Interview with Paolo Pedercini


Paolo Pedercini is an artist and game designer
exploring the intersection between gaming and
politics. He publishes games through his La
Molleindustria ( project.
This interview was conducted in August 2010.
with Paolo Pedercini
18 19
#3: What do you see as characteristic of
“Radical Gaming” as opposed to more
“mainstream” or “commercial” gaming?
Paolo Pedercini: I never actually
attempted to define the term but I often
use it to refer to games that question,
rather than reinforce, the dominant
system of value. “Mainstream” games
appear to “mainstream” players as
non-political, or ideologically neutral,
simply because they build their systems
upon our Western, 21st century,
common sense. Of course expanding
your business and maximizing profits is
the goal of every business management
game; of course killing a fable-like
caricature of an Arab is the goal of a
contemporary war game; of course
colonizing and possibly destroying other
civilizations is the goal of a strategy
game. A “radical” game is not only a
game with a radical message, but a
cultural artifact that indirectly points
to and criticizes the assumptions that
inform mainstream games.
#3: Do you feel there is a clear historical
trajectory to how electronic gaming has
become so entrenched in mainstream
entertainment? Was there a distinct
shift in how games were conceived,
played or designed when it was absorbed
from the margins?
PP: The history of electronic games is
full of ups and downs, crises and rebirths.
But I believe the most relevant
paradigm shift happened in the midnineties,
with the mass diffusion of
personal computers (Windows 95
and the PC as multimedia device),
the dominance of 3D games, and the
introduction of the CD-ROM. That’s
when the concentration happened:
small software houses were unable to
keep up with hardware’s exponential
growth, or to compete in a market
flooded by content-intensive products.
More memory, more processing power,
more polygons require bigger teams
and bigger capital investment. The
game industry became increasingly
similar to the Hollywood studio system
with a few majors dominating the
market, and development teams of
hundreds of people.
This mode of production has a profound
impact on the quality of content. Big
investments are a deterrent to creativity
and innovation, not to mention to
potentially subversive messages. Majors
tend to favor marketing-driven titles,
sequels, cross-media licenses—and
they are more prone to bow to hardware
manufacturers and their cycles of
planned obsolescence.
#3: Can you think of any commercial
games from the last ten years or so
that managed to carry a subversive
message into this “major-dominated”
entertainment market?
PP: Subversive is a big word. Many
games borrow from the post-apocalyptic
sci-fi tradition, and therefore have some
element of social critique embedded
in the plot. A controversial and not
particularly successful shooter called
Postal 2 was a vehement satire of North-
American bigotry. GTA: San Andreas
presents a complex representation of
a city torn by inequalities and racial
tensions; despite its over-the-top
gangsta-rap tone, it addressed quite
effectively class and privilege, issues
that are almost taboo in other forms
of entertainment. The more recent
Flower by thatgamecompany (TGC) is a
beautiful, poetic hymn to social change.
Even if it doesn’t directly address issues
of energy and sustainability, it conveys a
sense of urgency and portrays the kind
of calm, powerful, all-encompassing
transformation force that we
desperately need.
#3: In your interactive video piece,
Every Day the Same Dream, or in your
interactive text-based piece Ergon Logos,
the notion of traditional progress is
emphasized to the point of absurdity,
eventually breaking down completely.
How much of radical gaming is based on
first acknowledging the inherent rules in
a given system, then allowing for breaks
where resistance becomes possible?
PP: I think the practice of culture
jamming (or subvertising)* can be
applied to games. Games, probably more
than other forms of expression,
build on pre-established
conventions: when confronted
with a particular visual layout or
* the practice of
satirically recreating
Everyday the Same Dream, Paolo Pedercini, music © Jesse Stiles
20 21
pattern the player will tend to interpret
it according to his/her past gaming
experience. That is why, for example,
a designer wouldn’t even have to tell
you that a creature crawling at you is
an enemy, and you have to jump on his
head to kill it. Since a player’s actions are
expected to “activate” the text, designers
have to make sure that these actions
appear reasonable and easy to learn.
This obviously produces a crystallization
of genres, clichés, and all sorts of
cheesy rewards and punishments
(points, deaths, objects to collect, levels,
accomplishments...) that are meant
to guide the player towards the goal.
Challenging a player’s expectations,
twisting genres, and subverting clichés
can piss some people off but might also
encourage them to think about these
arbitrary conventions and encourage a
broader range of interpretations.
#3: In games such as Oiligarchy there
is a level of satirical humour that
critiques the socio-economic and sociopolitical
reality of our world. How do
you envision humour, and by extension,
entertainment and fun, as being key
elements in radical gaming?
PP: So-called “serious games” (an
umbrella term referencing games for
education, training, journalism, or
social commentary) often employ a
more authoritative, humorless tone.
