Casual Games for Protesters

I teamed up with poet, performer, and activist Harry Josephine Giles to put together a collection of games to be played during protests. Casual Games for Protesters is a kind of response to the daunting question “What can game makers do in the age of Trump”. It’s a gesture but also a serious proposition, a way to see protests as experiences that can and should be crafted. We are soliciting guest contributions and we’ll be adding more games in the days to come. This is the project statement:

Casual Games for Protesters is an ongoing collection of games to be played in the context of marches, rallies, occupations and other protests. They require very little preparation and equipment.
Protests can often be alienating or difficult to access for some people — whether that’s because of safety concerns, lack of physical accessibility, burn-out or just not knowing how to get involved. And rallies and marches can be overwhelming, formulaic in their structure, unnecessarily grave, or even boring to attend.
We believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Participating in social change should be exhilarating, social, intellectually and physically stimulating, liberatory and fun. Games can help craft those collective experiences.

Of course, context is crucial, and not all games make sense in all situations. The dignity and rage of the Ferguson uprisings involved mourning victims, expressing anger and campaigning for better lives. The blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock is shaped by the traditions and beliefs of the Native American tribes that lead the protests. Such situations may not always leave room for playfulness — or they may call for a different kind of play.

We have tried to compile a wide variety of games from many different sources and imaginations. We’ve remixed folk and parlor games, added a political twist to acting and training, borrowed liberally from our precursors, and made up new things entirely. We are indebted to a long tradition, from the experimental theater of Augusto Boal and the New Games Movement, from the creative protests of C.I.R.C.A. to the world of modern live-action games. Direct inspirations were the Tiny Games format popularized by Hide & Seek, Metakettle by Terrorbull games, and the playable poetry of Harry Josephine Giles.

What we haven’t included yet are less casual and more pre-prepared games for specific events. Such games could be deeply integrated with the theme and the tactics of a protest, complement its theatrics, and inform actions of civil disobedience. We hope that some of our games might inspire such inventive, radical and effective tactics.

We will see an escalation of unrest and mass participation in the coming years, in opposition to the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe and North America, as part of global responses to climate change and floundering neoliberalism, and in both local and international movements. Countering protest fatigue and making activism more approachable and stimulating must be a priority for everyone.

protestgames.org

Molleindustria’s Highlights from 2016

No Man’s Sky with imaginary voiceover by Werner Herzog

2016 has been declared *annus horribilis* for months, and there is a good chance it will remembered as the year when everything started going to shit in the Western World.
Despite being recently swept by the proto-fascist backlash known as Gamergate, the world of videogames has yet to respond to the new turn. The big-budget game industry, with its glorification of dystopia, cold war nostalgia, and fragile masculinity product lines, will probably adapt and produce even more baroque hyperstitions to serve new and old powers.

Outside of the games-for-gamers niche we’ve seen a lot of developments this year. We’ve seen the second coming of Virtual Reality met by the indifference of the masses – a scenario that may actually encourage more artistic and experimental use of the technology. We’ve seen the Pokemon GO fad, which may serve as a demonstration of the power of games to reclaim and transform public spaces. We’ve seen some first-wave indie developers upping the ante without compromising their visions: the hauntingly beautiful INSIDE, the sprawling madness of The Witness, the existentialist infinitude of No Man’s Sky, are multi-year team projects made possible by the success of previous releases (hence the importance of supporting your favorite game makers).

Imbroglio and Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Charmingly ugly and yet the greatest games ever made, formally speaking

One-person outfits without million dollar budgets pushed things forward in even more interesting ways: Quadrilateral Cowboy builds upon the Blendo Games’ stylish short-pieces; Imbroglio is another dizzingly deep roguelike by Michael Brough, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll is the culmination of Increpare’s ongoing exploration of block-pushing games. A banner year for puzzles.

Here are some of my highlights from 2016, with the usual emphasis on politically-aware/ underrated/experimental works:

1979 Revolution: Black Friday


1979 Revolution: Black Friday is a documentaristic game about the Iranian revolution. The gameplay is reminiscent of titles like The Walking Dead or Heavy Rain: a mix of cutscenes, linear interactions, quick time events, and multiple choices that occasionally produce major outcomes.
The game takes the player to the events preceding the Islamic Revolution with very little context or exposition, letting them gradually unpack the complexity of the conflict. They have to face the impossible moral dilemmas of a revolution doomed to fail, negotiating the protagonist’s background and desires. Everything in the ~3 hours game is tuned to maximize emotional impact and meaningful play. 1979 Revolution is bleak and uncomfortable but also masterfully produced and researched. An engrossing introduction to one of the key events of our times.

