This episode we speak with Dr. Xavier Ho, discussing his data visualisation and design research, as well as the curation process of the thoughtful queer indie games exhibition ‘Pride at Play’ (https://prideatplay.org/). It is part 5 of a special 6-episode Season of Keywords in Play, exploring intersections and exchanges between Chinese and Australian game studies scholarship. This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Xavier Ho is a lecturer and a queer games researcher at Monash University. He received the inaugural CSIRO Medal for Diversity and Inclusion, was appointed as Junior Chair in Sexuality Studies at the Hunt-Simes Institute in Sydney, and was named a 2023 Australian Broadcast Corporation TOP 5 Arts media resident. You can check out his work here: https://jtg.design/, and follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/Xavier_Ho.
The podcast series is part of the Engaging Influencers initiative. This initiative is curated by the Australia Council for the Arts and funded by the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations.
As a joint venture, “Keywords in Play” expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Our goal is to highlight the work of graduate students, early career researchers and scholars from under-represented groups, backgrounds and regions. The primary inspiration comes from sociologist and critic Raymond Williams. In the Preface to his book Keywords: a vocabulary of culture and society, Williams envisaged not a static dictionary but an interactive document, encouraging readers to populate blank pages with their own keywords, notes and amendments. “Keywords in Play” follows Williams in affirming that “The significance is in the selection”, and works towards diversifying the critical terms with which we describe games and game culture.
Please consider supporting Critical Distance at https://www.patreon.com/critdistance
Interviewer: Hugh Davies
Production Team: Darshana Jayemanne, Emilie Reed, Zoyander Street
Audio Direction and Engineering: Damian Stewart
Double Bass: Aaron Stewart
Special Thanks: Mahli-Ann Butt, Chloe Yan Li
Transcription: Safya Devautour
Darshana: You’re listening to Keywords in Play, an interview series about game research supported by Critical Distance and the Digital Games Research Association.
As a joint venture, Keywords in Play expands Critical Distance’s commitment to innovative writing and research about games while using a conversational style to bring new and diverse scholarship to a wider audience.
Mahli-Ann: Welcome to Keywords in Play, I am Mahli-Ann Butt and today we have a wonderful guest, Dr. Xavier Ho! It’s such a pleasure to have you, I think we’re going to have a very special episode in learning about your very unique background, your career path, as well as Pride at Play, the queer indie game exhibition that Xavier spearheaded and I was very lucky to be a part of. Welcome, Xavier!
Xavier: You’re very important to be “a part of”, Mahli-Ann, thank you and hello!
Mahli-Ann: So good to have you! So, Xavier, would you like to introduce yourself and where you are at now, and maybe how you got here?
Xavier: Yeah, I’ll talk about where I’m at now and then we can kind of get a bit deeper later on. So, I’m a full-time academic at Monash Design, I’m a 40:40:20 teaching and research academic, and teaching side of things I come from interaction design. So that’s your user experience design, that’s your interaction screen-based touch and user journeys. As well as digital visualisation and interactive artworks. So, I kind of have this really bizarre wide range of digital skills that we can get into later, and my research is on LGBTQ videogames and tabletop games, hopefully, down the line. So, really interested to interview game designers that have a queer background or intersect their work in the queer community, whether that is looking at sort of self-expression or political activism, storytelling, or even educational games. By the way, I’m really interested to find out sort of their motivations, why they are doing the work they do, as well as the type of sort of responses the medium has out there and how they can make their work more financially sustainable and also hopefully have a good reception in the public interest. Trying to document the work that’s been happening throughout the years, because as we know if you don’t document digital stuff they go away and videogames in particular, just like – you know, films on Netflix and Apple TV once they get pulled off, they disappear forever. So, when you ship a game you don’t physically ship anything, you upload them to a platform like Steam and itch.io and if that ever gets taken down or if your publisher decides that’s time to move on, no one else can download your game anymore, and that’s only on the PC before the console if there are, you know, if there are stopped and you can’t get a copy of hardware to play the game, that’s all going to be a problem. So, we kind of, in the videogame research space I think we share the same dilemma with other digital scholars when it comes to archival and documentation. And yeah, I kind of dabble, I guess, into curation more recently with Pride at Play because we, I think you and I both, Mahli-Ann, wanted to do some kind of games curation and we talked about this back in July/June 2022, I think… Something like that. And we just kind of align with having this exhibition, let’s put together a game exhibition that is all about queer games which I was very very happy to figure out what that looks like and learn a lot from collaborators, like Chloe Appleby from Sidney Powerhouse and other people like Adrienne Shaw who did the Rainbow Arcade in Berlin as well, so sort of following the footsteps of people who have done videogames exhibitions and trying to work out what that looks like in Sidney’s WorldPride and then Melbourne later on. That’s about me!
