On June 16, 2014, Colleen Flaherty and I were invited to participate to an international workshop on GAMING, ART, AND CULTURE in Siena, Italy organized by Professor Pier Luigi Sacco and Nicola Tripet. The event took place in the Bibliotechina of Santa Maria della Scala, located in Piazza del Duomo, a truly outstanding venue.
The full line-up featured Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen (Serious Games Interactive), Panagiotis Petridis (Serious Games Istitute), Paul Manwaring (Glimworm), Davide Spallazzo & Ilaria Mariani (Politecnico di Milano), Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games), and Matteo Bittanti & Colleen Flaherty (COLL.EO),
Below is a transcription of our presentation, which we are sharing to foster a broader conversation.
As always, there are links embedded in the main text.
GAME DESIGN, CRITICAL PLAY, GAME ART
Matteo Bittanti and Colleen Flaherty (COLL.EO)
Hello everybody. It is a pleasure to be here in Siena. Colleen and I would like to thank Pierluigi Sacco, Nicola Tripet and the City of Siena for inviting us to speak today and to share our ideas with our esteemed colleagues.
This talk will focus on three main themes: Game Design, Critical Play, and Game Art. We will provide provide specific examples, case studies, and situations, based on our practice as artists, scholars, and gamers.
A disclaimer: this is not your average artist's talk.
Ok, before we begin...
WHAT IS COLL.EO?
In 2012, Colleen Flaherty and I formed COLL.EO, an artistic collaboration that have so far generated approximately twenty projects, artworks, and performances, some of which have been exhibited in the United States and in Europe. COLL.EO has also become a catalyst for several initiatives, including Random Parts, an artist-run space located in Oakland, California and CONCRETE PRESS an independent publisher specializing in art, culture, and media. We are currently in Italy to work on a site-specific installation that we will unveiled later this year.
SO, WHO ARE WE?
Let's introduce each other:
Colleen Flaherty is a visual artist trained as a painter and a sculptor. She received her M.F.A. in Painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco in 2002 and her B.F.A. Cum Laude, with emphasis in Painting and Drawing, Minor in Music from San Jose State University, San Jose, California in 1998.
Matteo Bittanti is an interdisciplinary artist born in Milan, Italy. His interventions lie at the intersection between videogames, toys, cinema, and the web. Bittanti's works have been presented in the United States, Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, France, and Italy. Bittanti currently teaches in the Visual Studies (VS) and in the Visual & Critical Studies (VCS) programs at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and Oakland. Previously, Bittanti was at Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, IULM, the European Instiute of Design (IED) and Brera's New Academy of Art (NABA) in Milan.
Now back to Matteo Bittanti.
In addition to my artistic practice, I have been researching videogames since the mid '80s. My first book centered on the relationship between digital games and technological innovation. It was published by Jackson Libri in 1999 and it looked liked this:
In the early Zeroes, together with Gianni Canova, I created LUDOLOGICA, Italy’s first academic book series on Game Studies published by Edizioni Unicopli. Today, LUDOLOGICA comprises more than 30 books about videogames, in monograph and anthological format. The series has spawned several spin-offs (e.g. VIDEOLUDICA, published by costa & nolan), stand-alone volumes, several projects, exhibitions, workshops, and more.
As I speak, there are five new LUDOLOGICA titles currently in production. The next volume will be released shortly.
Source: Ludologica, art by Mauro Ceolin
OK, WHAT DO WE DO?
According to 500 words, the bot that authored our artist statement,
COLL.EO creates media artworks, mobile sculptures, and conceptual pieces. With the use of appropriated materials which are borrowed from a day-to-day context, COLL.EO uses a visual vocabulary that addresses several different artistic, social, and political issues. Our work incorporates time as well as space – a fictional and experiential universe that only emerges bit by bit and piece by piece. The switch between the analog and the digital is simultaneously sudden and subtle. COLL.EO generates situations in which everyday objects - often toys and games - are altered or detached from their original contexts. COLL.EO's works are a drawn reflection upon the art of media art itself.
This introduction was not meant as a captatio benevolentiae, i.e., a winning of goodwill of some sort. It is meant to provide a framework and an explanation. Both Colleen and I approach games - digital and traditional - as an object of study but also as raw material that can be collected, appropriated, détourned, subverted and re-purposed to create something else.
This requires a bit of contextualization.
In his seminal Manifesto of Machinism, penned in 1938 and published in 1952, Bruno Munari wrote:
We live in a world owned by machines. We live among them, they help us do everything, from working to playing. [...] In a few years, we will become their little slaves. The artists are the only ones who can save mankind from this danger.
According to Munari, artists must develop a close relationship with technology, abandoning the traditional disciplines of painting and sculpture, doing away with “romantic brushes, the dusty palette, the canvas, and the easels.”
The artists, Munari added, “must learn the mechanical anatomy of the machines, their mechanical language, their nature... They must distract them, make them behave erratically, create works of art with the machines, their tools.”
And that's what we are trying to accomplish: create art with machines. Game machines. Engines of simulation.
For us, games and toys are not a mere technology, a form of entertainment.
They constitute an ART FORM.
Our talk, however, is not concerned with the ART OF GAMES.
We are much more interested in the GAMES OF ART.
To clarify this point, I would like to add that I have been teaching a course at California College of the Arts called GameScenes. Art in the Age of Videogames for several years. Based on an eponymous book that I wrote with Domenico Quaranta in 2006, GameScenes investigates the relationship between contemporary art and videogames.