Venti Mesi


The Resistance against the Nazi-fascist regime toward the end of World War II is a defining moment for the Italian people. Relatively limited geographically but deeply rooted in civil society, the Resistance prefigured a democracy yet to come, provided a model for a regime change supported from below, and still gives us a way to grapple with our tragic past. We, the Italians, were the bad guys, but the good guys were among us, and fought when it was time to fight.
Venti Mesi (Twenty Months) is a collection of short interactive stories based on actual events happened in Milan in the months before the Liberation. They are all from the point of view of common people dealing with the unraveling of their nation, and all adopting brilliant visual and narrative strategies.

Bomb the Right Place


The rise of Trump is forcing all satirists to reconsider their approach. The next president of the United States is already a caricature of himself, and has a talent for occupying the media space with his outrageous and grotesque posturing. By receiving mostly bad press, he effectively erased the feeble and confused message of the establishment Democrats. That’s why most of the newsgames series GOP Arcade, with its one-liner games like “pussy grabber”, felt short and inadequate for this political phase (admittedly the stated goal of the site was simply to make the “election slightly more enjoyable”).
However, Bomb the Right Place is pure genius. It’s a kind of a geography puzzle and a riff on the old joke that Americans learn about new countries after they bomb them. Bi-partisanly challenging.

Job Simulator


There is something inherently contradictory in room-scale Virtual Reality (or “VR with hands”). The first wave of VR promised mind altering experiences, non-human perceptions, post-verbal languages and more; it underdelivered in part due to the lack of good mimetic interfaces, in part to the sickening disconnection between camera and body movements. Systems like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Touch solved some of these issues at the price of remapping the space of action back to our miserable human scale and our miserable human limbs.
Job Simulator makes the most out of this contradiction, by re-proposing familiar scenarios distorted by the limited affordances of the technology.
The Vive launch title presents itself as an artifact from the future, a kind of museum exhibit allowing people to play as workers of the late 21st Century: a white collar in a cubicle, a convenience clerk so on. The player is asked to push cartoonish buttons or juggling objects around, leaving room for some mild workplace sabotage. The robotic guide provides a satirical, slightly off description of the job.
Job Simulator is a clever joke on Virtual Reality escapism and indirectly poses some questions about futurism, bullshit jobs and the post-work society we should be moving toward. But above everything it’s a very satisfying lightweight puzzle and an experience unlike anything I’ve tried before. Exaggerated Reality is more fun than Virtual Reality.

Two interviewees

I have a soft spot for simple and elegant political games. Two interviewees is a commentary on gender discrimination on the workplace developed in one day by Mauro Vanetti (who is also an anti-slot machine activist).
A male and female candidate are getting interviewed for a job, the screen is split, the questions are the same. The player picks the answer for both characters.
From our vantage point we can see the notes taken by the interviewer which reveal an implicit bias. A confident, resolute answer will make a good impression coming from the male character but it will be perceived as threatening or arrogant from the female counterpart.
The scenario is quite similar to the many field studies on gender and race bias consisting in sending out identical resumes from fictional identities with male, female, white or typically African-American names. Studies that confirm, over and over, that prejudices and more or less implicit discrimination is still widespread.

The Game: The Game


Dating sims, with their creepy heteronormative tropes have been ripe for parody and subversion for quite a while; the flamboyant Wrestling With Emotions and the porno terrorist Viral by artist-rapper Fellatia Geisha are two notable examples. But nothing gets close to The Game: The Game in terms of conceptual rigor and execution.
The creator, my friend and colleague Angela Washko, spent years researching the world of pick-up artists and its intersection with the “manosphere” (i.e. outspoken right wing misogynists on the Internet), an effort that included a long interview with the infamous Roosh V in an attempt of “radical empathy”.
The Game: the Game distills an in-depth research on seduction methods devised by pick-up artists in the form of a dating sim. The format is a perfect match since many of these techniques are basically conversational algorithms. Instead of playing the part of the seducer, you are put in the shoes of a target of an actually existing pick-up artist and subjected to his perplexing, pathetic, very rarely clever techniques. Every dialogue is based on actual primary sources and presented without exaggeration or ideological filters. An eerie original soundtrack by Xiu Xiu contributes to the utterly uncomfortable but engrossing experience. The project currently exists only as gallery installation but it will be released for digital download once completed.