Mahli-Ann: It’s such important work and also absolutely a learning experience with Pride at Play! As being involved in it, I’ve definitely learned a lot!
Xavier: We learned so much.
Mahli-Ann: In a short amount of time and I think it’s impressive how much came together in such a short amount of time.
Xavier: Yeah, I think the whole timeline was… We can dig into this later as well, but it was like four to six months for the initial bit.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, and it was toured twice, right, Sidney and Melbourne. Yeah, I think a year, like twelve months, is probably a better timeline. Let’s double that, next time! So where are you at, now, at Monash, full-time academic, how did you start off? So, you’re currently in Design. What was your PhD in?
Xavier: It’s kind of interesting to think about it because it is in design, right? It’s a full-on data visualisation piece I want to call ‘Idea Networks in Games’. So, if we can think about how we search and classify video games like genres and tags, and the things that we describe like game mechanics and action-platformers, and the resource management, that kind of thing. It’s quite difficult to capture a lot of games using these very high-level generated tags. So if you say your game is like top-down isometric co-op couch with some kind of puzzle elements, it’s really hard to describe what that game is, even though you can kind of go “Oh yeah, there is maybe… I can think of a few games like this in that category”, if you are familiar with those terms but it’s not really good enough to describe “oh if you like this game you may like this other one too”, right? There are other reasons why we might seek out other video games through like referrals and recommendations, shall we say, though I was really interested to look at: What about genealogies of histories? If we’re borrowing say… Setting a game in Rome, into Rome, what other games are set in Rome? Maybe that’s the reason why someone may be looking at games like that, or telling similar stories through maybe a pattern that might have been weaved through it, say folklore or a particular culture, so you draw from the same characters but you kind of have different adaptations, that’s also quite interesting. And that can lead itself to say fictional characters and real historical characters that may be adapted into a videogame and then there is a sequel and then there is different platforms and different kind of things. I was really interested to find out if you started out with a concept, that may be a location or an event and then there is a game adaptation of that: How many adaptations are they and what do they all look like and how they are different? That’s another way to kind of trace sort of how a particular piece of culture has kind of come about. I was really interested in this idea of an idea network and then used the word ‘idea network’ because I didn’t want to be just solely focused on an event or character. I wanted to be like: here, say, a very abstract word which is ‘ideas’ and how does that sort of permeate throughout? So, I applied a lot of different network thinking, so thinking about tracing back in time like citation networks, thinking about the DNA theory, thinking about how scientific citations have been preserved today and how we can find prior works by looking at bibliographies, but videogames don’t really have, I guess, the luxury of that. No one cites other games in the credits! So, trying to formulate a pretty crude but decent method that I can study, you know, massive numbers of games. So we’re talking about a couple thousand at a time, in a pool of genres, like roguelike or other things, to see how we can at least get close to thinking about if you like this game and this game is based on something you will find other games that are based on similar things like Lord of the Rings or like the typical Dungeon Crawler sort of Fantasy, with like a key at the bottom of the thing that you have to come out again or like an escape, you know, this horrible realm that you’re going somewhere and that can be H.P. Lovecraft, that can be something else. So, looking for games that have these similar genealogies and looking at how to sort of represent them visually and then provide a search platform or like a tool, so someone can kind of find and trace where this comes from, could be quite interesting. So, I did a few, sort of like, preliminary work, I would say, of that. I haven’t got a chance to revisit it, in the sense that it would be really cool to have like a fully hosted version where people can actually use the tool online, rather than just my little personal PhD tool that I made in order to do the research, because I still had to answer the research question which was: What would this idea network look like? How would you define such a network by its points and connections? And how would you describe those points and connections? Like are they direct influences or are they inferred influences and how can you justify that? So, I was spending more time doing that as well. It was very fun though! I also forgot to mention I did a few papers on game jams and hackathons, that’s kind of how I got started and stumbled into games studies.
Mahli-Ann: Alright! I mean, I can see the progression, because I know the progression, it is similar but different, right? Still in design, in many ways. So, Pride at Play!
