EMBED WITH… KATHARINE NEIL AND HARVEY SMITH


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I lurk on the edges of Paris, not quite an inhabitant, not quite an outsider. Alexandre Lejeune, a friend of a friend, has left me and it’s raining over the neon of the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. Rumor has it the best bars are at the Bastille, but I choose Place d’Italie and Saint-Denis to lurk. I live for the moments in between, where Cat Power sings to me in silvered tones about rambling and being a woman, just so I can be alone and think about the conversations.

 

I am full to burst of conversation. I am full to burst of stories, stories about games culture and how to negotiate a bank balance stuck on nothing. Of a full four weeks to the brim on stories of young travel and accidental marriage and anarchy and how the French love and hate.

 

Rewind.

 

———

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I woke ontop of a chiptune artist that morning with a letter for the US embassy and a dreadful hangover. I took two buses taking two hours in the London Tube strike whilst trying to avoid throwing up on small children; when I explained to the US embassy that I write about games for a living the woman laughed and said ‘Well somebody has to' and they stamped ISSUE hell yes, and I took a train to Middlesbrough and interviewed Karla Zimonja tired in bars, threw all my belongings out of my Brighton house and packed two bags from the debris, flew them to California and sat in cars and over late night doughnuts with Tim Rogers for weeks, flew to AMAZE Berlin and woke up at 4am to Chipzel sweating post-gig in my hotel room a packet of crisps in her hand, fell back asleep and I was holding a glass of Merlot in Rue du Faubourg, Paris next to a couple trying to eyefuck each other into orgasm. There is no chiptune artist here, either naked or eating crisps. I look, dazed, at the wine in my hand.

 

Ah, Paris. Are you there, Paris? I try to slide my foot near it under the table. Paris is that tall man with the five o’clock shadow who believes in the ‘chase’. Paris is a mind older than Oakland, much craftier than London.

 

———-

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A TEMPLE FOR ALL OUR GODS

 

The story begins in a place called Chartier. I sit opposite New Zealand-born game developer Katharine Neil. We’ve ordered champignons and the cheapest wine on the menu, and I am trying to defend US-born Deus Ex designer Harvey Smith. Both Katharine and Harvey live here in France. They are both on The List.

 

“People should know who Harvey is,” Katharine says, horrified, surrounded in enclaves of brass and wood, the roof high and old.

 

“There’s a temple for all of our gods, big and small, past and present,” I say, the cut of steak knives through bloody meat around us. “And pretty much everyone goes there for inspiration… But the statues were never inscribed in the first place, unless you’re Cliff Bleszinski, maybe Warren Spector. That’s just how it is.” There shouldn’t be a canon, but there always ends up being one, and it’s never enough. And the people who decide it are always the ones with the money.

 

Katharine has been telling me she is unsurprised to hear that no one has heard of her, but she is appalled that anyone who makes games would ask who Dishonored’s Harvey Smith is. Yet Katharine Neil is the never-heard-of game developer that everyone should know about. I shift uncomfortably every time Katharine self-denigrates, which is often.

 

HIDDEN BY THE SQUARE JAW OF KIP NEIL

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Katharine Neil has been developing games since 1998. A professional game designer, sound designer, and programmer: a triple threat if you will. She worked on a string of AAA titles in Australia for places like Atari and Infogrames, and switched in and out of various roles in development. Alongside her work in the commercial industry, she created game-based artwork and fostered game development within the Australian arts community: Katharine co-founded Free Play in 2004 with Marcus Westbury, Australia’s now annual independent game developers conference.  She’s now in Paris completing her PhD in Tools For Game Design at Conservatoire Nationale des Arts et Métiers and Flinders University in South Australia, and has worked with Lady Shotgun Games on Buddha Finger as well as producing her own projects.

 

She’s also the most politically opinionated developer I’ve ever met.

 

In 2003 Katharine, veteran current affairs journalist Kate Wild, veteran designer Ian Malcolm, and a team of extremely talented game developers risked their jobs and future careers to make the political sucker-punch game Escape From Woomera. Katharine was the Creative Director. The Half-life mod prototype explored the real life injustices of asylum seekers who were imprisoned in the Woomera Detention Centre in Australia in direct defiance of UN stipulations. It provides the player with a way to experience the difficult situations and understand the decisions of someone up against the bureaucracy and injustice of the state. The aim is to get out of the Detention Centre, something only a few asylum seekers had done at the time. Asylum seekers were asked to contribute their stories and they were interpreted into the game design as accurately as possible. You can play the prototype through as several different asylum seekers, who each reveal different stories and ways to escape.