The Last Guardian


I’ve been pointing at how animal companionship in videogames tends to be informed by an utilitarian and reductionist logic: Pokemon are both weapons and collectibles, existing in a fictional world designed to naturalize this instrumental relationship, Neko Atsume is an addicting conditioning device dispensing immaterial cuteness for your time and money; virtual pets are nothing but a few lightly dressed variables banking on our tendency to attribute feelings and thought to artificial entities, the Tamagochi effect.
The Last Guardian is an epic tale of domestication and healing that manages to transcend this instrumental relationship. Gameplay-wise it’s an action/adventure with simple puzzles that can be solved by indirectly manipulating a griffin-like creature named Trico. However, there is no way to see the companion as just a way to reach a platform or as a formal constraint, like the helpless girl in Ico, the game’s direct predecessor. Trico’s behavior and characterization is vivid and subtle, it develops over time, and yet stays unmistakably “other”. Trico resists direct control, misunderstands you and then surprises you by autonomously navigating the impossible architecture. It’s often a frustrating experience, but frustration is an integral part of the aesthetics of the game.

San Andreas Deer Cam


Art that transforms commercial games through modding or subversive play has been around for more than 20 years. Today, with the explosion of game spectatorship (live streaming, let’s plays, absurdist stunts), it might loop back to the realm of internet folklore and find a mass audience. San Andreas Deer Cam is a mod of Grand Theft Auto V that followed a computer controlled-deer in real time. The deer exhibited a deer like behavior and showed us the familiar simulacrum of Los Angeles with completely different eyes, traversing the built environment in oblique ways, naively crossing highways, taking us to places and vistas we would have never thought to explore. The live stream gained a big following on Twitch. Day and night, online spectators commented and interpreted the inscrutable motivations of the deer, creating their own micro-memes and inside jokes.
The city was still functioning like a gangsta rap paradise and the deer retained some of the properties of the human avatar. For example, crossing the boundaries of an airport unleashed an unreasonable response from the militarized police, wrecking havoc throughout the city. Hilarious and mesmerizing to watch, it gave the trite GTA franchise a new reason to exist.

Bonus

Some excellent indie games from this year that didn’t fit my peculiar narrative: To Build a Better Ballot, Liyla & the Shadows of War, Mu Cartographer, I love Fur, Thumper, Really Bad Chess, Spaceplan, Push me pull you (already among my games of the years back in 2014), Reigns, Triennale Game Collection, Kentucky Route Zero act IV.

Weird Reality / VIA


Last week I had the pleasure to participate to Weird Reality and VIA, respectively a conference and an arts+music festival organized by some good friends and colleagues.

Weird Reality was a symposium for the VR/AR curious and the VR/AR skeptic which managed to incorporate, in the words of a participant, “an incredible wonderful diversity of gender, ethnicity, age, experience & trust in tech”.

Graduate students shared the stage with Virtual Reality pioneers like Brenda Laurel; creative industry professionals mingled with artists-provocateurs like Jeremy Bailey critical theorists like Wendy Chun, who delivered a fantastic takedown of the “VR as empathy machine” narrative. Hopefully videos of the talks will be posted online in the next months here.

Scene from A Short History of the Gaze

The intersection between the conference and the music festival was the VR salon, a collection of arty, offbeat works where I got to show my new project, A Short History of The Gaze. It’s my first, and probably last, Virtual Reality “experience” and I was surprised by the very positive reactions. I’m still figuring out the best way to put it out in the world given its susceptibility to spoilers, and the general inaccessibility of headsets and gamer-grade computers.

Here’s some great VR works to keep an eye on:


Laura Juo-Hsin Chen is one of my favorite artist working with VR right now. Her MASK series tackles various subject with hand-crafted headsets and software enabling performances and bizarre social interactions.

In her Daily Life VR, she turns mundane actions like eating, pooping, sleeping into imaginative immersive and social experiences.

Claire Henshker is mostly known for her immersive recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining through the process of photogrammetry.

At the conference she presented her upcoming project: Zen Zone, a sprawling imaginary ecosystem conceived and art-directed a 6 years old kid named Zen over the span of several months. The process of collecting and assembling all the outlandish creatures and the handmade assets is a great story in itself; it even involved mo-capping the kid mimiking the movements of his imaginary creatures. I understand it would be experienceable as 360 movie and as a real interactive scenario, with an Attenborough-esque voice over by Zen himself.

