There’s a very good reason that cultural victory became a central part of the Civilisation (read: Civilisation) series’ vernacular, because while the first half of the 20th century was punctuated by a couple of rather large conflicts, the latter half was most certainly dominated by a global culture war at the hands of the United States. Cultural reach was the new imperialism, and globalisation wasn’t just the shrinking of the world it was most certainly a case of cultural contagion, and seemingly every nation on Earth caught a case of the American sniffles.
While Australia hasn’t been immune to the creep of that star-spangled banner, it has managed to some extent to maintain it’s own cultural identity, as nebulous and fragile of a concept that seems at times. Australia is a nation settled by our indigenous people, appropriated by colonial England, and built by people from all corners of the world; and at times our pursuit of a national identity has trouble reconciling the fact that we truly are a multicultural nation. But by and large Australia is a country built not on long-standing traditions insomuch as shared social values such as fairness and equity and for that I am incredibly grateful. To put it in the context of video games I am glad that Grand Theft Auto’s apparently biting social commentary and sharp-tongued satire doesn’t resonate with me.
America’s cultural monopoly isn’t just restricted to one aspect either, it’s the television, the movies, the music – all of which I’m sure most people would posit either rightly or wrongly the nation is the tour de force of. I once read an American writing in reference to a Korean pop album that noted that while the album was clearly influenced by American music, it simply wasn’t as good. If that’s not the arrogance of a cultural monopoly, I don’t know what is.
But one thing Australia shares with America, as do many nations, is its aggregate love of sport. As cliched and perhaps embellished as it’s become, the saying that the position Australian Cricket captain is second only to the Prime Minister gives an indication that Australians, well we love our sport. And we’ve managed to carve out a rather nice little cultural niche out of it too, undoubtedly shaped to some extent by our colonial ties to England, but also much of it our own little unique sports ecosystem. I write this on a weekend where Australia almost literally stops to observe two football finals of different codes, one of which is uniquely Australian in AFL and another which may as well be in Rugby League, but both of will command the eyes and ears of half of the country. It’s one of the few times of the year – probably next to the Boxing Day test – that feels like everything to that point has been building to. And for many there’ll be a vacuum left in our schedules until the summer of international cricket rolls around in a couple of short months.
Basically we bloody love our sport.
Which is why I’m bemused when I see the stranglehold American sports seems to have on some aspects of good ol’ Australian society. In clothing stores Chicago Bulls merchandise sits at front and centre, while kids run around with those silly-looking overly straight-brimmed baseball caps with teams I’ve never heard of. And I bet they haven’t either. The fact is “American” is culturally “chic”, ergo to be seen to identify with aspects of its culture is fashionable. The arrival of former League star Jarryd Hayne in the NFL, and the surrounding fanfare and fixation, is only making matters worse.
But the one that hits me hardest is seeing games based on strictly American sports sitting on our store shelves. As someone who couldn’t give a rat’s arse about the NBA or the NFL, and know so few people who do, I can’t reconcile Australia’s love of its own unique sporting landscape with the high concentration of games based on another country. American football is such a non-event here that there’s no dedicated professional league, and while basketball may enjoy popularity in amateur ranks its status as a commercially viable sport in this country is waning. There seems to be a disparity in the ability of these sports to get bums on seats and their ability to get controllers in hands, something that can’t be explained on face value but is almost certainly a function of the cultural ‘superiority’ the United States enjoys in this country.
Games based on Australian sports however are a relative rarity, definitely not coming yearly, if every enjoying any sort of regularity in their release. AFL has probably had the best run at it, with no less than 20 games being released since the first game based on the sport hit the Commodore 64 in 1989, while Cricket and both Rugby League and Rugby Union being given sporadic chances to make the successful conversion to video game form. But in recent years the prohibitive costs of development, coupled with what can only be described as a relative contraction in the Australian video game industry, has really put a dampener on any efforts to establish sports-based franchises with any sort of longevity. Now defunct Transmission Studios, once IR Gurus, had a pretty good run with both the AFL Live series and its spiritual successor series to Shane Warne Cricket ’99, but their closure in 2009 puts a pretty poignant punctuation mark at the end of their story. And, well, the rest is history.
Which is why Big Ant’s surge into the sports game market – namely the Australian branded sports game market – is such a big deal. The renaissance of what should be a lucrative pairing between the commercial and cultural success of Australia’s profession is long overdue, born by an apparent willingness of Big Ant to put its figurative dick on the line, and make what have been to date brilliant representations of some of Australia’s favourite sporting pastimes. Don Bradman Cricket 14 marked a return of cricket in interactive form to big boy consoles, in what was a scarily accurate representation of a sport that isn’t a natural fit for the format, and one that hopefully heralds in a new golden era of video game cricket. Similarly Rugby League Live 3 is an almost essential take on a niche sport that, in much the same way Madden and NBA have, deserves to enjoy mainstream success outside of the sport’s relatively rusted-on fan base. From a point of stagnation a half-decade ago, Big Ant has almost single-handedly reinvigorated the representation of Australian sports brands in video games, hopefully making the business more lucrative in the process.
If there’s one thing you can say about sports women and men and their fans in this country is it is as much about the passion as it is the innate skills. Big Ant Studios seem to apply this same commitment and passion to the way they approach making video games of, what I can only imagine, are the sports that take up their free time. For me these games aren’t just examples of what the Australian games industry can do, or how well our sporting pastimes can be converted to the video game medium, it’s about ensuring our unique sporting culture isn’t ‘crowded-out’ of the video game market by the representation of American sports. And protecting a small but significant part of our culture in the meantime. The idea that Australian sports games play to the defined section of the game playing public that already watches the sport is one that needs to be broken, and if there was ever a developer capable of breaking down that barrier, Big Ant is it.