An art game is “an interactive work, usually humorous, by a visual artist that does one or more of the following: challenges cultural stereotypes, offers meaningful social or historical critique, or tells a story in a novel manner.” —Tiffany Holmes, “Arcade Classics Span Art? Current Trends in the Art Game Genre” (2003)
Allegra: The world of games is in a kind of a trance. People are programmed to accept so little, but the possibilities are so great. —David Cronenberg, eXistenZ (1999)
Back in April we attended “ Art & Video Games: A Look at how Video Games are Breaking Free” an #ArtsTech event at Pivotal Labs in Manhattan. Packing the house for any event is hard, but for one whose members are, like us—geeks or at least on the spectrum—usually more social via keyboard and monitor, that’s the sign of something special. But the #Artstech Meetups always manage to do just that. Kudos technologists for a full house IRL.
In case you don’t know about the #ArtsTech Meetup, it’s a networking group founded in 2008 by Julia Kaganskiy (@juliaxgulia), that explores the ways in which “social media and technology can bring arts and culture to the masses.”
For this meetup, there were 5 speakers, all working to redefine gaming and electronic game environments as agents of cultural expansion and change. Each speaker gave a lightning talk. The speed made it a little hard at times to gather all the threads, but two ideas seemed to permeate each talk: the collapse of the virtual-actual binary and the creation of immersive experiences that place users in the combine area or union of the IRL-URL Venn diagram.
Jamin Warren (@jaminwar), founder of the arts and culture company Kill Screen (@KillScreen), began by talking about the significance of Facebook’s 2 billion dollar acquisition of Oculus VRTM (ie Oculus Rift). Just consider how many Facebook users have no idea that Virtual Reality, as a practical technology, exists. Are we the only ones who remember the 90s VR craze? Or are we the only ones who will admit we loved Lawnmower Man? How easily we forget.
The Oculus Rift, a 3D virtual reality headset promises a future of more immersive gaming and navigation of virtual environments. How do we be hide from people we don’t want to talk to on Facebook now that Zuckerburg has VR at his disposal? But this is it. This is how culture changes, in fits and starts, with technologies confusing and redefining how we interact. Or in this case putting a new spin on an old problem: how to successfully avoid interactions. Quick, turn off the lights. Pretend we’re not home. What will that look like in VR? Someone start writing the “invisibility hack” now please. Oculus Rift, in Jamin’s opinion, appears to be the first real crossover VR device, and a vital symbol that technology is making its way into and changing, not only mainstream culture, but also the state of art.
Jamin started his career as a cultural reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and he found it strange when, in 2008, his editor at the WSJ told him, “I don’t get this video game thing.” Jamin did, he always did. Since that interaction with his editor Jamin has gone on to become a major advocate for game creation and for games to be considered as cultural engines, not only representing a culture’s desires but as platforms equipped to alter them.
Jamin drew parallels between the ideas of early 19th century, German sociologist, George Simmel and gaming. Jamin interprets Simmel’s ideas about social relationships and interactions, breaking them down into three categories: Thinking, Acting, and Object-ing. Jamin discussed some of the ways games are changing our Thinking and Acting, and in turn our senses of agency. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “that our brains have not yet evolved to tell the difference between virtual and ‘real’ reality.” Wait, there’s a difference? This is the last scene from Cronenberg’s eXistenZ all over again, right after “Pikul” (Jude Law) and “Geller” (Jennifer Jason Leigh) gun down “Merle” (Sarah Polly) and “Nourish” (Don McKellar)—or are they avatars—and as they turn their guns on him “the waiter” (Oscar Hsu) asks: Hey, tell me the truth. Are we still in the game? But there’s no hint of Cronenbergian cyberpunk in Jamin’s message. Gaming and virtual environments are changing IRL actors.
“Virtual Iraq” a Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy “game” for soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, for instance. Not only does the “game” have practical real world applications, but as an object itself, it calls into question assumptions about exposure to video game violence, collapses the internal-external binary of the body by adding a third dimension: the virtual, and reconstitutes the practice of therapy. Electronic games are reshaping our Thinking and Acting in relation to machine/digital representations and to ourselves.
In the Philosophy of Money, Simmel writes, “The content of our desire becomes an object as soon as it is opposed to us, not only in the sense of being impervious to us, but also in terms of its distance as something not-yet-enjoyed, the subjective aspect of this condition being desire.” In other words, fulfillment of desire is achieved when the distance (obstacles) between subject and object are overcome. Jamin believes our relationship to objects and how their value is constructed can be further complicated, and possibly altered by VR environments doing just that, collapsing the distance between subject and object.
