Molleindustria’s Highlights from 2018

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.
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Here Comes the Dog (Itten Games) – House Rules

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.

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THE MEANING OF COLORS

The Meaning of Colors is a tiny “game” about connecting the dots and thinking like a right-wing nut. It was made with flickgame, a tool by Stephen “increpare” Lavelle for the creation of quick, MS painterly, visual hypertexts. The peculiarity (and brilliance) of flickgame is that it forces you to define specific colors as active areas, as opposed to objects or shapes, so I decided to make a piece around it.

GlitchScarf

GlitchScarf is a playful performance and a system to mess with knitting patterns in real time. Design or glitch a scarf as it’s being made, wear your artful errors with pride.

The project is a collaboration with Tenley Schmida. It was for the most part developed during a 3-day game jam at the Carnegie Mellon University Textiles Lab (the makers of the award winning embroidery game Threadsteading).
This is possibly the only software that allows the creation of knitting patterns on the fly, as opposed to feeding a machine with a static image.

GlitchScarf was made with an AYAB (All Yarns Are Beautiful) board, Processing, and a Brother KH910.

The Ills of Woman

The Ills of Woman is a faux Victorian-era board game imagined as a precursor of Hasbro’s Operation. It was co-designed by Molleindustria and Tenley Schmida who came up with the idea after reading about the “wandering womb”, an ancient belief that the uterus could freely move around the body of a woman causing all sorts of afflictions. Some variations of the wandering womb persisted until modernity, whereas other discredited illnesses referenced in the game have been well within the realm of official medicine until the 20th century.
More than simply making fun of obsolete science we wanted to create a game about how psychiatry, medicine, and even fashion was (and still can be) used to justify the oppression of women and marginalize “sinful” or deviant individuals. There’s plenty of  literature on how conditions like hysteria or melancholia were used to pathologize a wide range of behaviors in women.

Victorian board games were permeated by the morality of the time, and often conceived as educational tools, so it’s not a stretch to envision a proto-Operation game along the lines of The Checkered Game of Life, using the then novel electric technology as a gimmick.

The cards’ descriptions heavily draw from British and American writings from the 19th century, making the game somewhat accurate in its wrongness. Still, The Ills of Woman builds upon a caricature of a bigot and oppressive Victorian society. On closer examination, most of the conditions in the game were subject to fierce debates, defying simplistic narratives. While corsets were certainly popular until the 1920s, the practice of tight lacing may have not been as common or extreme as we think, its condemnation may have spun from moral prudishness rather than genuine health concerns; the treatment of Melancholy, which roughly maps to today’s depression, included many common sense practices, and the use of leeches is mostly documented within insane asylums; the notion that the vibrator was invented to cure hysteria may be more of a contemporary fantasy than a historically uncontested fact; even the infamous bicycle face, occasionally resurfacing as a feminist meme, existed only within conservative circles and was quickly replaced by the now common-sense idea of cycling as a healthy and liberatory practice – even for women.

The Ills of Woman is currently a unique (and functional) piece and it will be shown at the next likelike show. If you want to include it in an exhibition or festival, feel free to contact us.

Dogness Release Notes

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.

Winning family of a Fitter Family contest stand outside of the Eugenics Building (where contestants register) at the Kansas Free Fair, in Topeka, KS.

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.

LIKELIKE


At the beginning of 2018 I quietly started a new project in Pittsburgh. LIKELIKE is a space for independent games and playful arts. Its mission is to expand the audience and perception of videogames, promoting indie culture, giving visibility to experimental and overlooked gamemakers, experimenting with novel ways to present games beyond the white cube and the expo formats, creating a nexus for the local indie and digital art scene.
LIKE is built upon about 15 of experience in showing my games in the most disparate contexts and the work of similar venues, festivals, and collectives from Babycastles onward.

For the first phase of the project the goal is to organize a series of themed shows, exhibiting 4 to 6 projects selected for their accessibility to non-gamers and their diversity of approaches. The first event was about “complicated relationships” and showcased multiplayer games such as Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, Fingle and Breakup Squad as well as the upcoming card game Consentacle. February’s show was centered around alternative shooters, which was unexpectedly timely given the current debate about gun control, and Trump’s use of videogames as scapegoats.

For the future the plan is to form a proper collective and add more site-specific, performative and experiential pieces to the mix. Let us know if you have playful or gamelike projects that struggle to find a home.

Top 2017 Games That Waste Your Time Properly

I’ve been interested in the attention economy of videogames lately and in the wicked problem of the duration of play experiences. While AAA companies gamblify their business models and compete for the most repulsive and exploitative monetization schemes, indies generally stick to wholesome premium experiences (in Apple newspeak, the pay once and play forever genre). But premiumness is hard to sell to the vocal gamers proletarized by an endless economic crisis. There’s plenty of pressure on indie gamemakers to offer the hours of playtime that can justify a $5 to $20 price tag – the kind of market positioning that can potentially pay the bills. Play hours can be generated expensively with content, or for cheap with truckloads of text, sheer difficulty, or repetition. This best-of-the-year list is devoted to the idealists who organize the players’ time according to their expressive goals, and not to the perceived market demand. If games are machines for wasting time, they may as well waste it in an artful way. Hand picked with my usual emphasis on things that matter and imperfectly ordered from longest to shortest:

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John O’Neill, Artgame Author

I made a short documentary/Let’s Play about one of the first artgame makers: John O’Neill who, in the early ’80s, created strange videogames about the meaning of life and dolphin communication. It contains material that has never been recorded or put together before.

I was doing some research for one of my classes when I stumbled upon O’Neill’s wikipedia page. It was well documented, and his tabletop game company is active, but I could find very little information about his early digital games, except for a couple of screenshots and two incomplete videos. So I went down a retrogaming rabbit hole and I even ended up interviewing him.

