Brisbane-based academic researcher Brendan Keogh is challenging perceptions surrounding the mainstream
Collating first-hand accounts from hundreds of game developers across the globe, Keogh invites a more nuanced conversation on how the
GamesHub sat down with Keogh to discuss what he hopes readers will take away from his upcoming title, some of its core influences and inspirations, and how his academic standing gave him a unique perspective to delve into this subject matter.
Digital and paperback copies of The
[The following interview has been edited for clarity]
GamesHub: You’ve spoken about your approach to game development education in your 2019 GDC Talk Are Games Art School? How To Teach Game Development When There Are No Jobs. It’s valuable that you recognize students in game design as existing creators, both including them in relevant industry conversations and inviting them to cultivate their own game-centric communities beyond what’s taught in the classroom.
Brendan Keogh: I think [the GDC talk] is highly connected to the book more broadly. That idea of just, if video games are art… what does that seriously mean or look like in terms of accounting for game developers as artists, or as people of art practice?
Not just in terms of glorifying them or putting them on a pedestal, but just in terms of actually, seriously accounting for well – what does being a student painter look like? Or a student musician? Or a student literary writer? Like, if you’re already somebody who’s doing the thing, you’re just… an amateur, or aspiring person doing the thing.
You don’t go get a Bachelor of Creative Writing and now suddenly you’re a poet. Like, you’re a poet so you go do a Bachelor of Creative Writing. Games have often had that backwards, because we’ve historically had very limited – or I guess confused ways of thinking about how games and… creativity align with each other.
So, that talk is the way I [approached] game dev education… was… just making it more like art school, or more like my own Creative Writing undergrad. Which is like… just make stuff. Stop trying to make pseudo-commercial games that are probably going to look bad because of scope… just make an actually interesting five-minute experience.
I think so many people who pursue a career in games struggle with huge levels of imposter syndrome. Everyone enters with experience in such different professional backgrounds, and it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint yourself in one particular category because of that. There’s also been a long disconnect between mainstream audiences and developers who create smaller-scale games or abstract installations, it’s important to bridge that gap.
That’s in many ways the whole point of the book… It’s something that mainstream gamer culture has long struggled with.
You see it most tellingly on like Itch.io games… you release just a cool little thing that you’ve spent two days or a week working on, and you put it on [Itch.io] and you’ll just get comments like ‘it’s great, do you have any plans to update it?’ or ‘when are you going to release a full commercial version?’ or ‘it needs more content’.
There’s this kind of inability to think of it as – or this challenge to understand – just a little thing as itself being valuable. Because we’ve historically, primarily understood games as commercial entertainment products, and for decades it was difficult to imagine them being anything else. So when you see a game that isn’t a… commercial entertainment product, it’s hard to understand how to even begin evaluating it for a lot of people.
When did your broader opinion on games start to develop, and what motivated you to write this book inviting further conversations on the industry as a whole?
I suppose the starting point probably would have been in the early 2010s. Especially when people were starting to do really interesting experiments in Twine… mostly queer and trans gamemakers… and people very much marginal to the mainstream games industry just making some weird-ass stuff that people really struggled to understand, or really struggled to fit it into pre-existing models of how we evaluate games.
These games that were coming out from people like Anna Anthropy, Porpentine, Merritt K, and Mattie Brice, both in Twine and other places like RPG Maker, were just… staggeringly interesting games from a critical and creative perspective. Even if they were released for free, even if they were only five minutes long.
They essentially just forced people like me – and back then I was doing games journalism, I was in post-grad doing my PhD – it kind of really forced people like us to… stop and re-evaluate how we were even talking about games. [Whilst we had all lamented these games in the past, they made us question] why can’t these tell good stories or… why are all games action-centric?
These tiny little experiences came out by people who had been very marginal to the game industry, and it’s like… this is actually exactly what we wanted, we just didn’t realise this is what it was. We thought that big Triple A [studios] would eventually learn that narrative matters… and it’s like, no, let’s give more people more ability to make and share more stuff. Suddenly you realise the limits of what you thought videogames could do is actually much, much broader.
Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters in many ways makes a very similar argument to what I make in this book in just, the industry doesn’t have a monopoly on game making essentially… That book had a big impact on me.
Then teaching game design and trying to figure out what my students were struggling with in terms of their presumptions they had about what kind of games matter, or what kind of games they should be trying to make. I think it helped me kind of understand there were these broader assumptions or limitations to how we imagine games as a creative practice.
What did your personal career and study trajectory look like?
