From the Freeplay Board – Vanessa Toholka

Welcome to this series of blog posts by the board members of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Today, board member Vanessa Toholka discusses the role that Freeplay played in helping her realise games’ cultural significance.

“I’m not much of a gamer,” I used to say. I thought it was true. I was never particularly good at first person shooters, and was completely disinterested in fantasy sports teams. The games conversations I was familiar with focused on frags, kills, in-game strategy, and epic trash-talking.

The truth was, some of my earliest memories of using computers involved playing games. Flight Simulator, with its unreasonably complicated landing procedures. Test Drive, full of elite cars and improbably convincing illusions of movement along winding mountain roads. Nethack, an ASCII dungeon whose simple graphics belied a complexity of gameplay I’ve yet to see matched.

I developed my first game using Logo on an Apple IIe. It was a single-screen environment for a fish, and the light-bulb moment was leaving the drawn coral in a selected-state, so it wavered uncertainly as if underwater. The second game I made was a text-based adventure. I made a good start on an artificial intelligence script in BASIC, capable of handling simple conversations, to be part of a game I never completed.

I stopped coding games, but kept playing. Enjoying the permissible displays of aggression in Street Fighter and Tekken, the cheap scares in Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, the laughs in Commander Keen and the puzzles in Myst. I attended LAN parties, joined a clan of Team Fortress players, and still didn’t identify as a gamer. I’d dismissed games as trivial. They were one-dimensional experiences – fast food for those with hand-eye coordination to burn.

When I came across a Freeplay program years later, it was revelatory. As expected, there were developers hashing out the technical challenges of making computer games, and sharing hard-won skills. The conversations which really surprised me, were people discussing philosophical motivations, psychological concepts, user experience design, story-telling and reflecting on their broad influences. It was a type of games discourse, with sophisticated criticism and review, which I hadn’t encountered before. It made me realise how important games were on my path to becoming a developer.

Freeplay provides an important space for games to be recognised for excellence. For makers and players to raise expectations, and aspire to a breadth of styles, diversity of game play, and creative distinction. A permissive space to break gaming conventions and celebrate all kinds of playfulness.

Freeplay broadened my mind about games as cultural artefacts. Now I think of games more like novels – varying in style, purpose and quality. They can teach us, reward us, thrill us, and with any luck, the classics will remain with us for years.