Xavier: Ok! Pride at Play!
Mahli-Ann: Do you want to walk us through the process of Pride at Play, maybe starting with what we displayed? And then I guess working back from how we got there.
Xavier: Yeah, Pride at Play, if I can give a description for the listeners who haven’t seen it. We opened it on the 21st of February in 2023 at the Sidney College of the Arts’ project space. We were very lucky because we knew someone at Sidney Uni who knew someone who knew someone that said “Could you please give this space to us?” and they were like “Yeah, sure, your project looks really interesting!” and they wanted to support us as part of Sidney WorldPride. So we were given this space that was about, I want to say 5×11 meters but no one can visualise what that looks like… If you walk from the left to the right side for the shorter five meters of the space, you could do it in about seven to eight normal adult steps. So that gives you an idea about how big it is, slightly bigger than a normal apartment bedroom and eleven meters imagine like a slightly longer kitchen/living room set-up but like, maybe another fifty per cent of that, in an apartment. It’s sort of what we got, so like a big apartment space that was fully… That was beautiful, right? It had this wooden floor and it had this beautiful semi-circle scene with like geometrical patterns and it had walls and lighting hanging systems on both sides. So, we really got a beautiful space to work with. And what we wanted to do initially was, we wanted to show queer games to the public who wanted to be there, to check out Sidney WorldPride and kind of put Sidney Uni on the map, but also say come and play the games, check out what it has to say, it’s not just shooters, it’s not just puzzles. Because when you say ‘videogames’ to anyone on the street, either they are gonna go “Well, I’m not a gamer, I don’t play games” or “It’s not for me, it’s too violent, I don’t really like to use guns and stuff” or it’s “I’m not good enough, like, I’m shit at fighting games, it’s not for me”. And you have all these very interesting sort of, I guess, perceptions about what games are. When you look at more, I guess, indie games and especially queer indie games, you get to see a lot more story-driven narrative designs, thinking about someone coming out and coming of age stories and that could be going through with their first relationship, first date, how to explain yourself, down to coming out to your parents or to your friends, or down to you’re an older adult now, but you’re going through different kinds of societal expectations that you probably didn’t need to, you know, be confronted with but because society has certain assumptions that you don’t fit in, and therefore you kind of have to figure something out. And that’s done through storytelling, that’s done through conversations, and so you see a lot of queer games are quite word heavy, wordy, so visual novels, interactive fictions and roleplaying games tend to be… And roleplaying games with puzzle elements tend to be quite common from the dataset that we’ve got and also from the submissions that we got to Pride at Play. We do have a few puzzle games that I think… Queer and Chill was like an educational game about different gender and sexualities through matchmaking in a grid, like a square grid space where you can move people around trying to match them based on their preferences, that was really interesting. These games don’t require years of mastery to be good at, Mario Kart and Street Fighters, you don’t have to compete with anyone, you can play by yourself, or you can play with friends. And in some other cases, like a few tabletop games that we have, so for example Our Mundane Supernatural Life by Storybrewers Roleplaying in Sidney or LOGAN: an autobiographical tabletop game, where you play through the journey of Logan growing up, going through a gender transition and eventually being twenty-one and that’s where the game ends. You are kind of having conversations with your friend who is playing out with you and you’re writing down, making agendas, you’re making notes, trying to figure out what growing up is like. And at the end of the game, you actually come up with a little journal, a little agenda, just that experience of having done that and it doesn’t require you to kind of jump through puzzles, it doesn’t require you to be guns blazing, right? And I think people just often forget that games can be fun, like Monopoly – if you like Monopoly anyway, can be a little bit stimulating like Scrabble – if you like Scrabble although there are limitations in how stimulating that can be, but also can be creative, right? You can think of painting and drawing as a way of making a game or having a gameplay and they are games that support that. So, I just wanted to, like, be able to show these games that are quite unconventional but are still quite… I wouldn’t say that players who play queer games don’t see them as conventional, but certainly, if you don’t play games normally, that’s not what comes to mind normally either. So, we showed games side by side with interviews, with quotes, with different printed booklets, zines. We even got a catalogue, right, Mahli-Ann? We did a bunch of interviews with all the game designers exhibited at Pride at Play, and we had a 128-page catalogue that’s beautifully designed and…
Mahli-Ann: So beautiful.
Xavier: Yeah! It was really good!