 

POLITICS VERSUS GAMES

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The Australian Council for the Arts awarded $25,000 to the team to have Escape From Woomera developed. This was not a popular decision with the Australian Minister of Immigration Phillip Ruddock, or the head of the Refugee Council of Australia, Margaret Piper. Ruddock thought the game would make Australia look bad (as opposed to the real policies the game portrayed in detail), and Piper thought that because it was a videogame it would ‘trivialize’ the issue - a popular opinion amongst the conservative left. The team was called on by Channel Nine, the Today Show, ABC Radio, The Age, and several other media outlets to justify themselves. The New York Times wrote a feature on games that it said depicted a new ‘grim reality’. It was the largest ideological fistfight a game had ever instigated: bare knuckle with a government, using its own funding. It told the Australian government in no uncertain terms that if games aren’t art they certainly mean something.

 

Years later Daniel Golding at ABC would write this excellent retrospective on the controversy here. Woomera Detention Centre has now been shut down, but other detention centres have been consolidated in its wake. The game’s website has been placed in an Australian national internet archive called Pandora, a place I like to imagine is the online version of the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

 

“The Minister for Culture ordered an inquiry into how the project could be funded,” Katharine says to me whilst she cooks in her tiny Saint-Denis kitchen. “The Minister for Immigration said what we were doing was illegal, because we were encouraging refugees to break the law.”

 

What good’s an honest soldier if he can be ordered to behave like a terrorist? - Deus Ex

The media frenzy began when Katharine answered questions on the game anonymously for the Sydney Morning Herald. She was working for Atari at the time, and she remained anonymous throughout Woomera’s development for fear of losing her job. She suspected she would be fired if she went public because a year earlier she’d written a political article entitled “Fight to the death: military versus the modder” criticising the first person shooter America’s Army, and her boss brought her into his office and warned her that she shouldn’t be writing political screeds. When Katharine co-founded Freeplay in 2004, she sat in the audience of her own talk on Escape From Woomera and answered questions on her laptop via text-to-speech to retain her anonymity, like something from a spy film.

“I regret not having the balls to go oh fuck it if I get the sack then…whatever,” Katharine says now. “I’d have had more of a profile,” citing that now perhaps her authority and credibility to change things would be greater.

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Few people in games have heard of Katharine. She was afraid that if people knew her name, she would lose her livelihood. Until recently Katharine was undercover on Twitter as hot Aussie bloke ‘Kip Neil’, her disguise a picture of the most square-jawed man she could find for an avatar (she tells me this was part of an experiment to see if people really do listen more to men). (When she first started to talk to me on Twitter under this guise I was delighted, so perhaps it works.)

 

Escape From Woomera was only a prototype mod, but its legacy managed to create a conversation that forced people to consider games as a cultural force for deeper thought. “That was the main conversation people were having in the comment threads,” Katharine says when I ask her if it changed people’s perception of games. “The idea that games might not just be commercial! That they might be culturally relevant. People went from ‘urgh, you’re a game developer’ to changing their minds,” Katharine says.  “The idea that you could even fucking string a sentence together, that you could have serious ideas and don’t want to corrupt the children…”

 

The Australian public got behind the idea, even if the government didn’t. People started to ask each other if games were art, even if they didn’t quite believe it. A few key people in the establishment stood up for the project. But some people with funding in the cultural establishment tried, in the beginning, to prevent Katharine’s team from making Escape From Woomera.

 

Katharine shakes her head. “‘You can’t make entertainment out of serious issues’, they said. Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator! The number of people who told me beforehand - you can’t do this, you can’t do this, you can’t do this. Maybe you could do this ten years from now. Maybe you could do it if it’s not a game.

 

“One woman said, ‘We don’t fund mass market projects’. I said ‘Well it’s an art project’. ‘But it’s a game.’ ‘It’s political. It’s art. It’s got political content.’ ‘We’re a bi-partisan organisation.’

