This is a talk I gave at Indiecade East 2014 (remotely due to snow-related flight cancellation). It’s based on an text I wrote for the catalog of Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, an exhibition at FACT gallery in Liverpool. It’s also meant to be a companion piece for the game To Build a Better Mousetrap.
You can read the original text below which, being targeted to a different crowd, explains games a little bit more and the problem with capitalism a little bit less.
Last week I put together an exhibition of indie/DIY games together with all-around amazing people Caitlin Boyle, Tim Sherman, and Tenley Schmida (aka Crushed Screen Collective). Pixel Punks showcases rough around the edge, confrontational, homemade games in the context of an historical punk venue in Pittsburgh, PA. It’s in part inspired by new arcade experiences like BabyCastles circa 2010, and in part a response to the museification/institutionalization of artsy videogames.
“Arcades are not dead! Skip school and waste your time at Pixel Punks, a showcase of deranged independent games. In the depths of the Internet a brave new movement of DIY game makers is producing rough, cheap, and brilliant digital entertainment. Their budget is zero. Their deadlines are whenever they want. Their games are fast and direct like a three-chord-song or visceral and political like a photocopied zine. Pixel Punks is an homage and a gateway drug to this exciting phenomenon.”
Around 2010 I noticed the emergence of an iconography tied to the buzzword monetization. Zynga and the Appstore were blowing up and a new parasitical industry began to promise shortcuts to commercial success selling users, proposing bizantine revenue sharing systems, manufactured ratings and other sketchy marketing services. One visual trope was dominating their promotional material: cash. Piles of cash. Computer and smartphones vomiting Benjamins like possessed ATMs.
I started collecting these images, then forgot about it until now. As we know, commercial success in these saturated markets is extremely rare and usually very brief, like in the gangsta rap dreams sold to disenfranchised minorities. Play with sound.
2013 has been not only a great year for independent games but possibly the first year in which many excellent independent titles have been recognized by mainstream gamers and press. Mature and meaningful works like Kentucky Route Zero, Papers please, the Stanley Parable and Gone Home are in many “Games of the Year” lists along with oddities for game connoisseurs like Michael Brough’s Corrypt and 898 Hack.
Instead of reiterating the critical consensus, I’d like to highlight some more overlooked works from this year, of course paying special attention to social commentary.
In no particular order:
The Perfect Woman
Thanks to a new generation of game journalists and critics, the issue of representation of women in games (and by extension in the game industry) is frequently a subject of intense debate. We’ve seen the rise of a queer game movement/community and plenty of conferences and articles devoted to the issue, but I feel like Lea Schoenfelder and Peter Lu’s upcoming work may be the first openly and confidently feminist game I’ve ever played.
It’s also the first game that employs the Kinect for what it is: a device for the cybernetic control of bodies. There’s a dark disciplinary aspect in all seeing technologies: dancing and exercise games popularized by Kinect are not encouraging physical expression but rather assessing the quality of the movements, comparing them against an arbitrary “ideal” model established by the developers.
