Spielsalon Kassel, and Games as Games

On Thursday we drove to Kassel to attend Spielsalon, an exhibition dedicated to “author games,” which included Alphaland. The drive took much longer than the internet had told us, but we still managed to get there before the exhibition actually opened up.

I didn’t really know what to expect, so I was quite nervous. The venue was the Fridericianum, one of the oldest public museums in Europe (built in 1779), and quite impressive. That didn’t make me any less nervous.

The exhibition was held in a part of the museum known as the Kasseler Kunstverein, and it was lovely. The games were set up in a very elegant way in a space that is bright and pleasant. The staff/organizers turned out to be exceedingly friendly and genuinely interested in the field, even if some of them were quite new to it.

The instructions for the games were printed on cushions. Seeing the Alphaland cushion was as hilarious and awesome as you would imagine it to be. And surreal. So very surreal. After spending the last eleven years sitting in tiny rooms making games at my computer, it was very odd to see them in a public setting. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone who’d played my games without being a friend of mine before. The indie experience is often a lonely one.

Speaking of sureality, one of the strangest and yet oddly delightful moments was when Paolo (of Molleindustria) and I helped set up At a Distance – with Terry on Skype. A Greek developer living in Germany and an Italian developer living in Pittsburgh helping an Irish developer living in England to set up a game in Kassel that was originally made for an exhibition in New York… can you think of a more transcultural situation? Anyway, as it turns out, the folks at the exhibition has accidentally switched some stuff around when setting up the game, which made it function incorrectly, but we got it working.

The day also included three presentations and a panel discussion.

The first presenter was Paolo Pedercini of Molleindustria. While I was already familiar with his work, it was still interesting to listen to him talk about his ideas of using games to inject radical ideas into the political/cultural discourse. It’s something that I understand and that makes sense to me – an act of cultural subversion.

The second presentation was held by a Japanese artistic duo called Exonemo, and quite frankly it was rather embarrassing. I don’t want to be mean about this – the two of them seemed like nice people – but the work they presented was both absurd and irrelevant. Basically they use games in some of their artistic installations. Which is fine in and of itself, but their installations are just run-of-the-mill modern art nonsense desperately pretending to be meaningful or deep. There was very little engagement with gaming or the themes represented in games, and even less skill or artistry involved. If anything, their installations felt like an exploitative attempt by artists with nothing to say to hop on a bandwagon. They ended their presentation with their highly artistic and game-like… T-shirt shop. No, really. Your website’s T-shirt shop is now an art project?

The third presenter was UCLA Game Lab’s Eddo Stern. His presentation certainly had some very interesting aspects (especially a game that involved sensory deprivation), but it also made me realize that I think there’s not enough focus on games as an artistic medium. There’s a lot of talk about anti-games, notgames, manipulation of games to do various things, games used to create public experiences… and very little talk simply about delivering an artistic experience through straightforward gaming. It’s as if we were heading directly for postmodernist degeneracy and “playful experimentation” without even having reached the point where we’ve learned how to make good games.

See, what interests me is actual games. Not “games as X” or “games in Y” but games: the experience of immersion, of interactive storytelling, of gameplay; the sheer joy and emotional power of the gaming experience; the intellectual and moral engagement a digital world can produce. I do believe that we need to be flexible, to see form as one of our many tools, but I’m not really interested in form per se. If we start believing that the only games with artistic worth are the games that aren’t fun to play, we’ll soon be as irrelevant as the postmodernist novelists whose novels aren’t really meant to be read, only to be admired.

Furthermore, I think there is plenty of value in the types of games we’ve got right now. Oh, sure, I’m as bothered as anyone about the obsession with sequels and remakes and the resistance to new ideas. But many of the concepts we’ve got – platformers, RPGs, Metroidvania, adventure games – are actually perfectly promising. Take RPGs as an example. There are quite a few of them, but we’re still miles away from even having scratched the surface of what’s possible with such games. I’m not really all that interested in “radically re-inventing the RPG” before we’ve even managed to master “regular” RPGs. That doesn’t mean we should be making more of the same; mastering the form will require plenty of original thinking and hard work. But what I want to see is the RPG equivalent of the Odyssey or the Iliad, not the equivalent of some performance artist reading the ancient classics backwards while on a pogo stick.

I’ve often thought that the most radical act of theatre possible these days is to perform the classics straight; experiencing a Shakespeare play that keeps to the spirit of the original is a much more powerful and subversive experience than seeing the version with the nude guy and the projection.

That’s not a popular thought nowadays, of course, because making boring old regular art requires a great deal of skill and inspiration, whereas goofing around and calling it playful invention requires nothing except ego.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for something else. The Molleindustria games are a good example of that: made with a great deal of skill and with a very precise idea of what they’re meant to accomplish, they use our understanding of games to make us think. But most of them wouldn’t be able to function that well if there wasn’t a world of games out there that they could comment upon; and that world wouldn’t have such power over us if there wasn’t something to it. That something is what I am interested in.

