FILM critic Roger Ebert caused a million gamers to gnash their teeth in 2005 when, after reviewing the movie based on the computer game Doom, he stated video games were not art. (Nobody was offended the movie itself was not considered art; it starred Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson, after all.)
The art of games is one of many things under discussion at the independent games festival Freeplay, on now until Sunday at the State Library and ACMI.
Festival director Paul Callaghan says it's the responsibility of game-makers to step up and make their own case. ''Let's just accept 'Video games are art' as true, but how specifically are they art? What is unique about them, and how can they be used to make art? That's a far more interesting conversation,'' he said.
Cultural conversation is the prime directive of Freeplay. The program brings art and games together Hadron Collider-style by pairing traditional artists with game experts to discuss the ways in which each influences the other; therefore, games journalist Katie Williams will trade words with poet Katie Keyes, while Andrew Pogson from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will swap notes with game audio director Emily Ridgway.
Panel discussions will attack broader issues such as sex and death, giving game-makers the opportunity to make their own analysis of violence in video games, instead of leaving it to certain media outlets. It's an issue made topical by last week's release of the revised game classification system for 2013 that includes the new R18+ category.
Art curated for the festival explores the theme from within; South African game critic Pippa Tshabalala's series Telling Death blogs an image of each of her digital victims from the game Grand Theft Auto, encouraging readers to write the stories of these unremembered dead.
Since its inception in 2004, Freeplay has focused on independent games, a wave that was breaking big just as Callaghan and then co-director Eve Penford-Dennis took over the festival reins in 2008. Digital distribution has matured, along with new platforms such as smartphones and the resurgence of PC gaming, making it feasible for anyone to make and publish games, whether for commercial or artistic reasons.
Before that, most local developments were large teams making console games for overseas publishers. The change in the Melbourne industry came in 2009 with the closure of Transmission Games, followed in successive years by Krome, Visceral and BlueTongue, as gaming tastes changed worldwide and the strong Australian dollar took the shine off IT export. The studio system that Freeplay once reacted against is in decline; the indies may have inherited the Earth.
Defining what it means to be indie is a challenge for Freeplay, according to Callaghan.
''In 2008, it basically meant you didn't work for a studio, but since then indie has evolved to mean financially independent, indie as aesthetic, the indie type of game, indie as lifestyle choice, independent as hobbyist or emerging practitioner,'' he said.
Callaghan has worked for studios and independents, both as a programmer and freelance writer. He has his own definition of an indie game. ''It's a game which feels like someone cared about it,'' he said. ''It wasn't made because there was a gap in the market. It's a game which is doing something interesting, where you can see some aspect of the person behind it.''
That definition can extend to big-budget games with an artistic sensibility, such as the trance-like synaesthetic shooter Child of Eden, by Japanese game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who is appearing at Freeplay courtesy of the ACMI Game Masters exhibition.
New voices are rising, and Callaghan looks forwards to the results. ''There's a new generation of developers coming up who have grown up with games, who care about games and want to explore what that means,'' he said. ''Freeplay provides a space for discussion of games as art and cultural product, what that means for a community looking out to the world, and what that means for a world looking at the community.''
With the possible exception of Ebert, the world is ready to play.
An Evening with Tetsuya Mizuguchi, 6.15pm tonight at ACMI. Freeplay runs until September 23 at the State Library and ACMI. One-day pass $20, two-day pass $35. Entry to the Arcade and Expo is free; freeplay.net.au