The Perfect Woman turns this technological bias into a satire of gender roles. Your goal is to contort and literally bend backwards to conform to society’s expectations, advance your “career” enduring brutal cutscenes, and crash against the glass ceiling represented by an absurd difficulty level. Website (Still in development, being shown to festivals)
An unconventional and strangely addictive gamification of Google Street view. You are “teleported” to a random location in the world (within a large but curated list) and you have to guess where you are only from the information captured by Google’s cameras. It’s easy to cheat by reading signs, more interesting to play in good company, just by feeling the distinctive vibe of so many non-places. Play Online
This short puzzle by Anna Anthropy and Leon Arnott may be reminiscent of Anna’s breakthrough zine-game Dys4ia due to the visual style and the intimate subject matter, but this time the gameplay is more central. The goal is to fit 3 Tetris-like characters in the same bed taking into account their peculiar sleeping habits. Triad may just be an ephemeral work like a diary entry, or a game about the logistics of polyamory, or about the struggle to accommodate queer bodies into limiting structures, or it could simply be about sharing an apartment during times of financial distress. In any case, it masterfully conveys a sense of solidarity and tolerance: we can all fit in without compromising what we are, it only requires some lateral thinking. Free download
Realistic Facebook Privacy Simulator
A common problem for game makers addressing current affairs is development time. Making a game still takes longer than writing an article, shooting a video for a newscast, or drawing a political cartoon. Realistic Facebook Privacy Simulator proves that it is not always the case. Simple and effective, made right in time to participate in a conversation about privacy and social networks. Aside of the relatively trivial subject matter – compared to NSA’s systematic abuses, for example – it works as a sharp commentary on the economics of sharing in general (the information you share is Facebook’s main asset) and the subtle manipulation of users’ behavior happening through interfaces. Play online
Corporate America is undoubtedly the best satirical board game since Terrorbull’s War on Terror. Beautifully produced, easy to learn and fun to play, it manages to distill the interplay between corporate power and politics into an elegant gameplay. It combines investment portfolio mechanics (think Settlers of Catan), with rotating roles (popularized by games like Puerto Rico), but its true strength is in the constant negotiation and bribing happening between players – an aspect that very few digital games succeed to implement. Great family entertainment, perfect alternative of the tired and juvenile Cards Against Humanity. Website
I’ve been looking into sex games for a long time, made prototypes that I never completed, and spoke about the challenges of representing the intercourse in a playable form.
The latest Tale of Tales game succeeds spectacularly where so many have failed: it’s a sex game that doesn’t rely on text (too easy…), that is sex positive, non normative, and simply beautiful.
Luxuria Superbia is based on a sort of tunnel-vision wack-a-mole gameplay where players engage in an intercourse with an undefined entity, possibly the technological device itself, trying to modulate the intensity of the stimulation and spending some time “edging” (almost like an inversion of my old Orgasm Simulator). Inside the “flower” colorful icons pop up, sometimes they reinforce the sexual innuendo, sometimes they seem to point at the cultural baggage that comes with the act of fucking (church – bells – marriage).
The simplistic gameplay may… turn off some gamers but that’s the case for most ToT not-games. From what I’ve read, Luxuria elicits the most diverse reactions: some people find it sexy, some people find it creepy, for some other it’s just plain boring. It could just be a reflection of the variety of tastes, expectations, and projections people have when it comes to sex. After all, not everybody will be into Consensual Torture Simulator either. Website
Ultra Business Tycoon III
Porpentine is the best catastrophe that happened to text games in a long time. The horde of Twine games she unleashed in the span of a few months have established a sexy, post-human, feverish, sci-fi multiverse that may just be too vast and too overwhelming for our feeble minds.
Ultra Business Tycoon III is a solution to this conundrum, it speaks the familiar language of our corporate overlords, and thus it can be a Perfect Rabbit Hole. What the game is, or can be for you, is hard to describe: language and hypertextual structure are stretched to the limit to induce a state of mind between ecstasy and WTF; but despite the frequent digressions and meta-play jumps, the story revolves around a surprisingly coherent core. If you ever wondered what is the dark viscous matter that constitutes our Late [Too Late] Capitalism, this is the game to play. Play online
One of Pippin Barr’s most celebrated works is a simulation of the experience of waiting in line for Marina Abamovic’s retrospective at the MoMA – an enduring performance required to participate to an enduring performance. It even spun-off into an official game, part of the artist’s metamorphosis into human Internet meme / self-made institution.
Pippin’s Art Game however goes a step beyond specific high-culture references and attempts to simulate the artistic process itself, as a game within a game. It’s a lot of fun, somewhere between satire and institutional critique. Most importantly, it managed to conquer the first result of a Google search for the term “Art game”, something that should be seen as the ultimate resolution of the “games as art” debate. Play online
Selected students’ works from my experimental game design class at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art.