What is the focus of this class?
Paraphrasing Walter Benjamin, some ask if videogames can be considered Art. GameScenes asks whether the invention of videogames has not transformed the entire character of art.
Source: Matteo Bittanti, Domenico Quaranta, GameScenes. Art in the Age of Videogames, Johan & Levi, 2006
OK, BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
It means that my students and I spend an entire semester studying artists who use games as a metaphor and medium, object and subject, strategy and tactic in their practice. You see, most gamers play games. Artists, on the other hands, play with games. California College of the Arts' students are both gamers and artists. They play games and they play with games. They are equally familiar with Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims as they are with contemporary artist Chris Burden.
Source: GameScenes Syllabus Walkthough, 2014
In other words, these students know and understand Game Art.
This should not be a surprise. As Johan Huizinga cogently demonstrated in Homo Ludens (1938), "All art derives from play" (65).
According to the Dutch historian, PLAY is what makes ART possible. These two practices inform, intersect, and enrich each other.
This is why a place like California College of the Arts is ideal to study and develop new kinds of games.
Which brings us to the first topic of our talk.
Source: California College of the Arts, logo designed by Mark Fox, 2003
[RETHINKING] GAME DESIGN
Last year, I was asked by California College of the Arts' Provost to design a new Program in Game Design, which would complement the School's existing twenty three programs. I spent approximately one year working on this project, which led me to think hard about - or rather, to rethink - the meaning, purpose, and essence of GAME DESIGN.
I had previously designed a Game Design program from scratch more than a decade ago, at the European Institute of Design (IED) in Milan, not to mention several Game Studies courses at other institutions, both in Italy and in the United States.
But this was a different game altogether. A game with several challenges but also possibilities.
The first question I asked myself was: Why create a Game Design program at California College of the Arts?
The question is not as rhetorical as it may sound. Although the answer may seem obviou$ - from an administrative point of view, that is - the real issue is:
What kinds of Game Design program are currently missing from the gamescenes, pardon, scenes?
You may be aware that the State of California offers a plethora of excellent Game Design Programs at both graduate and undergraduate level.
University of Southern California's Game Innovation Lab led by Professor Traci Fullerton is one them. Housed within the Media Division of USC' School of Cinematic Arts, the Game Innovation Lab can boost collaborations with Bill Viola, has indie designers like Mark Essen as visiting artists, developed a game adaptation of Walden and created countless cutting edge projects. No wonder USC has been ranked the best Game Design program in the United States for four consecutive years by The Princeton Review (2013).
Equally impressive is UCLA GameLab, which not only offers state-of-the-art courses, but also organizes the annual UCLA Game Art Festival at the Hammer Museum. The Program is led by one of the most prominent artists working with videogames and digital media, Eddo Stern. Unsurprisingly, the UCLA GameLab leads the way in merging Art, Games, and Digital Media as its impressive ludic production clearly demonstrates.
And let’s not forget the mighty Games & Playable Media Program at University of California Santa Cruz, which features some of the brightest game designers and artists in the field, from Michael Mateas to Noah Wardrip-Fruin, from Brenda Laurel to Jim Whitehead, from John Romero, co-creator of Doom, to Brenda Romero, whose innovative games constantly push the boundaries of the medium.
In shortj, there are other excellent Game Design programs in California - not to mention the rest of the country -, but unfortunately I do not have enough time to discuss them in depth.
So, the question remains:
What can California College of the Arts offer to students eager to become game designers, today?
What can one of the most prominent art and design schools in the United States offer to a new generation of artists?
What can California of the Arts bring to the art of Game Design?
To answer that question, I would like to borrow the notion of Critical Play, developed by artist and scholar Mary Flanagan (2009).
According to Flanagan (6),
In this crucial passage, Flanagan states that games create meaningful "cognitive and epistemological environments" and that to play critically means "to create or occupy" these playful spaces in order to question, examine, and investigate issues that are central to human life. These questions can be abstract or specific.
I trongly believe that California College of the Arts should embrace critical play and develop games that examine "social, cultural, political" and even "personal themes that function as alternatives to popular play spaces".
I will soon explain what I mean by "alternative" game spaces, but first, I would like to clarify what "popular play spaces" means. Here are a few examples:
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Activision, 2014
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Siege, Ubisoft, 2014
Battlefield Hardline, Electronic Arts 2014
My question is do we need to develop more of these "popular play spaces"?
Do we really want out students to invest considerable time, money, and resources to create another Call of Duty or another Battlefield?
Do we want to create more game adaptations of Michael Bay's like moronic blockbusters (read: 90% of Hollywood mainstream releases)?
I didn't think so, either.
Instead, we must develop NEW GAMES.
And to develop NEW GAMES we must fully embrace the significance of CRITICAL PLAY.
