Thorsten S. Wiedemann is a curious man. So curious, he was the first person to ever spend 48 hours in virtual reality.
Excited by this “fascinating and weird digital time we live in”, Thorsten established A MAZE. in Berlin in 2008, a series of festivals, exhibitions and workshops located at the intersection of independent game development, experimental VR experiences, playful media and games culture. A MAZE. champions arthouse games that aren’t influenced by the mainstream, and aims to make these independent and alternative games visible.
It was when A MAZE. was featured on The Verge, a South African tv show about gaming that Thorsten became curious about what was happening in the local game development scene. He followed this interest to Johannesburg to meet the people involved. A meeting with the former director of Goethe Institut,¬†Katharina von Ruckteschell, resulted in¬†the first A MAZE. Festival in Johannesburg in 2012 with support from¬†Wits Digital Arts Department and VANSA.
His goal from the beginning was to build a bridge between the A MAZE. / Berlin and the A MAZE. / Johannesburg Festivals, “By¬†inviting European developers to Johannesburg and African developers to Berlin, people are not only exchanging knowledge or ideas, they’re actually¬†becoming friends. And in my eyes this is the indicator for a growing scene in Africa and beyond.”
South African developers have their own taste, humour and risk-taking attitude which is sometimes missing¬†in Germany, for example.
Was the scene here what you expected – were you surprised by anything?
When I arrived in Johannesburg the first time, I met many visual artists, performance artists and musicians through my old friend Jo√£o Orecchia (Motel Mari), but no game developers. In a way that was great, because that opened a lot of doors for me and was the¬†best introduction to Johannesburg I could have. We did everything from scratch, there was no infrastructure for that kind of festival¬†existing at that time.¬†So there was no defined scene as it is now. South Africa is a huge country struggling a lot with connectivity. Internet is slow and¬†expensive, distances between city are enormous compared with Germany and the whole of Europe. They are pretty much at the end of the world. Also, in¬†2011 there was no association or a moderated forum where people could exchange needs and get feedback on their work. But in line with the¬†festival preparation a few things came up like the first game design curriculum at Wits University introduced by Christo Doherty and Hanli Geyser,¬†and the Make Games South Africa kick off by Nick Hall and Danny Day at A MAZE. / Johannesburg 2012.
I arrived with A MAZE. in¬†the right moment to support the fast-growing, internationally successful and innovative local community and industry.
I wasn’t surprised because from the beginning the people I met were very dedicated, passionate and adventurous in distributing their weird games¬†into the world, made in South Africa. South African developers have their own taste, humour and risk-taking attitude which is sometimes missing¬†in Germany, for example.
I‚Äôm looking for the arthouse of games, the games beyond the mainstream, the games which are challenging us personally to make us reflect on real life issues.
What innovative ways are you seeing games being used here?
I do believe more in artistic expression than in using games for something. For me games are a fresh art form, a way to express emotions, transport socio-critical values and cultural values as we know them in art, films and books. The only difference is that the narrative lays in the players’ interaction.¬†You are actively writing your own story. Kind of like in real life where the only sad thing is that not everyone has the same starting point. If you understand the rules of game design you’re actually able to create playfulness for any purpose. The possibilities are endless, but as director of A MAZE. I‚Äôm looking for the arthouse of games, the games beyond the mainstream, the games which are challenging us personally to make us reflect on real life issues.
Maybe we should use games to capture the contemporary, using the art form as a cultural container in order to archive history for our kids.
Games are becoming as cool as going to a club and going to a punk concert. The future is bright!
What do you think of gaming in Africa now and in the future?
From the outside looking in, I think the South African game developers are doing quite ok. They are far away from Europe or the US but they are creating¬†great noise and good games that people actually want to play. I don‚Äôt have numbers but it feels like that the international industry is aware of their upcoming productions. Successful studios like Free Lives or QCF Design are very supportive in bringing new talents into the international picture. And as soon as the local government sees their potential and supports game development with funding, makes it easier for developers to create their own studios, considers a relaxation of the restriction on applying for cultural tax breaks for games and reduces banking costs etc. this country can have a big future by creating an independent game industry.¬†Associations like Make Games South Africa (MGSA) and Interactive Entertainment South Africa (IESA) are the keys to starting those very important conversations.
As A MAZE. is not a usual convention but a festival where we celebrate games and develop special taste, we are beyond business but we create culture and lifestyle. My best example is from 2014 when I invited Jonatan Van Hove and David Hayward¬†to do workshops on “How to build alternative game controllers” and “Burn the keyboard” that inspired collectives like Super Friendship Arcade from Cape Town and Glitch Face from Johannesburg to generate their own punk game events. Suddenly we have an existing subculture and games are suddenly playable on the streets and are bringing people together. Games are becoming as cool as going to a club and going to a punk concert. The future is bright!
People are moving and that is the most important thing‚Ä¶the same will happen in the rest of Africa as well, because we always have creative developers coming from other African countries like Senegal, C√¥te d‚ÄôIvoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Morocco, Egypt. All good things need time.
Everyone should have access to it and find inspiration to make their own games.
What are you aiming to achieve with the A MAZE festival going forward?
I’d like to see A MAZE. / Johannesburg becoming a major hub for African independent and alternative game and virtual reality development, somewhere international game studios and individual developers also travel to in order to exchange skills and to create collaborations, co-productions and sustainable businesses. The A MAZE. Johannesburg Awards should become as important as the A MAZE. Berlin Awards are. The bridge to A MAZE. / Berlin our mothership could generate more visibility and recognition for games from Africa in the future and vice versa. Since A MAZE. / Johannesburg is part of Fak‚Äôugesi – Digital African Innovation Festival we’re happy to receive funding from the City of Johannesburg. That enables us to start with the festival production and also to build further connections and event formats like the one day A MAZE. pop ups in Soweto and last year also in Alexandra. For me it is important to spread more positive chaos in this fascinating and weird digital time we live in. Everyone should have access to it and find inspiration to make their own games. My wish is that we will play games made in townships soon.
What is the potential impact of promoting game development on the African continent?
The biggest impact will be having access to the knowledge that you as an individual can become part of the digital evolution and form the future. Game development is only one of thousands of options you can take. The great thing with game development is that you are on top of the technology wave and you learn to use tools creatively as you are working with different artistic disciplines together to create a new world. This is amazing, isn‚Äôt it?
A MAZE. / Johannesburg 2016 runs from August 31st – September 3rd¬†
Photos of A MAZE. / Johannesburg 2015 by Lerato Maduna
Intro by Alix-Rose Cowie