A hands-on game design course focused on innovative and expressive forms of gameplay.
In this installment of Experimental Game Design the emphasis is placed on the interface: inputs beyond mouse/keyboard/joystick/touch, outputs beyond screen/speakers, playing contexts beyond the suburban living room (alternative arcade, gallery museum spaces, urban environments etc…).
Ten years ago, in December 2003, I launched this website along with three small games: Tamatipico, originally released in Spring 2003, Tuboflex and the Orgasm Simulator. Molleindustria was meant to be a short-term tactical project in line with the alternative media experiments happening in Italy at the same time (pirate TV street and Indymedia above all), I certainly didn’t think it would have been such a big part of my life a decade after.
To celebrate the anniversary I decided to republish the project’s press release and the manifesto from the same year, which has never been translated in English.
Naive and tortuous prose aside, it’s nice to see how certain propositions are now… closer to common sense, while the scenario of grassroots activists embracing games as tactical media didn’t quite materialized as I hoped, in part compensated by the increasingly more common work of independent game developers incorporating social commentary in their games.
Molleindustria is theory and practice of soft conflict – sneaky, viral, guerrillero, subliminal conflict – through and within videogames.
Molleindustria was born in the soft core of Capital’s processes of valorization. She is daughter of cognitive labor, of shared information, of entertainment that becomes politics and vice versa.
Molleindustria advocates for the independence of games from the market’s domain and its radical transformation in media objects able to criticize the status quo.
Understanding and subverting the deepest videogame mechanics without resorting to dull antagonistic translations or artsy self-referential divertissement.
Soft as the gray matter, a battleground contended by services and commodities; soft as the matter that swallows and produces: software.
A MASS PHENOMENON
Shortly after the extinction of dinosaurs, waves of monochrome trails began to appear across the first computer monitors. Asteroids, spaceships, alien invaders. Few large pixels and a lot of imagination. In front of these screens and behind thick glasses, nestled the flaccid maladjusted geeks that would soon lead the computer revolution.
Today, video games are still seen by many as dry masturbation for male teens, but trends suggest otherwise. The phallus-joystick is gradually disappearing and the game industry’s revenue worldwide has now surpassed that of the movie industry. Gamers have less and less acne, not due to the beneficial effects of monitors’ radiation, but due to their increasing age which currently averages at 29. Kids from 7 to 16 old play on average 7.6 hours a week, not too far from the 6.5 hours a week of the entire gaming population. Of course this data is provided by the Entertainment Software Association who strives to make a case for a “maturation” the medium, but it still give us an idea of the entity of this phenomenon. Moreover, we are witnessing more and more frequent incursions of game culture in the fields of literature, cinema, art and traditional media. We can no longer consider the medium of video games as a marginal component in the production of our collective imagination.
THE POWER AT PLAY
When our ancestors crossed eyes to focus on Sensible Soccer’s tiny, frantic sprites, video games were still a handmade product made by small independent teams. With few resources and rudimentary technology, software houses competed mainly in terms of playability and innovation. Now, we look at the latest FIFA running on a Playstation and mistake it for an actual televised game. In a perverse race to high fidelity and “realism”, games became increasingly bloated and started to require continuous updates to be enjoyed. The hardware and software industries feed off each other in the same way movies full of over the top special effects justify are justified by purchase of home theater systems and tickets at state-of-the-art multiplexes.
What changed? A growing market attracted growing capitals. Around the mid-nineties multinational entertainment corporations consolidated, engulfing small companies. Video games established synergies with other cultural industries: actual soccer teams are now sponsored by a console whose killer apps are soccer simulations, the virtual icon Lara Croft dances with U2 in a music video promoting the soundtrack of a film based on the Eidos game, and it’s hard to understand who is publicizing what.