Here's another critical passage from Flanagan:
Critical play demands a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversitities, a refocusing on the relational and performative as opposed to the object, and a continued and sustained appreciation of the subversive. Critical play is also a new discipline of theory and practice that embodies a set of methods and actions. The critical play method is intended as a tool for future game makers, play designers, and scholars. The desired results are new games that innovate due to their critical approach, games that instill the ability to think critically during and after play. (Flanagan, p. 261, emphasis added)
In addition to Critical Play, I would like to expand an idea first developed by Mario Ricco, a Professor of Architecture at Politecnico Institute of Milan and Art Director at Ubisoft, which he first discussed in the foreword to a book about Sid Meier’s Civilization, which I edited a decade ago. Mario wrote that:
Our contemporary world is frankly too complicated. Unintelligible. There are too many variables, parameters, and agents. As such, today's world cannot be narrated. It cannot be "told" in linear fashion. In order to make sense of "reality", we can only try to simulate it. (2005: 12)
This statement was meant as a response to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s theory that postmodernism marked the end of metanarratives, that is, all-encompassing explanations of reality, grand fictions about fiction that offer a society legitimation through the anticipated completion of a - as yet unrealized - master idea. Example of metanarratives include Progress, Emancipation, Equality, Meritocracy and other utopian fairy-tales that, nonetheless, shape, influence, and often determine our every day behavior, expectations, and beliefs.
Metanarratives are indeed over, Ricco said. But they have not been substituted by what Lyotard called petits récits ("small, local narratives"). Instead, they have been replaced by simulations and digital games. The perfect example is Sid Meier’s strategy game, which allows players to experience, understand - and in some cases subvert - the social and historical phenomena otherwise known as Colonialism and Imperialism. One thing is to read about Colonialism and Imperialism in a textbook. Another is to simulate them on the screen.
To simulate means to imitate the functioning of a real-world process, phenomenon and/or system over time. The act of simulating something first requires a deep understanding of that process or system. Secondly, simulation requires the development of a model which represents its essential characteristics or behaviors. The model represents the system itself, whereas the simulation represents the operation of the system over time. Simulations are simplifications of reality, obviously. Nonetheless, to simplify something does not necessarily mean to trivialize it. To simplify mean to make legible something that may otherwise appear unintelligible.
In a seminal lecture, game designer Will Wright (2003) discussed the nature of simulations and their "dynamics", i.e., the rules and principles that govern the way in which structures change through time. Any aspiring game designer should watch it. Over and over again.
Source: Sid Meier's Civilization V, Firaxis, 2K Games, 2010
In my writings, I have borrowed Flanagan and Ricco's ideas, suggesting that game design could become a powerful tool for explaining complex systems and phenomena without providing apodictic answers. In other words, critical game design could become a powerful instrument to investigate the status quo and to question existing power structures.
My goal at California College of the Arts is to design games that have wider social, political, environmental implications and impacts, consistent with the school's philosophy.
Unlike traditional, linear narratives, games can generate possible scenarios ("possibility spaces," as Wright calls them), situations, and processes. While film can replicate "reality" with storytelling, turning a chaotic series of events into an organized, "legible" whole, games simulate various aspects of reality.
This means that rather than providing univocal or definite answers, trajectories, and outcomes, games could be used to raise question that nobody wants raised, let alone answered. Causation and correlation could achieve that kind of transparency that other means of representation lack.
Games could also be used to predict possible outcomes. Consider the notion of premediation developed by Richard Grusin in Premediation. Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (2010):
[B]y trying to premediate as many of the possible worlds, or possible paths, as the future could be imagined to take, premediation bears some affinities to the logic of designing a videogame. More like designing a videogame than predicting the future, premediation is not concerned with getting the future right, as much as with trying to map out a multiplicity of possible futures. Premediation would in some sense transform the world into a video or computer game, which only permits certain moves depending on where the player is in the space of the game, how far advanced she is in achieving the goal of the game, of the attributes of the avatar. Although within these premediated moves there are a seemingly infinite number of different possibilities available, only some of these possibilities are encouraged by the protocols and reward systems built into the game. (46)
So what kind of possible futures can we envision?
What kind of scenario should we play?
What kind of games should we develop at California College of the Arts?
GAMES THAT MATTER
Today I would like to briefly discuss three projects. Three simulations to make visible, legible and playable what it means to be alive in and aware of the present moment. Three games to think creatively and critically. Three games that could have wider social, political, environmental implications and impacts than the average shoot'em up.
I am aware that some of these examples could fall under the umbrella of a genre otherwise known as Serious Games and/or meaningful play, but I must confess that I have always found the label “Serious games” problematic as it implicitly - or perhaps not so implicitly - assumes a priori that there are such things as "non-serious games" and "meaningless play".
I think this approach is flawed and potentially counter-productive.
I take the Situationists’ motto “We demand games with great seriousness” as an invitation to play differently, that is, critically. In other words, we do not necessarily need Serious Games, but rather, serious gamers, gamers that are willing to deconstruct the games they play, question their assumptions, modify their rules, and alter their outcomes.
A critical player is somebody who has read Pierre Bourdieu and plays Grand Theft Auto.
A critical player is somebody who has read Slavoj Zizek and plays Call of Duty.
A critical player is somebody who has read David Harvey and plays SimCity.
The emphasis here is on and, not but.
The good news is that there are several artists who have been playing critically for years.
Consider, for instance, the work of Joseph DeLappe, whose in-game interventions in games like America's Army, Quake, Second Life, and The Sims have questioned the ideologies and the agenda embedded in these simulations.
Joseph DeLappe, "dead...whats your point?", dead-in-iraq screenshot 2006-2011
Or think about Angela Washko's gender play in World of Warcraft. Her performances bring to the surfaces both the biases embedded in the simulation (at the level of code, that is) and players' behaviors.