The great game industry crash of 1983 pretty much wiped out all the opportunities for game experimentation in North America, and several of John’s personal projects were cancelled or obtained limited release; but it’s remarkable how despite everything, both Lifespan and The Dolphin’s Rune are still playable today via emulators.

The games are quite cryptic but if you feel like trying them, in this zip you’ll find everything you need to emulate them on Windows, plus a scan of The Dolphin’s Rune manual:
Lifespan-The-Dolphin-Rune.zip

In this zip you can find the interviews quoted in the video and a very detailed account of John O’Neill’s involvement with the video game industry. It was written by the man himself a few years ago in response to an inquiry from a game historian:
John-Oneill-bonus.zip

A Short History of the Gaze – Release Notes

A Short History of the Gaze is finally available for free to the few privileged people with access to Oculus Rift and the required high end computing equipment. The piece premiered at the conference WEIRD REALITY: Head-Mounted Art && Code in October 2016 and has been shown at a couple of festivals since then.

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.

Download a PC and Mac+Oculus DK2 executable here.

Stranger Playthings: Remaking a VR counterculture

The second coming of Virtual Reality is a convergence of different technological traditions with different aesthetics, goals, and strategies. In this talk given at the A MAZE and Game Happens festivals in 2017 I tried to question the current narratives supporting the idea of VR as a mass-consumer product, and recuperate some of the visionary and countercultural ideas that went out of fashion since the early ’90s.

Read transcript & presentation

The right to screenshot

Sometimes I get asked for permission to publish screenshots from my games. It annoys me a bit because all my games are released under Creative Commons and, besides, I don’t see screenshots or video recordings ever falling outside of fair use. Streamers, youtubers, and machinima artists can even make a living out of commenting and manipulating recordings gameplay. The documentation of a dynamic, interactive piece is always transformative, participatory, and many steps removed from the actual work. Architects don’t prohibit taking pictures of their buildings.
Despite that, the publishing industry and academia are quite attached to pre-internet conventions, and fair use is not always valid outside of the United States. Therefore I, Paolo Pedercini, representing the project known as molleindustria, hereby state that:

All screenshots and video recordings of molleindustria games and products are to be considered public domain and can be reproduced without permission or attribution for any commercial and non commercial use.

You can download relatively high resolution screenshots of most games on this website from here.

SimCities & SimCrises

I had the honor to be one of the keynote speakers for the first International City Gaming Conference in Rotterdam last month. The conference, mainly attended by city planners and architects, looked at how games can facilitate more effective and inclusive city-making. Here’s the transcript of my talk (a similar version was presented a year ago at the Screenshake festival in Antwerp): http://molleindustria.org/GamesForCities/

Gaming under socialism

In a recent episode of the politics/comedy podcast Chapo Trap House, a listener asked “What can socialism do for gamers’ rights?”. The question was obviously a joke, but the hosts produced a humorous and somewhat thoughtful answer.
Thankfully, there is no such a thing as “gamers’ rights” in the sense of something distinct from consumer rights. The joke was likely a reference to the sense of entitlement and tribal identification that fueled the gamergate campaign. But the question of what gaming would look like in a socialist world has haunted me for days. Not only because I’m a leftist and I care about games, but because of how it relates to many crucial issues of 21st century radicalism…

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Casual Games for Protesters

I teamed up with poet, performer, and activist Harry Josephine Giles to put together a collection of games to be played during protests. Casual Games for Protesters is a kind of response to the daunting question “What can game makers do in the age of Trump”. It’s a gesture but also a serious proposition, a way to see protests as experiences that can and should be crafted. We are soliciting guest contributions and we’ll be adding more games in the days to come. This is the project statement:

Casual Games for Protesters is an ongoing collection of games to be played in the context of marches, rallies, occupations and other protests. They require very little preparation and equipment.
Protests can often be alienating or difficult to access for some people — whether that’s because of safety concerns, lack of physical accessibility, burn-out or just not knowing how to get involved. And rallies and marches can be overwhelming, formulaic in their structure, unnecessarily grave, or even boring to attend.
We believe it doesn’t have to be that way. Participating in social change should be exhilarating, social, intellectually and physically stimulating, liberatory and fun. Games can help craft those collective experiences.

Of course, context is crucial, and not all games make sense in all situations. The dignity and rage of the Ferguson uprisings involved mourning victims, expressing anger and campaigning for better lives. The blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock is shaped by the traditions and beliefs of the Native American tribes that lead the protests. Such situations may not always leave room for playfulness — or they may call for a different kind of play.

We have tried to compile a wide variety of games from many different sources and imaginations. We’ve remixed folk and parlor games, added a political twist to acting and training, borrowed liberally from our precursors, and made up new things entirely. We are indebted to a long tradition, from the experimental theater of Augusto Boal and the New Games Movement, from the creative protests of C.I.R.C.A. to the world of modern live-action games. Direct inspirations were the Tiny Games format popularized by Hide & Seek, Metakettle by Terrorbull games, and the playable poetry of Harry Josephine Giles.

What we haven’t included yet are less casual and more pre-prepared games for specific events. Such games could be deeply integrated with the theme and the tactics of a protest, complement its theatrics, and inform actions of civil disobedience. We hope that some of our games might inspire such inventive, radical and effective tactics.

We will see an escalation of unrest and mass participation in the coming years, in opposition to the resurgence of the extreme right in Europe and North America, as part of global responses to climate change and floundering neoliberalism, and in both local and international movements. Countering protest fatigue and making activism more approachable and stimulating must be a priority for everyone.

protestgames.org

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.

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Weird Reality / VIA


Last week I had the pleasure to participate to Weird Reality and VIA, respectively a conference and an arts+music festival organized by some good friends and colleagues.

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.

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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.

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