I made a short documentary/Let’s Play about one of the first artgame makers: John O’Neill who, in the early ’80s, created strange videogames about the meaning of life and dolphin communication. It contains material that has never been recorded or put together before.
I was doing some research for one of my classes when I stumbled upon O’Neill’s wikipedia page. It was well documented, and his tabletop game company is active, but I could find very little information about his early digital games, except for a couple of screenshots and two incomplete videos. So I went down a retrogaming rabbit hole and I even ended up interviewing him.
The great game industry crash of 1983 pretty much wiped out all the opportunities for game experimentation in North America, and several of John’s personal projects were cancelled or obtained limited release; but it’s remarkable how despite everything, both Lifespan and The Dolphin’s Rune are still playable today via emulators.
The games are quite cryptic but if you feel like trying them, in this zip you’ll find everything you need to emulate them on Windows, plus a scan of The Dolphin’s Rune manual: Lifespan-The-Dolphin-Rune.zip
In this zip you can find the interviews quoted in the video and a very detailed account of John O’Neill’s involvement with the video game industry. It was written by the man himself a few years ago in response to an inquiry from a game historian: John-Oneill-bonus.zip
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.
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.
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?
For the first week of March I’ve been invited to be a guest of Empyre, a longstanding mailing list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. I’m re-posting some of my discussion starters here, for the rest of the world. You can read the whole March archive here
If your filter bubbles include gaming circles you have witnessed the many collective cheers, hoots, and metaphorical stadium waves raising upon every glorious step of the videogame medium toward high-culture acceptance.
The repeated “video games can never be art” claims made by Roger Ebert from 2005 onward forced a multitude of North American game developers, critics and players to confront the mysterious Art Thing, possibly for the first time in their lives. Their honor, their reputation and, most importantly, their favorite pastime was being attacked by a prominent tastemaker.
In the following years, a fierce movement of DIY art criticism emerged within the game industry. Programmers started to google terms like “aesthetics”; game journalists filled their indignant counter-articles with pictures of Duchamp’s Fountain. Every strange, intimate, weird looking game was measured for its potential to defuse Ebert’s argument.
Even hardcore gamers started to cry while playing (and wrote extensively about it) demonstrating they also had feelings. Those little sprites and polygons really mattered to them.
As the narrative goes, from that cycle of shame and pride emerged a new sensibility. While the gaming community matured and developed higher cultural ambitions, the blinded masses of non-gamers and the mainstream press became more and more sympathetic to the popular form.
The recent move by the NEA to include games as possible recipients for grants has been interpreted as a federal seal of approval (although, in the past, the agency funded videogame projects through individual artist grants). The exhibition “The Art of Videogames” at the Smithsonian, shortly followed by the acquisition of 14 game titles by the MoMA, has been saluted as the ultimate institutional validation of the “games are art” truism.
In the midst of the celebrations it wasn’t appropriate to wonder whether or not the Smithsonian show was a populist publicity stunt “generously” supported by Entertainment Software Association. The curatorial process involved an online poll asking netizens to vote for their favorite games – it didn’t make a big difference since only 5 among the 80 chosen titles were actually playable.
And I haven’t heard many commentators reflecting on the fact that the aforementioned MoMA acquisitions were part of the Architecture and Design collection. What does it mean to put Pac-Man right next to swanky furniture? Is the hip and yuppie field of interaction design imperialistically claiming videogames? Are games furniture? Can architecture make you cry (like videogames, of course)?
For those who don’t hang out in certain niche art circles, it doesn’t really matter that artists have been appropriating, hacking, and creating videogames (and videogame culture) for about 20 years now. It doesn’t matter that a myriad of game-themed art exhibitions swept across the digital art world, arguably becoming its most popular sub-genre.
Last night Stephen Colbert cracked a joke about the exotic idea of arcades at the MoMA but we rarely see games presented in relation with computational, interactive, combinatory and digital art, or even with relational aesthetics or performance. All these forms are way more related to games than the kind of art that collects dust inside museums.
These issues did not matter because that exciting, pedantic, fractal, never-ending dispute we call “art” was never the point of this debate. The point was to “elevate” the cultural status of videogames as a whole: as a medium and as an industry.
For gamers it was a retroactive validation of the countless hours they spent moving pixels and polygons around: “We knew we weren’t wasting out time!”
For the industry was a way to snort some of that magic art dust without accepting the responsibilities that come along with a privileged space for cultural experimentation: “We don’t want just weird artsy games in galleries and museums. We want Pac-Man!”
The game industry and the culture surrounding it can be best understood as a traumatized child or an abused pet. Throughout the years videogames have been repeatedly treated as cultural punching bags and convenient scapegoats. The folks personally involved in this field reacted to the long stigmatization by developing a certain brand of groupthink, a perennial persecution complex, and a compulsion to stick together no matter what.
In the past I’ve been accused of damaging the reputation of the industry by making games about controversial issues. Works defying players’ expectations or rejecting clearly defined goals were dismissed as “not games”.
Now games for social change are often mentioned as symptoms of the “maturation” of the form via New Age gurus like Jane McGonigal. Independent/artsy titles are presented next to idiotic shooters to support the launch of the new PlayStation. Imagine the toilet industry using Duchamp to achieve cultural validation (and possibly get art grants and tax breaks in the process).
What did not change between now and then is the tendency to conceptualize the gaming field as an homogeneous space devoid of conflict.
I would love to see a conversation *not* informed by the catch-all attitude of the “Videogames and Art” blah blah of these recent years. If we are talking about games we must learn to qualify the objects in question. Because there are major differences between a commercial product like Pac-Man and a personal and profound game like Cart Life. The lack of critical discourse within the game industry should not influence the way we treat games outside of it.
And while we push arcade cabinets in and out of museums we could also try to complicate the terms of the debate.
Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can start to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, accessible and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more than a fleeting moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more you get intimate with them.
Last summer I was invited to participate to the Gwangju Design Biennale in Korea. Apparently it’s a big deal for designers down there, with over 5,000 daily visitors from all over the world. The art/design section was co-curated by Chinese bad-ass artist Ai Wei Wei, who didn’t actually have the chance to curate that much since he was arrested that year.
Anyway, the sponsors were mostly hi-tech and phone companies so I thought it was the perfect event for the unveiling of Phone Story.
The problem was that I had to fill quite a lot of space with a tiny mobile game so I asked them to build a sort of fake Apple Store, with minimal design and blinding lights. It turned out pretty well.
Note: the first version of Phone Story featured Steve Jobs’ disembodied head talking (in Korean) over an hypnotic spiral. Then, as you may have heard, the real Jobs died and I decided to use a more generic narrator (representing the phone itself) making the whole thing less Apple-centric.