I was asked by my colleague Jesse Stiles to give a talk about video games, interactive music videos and other playthings specifically created to promote music. What follows is an incomplete list of projects I found, thematically sorted. Thank you tweeple for all the recommendations, let me know if I missed any good ones.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
I took Tristan Tzara’s DADA manifesto from 1921 and replaced every instance of DADA with BIG DATA.
Big Data Manifesto
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.
This is the introduction and the printable materials for a workshop I gave at the Allied Media Conference 2014 in Detroit. The workshop was centered around MultipliCITY, a basic framework for a city planning board game designed to be expanded and modified by the participants.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
A fanzine/catalog was produced for the event. You can download it from here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.