Kalonica Quigley. “It wasn’t unusual to play games with my family. I was always interested in making stuff, drawing and writing and it just seemed like a natural fit: yes, video games, of course that’s what I want to do.”
A graduate of video game design at RMIT, Quigley’s digital nativity perhaps explains the depth of feeling that she brings to her work as a designer and developer working with animation and virtual reality. Describing her job at VRTOV, a leading digital production studio which creates immersive virtual reality environments, it strikes me that she praises a company ethos that “aligns with my values of what interactive entertainment can be”.
Values? Quigley explains: “There’s this sort of idea that games are fun, and [about] getting points and being the winner. I’m more interested in emotional narratives and feelings other than fun; regret or remorse or fear or even nostalgia, or other positive emotions. There are so many different types of feelings, we don’t need to just make fun.”
It’s a sensitivity to the emotional that she explores in her commercial work. Quigley cites her work on VRTOV’s virtual reality “experience”, The Turning Forest, as a favourite project. “It’s VR fairytale in which you experience the memories of a child in a forest who discovers a magical creature. I feel like it touches on the potential of what VR can be.”
She brings the same curiosity to her personal work. “I’m particularly excited about the game I’m working on now. It’s called Another Sunrise; I’ve taken 3D scans of my own body and entered them into the game to act out my morning routine. I’m trying to be as honest as possible and it’s actually super uncomfortable and I want to explore why that is.”
She has no business intention behind Another Sunrise. “I’ll probably never release it. It’s more like a self-portrait or writing an entry into a diary. I want to know what it means to make something about myself. It’s not common in a game – to expose yourself, to be vulnerable – but people react to that on a genuine level. The conversations I’ve had about it have been really heartwarming.”
Katryna Starks: games academic, associate lecturer in Serious Games at the University of the Sunshine Coast
The academic study of video games is as new as the technology of games, which is why, Katryna Starks tells me, so many of its theoreticians began studying something else before finding “creative ways in”. Lecturing in Serious Games at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Starks herself came in from a psychology masters. “My thesis was in using video games to foster health-promoting behaviours,” she says. Now, she’s completing PhD research on the relationship of games to mental health.
Serious Games is an industry term, she explains. “These are games designed to do something beyond entertain. People think of educational games, but they can also be advocacy games, they can be games that teach culture, or typing, or bring awareness or educate.”
Starks’ research world is one in which virtual life makes increasing interactions with material life, so social needs adapt to technological opportunities and vice versa. Her discovery of this was quite personal. “I accidentally used the Sims as a life coach,” she says, of the game in which players build and furnish worlds for characters they create. “I made a character like me, and I played her with my values. She got up every day, was very diligent about working, but there was no social aspect to her life.”
In the Sims, failure to develop social networks results in character unhappiness – represented by red bar. “And my social life was always in the red. And that was my problem – it was laying it out in front of me. And I changed my life that year. I became more social. The friends I made that year are still my friends.”
The games in Starks’ research have taught kids with cystic fibrosis how to self-treat, and those with blood sugar disorders how to self-test. There’s Ninja Pizza Girl, a game that strategises against bullying created by Australian Nicole Stark after a Kickstart campaign, and other games that are less intentional, but just as beneficial. The groundbreaking Second Life, for example, enabled people with severe isolation and communication disorders in real life a safe space to develop and overcome them. Her lab at USC, Engage Lab, even develops its own, such as Orbit Rescue app, sponsored by the Daniel Morcombe foundation to help children recognise predatory behaviour and provide them with strategies to stay safe.
The games can be fun, but for Starks, the science must be taken seriously. “Games can push our emotions further than film,” she says. “In games, we can also be the person in the middle of the story.”
Stephanie Bendixsen aka Hex: games critic TV presenter
“My parents were anti-video games,” Stephanie Bendixsen tells me. “We didn’t even have consoles in our house.” But thanks to the early generosity of friendly neighbours with consoles, and “lots of World of Warcraft”, the self-confessed “nerd” known by the moniker Hex is now one of Australia’s most famous gamers and games critics.
Hex, who originally trained in theatre and acting, got her big break in gaming when she chose the SupaNova ComicCon as the place to shoot an audition video for an ABC kids show. “I thought being at a convention like that would best portray the kind of person that I am and what I’m into,” she says.
There, she happened to run into Bajo, the host of ABC games review show Good Game; she was a regular viewer and approached him as a fan. They got talking, “and it turned out they were looking for someone there as well”.
“The idea of working on a show that I was already such a fan of was so exciting,” says Bendixsen; she submitted review after review until she finally got the job.
In the seven years she spent on Good Game, reviewing three games a show, 42 shows a year, she did close to a thousand reviews. “There are games I don’t even remember playing,” Bendixsen says, “but it’s wonderful because it’s exposed me to such a broader range of game genres that I never would have explored just pursuing what I already like.”
Her new role, as a co-presenter/producer of Channel 7’s games show Screenplay, has demanded she expand her critical repertoire further into online games, new games viewing communities such as Twitch and the explosive popularity of e-sports: staged events where gamers compete against each other in front of a live, and streaming, audience. Her commitment to Screenplay is onerous; not only is she creating a television show once a week, but content for a digital audience that goes live on YouTube every day.
But Bendixsen is loving it. She’s just back from the e-sports Overwatch Cup, held at the Star Casino. “Thousands and thousands of people there, like any sport, except they’re up on a stage with computers,” she says. Prize pools for these events can now run into the millions – and Australia’s sporting codes have begun to take note. “People have no idea how big a deal it is. People still associate it with something you do in your basement.”
It’s a powerful contradiction to the stereotype of the lonely gamer – much like Bendixsen herself. “If you mention video games to me,” she says, “the first thing I think is community.”
• Code Breakers: Women in Games is on at the Australian Centre of Moving Images until 5 November