Jerry’s Place is a game with a 1:1 recreation of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment. We as users might spend the afternoon at Jerry’s, at first comparing his apartment to our spaces in say Brooklyn or Queens, and may feel inadequate or envious. But after a few visits and with the help of VR technologies like Oculus Rift, that allow us to more fully “immerse” in virtual environments, we may change how we think about and act in “real” spaces because we would have fulfilled our desire for that “lifestyle” in a virtual environment. This is the Object-ing part of Jamin’s argument, that games have the potential to change our relationship to objects and consumption. Seriously, who needs all this stuff anyway? If we could inhabit a 30,000 pixels by 30,000 pixels space with a view of the Hudson, that could satisfy our desire for “real” penthouse living, right?
The next speaker, Game developer, professor, activist—the list goes on—Phoenix Perry (@phoenixperry) opened by declaring her love for play and interactivity, which manifest in all her creative endeavors. Her project Night Games provides an interactive environment where a large group of players can produce music, visuals and dance via systems that include wearable technology (smart costumes), hacked game controllers, interactive instruments, and quadraphonic sound. This project represents a different species of immersion, one where embodied computing “expands upon [the users] sense of game play and theater through freeform interaction” in “crafted play spaces.” Phoenix may have transitioned from musician and VJ to game developer, but she hasn’t left sound and image creation behind. In Night Games audio and visuals are made by groups of users who are part of a collective, creative ecosystem.
In addition to teaching Game Development at NYU and running her own game company, Dozen Eyes, with Ben Johnson, Phoenix is also the founder of the Code Liberation Foundation, which provides free workshops to women to learn how to code and create video games. “I always thought that I didn’t fit into the fame ‘game world’ because I made games as art,” Phoenix said, until she looked at the statistics and realized it had more to do with her gender than her process or product. Women represent only 4% of game developers and a mere 25% of programmers. Those are troubling stats that amount to a real problem in the field.
In a talk Phoenix gave at Indiecade East 2014 she discusses the huge decline of female programmers in the US since the late 80s, when women constituted around 42% of the field. Hearing those figures was simultaneously infuriating and inspiring. How do we change those numbers? Phoenix shared her experience of being in the Playstation booth at the Game Developer’s Conference last year, with the new PSM Vita Game, Crystallon, that she coded. While she was there, she was persistently quizzed about code by men looking for proof she was capable of programming. Disheartening that we’re still dealing with this in light of the fact that the first computer programmer was a woman, Lady Ada Lovelace. But Phoenix and her cohorts at Code Liberation Foundation are not deterred by this genre of sexism and have dedicated themselves to building a strong community of “Nerdy Gamer Women.” And while maxims like: “change the ratio,” “no coder left behind,” and “all materials are freely available online,” may seem to have their pithy limitations, the Code Liberation Foundation’s ability to transform pith into praxis appears limitless.
Kaho Abe (@kahodesu) is a game designer and media artist. She is also artist in residence at NYU Lab and a Computational Fashion Fellow at Eyebeam Center for Art & Technology. She makes physical digital games that engender opportunities for face-to-face and physical interaction.
One game Kaho showed, “Mary Mack 5000” is a combo of Guitar Hero and Patty Cake, where songs for “little girls” have been arranged as Heavy Metal anthems. Users play Patty Cake with Arduino empowered gloves, every action they take is designed to challenge their rhythm, speed and timing. It causes a weird and charming cognitive dissonance to hear the lyrics of “Lemonade” recreated in the style of Metallica or Megadeth.
With all the hand ringing about how isolated Gen-whatevers are becoming because of technology, projects like Kaho’s seem to offer an alternative potentiality. Lightning Bug Game is just such a possibility. It’s a two-person interactive game, using costumes embedded with technology. Players represent the last lightning bugs in a world consumed by pollution, and must cooperate with each other in order to fight against a virtual enemy of darkness, holding hands in the real world in order to transfer power between their avatars who are fighting in the virtual.
In her latest projects Kaho, and her collaborators, are questioning the future of avatars and how we play games. What would happen if we dressed like our avatars in real life? Does it create richer game play if sensors are embedded into IRL costumes that allow us to navigate game experience through our costumes? What kind of experience emerges when games and costumes overlap, when users act in and effect both real and virtual spaces simultaneously? Or when users have to rely on each other physically to make it through a virtual experience?
Museum of the Moving Image (MMI) is not an art museum, Jason Eppink began, in any classical sense, they are more an institution that showcases historic and contemporary technological moving image works and game interfaces as cultural artifacts. There is more of an interest in foregrounding the societal and philosophical impact of new media, than being exclusively an exhibition space for “art games” and “art objects.” Jason Eppink (@jasoneppink) is a designer and an Associate Curator of Digital Media at MMI.
