Escape from Woomera’s Katharine Neil: Profile

[One of the things I’ve written for the Plan B games section. My general mandate is “outsider games”. Covering the bits of games which are analogous to the more out-there music Plan B covers. Put online now as Rossignol referenced it in one of his pieces.]

“I think that games may train you to shoot better,” the voice crackles down the phone, “You probably are a better soldier after playing lots of these games — but that’s not a reason to ban them. There’s already a state monopoly on violence, so at least you can go down the shop and train yourself.” The words echo Ian Svenonious claims of the AK-47 as equaliser of the underclass, but the source is very different. The voice is Australian designer, Katharine Neil. She’s one of the minds behind Escape from Woomera, a videogame which highlights the Refugee detention camps in Australia.

She’s an atypical developer. While training to be a concert pianist, she found herself alienated from that conservative structure and left its confines being told — in what was meant as an insult, but really should be a mark of pride — that “she has no control of her eccentricities”. Afterwards, she realised that realm simply wasn’t relevant. “I couldn’t justify it in terms of what I wanted to do in the world,” she notes, “It was so rarefied”. What interested her was work as a self-confessed Lefty Hack Activist, her new studies of electronic music and the mid-nineties love of Virtual Reality as an emergent art form. And rediscovered her childhood passion in of games. Then — as if by magic – she found herself in the depth of the games industry as an Audio Engineer in a mainstream Australian developer. “Over the six years,” she claims, “I’ve become more into the idea of games and less about the idea of sound.”

It’s not just her that’s changing either. “I’ve seen new people come into games development, while there’s an old guard that’s leaving. There are people coming deliberately into games, not just because they suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome,” she laughs apologetically, “I mean, I work with nerds all day, but they’re less nerdy than they were before. They’re more educated and take games more seriously and see what you can do. It has the potential to be a sophisticated media form.” But these abilities, in the mainstream, are almost wasted as the industry feeds its creatives into the commercial mill. Burn out is endemic.

“I saw my colleagues going home from work and playing their guitars very badly, or writing film scripts indifferently,” she laments, “People with amazing skills, in a crucial time of history in the medium, are so alienated from their jobs that they go home and do something they’re not good at. And that’s their creative outlet. Why shouldn’t those people go home and do a game they really believe in? Why are they wasting their talent?” So she brought an investigative journalist together with a development team to see what could happen. What happened is Escape from Woomera. “We’re trying to turn around the whole heroism thing. Instead of playing some big American Marine going in and beats up people in the Middle East, I wanted to be a hero I want to be,” she notes, “Seeing the world through the eyes of a Refugee coming to Australia, and exposing the inside of a world that you’re literally not allowed to see.”

Does Escape from Woomera Trivialise the subject matter? Katharine references Special Force, the game made by Hezbollah. “That, to me, vindicates games using serious material,” she notes, “Hezbollah made a game about campaigns where their comrades died. If they take games seriously enough to make a game about their campaigns, that’s serious enough for me to show that questions like Death and Violence in games are worthwhile. It’s kind of a marker in history”.