Mahli-Ann: Can people still get that catalogue or is it done?
Xavier: The catalogue is available online for free, it’s no longer for sale. I’m currently in the process of doing this funny thing called project acquittal, which means I have to document all the money and then processing the final sales that have already been done by the end of June, to do the finance admin basically to calculate how much money we actually got and then we’re donating all that money generated from catalogue sales to LGBTQ focused charities. So, I’m doing that at the moment but you can get a PDF for free online at prideatplay.org.
Mahli-Ann: Wonderful! So, everyone make sure to go and get that because it is absolutely gorgeous, right? Like, such a beautiful catalogue, and if you weren’t able to see the exhibition in person I think it’s a really nice snapshot as well as companion to the exhibition because of all the in-depth interviews with the devs.
Xavier: Yeah, for sure. I’m hoping that we can publish a few photos from that. So, the goal I guess here is… We still have an Instagram, and a Twitter account although who knows how long Twitter will last? We could publish some photos I think on those social media platforms so you can see what it was like in Sidney and in Melbourne. I think there are a few there already, but it would be good to just continue to publish a couple more.
Mahli-Ann: Sounds like a plan! So, from the learning experience of curating and putting on display Pride at Play, what are some of the key takeaways that spawn from the best parts that you really loved and enjoyed doing, the things that you would do differently next time?
Xavier: Yeah! So, besides making it a twelve-month project rather than a four-month project? It’s my number one, right there! I’ll do for a much longer time what I call ‘horizon’, so you can see from where you are to the horizon, which is where you want to be. Giving it a twelve-month timeframe would be so important because to even secure the gallery space alone, it typically takes around one to four months depending on how many gallery people you know and whether they are open for applications. So you have to apply to a gallery and say “Hey! Here’s the project, here are some ideas of what I want to do”, photography if you got it or even written descriptions, and depending on whether they have openings, as well as costs attached to it, they will let you know and you have to budget that kind of thing. So if we did it over a twelve-month period it would mean that the gallery, the local press, the gallery manager who might need to hire equipment to help installs, can really do a lot more, than sort of like book out the space. We had to do it in four to six months, and it’s a lot less time to source printers, to design the books before they get printed. We had a very optimised workflow between me and my research assistant Jasmine to make that happen in four months, and also the timeframe allows you to get, I guess a bit more funding. So, if you need to apply for additional grants, to get industry sponsorships, or even to run workshops, it’s better to advertise that earlier than later. So, my biggest, biggest, biggest takeaway is definitely doing it for twelve months and not four, and not to mention this is less stress on everybody involved so you can meet and you know that, even if not everything happens this week, you can still talk about it in two weeks and it’s fine. Like, you’re less time-poor, which is good, you’re more time-rich. On the other way, a few other things I guess, things I can talk about that I think worked very well. So, we had to interview about twenty-two people in about a month, right? And, in the past I know… and Mahli-Ann you’re interviewing people for Keywords In Play, you know this, it’s a lot of effort to email people and say “Hey, we know you’re free, can you have this calendar time, let’s book it in”. It’s a lot of back and forth between you and your interviewees. So, we tried our Calendly, I think it’s the way, the website that we used but there are a few others, where you connect your Google Calendar and Microsoft Calendar to this particular service and then it would just know “oh, ok, you are free or not free on these days” and then you can say I want to do an interview event… I don’t want to make this an ad for them but, basically, you can do this with various providers and you say I have rules, like I don’t want back-to-back meetings, meetings are one hour long and it has to be between 9-to-5 or 10-to-4, between these three weeks. You can set your own constraints and then what happens is, it generates a link and most providers do this, and then people can basically just be given that link and they can choose a time that is available for them, and they can even modify if they want to cancel or reschedule, in the same link. So, you don’t really need to go through all that back and forth of finding a common time because you’re just making your schedule sort of available to people who are not in your organisation and it really made scheduling interviews a lot easier, and I think that worked very well. I think there are a lot of things that went really well, but I’m trying to think of things that didn’t go as well and that could be better… Never use double-sided tape! Double-sided tape in a gallery is horrendous. Use white tack, use blue tack, use the hanging rails! Don’t touch the walls, and if you touch the walls don’t use the double-sided tape because my partner Luis and I were taking down the exhibition at the end of it, it took us like one day, like literally one full day of six hours just scraping the double-sided wall residue before they can be repainted. So… yeah. Don’t do that.