After high school, I enrolled in a Bachelor of IT and Multimedia because I liked to play games. Exactly the same as the students… I like playing games so I should make games. About eighteen months into that I realised I hated it, it was just programming essentially. Then I went into a Bachelor of Arts instead, and at around the same time, I remembered I enjoyed writing. I discovered the game criticism blogosphere around websites like Critical Distance.
I kind of had two paths that were parallel. One was academia, going from an undergrad in Creative Writing, to an Honour in Games Studies – because I realised I enjoyed the research that was being done on Film and TV and I wanted to do it in videogames. At the same time, the blogging and non-academic writing turned into freelance games journalism. So I was kind of doing both at the same time, doing a PhD while also doing games journalism, and then I got an academic job so now I do less of the games journalism.
What appeals to you about the academic side of things?
I still feel pretty connected beyond the academy.
I’m in a very lucky position… because I was doing games journalism and very active… on Twitter, in certain game dev circles and was going to GDC every year… I feel very much connected to game-making communities and critical… game discourses. Whereas, if I just did academia I could very much just be sitting in my office talking about academics while having very little connection to the actual developers and kind of communities – like the Melbourne games scene and the Brisbane games scene.
I really like kind of being able to exist in both worlds. I think doing the academic stuff allows me to bring a more critical perspective on the… other stuff, but I also know the other stuff well because… I have one foot in that world.
If you’re not in academia, you almost have to be a little bit more ‘celebratory’… If you’re a game developer speaking at GDC or whatnot, you need to [present the attitude that] ‘everything is great’ to an extent. Because you don’t want to ruin your chances of getting employed in future, you don’t want publishers to think you’re being a Debbie Downer.
With a safe academic salary behind me, I can kind of on the side [say] I spoke to two hundred developers, everybody’s really tired and stressed out. I can kind of come and say those things, because there’s not going to be the kind of potential consequences to my career, or to my standing in the field. That’s kind of my job as an academic is to point out the negative things, and that was really clear.
In 2019 I also keynoted GCAP when I was doing a lot of the research for the book, and that was kind of my first time presenting the data… I was trying not to be too negative, but a lot of it was everybody’s tired, everybody’s precarious, nobody’s making much money… People came up to me afterwards and said it was really just nice to hear somebody say it out loud, that as a developer they felt like they had to put on a brave face, like ‘Oh, my last game didn’t make much money but maybe the next one will’.
Or the imposter syndrome… where, ‘maybe everybody else is actually doing really well and it’s just me who sucks’… Getting to see me present that zoomed-out view of everybody’s perspective where everybody’s tired, very few people are making much money from it, just like artists in any field… was apparently very reassuring and actually optimistic for a lot of people to be like oh good it’s not just me that sucks…. I’m able to do that as an outsider.
Having a lived experience in games does obviously inform your perspective to write about these topics more broadly. Do you feel there has always been a lack of transparency within games and how they’re represented? Was that something you wanted to bring to this book?
Historically, players in the public have had… very little ability to kind of see behind the veil of… how games are actually made, and who is actually making them. That was particularly true up until the late 2000’s when Triple-A was the… main way games were made.
Triple A has always been very secretive. You’ve got to sign your NDAs, you never talk about the last place you worked… you never talk to journalists… So when indie started becoming a thing… and you would start seeing somebody just tweet out a glitch or a grey box, or some unannounced game they were working on, suddenly you could see, alright these are like people making these things. This isn’t just big black-boxed companies, there’s actual… humanity and kind of creative practice and iteration happening here.
Indie game development has been a hugely important thing… alongside the growth of commercial game engines like Unity and Unreal… Like, historically you wouldn’t show a screenshot of your Editor because you don’t want people to steal your Editor or know that you have a new Editor, whereas now… there’s no real secret about the fact you’re using Unity.
Because there’s more games being made [by smaller scale studios], there’s more games being made in kind of standardised software, we are seeing more and more how games are being made…. I think also there’s more appetite for it. We’re seeing more… documentaries… games journalism, journalists are getting more into actually talking to developers themselves about labour conditions or creative decision-making.
Historically… we haven’t had access to that… we haven’t seen how it works… I think that’s largely led up to the… problems I’ve tried to point out in the book… We have these very limited understandings of how game-making functions as a creative field.
It’s probably pretty easy to get people to agree these days that games are creative, and games are art, or games tell important stories, but we haven’t quite figured out the next step yet of, well what does that mean for the people who make them?
The more and more we normalise and see… the kinds of contexts within people make games – they’re doing them around full-time jobs or they’re not getting paid very much… It’s not just to complain about the precarious nature of it, it’s to point out that it’s actually just like any other creative field. There’s a wide range of ways in which games are made and all of them… matter in different ways for the whole field.
Could you talk about the Australian influences that were highlighted in your book?