The Institute for New Feeling is an art clinic/collective committed to the research of “new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new”. Their project include humorous but credible treatments, therapies, and wellness products. At the salon they displayed a work in progress of Ditherer, an immersive store for HTC Vive that prefigures the future of ethical shopping.
Picking up virtual products from the shelves of a warehouse transports you to a vivid dream-like world representing the narrative of the product. In the currently available scene, grabbing a virtual avocado takes you to Tom Selleck’s controversial ranch where you are bombarded by trivia and bits of avocado history, eventually ending up in a perfect recreation of GW Bush’s living room to enjoy their “famous” guacamole, in a kind of farm-to-table reverie. It’s actually even weirder than it sounds and I’m really looking forward to see more products.

Sarah Rothberg brought a work in progress of Oops I put on your headset!, a vapor-wavey app that simulates the experience of accessing the artist’s computer. Somewhat reminiscent of the hyper-millenial software memoir Cibele or the gone but not forgotten Noby Noby Boy app. The old cyberpunk idea of Virtual Reality as operating system/browser gets an wry and much more imaginative reboot.



DiMoDA: The Digital Museum of Digital Art
, is certainly not the first online/downloadable exhibition but it’s probably the most invested in the conversation about the distribution and commercialization of natively digital art (or more specifically, of a type of walkable art installations made in Unity).
Their (anti)institutional framework includes various degenerations of a virtual architecture from which you can access the artists’ worlds, exhibitions IRL, and collectors’ editions of the works: usb drives embedded in slick 3D printed objects.
The controls of the VR version were unfortunately barf-worthy, but the environments were quite interesting and unlike anything I’ve seen in the gaming world. I see a possible convergence between the “walking simulator” type of indie game, and this increasingly more recognized art genre. Let’s join forces and kill these boring photorealistic 3D environments once for all.

For a more complete writeup, check Blair Neal’s post on medium.

Top Ten 2015 Games You Don’t Have To Play


2015 was the year gamers were finally relieved from the burden of play.

The explosion of streamers on Twitch and YouTube and the rising popularity of eSports legitimized “passive” forms of engagement with the game form. Interactivity – as in mashing buttons, making choices, organizing artfully constructed disorder – has always been overrated anyway: there is so much going on in the head of a pattern-seeking neo-couch potato or in the social dynamics around a game event.

Since the real world is going to shit there’s mounting interest in Virtual Reality. Alas, in absence of appropriate interfaces, the Second Coming of head-mounted media amounts to a collection of 19th century-style panoramas, disembodied theme park rides, neck-operated tourism and other semi-static gazeables.

The democratization of game development evokes Indiepocalyptic nightmares: if 37% of all purchased titles on Steam have never been played, there may be an overproduction of entertainment, or better, a crisis in the attention economy.
Perhaps buying in public is the new playing. Perhaps watching Let’s play videos is a more efficient way to go trough the to-play list.

In the more underground circuits, the tyranny of the gameplay has been defeated. Traditional notions of goals, agency, winning vs losing are secondary to production of open-ended worlds with unique atmospheres and styles. The derogatory term “Walking Simulator” has been adopted by a new wave of gamemakers that are leveraging Unity’s bias toward First Person Shooters to create contemplative, mysterious spaces where guns and swords are simply not needed.

In 2015 Independent game developers have been more inclined to further blur the game/app boundary as demonstrated by the critically acclaimed playthings Panoramical and Plug and Play, the procedurally generated alien art of Strangethink, the avant-garde educational titles Earth: A Primer, Metamorphabet and Nicky Case’s Explorable Explanations.

Indies are more aware of the performative aspect of game making. According to Robert Yang “The most important thing about a game is that it exists, because that means you can think about it.”. A game, played or unplayed, is just a meme in the infosphere, an unit of culture stretching across media, fighting against the oblivion imposed by post-Twitter social filters.

Moreover, the very idea of existence in the game world is flexible. In order to compete in a saturated market, independent developers have to build their own artisanal hype machines; they have to give the impression that a game exists months or years before its hypothetical release.
It’s telling that the first independent game featured on a late night tv show is a game that doesn’t exist yet. The upcoming No Man’s Sky is the most appropriate 2015 Game of The Year.
Here too, discourse and social practice take control: talking about what games could or should be, participating in a crowdfounding campaign, sharing excitement and work-in-progress screenshots, may just be more satisfying than playing the actual games.