Meanwhile, war-themed movies increasingly resemble war-themed games, which in turn get increasingly similar to military simulations – we should not be surprised given the frequent collaborations between the Pentagon and the game and movie industries. Ultimately, we believe that in order to articulate a critique of the dizzying power of infotainment, we must put games and other media on the same level.
After comics, rock ‘n roll and television, video games became the universal scapegoats for violence and escapism. Perceptions are shifting: there is a chance that the senators who crusaded against Mortal Kombat in 1993 are at this very moment playing GTA with their nephews, but the folks seeing video games as weapons of mass distraction are still numerous.
This is belief based on a rigid dichotomy between reality and simulation. That people’s behavior in “real life” is influenced by mediated experiences is out of question. The problem is not the temporary escape from reality as such, but rather the kind of ideas, notions, and narratives that individuals learn or reinforce in these virtual environments and bring back to society (and, by the way, we should not place too much confidence in these enlightened cultural commentator convinced of being surrounded by alienated masses).
Instead we can focus on the emancipatory potential of play, and the very real conflicts that cut across the cycle of production and consumption of video games. We’d rather see video games as vehicles of ideologies and narratives that are radically “other” than those belonging to the ruling class. We’d rather embrace the slogan that echoed from the networks to the streets since the WTO counter-summit in Seattle: “Don’t hate the media, become the media” a true quantum leap from both conservative cultural criticism and the naive liberal dream of fair and inclusive mass media.
VIDEO GAMERS OR VIDEO GAMED?
Let’s look for a baby in this ocean of bath water. Game are interactive media commanding an active fruition. The act of playing a video game mainly consists in the deciphering its gameplay: disassembling the system of rule, revealing the underlying mechanisms. If in order to beat a final boss I have to hit it three times on the head, then much of the difficulty lies in discovering by trial and error what the programmer *wants* me to do. This is the opposite of what happens in advertising – commercials seem to be more effective when they are not transparent – or in films which may fail by revealing their inherent deception – by breaking the suspension of disbelief. In a sense, every time we play we accept to be “played” by rules and mechanics established by another person. If we don’t fall into the trap of viewing simulations as objective and neutral reproductions of the real world, between designer and player there can be a transparent relationship. Being video gamed should not scare us. The designer’s authority and biases are methodically stripped down and dismantled by the act of playing and by the exploration of the system’s limits and constraints. The relationship between designer and players is subtly sadomasochistic and extremely confrontational. You get mad at a video game, while when television pisses you off you just change the channel. Television invites us to sink into the couch while video games make us stiffen and lean toward the screen. Their roads are always uphill.
Molleindustria doesn’t like video games, for this very reason it creates them. When the Nouvelle Vague critics got sick of bashing the film industry from the pages of the Cahier du Cinema, they began to make their own films, with the limited means at their disposal. That’s what we aim for: channeling the sacrosanct horror for the current mainstream video games toward a constructive and deconstructive process. Foster a debate involving the galaxies of media-activism, software and net art, regular gamers and their fiercest detractors. Create a space in which theoretical and practical critique march hand in hand.
We decided to start from online gaming as a way to bypass mainstream distribution channels and to try to go beyond from self referential underground circles and artsy elites. We don’t aim to compete directly with the giants of the entertainment industry (it would be a losing battle since competition is nowadays exclusively based on marketing firepower and major investments). Given the scarcity of resources, the only way is guerilla warfare: we invest on objects that are small, sharp, and simple like political cartoons; we focus on originality to fuck with a market that has been dominated by copycat titles for years; we want to test practices that can be emulated and spread virally. A game is not necessarily a pile of incomprehensible code. Anyone can make one.
The unimaginatively called “Fishing game” was designed for the 2013 Allied Media Conference. It’s meant to be played, discussed and modded in a interactive workshop context. The companion presentation can be found here.