Australia is a really interesting case study to point out these broader issues and structures.
On one hand, Australia is really exemplary of what the games industry looks like globally. In the sense that there aren’t that many large companies here, a lot of it is independent and built up from the ground. But on the other hand, it’s pretty exceptional in the particular history of game development here, where we did have a lot of large companies, we did have kind of an existing skill base of people making games, and then that all collapsed after the Global Financial Crisis.
There’s indie developers, there’s small-time developers, there’s hobbyists literally everywhere in the world. But when the large Triple-A skyscrapers are drawing the attention because they make so much money, and hire so many people, and make the most visible games, that’s where researchers and the public are going to be looking.
In Australia… when those large companies all fell apart, suddenly the small-scale stuff was very visible in a way it wasn’t necessarily visible elsewhere.
Triple A is an exception, historically and geographically, for how games are made… If you look at the [GDC State of the Game Industry report]… or any national industry snapshot, the overwhelming majority of game companies are like five people or less… often working in very precarious situations.
In the vast majority of the world there are no Triple-A companies… that’s really just certain cities in North America, Western Europe and East Asia… Beyond those, the vast majority of people are working in indie or small-scale contexts.
Do you think it’s harder for people to recognize games as a cultural field given those precarious contexts they’re being created in?
Also, in reference to your article in The Guardian, would perceiving games as a cultural industry legitimise the field or further encourage local government support?
Historically, the way videogames have managed to get their cultural legitimacy from… politicians, or whoever that never saw them as cultural, was dependent on how much money games make… That was kind of just a really easy, quick way to go, hey maybe games actually matter.
I think the consequence of… showing games as really lucrative, making billions and billions of dollars, obscures the level of precarity most games are made under. Like yes, there is a lot of money, but that money is very heavily concentrated in [publishers] like Sony and Microsoft… There’s a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean people who make games are making a lot of money.
I do worry sometimes that by me pointing out everybody’s poor or everybody’s tired… there’s a really negative way to read that… but what I would hope more is pointing out, games aren’t special… or games aren’t radically different from any other cultural field.
They’re important for the same reason all other cultural fields are important – because of how we express ourselves and how we tell stories about our society and ourselves and whatnot… They’re challenging to work in and to grow companies commercially for the exact same reasons it’s difficult to grow a film company or a literature company or an illustration company.
In terms of government support, the more sincere argument is that you should fund games not only because they make money, but because they are intrinsically culturally important. In an ideal world that would be the argument, but in the current world… all art forms need to… have a kind of commercial justification for government funding, which is unfortunate, but has also kind of been the reality for the last thirty years or so.
Even if the point of your government funding of games is jobs and growth, you still need to understand the particular dynamics of how economics work in a cultural sector as opposed to a tech sector.
There’s been this long history of just thinking of games as tech… or like an indie company as like a ‘software startup’ company. But when you go and speak to these [indie] developers… they don’t actually want to hire fifty people or seventy people, or attract a shit ton of venture capitalist money… They just want to keep making games with their friends… in a way, that’s kind of financially sustainable as well.
A lot of the government funding historically has been [focused on company growth]… and that makes sense if you’re supporting a tech sector, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re supporting a creative sector.
It’s not just about pointing out everything sucks… or that games are art and you should care about them. It’s about [understanding] that there are very particular economic dynamics that happen in a cultural sector that differ to how that operates in a non-cultural sector… That needs to be taken into account both on the individual trying to build a career in games, but also for the company or for the government trying to support those companies as well.
Do you want other people in games to adopt the ideologies presented in your book, or was this an opportunity to share your opinions?
I think I definitely have a political agenda… I’m in cultural studies, and I think cultural studies is like fundamentally Marxist really… So like, I have a very particular understanding of how the world works under capitalism, how labour and creativity work under capitalism… I suppose I don’t see the book as an activist book necessarily… but I would see my work as hopefully… de-mystifying the playing field a little bit.
I guess this is the point of my provocative title – The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist – that, the parts of game making that call themselves the ‘industry’ are only able to exist by extracting a whole lot of value – like commercial value, creative value, social value – out of a much, much broader field of game making activity. Some of which is paid, some of which isn’t… It’s the innovations of people working in Twine or making walking simulators or just jamming in a cafe in Melbourne or whatnot, which then leads to commercial successes… That’s where the skills come from, that’s where the ideas of new genres come from.
Bo Ruberg, who is an academic, has pointed out how GDC and… commercial game developers love to point out like Anna Anthropy or Porpentine as a big influence on their work, or [will] even [invite] them in to speak, [which makes them] look more diverse… more inclusive.