 

““I was thinking, you work for an arts organisation, Jesus fucking Christ,” she continues. “The amount of people who said, ‘You can’t do it. You won’t be able to do it. You should just give up.’”

 

But she did do it. She did it anyway.

 

———

TO LYON

This isn’t a training exercise, JC. Your targets will be human beings.  - Deus Ex


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“I’m glad you’re writing about Katharine,” Harvey Smith would say to me in his Lyon apartment. “I’ve known Katharine Neil since something like 2001, and I feel like everyone in videogames should know who she is. Around that time I bumbled into Escape From Woomera, and Beyond Manzanar. And people like Katharine were taking things like the Doom engine and making more meaningful installation type work with those things. Those were proto-art games, proto-indie games. Leah and I have visited her a couple of times since we moved here. I love our conversations.”

 

Harvey Smith was a keynote speaker and guest speaker on a panel about politics in games at Freeplay, when Katharine organised it in 2004.  “Katharine taught me the term ‘the dog’s breakfast,’ talking about politics in the early 2000s, and I will always be grateful,” Harvey said.

 

“It was good for me to meet Harvey,” Katharine would tell me later. “I’d never met such a non-blokey games designer before. I was like wow, in America they have games designers who are vegetarians, and who talk about feelings.”

 

Now that I have spent a good amount of time living with Harvey and Katherine it’s obvious that they like each other and admire each other. They are both used to scraping by on nothing, both used to using the wiles they have to claw their way into life. “I got married once,” Katharine once drops in over lunch, “For the bigger student allowance.”

 

“…I should probably get divorced.”

 

Harvey and Katharine are both chameleons, adjusting to their environment and gathering what they can to make the things they need to make. They have lived in various different countries, different world governments have shaped their thoughts wherever they went. It’s made them care about others deeply. There’s a greatly empathetic working class politic that weaves bright through both Katharine and Harvey’s wakes.

 

“Bravery is not a function of firepower.” - Deus Ex

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In 2006 Harvey won the GDC Game Design Challenge against other notables, Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski and Katamari Damacy’s Keita Takahashi, for Peace Bomb. It was a sneaknet-based grassroots organising game arbitrated (hypothetically) through handheld consoles.  But this wasn’t a one off. Harvey’s game design history is peppered with a particular cynicism of government control (Deus Ex), a deep and personal expression of the rich-poor divide (Dishonored), and an expression of anxiety over violence as a solution to anything runs deep through both. This latter point in particular is still unusual in big budget videogames, even today. Harvey displays a constant engagement through his work and personal life with political issues. Currently Harvey resides at Arkane, where he enjoys a close creative partnership with Raphael Colantonio, whom he often speaks warmly of.

 

“Me and Raph were always talking about the crushed per cent of the population, scrabbling for their lives,” Harvey says of Dishonored’s development. “I think all of that circles around, it influences you in some way.”

 

Harvey Smith is one of our very best in the murky echelons of publisher-funded large-scale works. His considerable life before videogames is woven into the fabric of the games he makes. To hear Harvey speak about the state of US politics is to understand a great deal about how frustrated he is with the way things are, but also to understand exactly why though he grew up immersed in conservative ideologies, he slowly came to have a progressive outlook on life. Harvey and I often talk about feminism and how games can be made to represent women better throughout my stay.

 

It’s apparent that Harvey has had a pretty hard life. He was born on the Gulf Coast to a fifteen year old mother who died of a drug problem when Harvey was six. He moved in with his father, a welder, who was abusive toward Harvey and who eventually took his own life. Harvey couldn’t afford to go to college, and so joined the Air Force and was posted in Germany, where he found solace in the books his literature professor proscribed - “Nabokov, Alice Walker”. It made him into a writer. After his first marriage ended, he met Leah, someone who aside from being his intellectual equal, seems to challenge him and support him, and is an important pillar of the Austin games community in her own right. They are now married and live together in Lyon, France.

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But Harvey is quick to point out that he only began to have things together in his life when he turned thirty - after seven years of therapy to repair the damage that his early life caused him. He talks about how blessed he feels now, to do things such as go to London and walk around grand old buildings in his research for Dishonored. “I appreciate that so much,” he says. “I don’t think most people in games realise, I don’t think even most games journalists realise, relative to people on the planet… If you add up the seven billion people on the planet, and you build a pyramid, the conceptual base being the bulk of the people and the conditions that they live in to this pinnacle where like Gwyneth Paltrow lives… I think most people would be shocked to see where they are on that. Many of us are just incredibly lucky. Incredibly privileged.”