Mahli-Ann: Oh wow… Good job!
Xavier: The hanging rail system is there for a reason! It was very genius, I think, Mahli-Ann when you and Matt were installing and I think it was Chloe who did it earlier, in the Sidney run, where we used the Myki and the Go Card and the Sidney’s card is called something else – the Opal card, as well, as gaps. And then we used the level tool, the bubble level tool to kind of go “Ok… That’s good, let’s put this panel over here”, and people can read about the quote, right next to it would be a screenshot of the game and then on the other side of the room we’ve got quite a few computers and laptops and, you know, keyboards and mice set-up, so people can actually play the game as well. So, the idea there was – some people just like to read and it’s fine, but then at least a quote and the screenshots give them an idea of what this game might be about. But then if they then go and play the games, now they have this double understanding of both what the game is about, what it is that the designer has said about their own lives and their games. So, there is like a different level of appreciation both in playing the game as a player, as well as sort of hearing from, in a way, the designer directly, and I think that was a really good way to set it up. Although, that said, I didn’t know this… Did you go to Jini Maxwell’s curation “Out of Bounds” in ACMI while they were presenting?
Mahli-Ann: No, I missed it.
Xavier: You missed it. Yeah, so, I didn’t know this because I’ve also missed a part of it. They put a movable wall in gallery space 3, I think it was downstairs in ACMI… So, it’s like this dual screen installation that was really beautifully designed and it’s about, four game designers, Goldie, Andrew and there are a few people out there… Anyway! They played the multiplayer version of Red Dead Redemption and then the whole point was, well this is a game where you’re supposed to shoot each other, though, why do that? We’re here to have fun, we’re going to try to find out how this world is put together and we’re going to try to go out of bounds. So, they just spent hours travelling from where they spawned to like, two hours later, going as far as they can until they’d literally get to the edge of the polygon of the land that they were standing. Or they get to the point where you thought a mountain at a distance was beautiful, you get there, it’s just like pyramids, like literal 45-degree chopped polygon pyramids with really rough and overblown rock textures that you’re never supposed to see because no player would spend two hours going there, but they did. Anyway! So it was a beautiful video exhibition about their journey and actually behind that wall, you can play one of Ian’s… I think it was the early version of the Mars Logistics or some other games like that where you get to roam on this also kind of a bizarre, out-of-bounds land and you can go as far as you’d like to explore on this little car. I didn’t know that was there otherwise I would have played it but Jini, in their presentation at GSOAP – which is a different thing it’s a conference that Mahli-Ann and I both were lucky to run with Hugues, said they wanted to make sure that people who are a little bit shy about playing games in a public, you know like the whole idea of someone watching you over the shoulder playing a game, it’s quite weird sometimes. So they set up a place in the back of the dual video installation so there are two gaming stations there, and you can play without someone watching you from behind your shoulder because they can’t. It’s only like a narrow and wide hallway where you can play but you have to kind of walk from the left to the right to go through the hallway, and you can’t stand behind that person – at least not without them noticing, because it’s pretty obvious. So, you can play in a semi-private way and everyone who wants to watch the video or kind of read the quotes, is just on the other side. So, one thing I think we could have thought about, at least investigate and we didn’t do this because the gallery space we got was quite small, was to look at using that movable wall that we got in the Carlisle Street Arts Space in St Kilda in Victoria or even finding some kind of barrier which we did for an 18+ section in the Sidney run for Pride at Play, to have like a semi-private area where people can play just any games at Pride at Play or any other games in an exhibition, without having this weird feeling of someone watching them from over their shoulders, That would be something we could do better I think.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, I think that’s a nice consideration and at GSOAP’s hearing, our experienced curators who presented comments about that as a barrier for potential audiences, was really interesting and very much on point and, you know, Xavier you did mention that there was considerations in terms of over 18+ area and, I think there’s also the consideration of making it a comfortable and welcoming space. I think you did very well with that, Xavier, so well done. But maybe if you wanted to speak about some of the touches that you added or thoughts to add to make sure that it has that feeling.
