The Problem with Writer’s Festivals

Another year, another successful Melbourne Writer’s Festival—and for more than just the invigorating discussion. See, I’ve come to a conclusion regarding these leftist carnivals. As much as the topics are far-reaching and the guests worldly, there is far too much agreement and not enough argument. But I digress; first, a recap.

My festival began on the first Saturday with a session called Money? Don’t Worry with author John Armstrong. I had recently read his contribution to the School of Life series, and in his conversation he mostly reinforced the points of his book. He has an alternative approach to money; that is, keep to your means and don’t let it rule your decisions. Fair point, and there is a lot to take away from his philosophising, particularly the degrees of wants and needs.

I would have to wait a week before the majority of the sessions took place. When it came it was a cranial overload, and I was deftly taking down notes for most speakers. On the second Friday and Saturday I saw a huge range of writers, thinkers, and legends. Physics on the Fringe with author Margaret Wertheim gave me a bunch of  potential ideas for a novel I plan on starting (soon). Lee Gutkind impressed me with his ideas of immersive nonfiction and the great lengths he goes through to produce his books. And I got my first taste of Germaine Greer (gross?), who had some really fantastic viewpoints. I agreed with a lot of what she said, and she presented some fresh angles for such topics as rape, marriage and Aboriginal land rights. Money stayed a consistent theme throughout the festival, and the future of the world economy. What kind of balance can we strike between socialism, capitalism, democracy and human happiness? But there was one session that gave me a totally different sort of insight.

There has been something that irks me about Writer’s Festivals in general. The collective thinking, the confirmation bias, and the fact that the only people who go to talks are the ones who already support their ideas. They are a communion of left-leaning, white-haired, here-here touting pacifists. And it was at the Stories and Systems sessionmade up of  Paul Callaghan, Christy Dena, Alison Croggon, and chaired by Dan Golding—where it all made sense. I went in as an outsider, and left remaining one. The talk was all about how narratives in games play out (or don’t as the case may be). The panelists came from a writerly perspective (theatre, books, and a games writing), which to me is hugely biased. Their perspective on what games are and can be are hideously divergent from mine. That is to say, they believe cut-scenes are not a lazy addition to game grammar, and that choices—and hence player agency—are an illusion. I went in there knowing this would happen, and had a question planned to disrupt their propaganda.

It didn’t work. I had hoped they would at least provide a balanced view of stories in games—alas, this was not the case. At no point did the talkers reflect on how powerful emergent gameplay can be. Instead they congratulated the stories of Dear Esther, Mass Effect, and Bioshock. I asked them why developers insisted on perpetuating the ad hoc method of shoving film and other traditional media into videogames, only to be laughed down. “Games can be anything,” they proclaimed, “I think we need to stop aiming for a definitive answer of ‘What is a Videogame’!” I mentioned Day Z and Minecraft, but not a single panelist talked about these games in a meaningful way. I suppose it was my fault for mentioning the popularity of these real games, coupled with the commercial rejection of things like Spec Ops: The Line. “Popularity isn’t everything; artists make what the want.” Oh boy, here we go. I could go on—and I will—but the point is that these discussions need to present alternatives.

I doubt everyone in the audience agreed with Germaine Greer (I could be wrong), but she’s an outlier, an agent provocateur in her own words. The majority of the attendees at every conversation I attended went in already persuaded. Can we start inviting Devil’s Advocates? Can we get another point of view? Surely the very definition of liberal is being open to a variety of opinions. And yet, would the audiences still show up if they knew their ideologies were to be challenged? I would hope so.


Respected writers Tim Schafer and Erik Wolpaw told PAX Prime 2012 audiences that games which favour player agency over directed narrative may be the future of the entire medium.

From here:

Nice to see some validation from actual game makes.

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One thought on “The Problem with Writer’s Festivals

  1. Ailsa says:

    Well put and good on you for posing the tricky question/s………….any question and answers sessions available? maybe more debate at these? AW

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