 

I ask Harvey candidly why he hasn’t ‘gone indie’ yet. His taste in games more often corresponds with small budget games than AAA. “A lot of the games I really love right now are indie games,” he says, whilst I fiddle with Steam. “Of the indie games I encounter I probably love about 15% of them. Of the triple A games I encounter I probably like 2% of them or something. There are different constraints for both as a developer, whether you’re a triple A path or an indie path. But when a game works for me it doesn’t matter to me, whether it’s Red Dead Redemption or Sir, You Are Being Hunted, there’s something I’m chasing. Last year my favourite games were Gone Home and Papers, Please, but I also played State of Decay.”

 

Describing his past to me, Harvey says that an important consideration is how your background contextualizes your feelings about what you do for a living. He explains that if you grew up in a very privileged family where everyone has very high expectations of you, you might never be satisfied with any one place in the world. But come from the Gulf Coast and have a life like his, and you might consider yourself very lucky to be where you are, working with good people under good conditions.

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Our conversation turns to funding, one of the reasons Harvey says he is wary of going independent.

 

“A really complicated piece of it is how do you fund it?” he says. “It’s really easy to say, oh just do it. …But everyone’s circumstances are different. I have younger friends now, I’m not exaggerating  - who have a hundred thousand dollars of student loan debt. Conversely I know people who live on trust funds. I also know people who live on a couch and just starved for three years to make it work. I know people who very cleverly worked in AAA for a while, paid off their house, got renters for their house and used that as a supplementary income.”

 

The US in particular can be a risky place to ‘go indie’ when important support such as healthcare is provided through companies instead of taxes.

 

“The US makes it very easy to start businesses if you already have access to funds and all,” he says. “If you do really well, you keep all of the money. But on the other hand the safety net and the things that people in the US see as a fundamental right are limited. It can be frustrating. I look at this like a game designer. If you looked at all the levers that you have in terms of a GDP, you could tweak it so that off the very high end you take some money and put it on the low end, so that everybody has a base subsistence. If you get sick you’re taken care of, and if you’re elderly you’re taken care of, or you have a year of maternity leave. Things like that that stabilise a society. It enables people to take more risks. I’m living in France right now, and I’m working with a guy who took a few years off to be an actor and eventually he ended up in videogames.  Now he draws from both of those fields.”

 

———

PAS DE CULTURE SANS DROIT SOCIAUX 

It’s odd that I should be here in France to see these two people, because before I arrived I had no idea how much their ideologies compliment each other. One would almost think that at France’s heart it encourages political engagement, one would almost think that its culture and indulging of the arts and its outlook on the world and endorsement of people’s entitlement - nay right - to joy - one would think it would encourage a certain type of person to move from the country of their birth to sit and talk with likeminds.

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When I first got to Katharine’s flat in Saint Denis, Paris, her flatmate Marion wasn’t around. Marion was out at a demonstration with a friend. France’s intermittents were demonstrating in a squat.

Intermittents are those who get a certain amount of unemployment ‘insurance’ from the French government in return for working in certain arts, like theatre or dance, sometimes digital installations. France is currently reforming this legislation. The reform is going to reduce the money they are given. Marion’s friend is an actor.

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There is a sense in France that everyone has the right to joy, and that art helps spread this joy. Joy is government supported. At a tulip festival in Saint Denis, for example, there was a forest set up like a little fair with wooden analogue games for children to play, and they are rewarded with small slide shows or music for ‘winning’ - putting the ball in the hole, or for negotiating a maze.

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There was a carousel set up that was so elaborately made - all moving parts, hinges on a wooden owl’s wings that a young girl could flap. France thinks that everyone has the right to play.

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Unfortunately, this does not entirely extend to videogames yet, although la Gaîté lyrique, a digital arts and modern music centre in Paris, does a little to display games’ promise.