Showing an image from the 1989 MMI exhibition Hot Circuits: A Video Game Arcade, the first museum retrospective of video arcade games, Jason discussed how important it was to include the games with their cabinets, how important it was that computer games could be “touched,” that there was an object, which referred to the original context in which the games were played. In the last ten years, however, the definition of what an object is has expanded, and MMI’s curatorial ojectives along with it. The museum was now putting ROMS (an arcade game’s main board) online, re-placing the focus on the games, their coding, and game play as “objects.” Curators and staff believe gaming is an essential narrative in the evolution of human interaction with the moving image.
MMI focuses their programming on digital play, experiments in art and technology, and on how people interact with the screen. Also, key to the folks at Moving Image is blurring the line between commercial and art games, which was manifest in their 2011 exhibition “Real Virtuality.” Here videogames met video art and Bill Viola, a pioneer in video art, played along, by contributing his work “The Night Journey,” a game where players must progress in Viola’s words “mindfully” towards enlightenment. Jason described it as a wonderfully frustrating piece that subverts the usual game play trope that demands players move quickly in a (virtual) space. The player must be deliberate within this interactive design “attempting to evoke in the player’s mind a sense of the archetypal journey of enlightenment through the ‘mechanics’ of the game experience.” (www.thenightjourney.com/statement.htm)
Recently Jason organized “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” at MMI, an exhibition curated for the museum’s general audience, which provided context to the history of gaming and included games that have had tremendous cultural impact over the last decade. The exhibit also presented some of the most cutting-edge contemporary “indie” games titles. This, according to Jason, was not about featuring “art games,” but to show the breadth of experiences and impacts possible in game designs.
In his review of the Indie Essentials exhibition, “The Possibilities and Pitfalls of the Video Game Exhibition,” Nicholas O’Brien points to the new challenges the museum environment poses for users interfacing with electronic games. He does not place all of the responsibility for solving those problems on the exhibiting institutions. “It seems that developers themselves need to be convinced,” O’Brien writes, “that the museum is an important site for the display of their work, worth the effort of creating a version suitable for public presentation.” Generating wider acceptance of video games as art objects and influential cultural media is it seems, like many of the games we’ve discussed, a collaborative endeavor.
Kunal Gupta, (@Babycastles) the last speaker of the evening, knows a little something about how to ensure a place for video games in art’s future. He is the founder of Babycastles, an organization that has worked to “increase the presence of independent video games and their developers in art and academic conversations in New York City and around the world.” He started the group in 2009 in the basement of Silent Barn in Brooklyn. At the time no one could get why he wanted to put together independent video game exhibitions. Gupta provided the following explanation: “working with kids and a lot of curiosity, Babycastles began with the mission to just show up.” And they continued to show up, and now Gupta and his partners are working on commissions around the world, learning as they go in true DIY fashion, securing funding and utilizing alternative exhibition spaces to manifest their vision for independent video games.
Much of Gupta’s vision involves building diversity in video gaming by engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds face-to-face, and working to grow economies within local communities that can support and sustain independent game developers. Gupta uses public exhibitions of independent video games as a platform to engage people, who while aware of the games themselves, may not have previously considered them an artistic, “cultural media.”
Sometimes these exhibitions take on whacky dimensions, for instance a Violent Video Games show he organized, where he worked with an artist named Slice Harvester, at New York’s Clocktower Gallery. It involved a grotesque reimagining of childhood set in a pizzeria and arcade, hacking the few remaining symbols of innocence in the late 20th century American experience. In the description of the project on the Babycastles site, some provocative questions were being asked in the midst of this nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek installation.
“What has happened to the hours we spent playing war video games, informed by the reality of early indoctrination into the military industrial complex? What has happened to our family pizza dinners, amidst the tripling of childhood obesity in the last three decades? What has happened to our faith in the American pastime, in relationship to the manufactured ignorance of worldwide atrocities and the problems facing our societies in the near future?”
Gupta also touched on the funding behind some of their more ambitious projects, such as “Space Cruiser”, a game made for the Hayden Planetarium Dome at the Museum of National History. Lockheed Martin backed the project, and although it was a huge success for all involved Gupta asserts that his goal is to bring projects back to Babycastles on their own terms. He is passionate and focused on ensuring that all of the artists and collaborators within the organization continue to take risks and build diversity in the community of video game participants.
From Virtual Reality to face-to-face interaction; from the efforts to include more women and other diverse populations in gaming to the mission to include more games in museums and other exhibition spaces, we came away from the event convinced that one of the most significant, and perhaps problematic, creative endeavors in 21st century culture was being discussed this evening, and it deserved our rebroadcast. We can only imagine how we may be future ontological operators in this world of ever-expanding artistic and technological interactions, but the socially conscious and prescient visions of the curators, developers, and artists at this last #Artstech provided us with a great deal of optimism. And an itch to turn up the nursery rhyme death metal and put on some smart costumes.