Category: games

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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?

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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Videogames and the Spirit of Capitalism

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.

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Pixel Punks

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.

Images of Monetization

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.

Molleindustria’s Highlights from 2013

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
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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)

GeoGuessr

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

Triad

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

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

Luxuria Superbia

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

Art Game

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

Experimental Game Design – Alternative Interfaces


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…).

Unfortunately I couldn’t include some Windows-only works.
Project descriptions and downloads here:
mycours.es/gamedesign2013/

The Fishing Game

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:

Fishing Game Rules

Fishing Game materials to be printed on 4 Letter sized card stock sheets (black and white).

Allied Media Conference Games Lineup

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.

You still have 5 days to back our indiegogo campaign, the proceeds will cover travel and lodging costs for the presenters

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

*Top image stolen from Dames Making Games.

Notes on Tax Evaders

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:

John Kerry: Tax invaders an official game by the GOP from 2004.

Yes, it’s a head of G.W. Bush shooting at “taxes”

The complementary John McCain Pork invaders from 2008.

Alright: so the pigs represent pork barrel spendings which are… oh whatever…

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.

El Lissitzky – Beat the whites with the red wedge (1919). Classic piece of constructivist art from the Soviet revolution (the whites are the counter-revolutionary forces).

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.

The Best Amendment

SO I MADE A LITTLE THING ABOUT GUN CONTROL CALLED:

The Best Amendment

IT’S AN UNOFFICIAL NRA GAME THAT INVOLVES TACTICAL SHOOTING AND FOUR DIMENSIONAL THINKING.

    KEY FEATURES:

  • CUTE GRAPHICS!
  • REALISTIC BLOOD!
  • FIVE DIFFERENT WEAPONS!
  • WILD BLUEGRASS MUSIC!
  • INFINITE LEVELS!
  • MORAL RELATIVISM!
  • UNIQUE MASSIVELY SINGLE PLAYER GAMEPLAY!

USUALLY MOLLEINDUSTRIA GAMES ARE FREE.
FREE AS IN FREE BEER AND FREEDOM, NOT AS IN FREEMIUM.

BUT THIS TIME I’M ASKING FOR MONEY BECAUSE I’M RAISING FUNDS FOR A SERIES OF WORKSHOPS AMBITIOUSLY NAMED:

THIS INITIATIVE IS MEANT TO HELP ACTIVISTS AND GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATIONS MAKE GAMES FOR SOCIAL CHANGE AND PERSONAL EMPOWERMENT.
YOU CAN FIND MORE INFORMATION HERE AND HERE.
THE PROGRAM IS CURRENTLY BEING DEFINED.

ANYWAY… THIS IS WHAT THE BEST AMENDMENT LOOKS LIKE:



HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE.
BUT WHAT IF OTHER PEOPLE ARE YOU?

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? I HAVE NO IDEA. YOU DECIDE!




THANK YOU! AND FEEL FREE TO CONTACT ME.


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