Living in a Land Down Under (is Tough Work For an Englishman)

By Grant Howitt on at

I moved from London to Australia seven months ago. My wife and I packed our life up into suitcases, and seeing as I'm a games writer and she just really loves games, we made sure to bring all of our heavy and fragile computer parts with us in our luggage.

We had: a PS3, in a special carrying case; an Xbox 360 wrapped in a towel, and the guts -- the naked innards of our desktop individually packaged first in anti-static bags and then in a series of jumpers and spare clothing. I believe I put some RAM in a sock. I can't be sure. She had her 3DS in her hand luggage; I'd thrown my Vita somewhere. I've not even bothered turning the damn thing on since we got here, but we felt we couldn't take chances.

We had heard that computers, that everything, cost more on the other side of the world. That, and the wildlife would either poison you or kick your face right off given half a chance. Also something about pies. Oh, we heard about the pies.

I decided that I'd pass the time on the plane by getting some really solid writing done during the 22 hours. As we touched down in Sydney, I looked down at what I'd achieved: a barely-lucid review of the in-flight entertainment system's version of Street Fighter 2 and a single two-page "livegame" called "LET'S ALL MEET THE GIN WIZARD" in which you dress up like a wizard to earn gin.

I don't fly well.


Post-Apocalyptic Techno-Spear

Australia has a strange relationship with technology. Their internet is, on the whole, not great -- with many people relying on mobile rather than tethering themselves to the ancient phone networks that bumble around the place -- and the recent election was won, in part, by politicians without the first clue about what the internet is or does, making money-saving cutbacks to broadband upgrades that will see Australia solidly behind the rest of the developed world by 2030, rather than just quite a bit behind it like they are now. Basically, they opted to use copper wire in place of fibre-optics to get the internet to homes and businesses, so the further you are away from the connecting box, the more your signal degrades.

I don't know if you've noticed, but Australia is a massive country, so that signal often has plenty of space to degrade. And the internet isn't going anywhere, last time I checked. It's not like we're going to get bored of it and move onto something else.

The only way Prime Minister Tony Abbott's copper-wire policy will be of any use to Australia is if the entire place in fact devolves into a diesel-obsessed wasteland after the fall of global civilisation, because you can probably use spare copper wire to fix your road warrior trucks. I guess you could use fibre-optic cables as the basis for a sort of post-apocalyptic techno-spear? It's a tough call. I'm sure Mr Abbott knows what's best for the future of his people.

I didn't really understand how poor the internet was here until I walked into my first game store, because I saw that there was a wide range of DLC for sale on hard-copy disc. You can buy Minecraft on disc, here. That's a thing you can go out and buy in multiple shops within twenty minute's walk of my flat.


Old Paperclips

As a brief aside: Sydney is strange. It is too bright, the saturation is jammed way up. The skies are too wide, the streets too clear. There is always one cultural event or another ticking away in the background -- street art, food festivals, late-night neon charity runs. Sydney operates on a grid system and you can generally work out which way you're going even if you've never been to a given part of the city before, and you can frequently see your destination before you arrive. As a man who spent the last eight years of his life working out the patterns of at first Norwich and then London, it seems insultingly easy to navigate. You can get lost in London even if you've got a map.

Of course, you could just ask someone for directions, all the same -- the people too friendly and fit and smiling. Shambling about this country makes me feel like some cavern-dwelling troglodyte. My pallid English body can't handle the glorious sunshine. My default scowl earns stares of confusion and concern. My limbs are yesterday's spaghetti stuck together with old paperclips next to the toned, muscular limbs of pretty much every inhabitant of this city.

This must be what Gollum felt like all the time. No wonder he was so keen to get back to Mordor.


Kangaroo Steaks

And I was right -- everything costs more over here than it does in England (aside from Kangaroo steaks, but not aside from things like Australian wines) because Australia managed to sidestep the global recession by a.) making some sound fiscal decisions and b.) having a massive hole in the middle of their country that they can pull money out of, in the form of mining. Australians earn more than we do. I have a friend, a train guard, who earns over AUD $80,000 (£46,000) a year. He pays more in tax than I earn.

Games are no different, with new titles frequently retailing at AUD $100 (£60) or more, and while I can understand the increased cost of importing physical copies of a game to the wrong hemisphere of the world, the increased cost of downloadable games is daft. You get charged more on Steam simply for living in Australia, and I can't see any reason why other than because people have more cash here -- perhaps it uses more internets to get the games down our datapipes? I'm not going to pretend I'm an expert on the matter.

As we're lucky enough to have an English bank account, we're charged sensible rates for games; other people make fake US accounts, import games on a one-by-one basis (there are restrictions that make it illegal to do so in bulk) or get friends and relatives coming from outside the country to pick up copies and bring them over. My wife's parents came to visit recently bearing not only a bottle of duty-free scotch but, more importantly, a copy of Assassin's Creed 4. I think we saved about twenty quid just by getting them to pick it up for us.


Nondescript beer

But Australians don't seem to care, all that much. (They're an easygoing bunch, as a whole.) It's all they've ever known, apparently. I grimace at paying ten dollars -- about six quid! -- for a pint of nondescript beer, or shelling out £12 on a bottle of wine that'd retail for £5 back home, but that's just how things are over here, especially in Sydney.

When I move back to England -- around six months from now -- I'll miss the happy people and the way that Sydney can co-ordinate a cultural event like nobody's business and, most of all, the sunlight. But I'll hug my router, and the limitless superfast internet that thunders down it into my flat, and hope that provides me with enough warmth.

Grant Howitt writes the brilliant Look, Robot gaming blog, and pens pieces for The Guardian, FHM, Videogamer and PSM3, in addition to having published a book, and running live-action Zombie LARP, and Serious Business games. Follow him on Twitter here, and catch up with his previous stories on Giz UK here.

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