But then at the end of the day, they go back to being a trans woman potentially in poverty making games on the side…. You get to hold up these marginal game developers to make the whole game industry look better, to look more inclusive, more creative, and more experimental, but without having to necessarily do that work yourself or to invest in that work happening.
An example I have from the book is when the Digital Games Tax Offset got announced… it was advertising all of the amazing games being made in Australia… and some of the games in there were small indie games like Florence, or Paperbark, or The Gardens Between… to get the Tax Offset you need to spend at least $500,000 AU to be eligible for it, and some of the games that were in this [advertisement] – I can’t say definitively – but I’m pretty sure would not have been eligible for the Tax Offset that was being advertised.
That’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just showing… the cool games being made here… the skills available here… you should bring your large company here. But we don’t get the large companies without the really cool indie ecosystem that makes it look like a cool place to make games. You need that broader field of activity to attract large companies and to attract money.
[The book is] about drawing attention to that broader field of activity that needs to be supported by governments or at an individual level. You don’t get a game industry by just growing companies, you get it by supporting a creative field.
The themes of this book can be more intimately understood by those who have had lived experience working in games. Is this book targeted to them specifically, or do you want it to resonate with people entirely outside of games or creative industries?
I would really love people who are outside of games, but interested in cultural industries – creative industries more broadly – to read it.
In the academic world, but more broadly as well, I think there’s a tendency to think of games as ‘this separate weird thing over there’. Whereas if you research the film industry, you might still read something about the music industry and vice versa, but you’re probably ignoring games because they’re ‘that weird thing over there’…
At the same time, a lot of the challenges facing the creative industries more broadly – like the rise of digital platforms, the fragmenting of audiences, and the rise of precarious indie work – games are such a perfect place to understand how a lot of that is happening and playing out.
Were there any particular case studies or individuals that influenced your book?
I do think a lot about this one company I saw in Melbourne… They were in The Arcade and I went to interview them and they were just so kind of down, clearly just at their wit’s end. This one person at the company [was] really exhausted, really tired… They were surrounded by all of these other companies in The Arcade that they saw as being incredibly successful… and their own company just hadn’t really had a break. They’d released a few different games [and] none of them had really taken off.
They were all… contracting at other companies to then keep their own lights on, to pay their rent at The Arcade, to keep going. It was clearly just like running them into the ground just mentally, but [there was] a sense of like ‘if we want to be in games, this is how we have to do it. We have to be a company, we have to be successful in all of our peers that are surrounding us.’
When I interviewed them, it really…exemplified what we talked about earlier. Not just the imposter syndrome, but having a very limited understanding of what counts as ‘success’ or a legitimate way to be a game developer. Whereas, I think if that same game developer… had gotten a part-time job in retail or hospitality and just tried making games on the side, I can’t help but wonder if they would’ve had an easier time of it.
The amount of energy and personal resources this person was putting into this company – and on paper was like a Director of this company – but being a Director is probably one of the most precarious people in the games field… The traditional way of just looking at things on paper doesn’t actually reveal the full extent of precarity [or] complexity.
I’m super, super appreciative of… the honesty that a lot of game developers trusted me with when they told me these stories.
What do you want current and future game design students to take away from this book?
For game development students more broadly, what I hope they would get out of it is… on one hand, more respect for what they’re doing as a creative practice… [and] a reality check of… what you’re actually getting into when you sign up for a game development degree, or when you decide that’s what you want to do with your life.
That it is like trying to become a poet, or become an actor, or become a musician, it’s not a linear pathway to employment, especially if you don’t live somewhere with Triple-A companies.
For most people in most places studying game development is like studying Creative Writing… and that’s fine, that’s not a reason not to do it, but it means you need to approach it thinking about non-linear career plans.
Lastly, what are the messages you want all readers to take away from this book?
I guess ultimately that videogames are just like any other creative field… for better and worse… They matter the same way all art matters, not just because they make money, but because people want to express themselves through this medium. This is how people want to tell their stories, this is how people want to understand art and understand their world, and that’s why they’re important, that’s why they deserve respect.
The consequence of that is also that you need to go beyond the most commercial videogames to really understand the complexity of videogames as a creative field.
I don’t mean to stress that ‘weird artsy stuff’ is more important than Call of Duty or Dark Souls, I like my big Triple-A games. But just like Marvel movies aren’t the only type of cinema that exists… games are no more homogenous than any other creative field.
Just like you wouldn’t try to understand the full impact and structures of cinema by just watching some Marvel films, you shouldn’t try to understand the full complexity of videogames by just understanding Triple-A, and the most commercially successful indie games. You need to go beyond that and see the full complexity of what’s going on.