"The reason I started it was because I got sick and tired of going to events and seeing it was just a bunch of white dudes on a panel," says Jake Tucker, organiser of Videobrains, an ongoing series of talks given by people involved in or passionate about the games industry.
I'm conducting a hasty, pre-show interview in the cellar of Meltdown Bar in North London, and Jake is giving off that combination of nervousness, anticipation and excitement that I've witnessed many a time in event organisers. This anxiety tends to be amplified, I find, when it's half an hour 'til showtime and someone's whisked you away from last-minute preparations to ask you questions in a cellar. The bar has steadily filled over the last half an hour and people are squeezing in a couple of pre-show drinks before claiming a chair.
Diversity is key to Videobrains, and taking this approach allows for different voices to get involved, "It's not just about diversity in terms of getting a woman up on stage or a person of colour up on stage, " Jake clarifies, "although that's really important, too. It's also important to get people who don't do games as their primary thing, so we've had people who lecture on game design for example, and that's interesting from a different angle, you know? We've got people from the theatre, we've got game makers, and just enthusiasts. We get a lot of students in as well."
"It's not necessarily a bunch of games journalists and white guys with beards," Jake clarifies. "Our resident speaker, Hannah Nicklin, is from a theatre background and she enjoys making games as a space to explore things, so she talks about things from a different perspective. Next month we have Patrick Ashe who's going to tell us about a series of music video games he's purchased off eBay, so you're gonna see two Peter Gabriel games and the Aerosmith game. It's about games but because we're all passionate about games and enthusiastic about games, it's not just about games."
Events like Videobrains aim to expand the term "gamer" from the increasingly outdated concept of the hardcore console action game or FPS player, "It's really funny, because I will totally preload the new Call of Duty, and I will play through it all and I will love it. But I recognise that those games aren't for everyone. I haven't had a talk about mobile games yet, for example. If I had someone whose sole experience was just playing mobile games on the tube, I'd be all over that. In fact, if anyone's got that, please pitch it!"
Kate Gray, presenter and interviewer at Xbox UK, is talking tonight about the similarities between Homer's The Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda. It's presented in a fun way, with plenty of humour, but ties together the themes and tropes that exist in both in interesting ways. This is Kate's style; funny and interesting, and for her, diversity of audience is something she finds helpful and refreshing.
“It feels like you're talking to a room of people, just a lot of people who I have one thing in common with at least, which is videogames.” says Kate. “It's nice to be talking to a group of people who are diverse enough that they're just a big homogenous group... there's this whole culture of games writing at the moment where women will write about being women and I don't want to talk about being a woman anymore, it's boring. Although that writing is important because people don't know what it's like to be a woman and they need to know, I don't want to have to be the one to do that, I don't want to make all my talks 'here's what it's like to be a lady in games!' because there's only so many ways you can put that."
"You know what's great? Just having ladies sitting in the audience. Most of my best reactions from the two talks I have given here have been from the ladies, and I don't know if they're just more diverse in the sense that they've had different backgrounds and they've had to grow up being a lady, and they understand the things that I'm saying more because I say them in a special language only ladies can hear, or if it's that they're just so happy to see something different."
Aside from gender and ethnic diversity, we discuss the importance of other forms of diversity. "I was really scared about my first talk because it was about anxiety, which was so personal to me. I know that a lot of people in videogames have those kinds of issues, and so I knew I was talking to a group of people where I knew that at least one of those people would probably know how I feel, but the others won't, and that makes it interesting as well. So it's not just about the gender diversity but also the diversity of experiences people have had."
At the start of the night, Holly Gramazio opened the show with an interesting, slightly tongue-in-cheek talk about risk assessment, where she applied the current model of risk assessment to long-forgotten, wildly unsafe, centuries-old games. Holly is a game designer who mainly focuses on creating games in physical spaces, as well as some purely digital experiences. We start a discussion with fellow speaker and friend Hannah Nicklin, a game designer from a theatre and performance background whose talk tonight about psychogeography and game designers just so happened to be about Holly herself.
