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?

Making Games in a Fucked Up World – G4C 2014

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.

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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
:

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

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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/

Molleindustria Manifesto (2003)

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.

What?
Molleindustria is theory and practice of soft conflict – sneaky, viral, guerrillero, subliminal conflict – through and within videogames.

Where?
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.

How?
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.

How???
Understanding and subverting the deepest videogame mechanics without resorting to dull antagonistic translations or artsy self-referential divertissement.

Soft?
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.

REAPPROPRIATION
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
Molleindustria doesn’t like video games, for this very reason it creates them. When the Nouvelle Vague critics got sick of bashing the film industry from the pages of the Cahier du Cinema, they began to make their own films, with the limited means at their disposal. That’s what we aim for: channeling the sacrosanct horror for the current mainstream video games toward a constructive and deconstructive process. Foster a debate involving the galaxies of media-activism, software and net art, regular gamers and their fiercest detractors. Create a space in which theoretical and practical critique march hand in hand.
We decided to start from online gaming as a way to bypass mainstream distribution channels and to try to go beyond from self referential underground circles and artsy elites. We don’t aim to compete directly with the giants of the entertainment industry (it would be a losing battle since competition is nowadays exclusively based on marketing firepower and major investments). Given the scarcity of resources, the only way is guerilla warfare: we invest on objects that are small, sharp, and simple like political cartoons; we focus on originality to fuck with a market that has been dominated by copycat titles for years; we want to test practices that can be emulated and spread virally. A game is not necessarily a pile of incomprehensible code. Anyone can make one.

The 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.

Videogames of the oppressed vs oppressive games

This is my second post on Empyre, a longstanding discussion list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. You can check the March archive here.
Here I talk about Molleindustria in relation to the context in which it started (almost 10 years ago) and the current trend of gamification. This is meant to be a conversation starter, not an essay.

Molleindustria is a project about games and ideology, it’s a bit of art, media activism, research, and agitp[r]op.

The idea is to apply the culture jamming/tactical media (remember tactical media?) treatment to videogames: speading radical memes and, in the process, challenging the language of power, the infrastructures, the modes, genres and tropes of the dominant discourse which was omnipresent in videogame culture.

The half joke is that I came up with Molleindustria because I failed at starting my own television. In the early zerozero – mid Berlusconian age – we had pirate TV stations popping up in all the major Italian cities in what came to be known as the Telestreet movement. It wasn’t just television with radical content, but a radically different way of making television.
There was a nice medium-is-the-message / form-follows-content thing going on, resonating with software, net.art and hacker culture as well.
There was this idea that the political sphere was boundless: something we do, and we are subject to, every day and every moment. The half-naked show girls on prime time television, the charming millionaires of the soap opera Dallas, the software, the protocols, the fantasies coming from the booming-and-busting Silicon Valley were no less political than the occasional vote or the sanctioned spaces for political debate.
And, of course, the demonstrations in the streets, the boycotts, the occupations, the strikes…

I am very familiar with Gonzalo Frasca’s work which was previously mentioned on this list and from which I borrow the title of this post. I launched the project in 2003, the same year September 12th came out and he started to write about videogames with an agenda with Ian Bogost.

One thing I share with both of them is the idea that videogames are representational media. They are always about things. There is, of course, a gradient of abstraction in that a game like SimCity is unquestionably about cities (or gardening) while a game like Tetris is about more general themes such as order vs disorder, control & optimization, or the tragicomical limits of human cognition.
The less abstract are the games, the more they tend to be problematic and fall under scrutiny. There is a lot of literature discussing the urbanist ideas advanced by SimCity or the portrayal of contemporary and historical conflicts in first person shooters or strategy games.

To interpret a game and to make games that mean something, people use a variety of approaches.
Some aspects can be tackled with traditional storytelling and narratology. For example, later this week, pop-feminist Anita Sarkeesian will launch the first installment of “Tropes vs women in games”, an online video series dissecting the representation of women in videogames (edit: now released).
However, there are aspects of games that can’t be fully understood by simply breaking down characters and plots. Games, simulations and interactive media are systems of rules, and these rules produce meaning as well: they define the relationships between the purely representational bits (images, sounds, text…) and the agency of the players within the system.
To be honest, we are still trying to figure out how this procedural rhetoric actually works and how people interpret these “texts” with so many moving parts. But that’s the fascinating part.