In order to play the game you need:
.Exactly 4 players
.About 30 money bits – decorative marbles will work
.About 30 fish bits – Swedish fish candies work perfectly
.The printable materials below:
Next week I’ll be in Detroit at the Allied Media Conference. The conference track “Imagining Better Futures Through Play” looks dense and exciting, with a strong focus around DIY gamemaking and inclusivity.
Here are some session highlights, the full schedule is here here.
Animation in Art & Digital Storytelling SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 9:00am – 10:30am
The tools to create games and stories on the computer are more accessible than ever before, but this technological method of creative expression can seem challenging. This workshop aims to demystify a powerful element of digital storytelling: Animation. Through simple, effective examples using inexpensive, easy-to-use software, participants will learn a technical skill that they can use in their own projects and even teach to others. By lowering the barriers of entry to digital storytelling, we will begin to see more thematic, cultural and aesthetic diversity in games, media and audiences. Presenters: Sagan Yee – Dames Making Games
Effective Games for Outreach & Education SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 9:00am – 10:30am
We will explore ways play and games can be a tool to change a group’s basic understanding of a topic. We will give a brief overview of effective and not-so-effective techniques to create your own group games, and emphasize making simple, physical games to use for outreach and or education. A brief discussion will empower participants with the basic skills needed to start making their own games, followed by a fun session of game playing. Participants walk away with game creation guidelines applicable in their own communities. Presenters:
Ben Norskov, Ida Bennedetto, Mohini Dutta – Antidote Games
Video Games & Cartoons With Scratch! SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 2013: 2:00pm – 3:30pm
We’ll use Scratch, the drag-and-drop programming environment developed by MIT for kids. We’ll show you how to get started making your own games and animated cartoons. As kids we don’t have to be just consumers: we can be creators, too! Presenters: Lisa Williams – Data for Radicals Clayton Dewey
Making Games for Social Change SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 2013 4:00pm – 5:30pm
This session will be a quick and dirty game design intensive. Participants will be broken into small teams organized around social issues and target audiences they care about. They will be taken through a four-part co-design process, which will result in a game concept and paper prototype. The four-part process will entail the following steps: 1) getting at core values, 2) cracking the “culture code,” 3) unearthing systems thinking, and 4) designing a board game. Participants will pitch their final concepts Pecha Kutcha-style, and vote on the best game. Presenters: Heidi Boisvert – futurePerfect lab
The Beautiful Game: SJ Soccer SATURDAY – JUNE 22, 2013. 4:00pm – 5:30pm
In today’s world, where sports are often hyper-aggressive and stress winning at all costs, is it possible to honor cooperation and inclusivity over competition and elitism? Is it possible to inject principles of social justice into “the beautiful game”? We will examine alternative models for healthier, more inclusive, socially just sports through a soccer framework. Participants will walk away with a framework for implementing community-based social justice sports programs and tactics for engaging youth in conscious sports. Workshop will be followed by a game reflective of the values discussed Presenters:
Dania Cabello – Left Wing FC, Guerilla Educator
Antonio Crisostomo-Romo – L.A. Futbolistas, California State University Long Beach
Emmanuel Ortiz – Left Wing TC
Martin Macias Jr. – Chicago Fair Trade, University of Illinois at Chicago
Making Your Game for Free or Less SUNDAY – JUNE 23, 2013: SUN 3:00PM – 4:30pm
It’s one thing to design a game that challenges and reshapes narratives, but it’s another task to actually make that game available to people. In this session, we’ll discuss techniques for producing a game on a shoestring budget, including crowdsourcing funds and doing your own publishing and distribution. Participants will come away with the knowledge necessary to become their own publishers and take their games from concept to production. Presenters: Liam Burke – Liwanag Press Greg Austic – Austic Labs
Make Your First Videogame! FRIDAY – JUNE 21, 2013: FRI 9:00am – 10:30am
Have you ever wanted to make a video game but didn’t know where to start or how to code? This hands-on workshop is dedicated to giving you an introduction to the world of game making. We’ll be using Stencyl – an easy-to-learn, free, drag & drop software – to literally snap the blocks of your first game together! Programming skills or previous games experience are not required for this workshop. Presenters: Rebecca Cohen Palacios – Pixelles