Source: Angela Washko, World of Warcraft performances, 2012-ongoing.
Not to mention dozens of avant-garde practitioners - from Dada to Futurism, from Surrealism to Fluxus - for whom toys and games are a means of expression, a political tool, an aesthetic object.
And there is an entire generation of students who are growing up playing videogames and reading Foucault, Chomski, McLuhan, Huizinga, Munari, West, Zizek, Baudrillard, Mulvey, Hall, De Certeau, Debord, Butler... just to name a few.
They exist. I have met them.
These designers will develop the games of tomorrow.
GAMES THAT MATTER. NO, REALLY
California College of the Arts promotes meaningful social and cultural change through ART THAT MATTERS.
I would add that MAKING GAMES THAT MATTER is a national priority.
As President Obama stated in December 2013 - just before suggesting that an Art History degree is basically useless - children should design rather than buy games.
Source: President Barack Obama asks America to learn Computer Science, Code.org, December 2013
So what kind of games should we design?
I have a few ideas.
Here is one:
GRAND THEFT SCHOOL
The first game I would love to develop is a simulation of the North American Higher Education System and its many contradictions. Taking Mario Ricco's suggestion that, “when reality becomes too complex, one can only simulate it, rather than explain in linear fashion” as a starting point, I am envisioning a game that could help players to make sense of something that I find utterly unintelligible: the Ivory Tower.
As you may know, in the United States academia is undergoing a major crisis, one that led Noam Chomski to conclude that American universities are dead. This phenomenon is not new. The decline began in the 1970s. But it has now reached a point of no return.
For those of you who are not aware of what I am talking about, here are a few points, which I extrapolated from Keith Holler’s excellent essay included in Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, published in 2014 by Vanderbilt University.
- In the past thirty-eight years, the percentage of professors holding tenure-track positions has been cut nearly in half. Full-time tenure-stream professors went from 45.1 percent of America’s professoriate in 1975 to only 24.1 percent in 2011, with only one in six (16.7 percent) professors now possessing tenure.
- In the meantime, the percentage of professors teaching off the tenure track increased from 54.8 percent in 1975 to 76 percent in 2011. In 1975, there were 268,883 full-time non-tenure-track and part-time professors, as well as 160,806 graduate teaching assistants.
- From 1975 to 2011, the number of tenure-track and tenured professors increased by only 35.6 percent nationwide, while the number of part-time professors increased by 305.3 percent.
- College administrators have gone to great lengths to keep their increasing numbers of adjunct faculty secret from students, parents, legislators, accreditors, foundations, and the public. Unsurprisingly, only 24% of college presidents would like most faculty members to be full-time and tenured (Source: PewResearch, 2011)
- The vast majority of Adjunct Professors are as qualified and experienced as tenured professors. They have the same responsibilities, duties, and hours as their colleagues, but that receive a fraction of their salary, have no job security, no benefits, and no sabbaticals. Nothing at all. By "low pay" I mean that they are poor. Literally poor, not metaphorically. They are well below the poverty line. They are contingent, precarious, and considered "part-time" even when they teach full time, again with meagre compensation. Some Adjunct professors are called “visiting” professors, with the only caveat that they will be “visiting” their school until they die.
- Meanwhile, in the last 10 years, the number of college administrators has increased 369%.
Today, across the United States of America, Adjunct Professors experience inequity, discrimination, and exploitation. In short, as Hoeller convincingly concludes, the Ivory Tower now functions like Walmart:
“Wal-Mart seems to provide an apt analogy for the economic trend that has occurred in academia. Wal-Mart has become well known for keeping its number of full-time workers to a minimum, and hiring many part-time workers, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security." (Keith Holler, 2014)
Below is one useful chart:
Wait, there is more.
As American colleges were getting massively “adjunctified”, student enrollments increased by 60 percent. Interestingly, between 1975 to 2005, college tuitions have increased more than 1,200 percent. far outpacing any other price the government tracks: food, housing, cars, gasoline etc. In fact, Tuition has increased at a rate double that of medical care, normally considered the most expensive of human necessities (in reality, just another extreme example of American inequality and exploitation) (Source: Thomas Frank, 2014). Interestingly, in the same period, the hourly wages for 16-24 year olds have declined 18% (Source: The Wall Street Journal).
This looks like a puzzle game to me.
Or, rather, like a survival horror.
Here's another useful chart:
Source: Labor Department, National Center for Education Statistics, via The Wall Street Journal
In case you did not know, the Class of 2014 is the most indebted ever in American history: today, more than 70% of American students owe 33,000+ dollars in loans. They will be paying back their loans until the die. In a Neoliberal paradigm, death and debt are the only certainties.
Source: Mark Kantrowitz analysis of National Center for Education data via The Wall Street Journal
We are facing a serious paradox, an epistemological short-circuit. On one hand, the system puts a premium on Education: students are asked to pay a high price to earn their degree (and the trend is upward: costs will continue to rise). On the other, those who are in charge of providing meaningful learning experiences are not effectively compensated for their work. It is a lose-lose situations.
This a truly schizophrenic situation: administrators are simultaneously saying that Education is really valuable (if you are a "customer") and worthless (if you are an "employee").
Given this absurd, if not obscene situation, I propose to design Grand Theft School, a game that puts the player in the role of either a young student who wants to fulfill her or his dream to become a professor and earn a decent, honest living or that of a young student who wishes to fulfill her or his dream to learn, earn a degree, and create something that matter, maybe even art.