Xavier: Yeah, so I can speak to three things. One is that we made sure every single gaming station had headphones and so people who have more sort of audio sensorial, I guess just hearing things that you don’t want to hear in the corner of the room, you can put on the headphones and even with the games that don’t have any sound we put the headphones there, and this is because it had a little bit more audio, I guess, shielding from you and your environment, so you can actually enjoy the visual novel that you are playing that has no sound or something like that. And if the game does have sound, you’re not also as worried about people hearing what you are hearing in the game, and you can kind of have this direct, I guess, sound channel that’s just on the headphones. So, that was quite nice to be able to play games like that and so, I think that adds a bit more, I guess, benefits for people who are more neurodivergent or people who have just sensorial distractions from places, I certainly do. The other thing that we did was, in order to make sure that the place feels quite safe and inclusive, we added a rainbow message wall, in both runs and at the end of the Pride at Play interview for all of the game designers, we asked each one of them to say: What does it mean for you to play with pride? And we have a bunch of answers, so we wrote them down in five or six different colours from red to purple, and then we installed them on the wall in the gallery space. Then we also asked the visitors: What does it mean for you to play with pride? After they kind of have seen the exhibition and they can just, if they want, write some words, draw a picture, some people drew a dog. There was a chicken egg and there were like some other things as well… Anyway! Beautiful messages that they can also just add with a wooden peg onto the wall. So, the wall grew from, you know, having fifteen/twenty answers and eventually at the end of that it was like forty/fifty, completely covering the wall basically and we did that for both runs. So, that’s also kind of a way for visitors to see it’s not just the designers that are saying this, it’s not just the curators that are saying this, but also the other visitors who wanted to kind of say and support LGBTQ pride or just love is love, or be yourself, you know, that kind of a thing, can say that. And we saw also responses in not only English, we saw Chinese, we saw Korean, we saw Japanese. There is even a squiggly language which I don’t know what it is! I am assuming it’s Thai, which Mahli-Ann may know, but I’ll have to show you that later.
Mahli-Ann: Probably is!
Xavier: I’ll dig it out for you next time we meet because I would love to know what it says. Just kidding, I used Google Lens to look at it and I translated it and I’m pretty sure it was good.
Mahli-Ann: Ok, cool!
Xavier: Yeah, so it was very nice to be able to see like so many resounding, maybe resonating messages on the wall, and that reinforces, you know, there is a community behind you, in this space. And I think that was really important.
Mahli-Ann: It was such a nice touch to have the rainbow wall and just be able to add and like get the lovely little notes from everyone. It reminds me of the Lumi Interactive Kinder World where you get messages from people that are meant to be uplifting.
Xavier: Oh my god, yeah, they did that for… They even did a special event when they said: If you send a message in these timeframes (and it’s finished now), they hired like a writer to write back to you. It was so nice!
Mahli-Ann: Aww! Yes, lovely!
Xavier: There is also a game called Kind Words, have you played that?
Xavier: I think it came up on Steam, I want to say three years ago now. So cute, honestly, so cute! So, it’s just this little room that you’re in and you basically are able to write a message to a stranger anywhere in the world, you don’t know who it’s sent to by the way, it’s just another player. And the game kind of gives you an advice about like, you know, is this message like a question, seeking help, wanting to make friends and then they ask you to reply through Kind Words and it’s moderated as well, so the developers somehow made sure that it was super super neat and it sold really well and people have like massive amazing reviews on it. I played it for a couple of days and I was just finding so many reassuring and cute messages that came through this and you can also share stickers. So, as part of the paper plane, I guess, you can add a sticker and then once it’s sent over there, that player they get that sticker to add to their collection and they can choose to reply by also adding a sticker back. And so there’s also a sense of “Oh, I need this sticker for this other person, I don’t know who they are but…”. And the game encourages anonymity as well, so you don’t know who it is but you get to collect your stickers in this little realm. Yeah, it’s cute!
Mahli-Ann: Adorbs! I think, I also wanted to add that the lighting or the use of lighting at Pride at Play, to add even the fairy lights and the soft twinkling around the computers, really added a lovely warmth.
Xavier: But what I want to say, Mahli-Ann, is that the pot plants and house plants you lent us I think really added a lot of life to the space, it was very good. I had multiple visitors at both venues say “Wow! Those plants are so pretty! Where did you get them from?”. I was like, it’s from my colleague Mahli-Ann! She has all these plants and she’s moving to Melbourne so we just have them, I guess! But the thing is, I think adding greenery and flowers really makes the room feel like more cosy. It feels like this is lived in and there is history here, the plants grew for some time, even though they didn’t, we just put the pot plants there and we decorated it. It added a sense of like, this could be someone’s massive living room, they just happened to have games lying around. I would say that the plants did way more than the fairy lights.