Non exhaustive list, in no particular order, and for the sake of polemics.

Sonic Dreams Collection


Arkane Kids, with their Room of 1000 Snakes, and Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective already changed the history of video games – in a subliminal kind of way, at the very least.
But this series of faux artifacts from the Dreamcast era is a technical and conceptual triumph: the Sonic Game To End All Sonic Games.
Sonic Dreams Collection, with its deviantartsy kinkiness and built-in Vine-maker is the ultimate meme-game. It’s an instrument for the production of bafflement that no YouTube streamer can refuse to play. In the pulverized spectacle of game streaming, bewildered reactions are the currency, and games like this are goldmines of WTFs.

Her Story


Old New Media folks would call it database storytelling. Old gamers would see it as harbinger of a Full Motion Video revival. And yet Her Story, while being a technologically appropriate period piece, resonates with the very 2015 spike of interest in complex criminal cases: from the podcasts Serial and the Message to the documentary miniseries Making a Murderer and The Jinx.
Her Story, with its investigate-by-keyword-search gameplay, may be the most accessible game ever made: good for both solitary and group play, challenging without being punishing. A great holiday present for your non-gaming relatives.

One of them


When I played Pierrec’s tiny game I was so struck that I offered to port it to HTML5. It’s a character study that doubles as a (very spoilable) PSA: simple, effective and strangely replayable. If newsgames have a future, it is in this type of experimental shortform work.

Cobra Club


2015 was the year of Robert Yang. It has been hard to keep up with the indefatigable developer, modder, critic, activist and educator. His series of short gay games are at the forefront of a sexual liberation wave that has been sweeping the independent gaming scene for quite a while.
A couple of years ago I lamented that “we created technologies that make the simulation of a grenade launcher way easier than a caress”. Robert seems to address precisely this technological deficit by creating sophisticated vignettes to solve problems that have not been solved before: the buttocks deformations in the spanking game Hurt Me Plenty, the suggestive cheek in Succulent, the steamy water bouncing on the shoulders of Rinse and Repeat‘s hunk, the complex physics of the ballsack in Cobra Club. Beneath the gif-worthy, giggle-worthy surface, all these games have a very focused conceptual direction in which personal, formal, and political concerns converge. The dick-pic-cum-grindr simulator Cobra Club may be the best of the series so far or, if you prefer, the one that most effectively demands to exist in our thoughts.

Casual Games for Casual Hikers


Outdoor games have always been associated with abstract, manicured playing fields or, more recently, with urban spaces. The mess we like to call nature comes with built-in challenges and obstacles: camping as survivalist roleplay, conquering a mountain as archetypal Hero’s Journey, rock climbing as embodied puzzle…
For the more casual nature-gamers, Harry Giles proposes a series of conceptual exercises to be performed while hiking, in company or in solitude. Casual Games for Casual Hikers is a brochure of “Stories to tell, rules for kicking pebbles, ways to name mountains, maps to draw when you get home”. Slightly more playable than Yoko Ono’s event scores from Grapefruit, equally whimsy.

Beginner’s Guide


Game luminary Frank Lantz chastised critics for their inability to talk intelligently about The Beginner’s Guide. The game presents itself as a collection of prototypes made by a fictional character named Coda published with an in-game commentary by The Stanley Parable’s co-creator Davey Wreden, acting as himself. While traversing these bizarre worlds we learn about the tense relationship between Coda and Davey, which becomes a mean to explore a variety of issues in creative work: the legibility and playability of game art, creative blocks, social and self-imposed pressures, and so on.
While such metafictional devices have been used at least since Don Quixote, in the gaming world they are still relatively unexplored and have led to outlandish speculations.
Authenticity concerns aside, by existing as a self-aware, self-critical, work about the relationship between game makers and their audience, the Beginner’s Guide seems designed to defy any possible criticism. It tells you how to play it, what to think about it, and even how you should feel when you play it. Of course, like the titular character in the Stanley Parable, you can choose to disobey.
It’s a dense and clever work that you play in a breeze and sticks in your head for a long time.

A Series of Gunshots


Pippin Bar is known for sublime joke-games such as low-fi dick fight, or the Marina Abramovic line-waiting simulation The Artist is Present.
A Series of
Gunshots is a bit of a departure in tone and style. A minimalist gem that may be the most poignant playable commentary on gun violence to date.