Source: The Sims 3 University Life, Maxis/Electronic Arts, 2013
Grand Theft School is a game that has many losers and just a handful of winners.
It is a frustrating game, one that puts most players at an unfair disadvantage.
The sad reality is that in the United States, higher education is so flawed, bugged, and glitched that the vast majority of Adjunct Professors and students are doomed to fail, in the short, mid- and long term.
And since many outside academia are either unaware or incapable to understand how rigged this particular game is, I propose to design a simulation that can generate different situations in order to bring to the spotlight the many contradictions of its processes.
In order to design an accurate, useful simulation, the designers of Grand Theft School must first research the topic in detail. Below are a handful of resources that could be used as "instruction manuals" or "strategy guides":
And this recent PBS News Report neatly summarizes the situation:
Finally, I recommend an essay by Alexandre Afonso (2013) which argues that the academic job market operates like the drug trade business. As Afonso wrote,
The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small (unless you mark student papers very harshly), one can observe similar dynamics. Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labour markets virtually everywhere. One of the hot topics in labour market research at the moment is what we call “dualisation”. Dualisation is the strengthening of this divide between insiders in secure, stable employment and outsiders in fixed-term, precarious employment. Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail. (Alexandre Afonso, 2013)
Hence, Grand Theft School.
The second game that I would love to design at CCA is SimGentrification.
As you may know, San Francisco is currently the most despised city in the United States.
And rightly so.
The city formerly known as Baghdad on the Bay is experiencing the most radical example of what Alan Ehrenhalt calls Demographic inversion (2013), i.e. “the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area” (p. 3) in which “the roles of cities and suburbs will not only change but will very nearly reverse themselves” (p. 228). Demographic inversion is a less abrasive term than gentrification. Apparances are deceiving: genocide is to gentrification what ethnic cleansing is to demographic inversion. The latter may sound harmless, but the outcomes are identical. (note 1)
Source: Megan Wong
In the last five years, Silicon Valley has "disrupted" San Francisco, creating an unprecedented diaspora.
It has sistematically eradicated what was left of the working class. Artists are gone, too. Take Yolanda López, 71, a leading feminist and pioneer of the Chicana art movement in the 1960s and 1970s who lived in the Mission District for more than 40 years. She was evicted last May along with her son and neighbors, Rio Yañez's father, artist Rene Yanez and partner, Cynthia Wallis both suffering terminal cancer, in the latest round of carpet evictions.
As critic and curator Lucy Lippard asked,"What is wrong with the city that it evicts Yolanda López, one of its most important artists?"
To put it bluntly, everything is wrong.
But the sad truth is that there are hundreds of cases like this.
I find it ironic to teach in an art school in a city where artists have become an endangered species.
It goes without say that none of my students can afford to live, let alone "make art that matters" in San Francisco.
Basically, the City has been taken over by black-box algorithms and drones.
In many ways, Silicon Valley exemplifies the ugliest face of Late Capitalism. Silicon Valley's ethos is explicitly funded on neoliberal principles: thus, it devalues any critical and creative work while promoting inequality, income segregation, and exploitation. One must quickly learn the Valley's tragicomic language games: sharing really means "selling", improving corresponds to "exterminating", and community is a synonymous of "pervasive surveillance".
You know that you have a serious problem when the biggest aspiration of the smartest kids graduating from Stanford University (50k+ per year) is to create a sexting app.
Source: Illustration by Tim Enthoven for The New York Times
I envision a game called SimGentrification, which could be a mod (short for modification) of SimCity (note 2) that simulates the effects of what Rebecca Solnit has called the fully-fledged "invasion” of San Francisco, ruthless processes of gentrification that suddenly alter the entire nature of an urban environment.
Source: COLL.EO, Oro en paz y fierro en guerra, 2014
SimGentrification allows the player to play different roles. One can become the avatar of a long time resident who sees his home rent increase by 1000% overnight and thus faces immediate eviction; that of a Google bus driver trying to avoid barricades and protesters in the streets (in case you didn't know, "since 2011, 69 percent of the no-fault evictions have occurred within four blocks of a private bus shuttle stop for tech company employees,"source: Newsweek, 2014), or that of a landlord hitting the jackpot thanks to the new gold rush/dot.com bubble. You can also play the role of the entitled techie who has to deal with a series of daily struggles, such as a delayed delivery of cold pressed juices to the office caused by a drone malfunction. You can also play the role of a private security guard for the Google bus, before RoboCop takes over. In short, possibilities are endless. Skynet is the limit.
Design-wise, I am imagining something along the lines of SimCity meets Tropico, with a dash of Mike Judge's Silicon Valley and Bertell Ollman's Class Struggle boardgame. Basically, an accurate depiction of 2014 San Francisco, as described by Kevin Roose. The game should also feature a powerful mapping editor designed by Stamen Design.
Source: SimCity, Maxis/EA, 2013
Source: Tropico 5, Deep Silver, 2014
Source: Stamen Design, watercolor map app, 2013
Source: Bertell Ollman's Class Struggle, boardgame. 1978-2983
Thanks to SimGentrification, players can experience, albeit in vicarious form, the eradication of middle class families from the City, the sudden disappearance of alternative creative spaces, read: non-corporate, and the proliferation of coffee houses/factories that serve $8 cappuccini.
