This year I played more indie games than usual in the process of curating shows for LIKELIKE. And yet, I had some trouble finding my usual top picks in terms of novelty, artistic intent, and social engagement. These indiepocalyptic times are giving us an embarrassment of releases but the most popular development strategy seems to be: work within established genres, put a lot of effort into visual polish (probably a result of increasing visual social media), and often just… make games punishingly hard (which I guess yields more play hours in face of limited resources?). At this point I served my time jumping on platforms and getting my ass kicked over and over, so I apologize for some notable absences. These highlights definitely fall on the relaxed side. Continue reading →
I’m a sucker for lightweight, elegant board games with unusual themes, so I was immediately intrigued by Here Comes the Dog by Itten. Unfortunately, this stylish little game about domesticating dogs turned out to be quite disappointing, if not fundamentally broken. I tried to rescue it with some house rules. This is a nerdy post, you should read it only if you are unhappy with the game or if you are planning to purchase it.
How would we sort things out? Canid, hominid; pet, professor; bitch, woman; animal, human; athlete, handler. One of us has a microchip injected under her neck skin for identification; the other has a photo ID California driver’s license. One of us has a written record of her ancestors for twenty generations; one of us does not know her great grandparents’ names. One of us, product of a vast genetic mixture, is called “purebred.” One of us, equally a product of a vast mixture, is called “white.” Each of these names designates a different racial discourse, and we both inherit their consequences in our flesh.
- Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet
Yesterday I released Dogness, a game in which you to have to create a the most “perfect” and homogeneous dog park. The perfect dog is randomized every time, and it is quite challenging to create a population that approximates the ideal. It involves controlling immigration, expelling the “unfit” dogs, and selectively breeding the animals to preserve or achieve the desired traits. The traits are determined by four “genes” (size, build, height, and color). The offspring tends to look like the average of the parents with some added randomness. The genetic engine is extremely simplified for playability: there are no dominant or recessive genes and the sex of the parents doesn’t matter, anybody can mate with anybody. However, puppies can come out stunted if they are forced to mate with close relatives. At the end of each 6 minutes section you are evaluated based on the moving average of your population’s Dogness. A Dogness of 70% or higher is a good score.
Dogness was meant to be a submission for #resistJam, a friendly competition calling for games that “resist oppressive authoritarianism”. The game itself was pretty much done a year ago but it took a looong time to find the willpower to complete the UI.
The game is obviously a direct response to the resurgence and normalization of white supremacy in the Trump era, but I was going for something a bit more complex and open-ended than a satirical allegory.
I’ve been looking at the relationship between eugenics and dog breeding, and how they support and undermine each other. Humans have been breeding dogs since forever for utilitarian purposes (in fact we likely adopted and domesticated each other), but the crystallization of breeds and the obsession with pedigree only happened at the end of the 19th century with the creation of Kennel Clubs. That’s around the same time eugenics was introduced by Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s problematic cousin.
Galton’s starting point for eugenics was the domestication of animals and he often referred to dog breeding to support his theories. The dude spent an awful lot of time trying to find biological justifications for social inequality, and therefore was well loved by rich people and British aristocrats.
Eugenics and dog breeding shared the same language and misconceptions and provided a pseudo-scientific backing to racist ideologies: the idea of blood purity, mongrelization as dilution of desirable traits, biological reductionism, and so on. Consider how during the golden age of eugenics in the United States there were societies promoting “fittest family” contests similar to dog shows.
Recently there has been more awareness of the problematic aspect of purebred dogs. Breed standards are creating increasingly unhealthy animals, and calls for the ban of “puppy mills” are becoming more frequent. However, at the same time, we are seeing a resurgence of xenophobic groups recuperating these discredited theories (of course proper neofascists would pedantically argue about all their different flavors of shit: how white supremacy is not white nationalism, how some of them may not deny holocaust and what not, but it’s really not worth getting into details).
Anyway, the game is available on itch.io as Pay What You Want and it will officially premiere at the next LIKELIKE show along with a bunch of amazing dog-related games.
It’s the first molleindustria project that employs a first person view and immersive 3D environments, mainly because they are the subject of the piece. A Short History of the Gaze is conceived as an experiential essay, in analogy to the film essay genre; instead of exploring a theme though text and images, it tries to do so though a series of scenarios and micro interactions, mostly looking and not looking at things.