Making Personal Videogames With Twine FRIDAY – JUNE 21, 2013: FRI 2:00pm – 3:30pm
Digital games have a unique capacity for telling personal stories and challenging systems of oppression. But the skills to make videogames are notoriously gatekept. In this workshop, we’ll explain how to use a software called Twine. Twine is a free program for making branching hypertext stories, sort of like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of the nineties. By the end of the workshop, everyone will have made a videogame from their personal experience. Presenters: anna anthropy merritt kopas
Designing Games to Understand Complexity FRIDAY – JUNE 21, 2013: 4:00pm – 5:30pm
How can we tell the story of a dysfunctional food system? How can we understand the roots of a rich-getting-richer class dynamic? How can we grasp the nuances and the shared responsibilities of an energy crisis? Some issues seem to have way too many “moving parts” to be reduced to personal stories or linear cause-and-effect relationships. That’s where games and simulations can help! By playing and making games we can take a step out of the social systems we inhabit, conceptualize them as a whole, identify the conflicting forces in play, and envision better systems. Presenters:
Paolo Pedercini – Molleindustria Liam Burke – Liwanag Press
I’ve been asked to design and develop a small game for a Space Invaders-themed campaign against corporate tax evasion. The result is Tax Evaders, an iteration of the original arcade classic with excellent Amiga-era pixel art by James Biddulph and sound design by Ashton Morris.
The week before Tax Day (April 15) the game has been projected guerrilla-style against corporate offices and banks in various cities around the States, together with other light interventions by groups in the post-Occupy Wall Street galaxy.
The campaign, coordinated with a Twitter bombing against the main evaders’ accounts, was quite successful. I’d love to see more games (digital or not) in public spaces as enablers of playful protest.
However, the game itself leaves a lot to be desired.
Changing the narrative surface of classic arcade games has been the default strategy for “games with an agenda” since they existed. Take a well known gameplay and simply replace text and graphic elements to reference some “real world” relationships.
In fact Tax Evaders could be seen as the latest example of a tax-themed Space Invaders genre:
The complementary John McCain Pork invaders from 2008.
This is a straightforward gameplay-as-metaphor approach I always cautioned against, not only because it’s unlikely to produce a compelling game (the game will probably be as interesting as the original, only 20 or 30 years later) but also because it doesn’t take into account that the meaning of a game emerges from the complex, often ambiguous, interplay between the narrative/visual “surface” and the underlying game mechanics.
Rule systems are meaningful or have, at least, certain biases. There are aspects of the Space Invaders’ gameplay that can’t be changed by simply replacing sprites: the conflict is a Manichean good vs evil one, the enemy is foreign, and the only way to confront the invasion is by using military force. In his book Persuasive Games Ian Bogost notes how these specific characteristics are consistent with the conservative ideological frame (taxation as theft, government as external entity…), but they can hardly support a progressive, non militaristic, non reductionist argument. Different ideas require different forms.
Tax Evaders has a few twists: corporations move upwards from the city, metaphorically avoiding their responsibilities toward society; buildings representing social services are not destroyed by direct attacks like the green shields in the original game and are instead restored by tax revenues, and so on.
But the military metaphor is still there and it’s a lousy representation of collective action.
Moreover, the game does something I always tried to avoid in molleindustria games, which is proposing a fantasy of power for disempowered subjects.
Images of struggle have always been a part of the iconography of social movements: they can be galvanizing and they can support the idea that it’s ok to see certain people and organizations as opponents with interests that are incompatible with yours.
But I fear that playing a virtual revolution may have a cathartic, soothing effect. Especially in a moment in which the issue of economic inequality has been raised, the problems have been identified by a large part of the population and the frustration from not being able to translate this sentiment into political change is widespread.