A couple of weeks ago a series of fortunate events led me to Somerset House, where the Now Play This exhibition took up a handful of rooms in one of the palatial building’s many wings. Now, Somerset house is not renowned for its progressive exhibitions, but a recent trend has seen videogames coming into their own in the art space in galleries around the world. Such ‘official’ preservation activities (fans have been involved in their own form of legally dubious preservation through mods and emulators for years, of course) were sparked by the exhortations of the 2009 white paper of the Game Preservation Special Interest Group of the International Game Developers Association to act before it’s too late: “if we fail to address the problem of game preservation, the games you are making will disappear, perhaps within a few decades.”
Specialist Museums have already been in existence for a number of years, growing collections of some of the most vulnerable gaming hardware and software, such as the International Centre for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong National Museum of Play in New York, The Computerspiele Museum in Germany and the collection at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Perhaps more surprisingly, and the biggest indicator that things were changing, was when MoMA in New York started building a permanent collection of classic videogames in 2012, with many other mainstream art venues following suit, including most recently London’s V&A recruiting a dedicated games curator for a major forthcoming exhibition. Of course the entry of videogames into the established art space carries its own problems, not least the confounding issues of how to display games in an authentic state when it’s becoming increasingly impossible to think of games as isolated entities, or how to circumnavigate the industry’s choppy legal waters (for more on these developments I recommend James Newman’s book Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence), or, indeed, whether videogames should be given the same treatment as the more traditional arts at all.
Now Play This, with its slogan “Games for an Uncertain World,” was a different kind of exhibition. Rather than attempting to address issues of preservation or elevating (or pacifying) videogames within the official space of the gallery, the exhibition was all about showcasing the sheer experimental scope of videogames. The exhibition was, appropriately, highly playful and explored the messy fringes of the medium where games, technology, poetry and art form a heady brew of invention and whimsy. To quote from their brochure: “The thing that ties these works together is an interest in game design as cultural practice; in play as one of the fundamental ways that we understand and interact with the world.” Also appropriately the exhibition was interactive, taking on the qualities of a convention with a wide programme of talks and workshops, and the creators were on hand to introduce their works. For instance I spoke to Nassia Inglessis who works with haptic interfaces as a way to experience the world through a broader menu of senses than the audio visual. She had a prototype created from ‘SAM’ circuit building blocks that incorporated perfumes and heat sensitive materials. Like most highly experimental things it’s probably not remotely practical for the home user, but it sets you thinking and I couldn’t help but wonder how it might incorporate with the emerging VR technology to give an even greater sense of presence.
The thing that ties these works together is an interest in game design as cultural practice; in play as one of the fundamental ways that we understand and interact with the world.
Speaking of VR and feedback devices, the most extreme form of this I’ve seen to date is The Pretender Project by Yifei Chai (see the video below), which seeks to use an Oculus Rift, a Kinect and electronic muscle stimulation to virtually put you in the shoes of another person. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to try it myself, Chai was giving people the opportunity for an out of body experience in the form of shaking their own hand (my friend tried it and confirmed that it was incredibly surreal). Inspired by witchcraft as much as technology, Chai believes his project could have multiple applications beyond being a neat parlour trick, such as medical rehabilitation. Based on the Proteus Effect, the phenomenon of changing real behaviour to match a virtual avatar, fundamentally it’s a tool for creating empathy, and so in essence its a heightened form of the same kind of empathetic shift that gamers make every day when they walk their avatars through a virtual gameworld, although the thought of it all being transposed onto reality is a little unnerving as much as it is exciting.
There were more traditional indie games on show, including Hohokum by Honeyslug, Lumino City by State of Play, and Monument Valley by Ustwo. There were also titles that will be available to download soon, for instance Twisted Tree Games’ folklore generator The Forest of Sleep and Oases by Armel Gibson and Dziff, where the creator imagines what happened to his grandfather after his plane crashed in Algeria in colourful, magical realist excess. On the more experimental side Robin Baumgarten’s wonderful 1D dungeon crawler Line Wobbler was on show (see our feature on the Norwich Gaming Festival for more info) and inflorescence.city by Loren Schmidt and Katie Rose Pipkin was a text based adventure with a basic interface that possessed more than an echo of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as it procedurally generated enigmatic geographical descriptors and scraps of user submitted poetry to build its bizarre world: “Zomei: city of ornate smoke spires. Beneath the city’s street lies a tremendous tank housing an unutterably huge, ancient fish which remembers distant stars.” The walls were also adorned with the results of a Twitter challenge to design a game in 128 characters, my favourite of which was: “Go to IKEA and build a fort out of furniture. Last as long as you can. Last one to leave the store wins.” It perfectly sums up the gloriously disruptive, and occasionally subversive, effect games can have on everyday life – making magic out of the mundane.
Go to IKEA and build a fort out of furniture. Last as long as you can. Last one to leave the store wins.
Finally there was a fascinating library of books available to leaf through which included an eclectic collection of works that either ruminated upon or were themselves, in some way, games. Among them was the Game of War, not the mobile timewaster but the meditation on society and warfare developed by radical French philosopher Guy Debord; The Westing Game, the 1978 novel by children’s author Ellen Raskin (which was the subject of a beautiful feature on Eurogamer); and A Landscape Painted with Tea, the cryptic postmodern novel/crossword puzzle by Milorad Pavic.
Now Play This was a fascinating look at the limits of gaming and the space where technology, art and theory collide. Rather than a dry art installation it managed to capture the power games can have in the world and express their increasingly important role in human culture. To reference Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga, the father of game studies, we could think of ourselves as ‘Homo Ludens’ (man the player) such is the importance of its role in the generation of culture.