———

Human beings may not be perfect, but a computer program with language synthesis is hardly the answer to the world’s problems. - Deus Ex

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Katharine Neil has moved away from attempting to make overtly political games and into her own projects, such as the narrative led Alone In The Park and several other prototypes for mobile and PC. This is partly because she felt burned by her earlier efforts, but also because the direction the ‘social impact’ game industry is taking is not to her liking. In the past Katharine has been a critic of Games For Change, beginning with when a game awarded a prize by Games for Change, Urgent Evoke, was funded and co-designed by the World Bank. At one point in her life, Katharine was teargassed by the World Bank. “Paolo [Pedercini] said this a few days ago in his talk,” she says, “He said these big NGOs, these aren’t my politics. I feel the same.”

 

Why make games then? Are games still an extension of the political self, even if you do not explicitly set out to send a political message? The old saying, the personal is political, is worn, but it’s still true that unless games are very personal or focus on one particular life outlook, they lack a narrative punch, and when they do have narrative punch that often has political implications. Papers, Please, and Gone Home, two of Harvey’s favourite games, are two games that show very clearly that the personal is politically provocative. Papers, Please shows the ramifications of one border control person’s decisions on whole nations and families, whilst Gone Home explicitly sets out to tell the story of a young queer girl, a narrative long neglected by games.

 

Harvey’s games clearly show that narratively, ordinary people and their decisions matter to him, and throughout the dialogue and systems in both Deus Ex and Dishonored a struggle is shown: people struggling to get by. A constant awareness of how human bonds may influence outcomes. In the very beginning of Deus Ex, the player is urged by a character to consider NPCs as ‘human beings’ rather than terrorists, and how much you adhere to this has ramifications throughout all the game’s systems. Deus Ex is a prime example of using systems, the CCTV systems, or AI systems, in order to have a different outcome, just as he talked about in his analysis of the US wealth imbalance. He is in it for the struggle. For the switch-flipping. For how those little situations can become meaningful, larger than themselves.

But games can also bring a sense of fulfilment to the player from negotiating systems in a way that is satisfying, even thrilling, in a way that sometimes life is not.

 

“[Games can be] this series of desperate improvisational actions where you have to get creative and do something under duress that makes your heart race, raises goosebumps,” he says. “State of Decay recently gave me that from one of their most trivial missions, just because of the systems involved. It was me interacting with systems in a very dramatic way. The game game me just enough tools to solve the problem in a creative way. It was incredibly difficult. And it was like when I played Farcry 2. It was that experience. But only rarely do games give me that big, first person, systems driven experience in a coherent, convincing world, with a good sense of movement and ‘sticky friction’… We specifically made Dishonored, from a place of passion, to do all of that.”

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But even though Katharine stopped making explicitly political games, they are still political to her. The act of creation is political to her.

 

“Games are the artform of our time,” she tells me, late at night. “I wanted to be a concert pianist when I was young, but in terms of class and history… What would I be giving to anyone? It’s what people are doing in the world now. They’re playing games.

 

“I do love opera, especially 17th century French Opera, and I did want to become an opera singer, and I learned baroque opera singing. However your audience… I just want to be engaged with contemporary culture. And I want to make culture.”

 

“It’s a class thing as well for me,” she elaborates. “Games, arcades and stuff that I remember from growing up in the eighties - playing a game while waiting for your fish and chips. It was a real working class art.

 

“Games are the underdog artform. Culturally, I feel comfortable there.”

——-

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I lurk on the edges of Paris, not quite an inhabitant, not quite an outsider. Alexandre Lejeune, a friend of a friend, has left me and it’s raining over the neon of the Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants. Rumor has it the best bars are at the Bastille, but I choose Place d’Italie and Saint-Denis to lurk. I live for the moments in between, where Cat Power sings to me in silvered tones about rambling and being a woman, just so I can be alone and think about the conversations.

 

 

 

 

 

"Despite pleas from certain [Freeplay] speakers that the role of independent game development is to fill the niches that are not profitable for the large publishers, there seems to be a long way to go before the notion of independent game development being able to co-exist alongside commercial games development is an acceptable mantra." - PC Powerplay, Issue 102, 2004.

 

 

 

HARVEY’S BOOK BIG JACK IS DEAD
KATHARINE ON ALONE IN THE PARK
"THE BEST PC GAME OF ALL TIME"
CHEAP DRUNK GAMES
ARKANE
A RAMBLIN’ (WO)MAN