Little Party


If I had to pick my favorite “walking simulator” among the many twee, stylish releases I’ve played this year, I would choose Little Party. Mostly because under the twee, stylish surface it hides a certain melancholy and a rare subtlety in its environmental storytelling. Playing as a middle aged woman, you find yourself awkwardly hanging around in a cabin during an art-party organized by your teenage daughter. The only way to interact with other characters (and move the elliptical narrative along) is by expressing motherly apprehension, because something has to go wrong.

Cibele


Cibele pretty much plays itself, being ostensibly a fictionalized reenactment of play sessions experienced by the author Nina Freeman a few years ago. From its mock operating system interface, you can snoop on Nina’s empowering/self-deprecating selfies and teenage poetry before launching the game-within-a-game Valtameri.
There, you semi-automatically grind on apathetic monsters while a semi-automatic, apathetic online romance develops between Nina (channeling her slightly younger self) and a more experienced player.
Despite the lack of agency, the game format is employed effectively to portray what’s around a game: the cross-fire of instant messages, the in-game social status bleeding off-game, the identity performance on social media with the related projections and deceptions, the inevitable eruption of bodily desires.
Millennials may find Cibele relateable and therefore wholly laudable. Non-digital natives like me may find it perplexing and cringeworthy. If anything, Cibele made me feel lucky for having spent my adolescence offline.

Foldscape


Porpentine’s file-based poem is an understated treat. Her ability to generate entire universes in tweet-length verses congealed in a neatly .zipped package in a time when apps and paternalistic operating systems are making us forget about file systems. Foldscape is a game too, provided that you have the required hardware to run it in your head.

P.S.

Of course 2015 also gave us many great games to be played in a more traditional sense. Among my favorites: the hardcore-kawaii puzzle Snakebird, the claymation bad trip Hylics (a true gateway drug to JRPGs for people who hate manga), and the First True Italian Game Wheels of Aurelia.

Bumper stickers for self-driving cars

In a world of self-driving cars, what’s going to happen to the art and tradition of bumper stickers? Will our gaze be ever drawn to these cheeky statements while traveling automatically? Is the car going to be less of extension of the self and more of a family member, with its own personality, affiliation and trite jokes? And what about the possibly long and turbulent period of coexistence between human drivers and AI?
Made on a whim, down the street from CMUber.






BooFlag

BooFlag is a little game made after reading this article on the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Charleston. It’s also an unofficial sequel/companion piece to Americlap, one of the greatest games ever made.

p5.play

I just released p5.play, a javascript library for the creation of games and playthings. It’s still a beta but it includes features that are common to most 2D games: Sprites with animation support, collision detection and resolution (limited to Axis Aligned Bounding Boxes and circles for now), a camera and functions to facilitate mouse and keyboard input.
The library is built with accessibility – not performance – in mind and tries to not be “opinionated” in terms of how a video game is supposed to work, something that is easier to say than to implement.

P5.play is an add-on to p5.js, which is in turn a spin-off / spiritual successor of Processing, a popular tool among creative coders and educators. I’m looking forward to adopt p5.js in my courses at CMU and happy to be finally contributing to an open source project.

Check p5.play here

The Great Art Upgrade – DiGRA 2013

This talk was delivered as keynote for the Art History of Games conference, that took place during DiGRA 2013. While the infamous Can Games Be Art? question is now being carefully avoided like an inappropriate text you sent while drunk, some references and questions may still be valuable to the world beyond the small group of scholars that gathered in that hotel basement in Atlanta. It’s a minimally edited transcript/note dump, please forgive the informal tone.

Continue reading

Molleindustria’s Highlights from 2014

2014 has been another great year for indie games, with the long awaited releases of Nidhogg and Broken Age (part 1); the genre-defining Threes (and its unfortunate clones); the outrageously polished Monument Valley and Hohokum; the new chapter of Kentucky Route Zero. What follows is a list of my personal favorites, among the ones I managed to play, in random order, with special attention to social commentary and more overlooked titles:

80 Days


80 days is a resource management/choose-your-own-adventure game set in an alternate Victorian-era world. Honestly, a text-heavy steampunk adventure based on Verne didn’t initially sound like my thing, but this work is so wonderfully written and tightly designed that I couldn’t stop playing. The universe is vivid and broad, it makes you want to abandon the wager and get lost in some distant city.
Few games dared to reimagine the past through a progressive, anti-colonialist lens: 80 Days managed to defuse and subvert the orientalist, Euro-centric bias of certain travel literature. This is not only an big accomplishment in gaming, but also a great example for all fantasy fiction.