Imagine the thrill!
Experience the excitement!
Once again, in order to design such game a little research is needed.
So what’s the matter with San Francisco? It’s becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley, while Silicon Valley becomes a global power center for information control run by a bunch of crazy libertarian megalomaniacs. And a lot of what’s made San Francisco really generative for the environmental movement and a lot of other movements gets squeezed out. And it feels like the place is being killed in some way. (Rebecca Solnit, 2014)
Unfortunately, you cannot play SimGentrification if you are an Adjunct Professor. That's because according to "The High Cost of Adjunct Living: San Francisco Bay Area", a recent report published by the Bay Area Adjunct Action initiative, a typical Adjunct would need to teach 23 to 32 classes a year to afford rent and utilities in the Bay Area, or 38 to 52 classes a year to afford rent and utilities in the city of San Francisco.
Too bad that the maximum number of classes an Adjunct Professor can teach is four.
No cheat mode can allow an Adjunct Professor to play.
Or survive, for that matter.
The third game I would like to develop at California College of the Arts is a realistic racing game. By realistic, I mean a videogame that simulates real conditions, such as traffic, environmental issues, proliferation of parking lots, road construction, geopolitical conflicts that in turn require the use of videogames as interactive propaganda for recruitment purposes, and complete reliance on the most corrupted business in the world, the fossil-fuel industry (wanna know more?).
Commercial racing games are glorified, interactive car ads. The best-sellers -Need for Speed, Gran Turismo, and Forza - do not simulate the act of driving in a realistic manner: in these games, players race through pedestrian-free streets of pristine metropolitan areas. Traffic, one of the major concerns of contemporary urban life, is surprisingly absent. Ditto for other key factors mentioned before.
In other words: the side effects of driving are never simulated.
On the contrary, they are often celebrated, as in the case of President Barack Obama’s favorite racing game, Burnout Paradise which features spectacular car crashes.
Source: Matteo Bittanti & Claudio Tradardi, Obamads, 2009
In short, there is nothing “realistic” about realistic racing games.
Meanwhile, racing games contribute to the fetishization of car brands. Videogames are lucid dreams that titillate collective desires for speed, prestige, power, and recognition. As such, gaming lies at the intersection of advertising, technology, and consumer culture.
People treat cars as extensions of themselves, projections of their identity, embodiment of their material desires and aspirations. The same logic applies to their virtual counterparts. In other words, racing games are powerful propaganda machines: they promote and reinforce the ideology of the motor vehicle by glorying the manufacturer brand. Like toys, digital games are part of a conditioning process that begins in early age. BMW sells "boys toys". BMW sells "art on wheels". BMW sells "sheer driving experiences".
Source: BMW Greece, 2009
I envision a REAL DRIVING game that could allow players to be stuck in a traffic jam for hours.
I want to feel the claustrophobic tension experienced by Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) in Fellini's 8 1/2, stuck under an underpass while dreaming of flying away.
I want a game that will make me sweat profusely like William "D-FENSE" Foster (Michael Douglas) in Falling Down.
I want to relive the never-ending bourgeoisie gridlock of Jean-Luc Godard's Week End (1967) and appreciate the fact that Class is not a car model.
Source: Federico Fellini, 8 1/2, 1963
I want to drive around a virtual city for hours, hunting for parking spot, argue with other desperate drivers who are fighting to get the same scarce resource. In short, I want to relive the quintessential experience of urban living over and over again. After all, 30 percent of most traffic in a city comes from people looking for parking spaces.
I want to experience the American dream of private driving. I really want to understand why public transportation is for losers.
I want a racing game that lets me share my car with an App and then fight against cab enraged drivers as I disrupt their business in the name of "innovation".
I want a racing game in which the player, assuming the role of a Google Bus driver, is eventually displaced by a self-driving vehicle designed by Google, thus becoming the latest victim of technological unemployment.
I want a racing car where my stupid car sits on the side of the street for 90% of the time, gets bird's poo all over its "body" so that I can wash it every Saturday and feel that my life has some kind of purpose.
Damn, I want to play the "real thing".
DESIGNING GAMES THAT MATTER
Grand Theft Schools, SimGentrification and Real Driving are meant as self-reflexive, critical tools. I hope to develop these projects - along with many more - at California College of the Arts but I also want to share these ideas with you today because I believe we are in dire need of different games.
In short, I envision a new generation of games as epistemological tools, that is, simulations that could help us to better understand the human condition and the cultural, social, and political situation. I want to design not only games, but - paraphrasing John Berger - conceive new ways of playing to make sense of an increasingly complex world. I want to make games to better understand the world we live in.
We are done with shoot'em ups and action titles. We played these kinds of games at nauseam. Wealth inequality, income segregation, discrimination, gentrification, privatization of public services, commodification, exploitation, corruption... These should become new videogame genres. These are the puzzles that demand to be understood, analyzed, and solved. We will leave pixelated terrorists, zombies, and alien invaders to others.
I want to play a game that could help our students to make sense of the fact that the wealthiest 7% of Americans gained over $600,000 from 2009-2011 (mean net worth), while the other 93% lost more than $6,000 (Source: PewResearch, 2013).
I want to make a game that puts these numbers in perspective, somehow.