Mahli-Ann: Hey, both were very nice!
Xavier: No, actually, I was talking to one of my colleagues here at Monash, she used to be an interior designer before she became a fashion design researcher, basically, she’s amazing. And she told me like “Do not use fake plants”! And I was like… Ok, we’ll find real plants!
Mahli-Ann: I mean I have been very impressed in Melbourne, all the cafés have real plants and you don’t actually see that in Sidney.
Xavier: I’ll take your word for it!
Mahli-Ann: It’s a thing! So, what I found really interesting as well is, thinking about the importance of setting up a space to give context as much as immersion for any kind of display or gallery. So I believe this is a practice where… There is a great study by Ien Ang where they talk about the Buddhism Art Gallery at the New South Wales’s gallery, back in 2000 and something, like early 2000s. And what they have learned is that they really needed to give context, so by like changing the space itself of the gallery or the events and activities that would go in alongside the artwork so that people could have a better appreciation for the artworks. So, it’s interesting when you mentioned creating it as if it was someone’s living room, particularly for games, does create that kind of like welcoming, inviting, context of where we may be playing games.
Xavier: Yeah and I think living room is probably a flawed example because that means it’s someone’s private space and you need to be invited to go in a living room. Whereas this is a semi-public gallery space that has open hours and we do have signs on the, you know, downstairs that say it’s open right now at this time you can come in and then we also have gallery minders that came from Sidney’s Women’s College who were students residing on campus and we just hired them to help us watch the gallery when I may be away at a research workshop. And the whole Sidney run, and in Melbourne we had one of my PhD students who looked after the gallery, minding it on all four Saturdays, right? And so we had someone greeting the visitors coming in and explaining to them, if there’s a need to, what it is about, as well. And if there are any questions, there is kind of somewhere there to guide you, help you around, troubleshooting any issues, because we have computers and computers are not perfect either. So, I think the interesting thing is, if we had shown this in a museum, rather than a gallery or even outside, in a library or in an alleyway, the whole feel is sort of different, right? Because museums are more like, these are historical artefacts that belong in a museum, it’s ancient and they probably already passed a long time ago, whereas this is a gallery, these are living artists, who are here which… you know, can have old artists as well but I’m saying like, it’s a different feel, you know, not next to stone tablets or pottery from the 13th century. And a public library and alleyway have different permissions like, you know, library is more like I can borrow stuff, I can just take stuff to the front desk. Shouldn’t take our games, please! Don’t take our keyboards away. Gallery feels like: Oh, I can’t really touch this, right? I’m meant to be here to appreciate it! But then we have the other problem of how do we get people to engage in and actually sit down and play the games, in addition to reading the quotes. And so, by providing explicit mentions of like “This is how to play”, we had How-To-Play reference sheets for every single game that you can reference, so WASD for moving or left-click to select and stuff like that, for this particular game. What buttons to press to go to the next game and also telling me people that, you know, this is a place where you can sit down and try the game if you’d like. And so that changed also what people usually think about what galleries are, certainly in both the galleries that we exhibited in, which normally just have paintings. In the gallery, they also felt like “Wow, we’ve never seen so many visitors coming in, they’re just there for hours, this is so cool!”. Like usually people come here for ten minutes, and they are just – you know, moving on to other parts of their life. But we had kids, we had people come in, we had parents coming in, we had elderly coming in asking me questions when I was there as well, students from the Sidney Uni coming in for the Sidney run, many many times, and I gathered just been really surprised this is here and they didn’t think that this gallery could be turned into a playful space.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah and I also think framing it within the gallery space to where people are used to walking in and seeing paintings, also showcases that, even though we have statistics of like how much the video game industry globally makes money, you know, more money than the film industry for example, right? Like these statistics are often pushed out over and over again, but there are a hundred studios in Melbourne, alone, it doesn’t really speak to or think, we’ll add the details that maybe five studios in Melbourne can hire other people or a bigger than twenty, and that most of these game devs or perhaps game makers live like artists and we don’t often think about, I think generally in a popular context, if someone makes game it’s often thought of as in a big studio, rather than independently. So the most of the games we presented were by the one artist, right? Or maybe in a very small group of like two.
