This talk was delivered as keynote for the Art History of Games conference, that took place during DiGRA 2013. While the infamous Can Games Be Art? question is now being carefully avoided like an inappropriate text you sent while drunk, some references and questions may still be valuable to the world beyond the small group of scholars that gathered in that hotel basement in Atlanta. It’s a minimally edited transcript/note dump, please forgive the informal tone.
2014 has been another great year for indie games, with the long awaited releases of Nidhogg and Broken Age (part 1); the genre-defining Threes (and its unfortunate clones); the outrageously polished Monument Valley and Hohokum; the new chapter of Kentucky Route Zero. What follows is a list of my personal favorites, among the ones I managed to play, in random order, with special attention to social commentary and more overlooked titles:
This year’s installment of my undergraduate course Experimental Game Design went really well. Students designed non-digital games (outdoor and tabletop) for the first half of the semester and worked on digital projects for the second half. You can find course materials here, and downloadable final projects in the student area, mostly Mac only.
In the context of Pittsburgh’s music and art festival VIA we showcased two exclusive local multiplayer games: the 2vs2 noby-noby sport Push Me Pull You and Dog Park a low poly dog ’em up by Kevin Cancienne (Slam City Oracles by Jane Friedhoff also made an appearance).
This is the introduction and the printable materials for a workshop I gave at the Allied Media Conference 2014 in Detroit. The workshop was centered around MultipliCITY, a basic framework for a city planning board game designed to be expanded and modified by the participants.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. Their offers involve selling users, proposing bizantine revenue sharing systems, manufacturing 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.
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:
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…).
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.
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: