Uncle Elli's in The Adventures of Dolly, Jarra Karalinar Steel, More Than Just a Game (2022)
Still from 'The Adventures of Dolly' in 'More Than Just a Game' (2022) Jarra Karalinar Steel
Stories & Ideas

Fri 20 Jan 2023

A Timezone from a different timeline: a personal response to More Than Just a Game

First Nations How I See It: Blak Art and Film Representation Videogames
Joel Davison - Stories & Ideas
Joel Davison

Writer, Poet & Technologist

Joel Davison imagines an alternate world, where First Nations arcade games shape the course of videogame history.

The Adventures of Dolly is very likely the first arcade game you’ve ever played that doesn’t feature violence, high-scores or a Game Over failure state. In Jarra Karalinar Steel's art installation More Than Just a Game, showing as part of the How I See It: Blak Art and Film exhibition, a videogame cabinet is transported from an arcade in a time and location that doesn’t exist and placed in the path of museum visitors at ACMI. Early videogame cabinets were expensive to develop and manufacture, and for arcades like Timezone in this country, they cost even more to import. It fell on games to recoup these costs; they had to tread a delicate tightrope of keeping arcade goers engaged and being limiting enough to keep the coins flowing from their pockets. Published by the fictional ‘Kirrip Games’ and designed in collaboration with Charlotte Allingham and Peter Russell Adams, The Adventures of Dolly could not exist in our world of that era. From the moment we ‘press any button to start’ we can experience the narrative from beginning to end, enact no violence and compete with no one – for free. Most importantly, however, Indigenous voices are front and centre, presented by Indigenous artists and celebrating Indigenous culture which not a single arcade cabinet (in our timeline) can rightfully claim.

More Than Just a Game, 2022, Jarra Karalinar Steel, installation view, ACMI - photo by Phoebe Powell

More Than Just a Game (2022) Jarra Karalinar Steel, installation view, ACMI (credit: Phoebe Powell)

Not long before the ‘golden age’ of arcades (late 70s to mid 80s), our people were systematically excluded from tertiary education, with the first Indigenous University graduate Margaret Williams-Weir graduating in 1959 – 19 years before the first Timezone opened in Australia. The year that Williams-Weir graduated also marked the introduction of the first Computer Science degree at the University of Sydney, an institution that would not see its first Indigenous graduate until 1966 when Charles Perkins attained a degree in Art. It is likely that any Indigenous students enrolled in the growing number of Computer Science programs would not find work in the games industry before the end of the golden age, around the time when what is considered Australia’s first successful videogame, Beam Software’s The Hobbit (1982), was released – just as the home console was asserting its dominance across the globe. This is all without considering that, at the time, there didn’t seem to be any appetite amongst game development studios to share Indigenous stories or themes, instead focusing on games with marketable mascots, military action or Tolkein-inspired fantasy like Dungeons & Dragons.

Jarra Karalinar Steel, through the cabinet screen, grants us a glimpse at a world in which our culture is celebrated and appreciated, community is valued, and our elders are respected; a reality, in which Indigenous Australians had the opportunity to develop games sooner than the 21st century. Are arcades in this alternate world filled with cabinets like The Adventures of Dolly? Is there a place where you gather to enrich their lives instead of being treated like coin-purses waiting to be prised open? In The Adventures of Dolly, the character of Uncle Eeli (as flash as he is) doesn’t even advertise a dollar value for his smoked iilk (eel), parting with one free of charge. We can hope that our end destination, the arcade, is just as generous. If I lived in that world, I’d also be rushing to the arcade to catch Kirrip Games’ latest release.

Ngaya Nawanga
I see it

Ngabay ngayariwa warawara
It’s going to pull me in from far away

Dyarrba yagu yanung
The weary today is watching

Guwugu guwing bayabuba
Now that the sun is rising

Gunamanga ngarawa
It sets fire to my thoughts

Joel Davison is a Dunghutti and Gadigal technologist who currently works at Thoughtworks, in the First Nations Delivery Centre, leading Agile software delivery teams for clients. When they’re not consulting Joel writes poetry which is published through Red Room Poetry, and collaborated with Midnight Oil on the Makaratta Project as well as teaching Gadigal language classes throughout Sydney.

Learn more about the work and the artist

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