"I do genuinely believe risk assessments are a good thing," Holly begins. "I've had risk assessments that I've filled out where a game is going to run on a stage. I've filled out a risk assessment and realised 'oh yes, there is a risk someone will fall off that backwards' and then decided to run it on the ground, and then someone has fallen off in a way that, if they were on a stage, it would have been terrible. Risk assessments are good and I don't wish to complain about them, I just, you know... it's a bit sad that I'll never be able to run a game where everyone has to play hide and seek by, y'know, finding a wombat burrow to hide in." She isn't plucking that example out of thin air; she's referring to a game for children called Brajerack, played in Australia in the 1800s.
Hannah and Holly first met three years ago when they both worked for Hide and Seek, a game design studio which looked to test and stretch the boundaries of existing game design. Hannah's talk about psychogeography, which focuses on Holly as the subject, tied in with Holly's talk centring around physical games.
"It's the person in the context of the place. I believe that we are intimately affected by our environments," explains Hannah, "and you can therefore affect your environment and affect yourself back. It's about having the agency to take agency over your environment and how you exist in your environment."
Coming from a performance and theatre background, Hannah's talk was structured in the form of a performative poem, capturing and depicting moments shared and experienced with Holly on a walk together.
"The last talk I did was less directly poetical. This one was intentionally poetical and had these little game-y poems in them. The poems were a response to what Holly said when we were walking about; how she thinks that poetry and the kind of game design she's interested in are ways of a taking an experience or a meaning and folding them down into small things, and then giving them to someone else to unfold themselves.”
"Games are an art form which I believe would be much richer if it were to cross-pollinate with other art forms. One of the reasons Jake said he invited me in was because I come from a performance background as well as a games background - I make theatre as well as making and designing games - so I can bring a different perspective to things. I'm toning down a lot of the things I would usually do in order to break people in gently, but the talks are getting gradually more performative."
So is it a case of working with the limitations of an audience to gradually bring two cultures together? "I would never say 'limitations'," says Hannah. "The words I would use are 'context' and 'experience'. The audience aren't limited, we just find our homes and where we are comfortable in different places, but I think experiences are enriched when they can cross over."
The key, then, will be to find effective ways of pulling different influences and cultures together to create new and interesting games, of all definitions. "I think curators are the lynchpins," Hannah suggests. "Slowly, games are growing in terms of having curators, like Marie Foulston at the V&A, and Patrick Ashe who curates at Beta Public. Curators are, historically, the people who kind of sit back and reflect on a movement and see what's affecting it and what's come before it, and their context is absolutely valuable to be able to see how things fit together."
"I feel like there are lots of situations where games people are quite open to trying out things that are not specifically games," Holly adds, "or have game like elements or playful elements, in a slightly more versatile way. If I try to do a thing that is a physical, game-y thing for an audience that is mostly a theatre audience, then I find them less tractable than a games audience trying to do a thing with elements of physicality and theatre.”
"Games have a built in context of... when we make a game happen we all accept, for the purposes of argument, that certain things are true, even though we know they're not true. With Chess we accept that, for the next hour, it's really important that we tip over this plastic king. But we also accept that for the next hour we can only tip over this plastic king via this complex, interlocking system of rules. We can't kick over the board and go 'ha ha I win', so people who are into games have this background context of going 'okay let's pretend that we care about this', because that what makes the game work, so that's quite a flexible format. Obviously there will always be people who don't like those boundaries being pushed, but there are also a lot of people who are absolutely fine with it".
Bringing people from a wider variety of backgrounds together into one room brings about this kind of discussion. It allows us to consider, absorb and learn from others, both culturally and artistically. By creating events and places that act as meeting points to encourage this diversity, we allow for fresh, interesting new ideas to bubble to the top and breathe new life into an industry often accused of being creatively stagnant.