Bounden


The Dutch studio Game Oven continues to explore “open” gameplays that activate bodies and minds in unique ways. Bounden, created in collaboration with the Dutch National Ballet, is a playable choreography for two people and one phone – arguably the most original use of a smartphone’s gyroscope+accelerometers. An elegant alternative to the glorified skinner boxes we refer as rhythm games.

Coming Out Simulator 2014


Somebody had to make a game about this topic and I’m glad it was Nicky Case. Coming Out Simulator is both autobiographical and speculative, letting the player explore all the likely outcomes of a very tough conversation. The year in the title, mocking the naming convention of “actual” simulators, may turn out to be clever touch, putting the piece in a historical context with rapidly shifting stances on sexuality. Will coming out simulators be completely different in 2024?
Also check Nicky’s The Parable of Polygons a fresh and timely remake of Thomas Schelling’s Segregation model from the ’70s.

Cyborg Goddess


Cyborg Goddess or “A cost-benefit analysis of two archetypes available for women” is a playful riff on the conclusion of the influential text A Cyborg Manifesto. While Donna Haraway preferred the figure of the cyborg (capable of defying the human-machine binary) to the essentialist archetype of the goddess (embraced by feminists but unfit for the challenges of a rising digital technocracy), Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight seem to propose an even more badass synthesis of the two.

Desert Golfing


It’s easy to dismiss Desert Golfing as a tedious anti-game or a hipster parody of Angry Birds. But Justin Smith’s minimalist masterpiece can be much more, as long as you have the discipline and zen-like patience to endure the first few hundreds holes. After a sufficiently long exposure, your mind becomes a physics engine emulator and the game feels more like a stand-up comedy routine made of angular ridges, impossible mountains and malevolently placed pits. Sure, you are often the butt of the jokes, but the designer (or whatever hybrid man-machine created and ordered the levels) is also capable of making you feel good, proud, confident.
More a practice than a game, Desert Golfing is what Journey tried so hard to be.

Freedom: The Underground Railroad


Kickstarted in 2013 but widely distributed in 2014, Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a co-operative game where the abolitionist forces (the players) try to liberate as many slaves they can from the Southern plantations (through the network of activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad) while trying to build support for the abolition of slavery.
The network structure of the board and the long-term vs short-term goal negotiation is reminiscent of Pandemic but the higher degree of complexity makes collaboration truly necessary, attenuating the problem of leading players who tend to micromanage less expert ones. A strong integration between mechanics and theme, plus a rigorous treatment of the subject matter make Freedom simply the best educational board game out there.

How Do You Do It?


A Delightful autobiographical vignette. The designer Nina Freeman based How do you do it? “on memories I have of trying to understand sex as a child… hiding under my bed or in little makeshift forts… I really do want people to know that, despite the humor, we were trying to show something real. Never gonna stop using games to remind people that young girls are not just an advertising demographic – they have real feelings & real lives”.

Pair Solitaire


I hate most standard deck card games and above everything I hate solitaires. And yet, Pair Solitaire, with his one simple rule, is so compelling that makes you wonder how it is possible that in centuries of card game design, nobody appears to have discovered such an elegant gameplay. Highly addictive, it will make you appreciate the sublime beauty of numbers and sets.

Pale Machine


For some reasons, playable music videos are still rare. Negotiating the inherent linearity of a song with the interactive aspect is a serious design challenge. Ben Esposito shows us the way with Pale Machine, a collection of surreal, uncanny scenes rendered in a charming low-poly style.

With Those We Love Alive


With Those We Love Alive is Porpentine’s most ambitious and mature twine game to date: a sprawling weird fiction universe presented with lysergic and yet restrained writing; a queer fable of isolation and abuse; a commentary on the relationship between art and power; an experience that is likely to stay in your head and on you skin long after you close the browser.

Push Me Pull You


It’s both a shame and a blessing that Push Me Pull You is currently only playable at festivals. This two vs two noby-noby-sumo is an amazing spectator sport and it’s probably best played in short sessions, like a game from the good old arcade era. Competitive eSport-type of games tend to rely on either complex, maximalist gameplays or on super-tight control systems. Instead, Push Me Pull You is extremely simple, messy and flaccid, but allows for complex tactical manoeuvrings and demands a high level of coordination between the butt-faces. And hey, if you can’t make it at any game event showcasing PMPY maybe you can organize your own.