All the scenes examine the act of looking and its relationship with violence. From the evolution of sight in a pre-cambrian sea creature to the dominance display of a primate, from a landscape of billboards begging for attention to an infinite panopticon.
The gaze is central to any Virtual Reality experience and yet rarely problematized. I wanted to create an artifact that is immersive while fighting against the suspension of disbelief, in which the player/viewer is encouraged to fill the conceptual gaps between dramatically different scenario. A Short History of the Gaze is my response to the many oversimplifications that afflict the discourse surrounding virtual reality: VR as presence and embodiment, VR as empathy amplifier, VR as the liberation from a despotic directorial gaze etc.
If you tried it and you want to know more, you can watch this (spoilery) 5min playthrough with commentary.
Weird Reality was a symposium for the VR/AR curious and the VR/AR skeptic which managed to incorporate, in the words of a participant, “an incredible wonderful diversity of gender, ethnicity, age, experience & trust in tech”.
Graduate students shared the stage with Virtual Reality pioneers like Brenda Laurel; creative industry professionals mingled with artists-provocateurs like Jeremy Bailey critical theorists like Wendy Chun, who delivered a fantastic takedown of the “VR as empathy machine” narrative. Hopefully videos of the talks will be posted online in the next months here.
The intersection between the conference and the music festival was the VR salon, a collection of arty, offbeat works where I got to show my new project, A Short History of The Gaze. It’s my first, and probably last, Virtual Reality “experience” and I was surprised by the very positive reactions. I’m still figuring out the best way to put it out in the world given its susceptibility to spoilers, and the general inaccessibility of headsets and gamer-grade computers.
Here’s some great VR works to keep an eye on:
Laura Juo-Hsin Chen is one of my favorite artist working with VR right now. Her MASK series tackles various subject with hand-crafted headsets and software enabling performances and bizarre social interactions.
In her Daily Life VR, she turns mundane actions like eating, pooping, sleeping into imaginative immersive and social experiences.
At the conference she presented her upcoming project: Zen Zone, a sprawling imaginary ecosystem conceived and art-directed a 6 years old kid named Zen over the span of several months. The process of collecting and assembling all the outlandish creatures and the handmade assets is a great story in itself; it even involved mo-capping the kid mimiking the movements of his imaginary creatures. I understand it would be experienceable as 360 movie and as a real interactive scenario, with an Attenborough-esque voice over by Zen himself.
The Institute for New Feeling is an art clinic/collective committed to the research of “new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new”. Their project include humorous but credible treatments, therapies, and wellness products. At the salon they displayed a work in progress of Ditherer, an immersive store for HTC Vive that prefigures the future of ethical shopping.
Picking up virtual products from the shelves of a warehouse transports you to a vivid dream-like world representing the narrative of the product. In the currently available scene, grabbing a virtual avocado takes you to Tom Selleck’s controversial ranch where you are bombarded by trivia and bits of avocado history, eventually ending up in a perfect recreation of GW Bush’s living room to enjoy their “famous” guacamole, in a kind of farm-to-table reverie. It’s actually even weirder than it sounds and I’m really looking forward to see more products.
Sarah Rothberg brought a work in progress of Oops I put on your headset!, a vapor-wavey app that simulates the experience of accessing the artist’s computer. Somewhat reminiscent of the hyper-millenial software memoir Cibele or the gone but not forgotten Noby Noby Boy app. The old cyberpunk idea of Virtual Reality as operating system/browser gets an wry and much more imaginative reboot.
DiMoDA: The Digital Museum of Digital Art, is certainly not the first online/downloadable exhibition but it’s probably the most invested in the conversation about the distribution and commercialization of natively digital art (or more specifically, of a type of walkable art installations made in Unity).
Their (anti)institutional framework includes various degenerations of a virtual architecture from which you can access the artists’ worlds, exhibitions IRL, and collectors’ editions of the works: usb drives embedded in slick 3D printed objects.
The controls of the VR version were unfortunately barf-worthy, but the environments were quite interesting and unlike anything I’ve seen in the gaming world. I see a possible convergence between the “walking simulator” type of indie game, and this increasingly more recognized art genre. Let’s join forces and kill these boring photorealistic 3D environments once for all.
For a more complete writeup, check Blair Neal’s post on medium.
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.