Annual costs for:
- Harvard University $56,000
- Nursing home $84,000
- NYC jail $168,000
(Sources: New York Times, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard University)
I want to understand why, in the State of California, there are more African-American citizens in prison than in school. In fact, in 2011, there were more African-Americans in prison or “under the watch” of the justice system than were enslaved in the United States in 1850.
We must design games to fully understand these issues.
If we don't, we fail, as a society. Actually, it's more serious than that. It's an...
Source: COLL.EO, YOU ARE DEAD, 2012
I do not consider myself so delusional, hypocritical or naive to suggest that "games can change the world", or "fix a broken reality". As I have argued elsewhere, gamification as it is commonly preached in self-help sessions and business-oriented conferences is just a marketing ruse, an intellectual travesty and a neoliberal tool. I completely agree with our speaker Ian Bogost that gamification is bullshit.
But I am firmly convinced that through critical play we could understand - even challenge - the status quo.
To MAKE GAMES THAT MATTER we must reinvent Game Design.
Meanwhile, we, as COLL.EO, have been experimenting with existing games.
Source: The Sims 2, Maxis/Electronic Arts, 2009
In the last part of the talk, we would like to briefly mention some projects that we, as COLLEO, developed in the past two years. Once again, we will focus on three case studies. The common denominator of these projects is play or, better, Critical Play. After all, as our bot aply put it,
COLL.EO's works are a drawn reflection upon the art of media art itself. By exaggerating certain formal aspects inherent to contemporary society, COLL.EO often creates work applying creative game tactics, but these are never permissive. Play is a serious matter: in the magic circle different rules apply than in everyday life and even seemingly trivial objects undergo transubstantiation.
We would like to briefly walk you through CARJACKED (2012), REMOTE PLAY (2013) and GRAND THEFT AUTO INTERVENTIONS (2013-ongoing).
Why did we pick these three projects in particular?
They exemplify three different approaches to Game Art. To create CARJACKED we did not alter, hack, or modify the software. Instead, we used the game's editor as a tool to "hijack" an existing initiative that blurs the boundaries between art and patronage, marketing and technology. The resulting artwork consists of a series of playable cars that can be used with the original game.
On the other hand, to create the GRAND THEFT AUTO INTERVENTIONS, we manipulated the game at software level: we created new characters from scratch using ad hoc tools. Moreover, after introducing our avatars in GTA IV, we performed in ways that were not prescribed by the game's narrative (but not proscribed, either).
In the case of SAMO, we also altered the look-and-feel of an entire district of Liberty City. Lastly, for REMOTE PLAY we combined found objects, e.g. toy drones, with game-photography (all the backgrounds of our layouts are from Electronic Arts' Battlefield 3). The artwork is sculptural in nature but retains the interactivity of digital games.
Flaganan discusses the difference between subversion, intervention, and disruption as artistic strategies:
Ok, let's review our projects:
Developed in 2012, CARJACKED consists of a seventeen playable cars for Forza Motorsport, several digital videos (machinima), a set of digital photographs (screenshots) and C-printS.
In short we designed 17 BMW cars using with the Livery editor of the popular videogame Forza Motorsport 4 (Turn 10 Studios/Microsoft Game Studios, 2011) for the Xbox 360. This project represents the digital counterpart of the ongoing BMW Art Cars initiative, which was launched in 1975. That year, French hobby race car driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain invited American artist and friend Alexander Calder to paint the first BMW Art Car. Calder’s customization was soon followed by several others by world renown artists such as Frank Stella (1976), Roy Lichtenstein (1977), and Andy Warhol (1979).
Our playable cars were "designed" by Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Cy Twombly, Barbara Kruger, Damien Hirst, Maurizio Cattelan, Gerhard Richter, Yayoi Kusama, Sol LeWitt, Julian Opie, Bansky, Frank West, and many others. Ten of these cars are currently on display online, at colleo.org.
The game itself, Forza Motorsport, was not modded or hacked. We simply used the existing game editor to "hijack" the BMW Art Initiative. We call it a form of institutional critique on wheels.
CARJACKED was exhibited around the world and spawned a book featuring critical contributions from Isabelle Arvers, Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Carlo Ricafort. We love multiplayer games.
REMOTE PLAY (2013)
Developed in 2013, Remote Play is a set of interactive sculptures or "layouts" - the term layout comes from Philip K. Dick's short story "The Days of Perky Pat", 1963.
Each layout is comprised of one diecast RQ-1 Predator drone replica produced by Maisto (as part of their “Fresh Metal Tailwinds” series) or one diecast replica of a Mattel Matchbox SB94 Drone United Alliance (as part of the “Sky Busters Missions Series”), synthetic grass, synthetic snow, plastered rock, one digital image, cropped and manipulated, from Battlefield 3 (EA, 2010), one metallic pole, one mp3 player, one plastic arcade “PUSH to EJECT” button, and one set of headphones.
Each layout features a distinct soundtrack: a re-enactment of the Q&A section between four “real” drone pilots and the users of Reddit on January 30, 2013. Titled “We are Predator UAV Pilot/Operators currently in Afghanistan. AMAA!” (link), the original conversation consists of 539 comments and it was featured in the “IAmA” section of the website. COLL.EO selected 72 questions and answers and used a text-to-voice program to convert them into speech. The complete voice-over is approximately 40 minutes long. The soundtrack of each layout is approximately 10 minute long.
Remote Play was inspired by a passage Walter Benjamin's “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, published in 1936.