Experimental Game Design – Critical Playthings


This year’s installment of my undergraduate course Experimental Game Design went really well. Students designed non-digital games (outdoor and tabletop) for the first half of the semester and worked on digital projects for the second half. You can find course materials here, and downloadable final projects in the student area, mostly Mac only.

AMC Arcade 2014

This year I had the honor and pleasure to curate, along with Porpentine, a showcase of critical, radical, queer, transformative independent games for the Allied Media Conference.

This is the selection, based on a variety of parameters (themes, diversity, available controllers, accessibility…):

Love Punks by Yijala Yala project
10 Seconds in Hell by Amy Dentata
Nothing to hide by Nicky Case
Cyborg Goddess by Kara Stone and Kayte McKnight
Love is zero by Porpentine
To Build a Better Mousetrap by Molleindustria
How do you Do It? by Nina Freeman, Emmett Butler, art by Jonathan Kittaka, audio by Deckman Coss
The Cat and the Coup by Peter Brinson and Kurosh ValaNejad
Perfect Woman by Peter Lu & Lea Schönfelder

Porpentine also edited a mixape of Twine games you can download from here.

To Build a Better Mousetrap – Release Notes

To Build a Better Mousetrap, a long-awaited management game about innovation and labor, is finally out!
The game premiered last December at FACT gallery in Liverpool along with the article/talk Videogames and the spirit of capitalism.

I tried to describe To Build a Better Mousetrap as “Richard Scarry meets Karl Marx” or “Information visualization without information” but it’s really a development of the idea of “playable theory” I explored before with the Free Culture Game or Leaky World: using games and simulations as cognitive maps, as objects to think about systems and about broad social dynamics in abstract. This time however, I tried to avoid text and labeling in favor of transparent flows of resources and iconic elements.

The result is somewhat cryptic, dry, and against the current trend of narrative indie games, but some players may recognize a cast of classic characters: the Surplus Value, the Reserve army of labor, the Fordist class compromise, the alienation resulting from division of labor, and one of today’s hottest capitalist contradictions: the decline of employment as result of labor saving technologies a.k.a. “the tendency of the rate of profit to fall”.

To build a better mousetrap can end in bankruptcy, retirement, and insurrection/post-scarcity socialism.
Can you save capitalism from itself?

Making Games in a Fucked Up World – G4C 2014

These are the slides and the edited notes from a talk I gave at the Games for Change Festival in New York. The talk was targeted to that specific audience (bureaucrats from the nonprofit industrial complex, TED-style technopositivists, game advocates…). Certain parts such as my take on metrics and social change, which may seem obvious to most people, were actually quite inflammatory in that context.
You can find a video of the talk here plus Q&A.

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Phone Story Donation Update

Two years ago the first profits from Phone Story were sent to Tian Yu, one of the Foxconn employees who attempted suicide after enduring illegal overtime and abusive working conditions.

Due to the infamous ban from the App Store the game is available only on the web and on the Android Market for $1, which yields around 66 cents of per unit (Google keeps 30% of the revenues). After the initial spike, the sales slowed down to a dribble, but it is still selling nonetheless.
Adding an exceptional exhibition fee from the Next Level conference I managed to collect $2000 which have been donated to these two amazing organizations:

The Electronics Take Back Coalition‘s goal is to require electronics manufacturers and brands to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products.

China Labor Watch collaborates with unions, labor organizations and the media to conduct in-depth assessments of the Chinese factories producing goods for US companies. They recently co-run a campaign to protect Apple’s workers from dangerous chemicals.

*Images from the The Story of Electronics

We Are Videogame Historical Materialists

BUY HERE FOR ONLY $20

Support a good cause and fashionably declare your belief that videogame culture is funded on an economic basis and reflects class relations and struggles!
Historical Materialism is less scary than Marxism and can be worn ironically!

Started as a joke on Venus Patrol’s We Are Videogame Romantics, this T-Shirt is a fundraising effort for the annual game and simulations track at the Allied Media Conference I help to organize.
I’ll post the line up soon, meanwhile you can find some information on the previous editions here and here.

For each T-Shirt we make about $10 which will fund or subsidize travel and accommodation for speakers.

Invisible Walls, Puffy Clouds, and the Unheavenly World Behind Them

This is the transcript of a minitalk I gave at Lost Levels 2014, an “unconference” happening during the Game Developers Conference (maybe a bit too square and academic for that casual environment). It’s a topic I’ve addressed in every single talk in the last 10 years or so, but I thought it could benefit from a bit of framing and some nice pictures.

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