Xavier: Yeah, I think the majority of the games that we showed at Pride at Play were done by one or two people. There is a handful of exceptions, some were done by a studio like Lumi Interactive who made Kinder World that we mentioned, Studio Drydock made Wylde Flowers and even Unpacking was done by like a team of just over ten, I think – Witch Beam Games, if you include all the contracts that come in. But yeah, the majority is done by one person really, right? So, About Last Night… by Elissa Black, That Boy is a Monstr by Sav Wolfe: one person. Even Luke Miller’s game The Beat, done by himself, which is crazy, like that’s a full-on 3D photogrammetry scanned time wobbly wibbly murder detective game. Like, somehow, somehow, he made it by himself. Impressive person! Yeah, and I guess what I was getting at also is, if we compare to say paintings, in the commercial side of things, you can buy paintings, you can buy literally the original painting in fact if the artist wishes to sell them, and then you can have it in your home. Great, that painting is yours. A videogame or tabletop game typically gets distributed by more than one copy, because they want more than one person to be able to play this game. And so it’s very different when you exhibit it in a gallery format, there’s no expectation of you wanting to buy an original copy because there isn’t one and so it becomes: How do I find out about this game if I want to play it after the exhibition? And on the website for Pride at Play and also on the catalogue we link to all the games, right? So we link directly to the store page, whether it’s Steam or Itch.io or the developer’s page if they have it there, we link it there. And if the game is free you can play it there and I think about half of the games at Pride at Play are basically free and the other half is like five or ten bucks, it’s pretty cheap. And so you can just go and buy the game and support the artist directly, in this case. So, the work is not stored away in the archive or the museum and gets periodically shown out into a curation, it’s something that’s already in circulation and I think, the gallery’s role in this case, at least in my opinion, is kind of highlighting the importance of queer representation in storytelling and how games can be a medium for self-expression, celebrating diversity and stuff like that. And that kind of, you know, like you say, giving that context in, not a Buddhist Art Museum, but it’s rather giving context to queer games today, in Australia, New Zealand and surrounding countries. It’s quite important and so, yeah, feeling really lucky too to have done this with you, actually.
Mahli-Ann: Yeah, it’s been an absolute pleasure and we have such a great team and there are so many people to thank. But, thank you, Xavier, for coming on to Keywords in Play and sharing your insights and the lessons you’ve learned as well as I guess your own story of where you are at now and how you’ve got here. So, how can people find more about your work, read about your work or see your work, follow you and so forth?
Xavier: Yeah, my email is fairly open and I reply to pretty much everything unless they’re spam, please don’t spam me! It’s public on Monash website, it’s the benefit of being a full-time academic, it’s your profile is public and so is your email. It’s firstname.lastname@example.org, you can easily find me. I have a personal website with a portfolio, that’s jtg.design and whenever people see it they’re like “Oh! You’re doing artwork and installations and you do what now? I thought you were just like a researcher or I thought you were just a designer”. I’m like, no, I also do art installations and stuff. So, the portfolio is quite interesting to look at and if people are interested in interactive media art like, I guess, public art, then check it there, I’ll slowly upload more work there as I have them. The plan, I think, is to publish the opening essay that I wrote for the Pride at Play catalogue there, as well. So I’ll just say this has originated in the catalogue but I republished it there on my own personal website. Since I wrote it, it’s fine. I have a very active Twitter presence, but as we mentioned before we don’t know what’s going to happen to Twitter thanks to a certain person, so you can find me @Xavier_Ho on Twitter, for now. I can’t say I would be there forever… I mean what is forever? I hope to, yeah, figure out other things like all the other social media platforms, right? Like Threads is getting pretty big now, from Meta, and so is Instagram. It’s still pretty big and they are not going to compete with each other, I don’t think. I have a Bluesky invite but I haven’t actively posted anything, I made an account on Cohost, I haven’t actively posted anything… So, I’m currently thinking I need to sit down with like a social media plan. It’s like, okay, Bluesky and Threads are kind of like, I don’t know, once per day, Instagram is once a week… I don’t know what it is! I have to figure out the audience and posting frequencies because I would like to use social media as a way to share work but not as a way to become, you know, too noisy with how I currently use Twitter. I post on Twitter without filters so you’ll find out about my bread that I baked, as well as papers I’m reading, you know, it’s all kinds of things. So, yeah, that’s how people can get to me.
Mahli-Ann: Wonderful! Thank you so much and thank you for listening to this episode of Keywords In Play.
Darshana: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Keywords in Play. For more great ideas around games check out criticaldistance.com or take a dive into the DiGRA archives at DiGRA.org.