Prehistoric art made use of certain fixed notations in the service of magical practice. In some cases, these notations probably comprised the actual performing of magical acts (the carving of an ancestral figure is itself such an act), in others, they gave instructions for such procedures (the ancestral figure demonstrates a ritual posture), and in still others, they provided objects for magical contemplation (contemplation of an ancestral figure strengthens the occult powers of the beholder). The subjects for these notations were humans and their environment, which were depicted according to the requirements of a society whose technology existed only in fusion with the ritual. Compared to that of the machine age, of course, this technology was underdeveloped. But from a dialectical standpoints, the disparity is unimportant. The achievement of the first technology might be said to culminate in human sacrifice: those of the second in the remote controlled aircraft which need no human crew. The results of the first technology are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endless varied test procedures).The origin of the second technology lies at the point where, by an unconscious ruse, human beings first began to distance themselves from nature. It lies, in other words, in play. (Walter Benjamin, 1936)
GRAND THEFT AUTO INTERVENTIONS (2013-ongoing)
This project required a series of hacks of the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Games, 2008) to subvert the original narrative - a conventional gangster-story featuring Tarantinesque thugs and situations - and introduce new situations.
So far, we have developed two interventions starring Vito Acconci (Following Bit, 2013; Grand Theft Vito, 2013) and one featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat (Grand Theft Samo, 2014). We are currently working on additional mods. Here is an excerpt of Following Bit, a replay of Vito Acconci's 1969 performance Following Piece:
FOLLOWING BIT (2013)
In the Summer of 2013, we spent an entire month in Liberty City. Each day we picked out a different a non-player character, at random, in the street, at different locations. Controlling a specifically designed avatar of Vito Acconci developed in collaboration with Iranian modder Amir Ghoreyshi - we followed that character as long as possible, until he or she entered a private place – home, office, etc. – disappeared or died.
Following Bit is concerned with the language of virtual bodies in simulated public spaces, in this case Liberty City, a replica of New York City. By selecting a computer-controlled pedestrian at random, we submitted our own will, goals, and movements to the will, goals, and movements of simulated beings, showing how our intentions are always influenced, sometimes subordinated, to external forces – e.g. bots and algorithms – that we may or may not be able to control. The following episodes ranged from a few minutes – for instance, when someone was run over by a car – to seven or eight hours – when a person kept walking. In all cases the following activity did not last more than a day.
The initial following performance was itself followed by a second intervention; in the course of the subsequent month, a tweet was sent each day by @colleoproject describing with less than 140 characters the particular details of the following episode that occurred the same day during the previous month.
What was the "final score"? We recorded 23 digital videos (total size: over 118 GB); took 13300+ digital photos; produced 60 digital prints; wrote 23 in tweet form.
And here is a short clip from the recently released Grand Theft Samo performance and mod:
GRAND THEFT SAMO (2014)
In Grand Theft Samo, the player wanders through the streets of an erszat New York under the guise of Jean-Michel Basquiat. COLL.EO has faithfully reproduced several SAMO's graffiti ...and embedded them on the walls of Liberty City, replacing the existing ones.
Source: COLL.EO, Grand Theft Auto, 2014
This performance focuses on identity play, appropriation of African-American personae by the game industry, the practice of re-enactment (which we reject, preferring instead the term "replay") and the meaning and value of street art in virtual streets.
CONCLUSIONS: (EX)PRESS PLAY
For us, GAME DESIGN is the process of asking urgent questions and creating environments to experiment with possible situations and solutions.
The goal of the game designer is to create GAMES THAT MATTER, i.e. games that could have a wider social, political, environmental implications and impacts than commercial games.
We envision GAME DESIGN practices imbued with CRITICAL PLAY, in order to question, examine, and investigate issues that are central to human life.
We do not believe that play is only about entertainment. Play is about learning. Play can become a tool to make sense of everyday life. The play-instinct, as Huizinga wrote, is a life force informing all human activities.
GAME ART is about creating, appropriating and/or re-purposing (for instance, through subversion, disruptions and interventions) games and play. Gamers play games. Artists play with games.
We advocate the convergence of GAME DESIGN, CRITICAL PLAY, and GAME ART.
With this powerful mix, future game designers could create NEW GAMES and new FORMS OF PLAY, where PLAY is a creative and constructive expression of resistance, not a passive form of escapism.
Last, but certainly not least, we believe that California College of the Arts could be the ideal place to (EX)PRESS PLAY.
Thank you for your attention.
Matteo Bittanti and Colleen Flaherty aka COLL.EO
1. Full quote: According to Alan Ehrenhalt, "Gentrification refers to the changes that happen in an individual neighborhood, usually the replacement of poorer minority residents by more affluent white ones. Demographic inversion is something much broader. It is the rearrangement of living patterns across an entire metropolitan area, all taking place at roughly the same time" (p. 9). The broader, deeper consequence is that "[W]e are living at a moment in which the massive outward migration of the affluent that characterized the second half of the twentieth century is coming to an end. And we need to adjust our perceptions of cities, suburbs, and urban mobility as a result." (p. 13).
2. By the way, did you know that the Lead Director of the new SimCity (2013) is Ocean Quigley, a California College of the Arts alumni and painter? Unfortunately, Quigley left Maxis in 2013, shortly after the launch of SimCity. Source: Polygon.