My problem with regard to this is that
games are very opaque artifacts, they
are not committed to truth, and they
don’t have to provide documentation of
any sort. Everything is purely virtual,
and by changing a few lines of code you
can make the game produce completely
different outcomes. Since we can
basically make up every imaginable
system, I believe we should state in a
clear way our rhetorical intentions, allow
a little distance instead of providing an
experience that pretends to be absolutely
realistic or scientific. Satire is one of the
modes of communications you can use
for this purpose.
#3: The anti-WTO slogan often credited
to Jello Biafara, “Don’t hate the media,
become the media,” is cited on your
website, and you teach a course at
Carnegie Mellon titled “Game Design for
Artists, Mavericks, and Troublemakers.”
You seem to theorize resistance to
major entertainment corporations and,
as you stated, are concerned with the
opaqueness of more “serious” games. Is
working from within conventions in order
to re-appropriate and critique them a key
element in your art and design practice
as well as your teaching? In “becoming
media”, how does one avoid being
swallowed up in these conventions?
PP: I definitely consider the course
I’m teaching an integral part of the
molleindustria project. I believe a
critical/artistic intervention in the
realm of electronic entertainment
should consider the textuality of games
(loading games with political messages
or experimenting with new forms),
but also the modes of production and
distribution of these cultural products.
That’s the valuable teaching of
Indymedia*: it’s not just about
producing communication
that can “change the world,”
but about changing the very way
communication is produced and
consumed. Right now there is a strong
independent game developers movement
that can be compared to the wellestablished
independent cinema or
music scenes. Even if very few “indies”
are actually injecting social commentary
into their games, their refusal of
industrial modes of production has
an intrinsic political relevance. It’s
another piece of cognitive work that
affirms creative and financial autonomy
over the big capitals. In parallel to this
phenomenon there are many initiatives
that aim at making game development
more accessible to a broader number
of people. Democratizing the means of
production, introducing non-gamers
and non-geeks to the art of game design
is the first, fundamental step to inject
alternative ideas into the medium.
These are the ideas behind “Game
Design for Artists, Mavericks,
and Troublemakers,” a game
development course within a fairly
traditional undergraduate art program.
Teaching game development to young
artists without programming experience
is a real challenge, but it is already
producing very interesting results.
#3: In an environment of media
convergence, do you see a clear
distinction between art and games?
PP: Games are cultural forms of media
that have been explored in the artistic
practice for years now. Of course we
are talking about a form that is not
“natively” artistic, but we can say the
same about video, bio art, architecture,
and all forms of art that deal with
technology. At least since Duchamp,
art doesn’t discriminate against any
media. Certainly we can discuss which
* a international
network of outets
for the creation of
Oiligarchy, Paolo Pedercini
22 23
games - digital and non-digital - can be
included in this sandbox for cultural
experimentation that we call art, but
it would be a long debate. I personally
believe artists should engage and blend
directly with pop-culture, abandoning
self-referential artistic circles and galleryoriented
media, taking advantage of
the new channels for amateur cultural
production while still providing the
depth and intellectual poignancy that is
expected from our practice. But I realize
this is a fairly unpopular position: it is
hard to desert the comforting, privileged,
sophisticated, elitist, and subsidized art
#3: As technology continues to develop,
the entertainment gaming industry
seems keenly interested in furthering
the emergence of the body as a point of
literal interaction—whether through
motion sensors, cameras, or voice
recognition. When it comes to this
level of immersion, are you concerned
that our bodies are becoming further
indentured to entertainment capitalism?
Or is it just another area that you see as
ripe for re-appropriation, critique, and
so-called “hacktivism?”
PP: The irony is that experimental
gaming interfaces have been a subject
of artistic inquiry for years. Myron
Krueger’s Video Place now looks like
a prototype for Sony’s EyeToy, Jeffrey
Shaw’s Legible City is quite similar to
modern exergaming* systems,
and you can see many examples
of new media installations
Tamatipico, Paolo Pedercini
that employed tilt-based interactions,
motion-detection, facial-recognition,
and physical interfaces that are
implemented in the gaming platforms
of the latest generation. I wouldn’t be
surprised if the current experiments
in haptic* technology, brainwaves,
and wearable interfaces will also be
absorbed by the entertainment
industry in the near future.
I guess the drive behind this
kind of artistic experimentation was the
desire to overcome the passive spectator;
to empower the art user to transcend
the limits of functionalist computer
interfaces. But the landscape of mimetic
interfaces is presently quite depressing.
These sophisticated technologies are not
being used to explore new frontiers of
gaming, but instead to create surrogates
of activities that people are already
familiar with. The machine in the living
room is trying to subtract time to the
gym, to the tennis court, to the bowling
alley, to the park, and to the garage used
for band practice. The cultural diversity
that these spaces entail is substituted
by a customized, sanitized, corporatecontrolled
online sociality that can
only produce more self-segregation,
community degradation and gravity
toward the asphyxiating nuclear
family. Can these technologies be reappropriated
or subverted? I honestly
cannot see how.