I’m interested in promoting this kind of procedural literacy through my games. I believe games can get people used to “think in systems” and that a holistic, ecological, non-reductionist way of thinking is desperately needed in our [cliche' alert] increasingly interconnected world ravaged by global crisis.
Part of this literacy consists in understanding that digital and non digital models are informed by ideologies and systems of values (when it comes to scientific simulations the story is a bit more complicated). They are artful depictions of reality, and as such, we should describe them not in terms of how “realistic” they are, but in terms of the arguments they deploy and the narratives they support within the larger context. This is, by the way, the reason I often use satire, cartoonish styles, and a rather overt authorial “presence”: to defuse the temptation of interpreting these games as objective.

I feel like I have to mention the issue of representation because there is another trend, another way to conceive and use games that has more to do with behavioral change. The marketing power fantasy referred as “gamification” is part of this trend, but also slightly more legitimized endeavors like the many exercise games pretending to fight obesity.
This approach is less concerned about the semiotics and the aesthetics of games, and more focused on games as systems of incentives to produce actual, quantifiable change in the way players behave outside of the game (if there is an outside). If you are not familiar with gamification and the like, imagine attributing arbitrary points and rewards to certain behaviors, pushing people to voluntary monitor these behaviors, and then creating the conditions for competition/self-evaluation based on the score system.

Commentators like Ian Bogost have called bullshit on gamification and I largely agree. But having worked in marketing in the past, I’m quite familiar with the structural hype cycles of the field. You have people overselling techniques meant to oversell services and products. Everybody is lying to everybody else on multiple levels, intra- and extra-corporate. But as a whole the advertising system works because it succeeds at pervading every corner of the mindscape with the discourse of consumption.

To me it is not too crucial to find out whether or not you can control people through game-like systems. What’s more important is that this fantasy is out there, strong and loud. Governments and corporations are investing lots of money in this idea.
Feasible or not, this is the object of desire of contemporary capitalism and as such it’s worth investigating.
Is the fantasy of gamification a testament to the decline of money as the general, all-encompassing incentive to regulate human relations?
Could it be a premonition of the next power paradigm? We went from a disciplinary society (the stick) to a society of control (mass surveillance). Is the society of the incentive (the customized carrot) next?
Is gamification a tension toward the measurement of the unmeasurable (lifestyle, affects, activism, reputation, self esteem…), being measurement the precondition of commodification?

Art cred and videogame advocacy

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

Image by Skipmore games

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.

Radical Game Makers: We Want You!


The Allied Media Conference is a yearly gathering of independent and activist media makers from all over North America. We gather in Detroit to share strategies on how to create sustainable social change through media.
This year’s conference is June 20-23 and I’m honored to be one of the coordinators of the game-oriented track along with a team of awesome people: Liam Burke, Una Lee, Adam Liszkiewicz and Cayden Mak.

Last year I wrote about the AMC and the workshop I conducted with Una, the experience was so positive that I asked to be more involved this year.

The name of the track is Imagining Better Futures Through Play and will consist in a series of hands-on workshops and the Playpen, a more informal space to show, play, playtest and discuss all sorts of socially engaged games.

Everyone is encouraged to submit a session proposal though the AMC website: the deadline is March 8.
You can contact any of the coordinators for assistance with the proposal. We can help you craft a kickass proposal that will knock the socks off my co-coordinators and the AMC organizers.

Note: this is not an academic nor a game developers’ conference. Most of the participants won’t have a strong gaming background: this would be a rare opportunity for game makers who give a damn about the world outside geekland to work with real, and really passionate people.

Call for Participation

Everyone plays games, but why are so many of the most popular games about violence, inequality, and imperialism, and why do they misrepresent our communities for commercial gain? Can’t they reflect the world we want to live in instead? Imagining Better Futures through Play at the Allied Media Conference is about promoting games and creative play as media for telling our own stories, for envisioning systemic change, and for building movements.

But what does it take to make a game? You don’t need hundreds of people and thousands of dollars. We want to bring together anyone who has a love for games and a desire to build a more just and creative world to share ideas and skills. We’re looking for workshops that help game designers, both novice and experienced, who are involved in social movements develop conceptual and technical skills so they can create fun, powerful, world-changing games.

We are seeking sessions that do one or more of these things:

  1. Share technical skills related to game creation
  2. Demonstrate how issues and movements can be explored and expressed through games
  3. Challenge assumptions about what games are and what they can do
  4. Actively include and represent people who are normally marginalized by mainstream games and gaming
  5. Empower participants to begin or continue working on a prototype

Workshops from Past AMCs

Imagining Better Futures through Play intends to discuss all types of games, whether they’re tabletop, electronic, movement-based, role-playing, etc. Session proposals are due March 8, 2013 on AMPtalk (http://talk.alliedmedia.org/). Game on!