Finally, I realized that I have next to no interest in “gamer culture” or “gaming culture.” Games are certainly cultural works, but an insular, fanboy-ish approach to them feels rather destructive to me. There has always been a great deal of interaction between the arts – music inspired by poetry, poetry inspired by sculpture, film inspired by music – and I don’t see how the elevation, ironic or otherwise, of a few rather superficial elements of games-related pop culture to this near-religious status is helpful in any way. Let games contribute to culture, not to the formation of cliques. I don’t want to live in an age where all we talk about is games, but in an age where we can talk about a game and a novel and a film in the same conversation without having to apologize for it.

In that sense, I can answer the question posed by the moderator of the panel discussion – “Do games belong in a museum?” – with a yes. Not because that’s where they need to be played, but because putting them there helps move the public discourse in the right direction, if only a little: towards the idea that there is no contradiction between something being valuable enough to exhibit and yet enjoyable enough to play on your screen at home.

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10 Comments

  1. Nice discourse! I got to say that I really agree with you on the topic of games.

    “If we start believing that the only games with artistic worth are the games that aren’t fun to play”
    I really have no idea what to think about those games I play and when I am done I have no idea if I had fun or not and that I call artsy not because it put across some idea or any other artsy thing but simply because I was confused the entire time I was playing it.

    “I realized that I have next to no interest in “gamer culture” or “gaming culture.””
    “but in an age where we can talk about a game and a novel and a film in the same conversation without having to apologize for it.”

    But how is that not just as much a part of gaming culture as fan boyism is?
    I would say I am more interested in gaming culture then I am in games themselves. Because I am not just interested in playing games, but also watching games, talking about games, developing games, etc.

    And I would call that gaming culture, not fan boyism.

  2. But how is that not just as much a part of gaming culture as fan boyism is?

    I find it hard to respond to this because I think you’ve kind of misconstrued what I meant. I am interested in the culture of gaming, but as part of the larger cultural discourse rather than as an exclusionary, tribal sort of thing. I’m not interested in the fads, memes and fetishes of modern gaming, and especially not interested in the (supposedly ironic) glorification thereof.

    (You don’t see a lot of people going on about “reading culture,” do you?)

  3. I think you do, I think literature, movies, music, and games can all be discussed and enjoyed separately as well as in groupings of more then one medium.

    And you could even say that games are (ideally) a harmony of multiple mediums to begin with.

    But back to the question, again I think that you do. people in a certain area might all like to hang out at the local Starbucks or library and read and discuss literature while showing off how sophisticated they are (which is not nearly as easy to do from home) [that last bit was really just aimed at the Starbucks option].
    And you could easily call this part of the reading culture.
    A similarly you could say that someone quoting Shakespeare is indulging in some reading culture.

    “I’m not interested in the fads, memes and fetishes of modern gaming, and especially not interested in the (supposedly ironic) glorification thereof”
    Were these topics covered at the museum?

    I have been trying to think of exactly what memes etc. that you would be referring to (and in general just try to remember as many I can) to come to a conclusion if I agree of not.
    And I don’t know but I want to say that I think it can be interesting to say take the meme “The Cake is a Lie” and play with it. This is a phrase that was simply a part of a single game and then gaming culture turned into a fad that became common knowledge to all gamers and I think there can be a place for then other people to take that phrase and play with it in literature, film, or another game; Similarly to how someone might quote Shakespeare or somehow reference one of his stories.

  4. I think you do, I think literature, movies, music, and games can all be discussed and enjoyed separately as well as in groupings of more then one medium.

    Of course they can, and they should. But the gaming situation is comparable to the situation with science fiction and fantasy, where some readers have become obsessed with only these genres, and treat them more as their own little tribal identity than as literature – with catastrophic effects.

    And you could even say that games are (ideally) a harmony of multiple mediums to begin with.

    Which is why they shouldn’t be cut off from them.

    And you could easily call this part of the reading culture.

    I still think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m not saying that there aren’t trends, habits, groups, forums, etc., related to each and every artform, and I’m not saying these are inherently bad. My problem is with the tribalism and insularity of “gaming culture.” And I’m also simply stating the fact that I am not interested in it; as a subject for my work, I find it highly lacking. Or, more simply put, boring.

    Were these topics covered at the museum?

    They were covered in the presentations. There were WoW-based sculptures and a video based on an Everquest flamewar.

    And I don’t know but I want to say that I think it can be interesting to say take the meme “The Cake is a Lie” and play with it.

    I think Yahtzee pretty much covered everything that I think needs to be said about that. Yes, I believe that game literacy is a great thing, and I believe games have every right to reference each other (and every other artform), but this kind of thing is really all about identity and tribalism, about being “in” on something and recognizing it, not about any kind of genuine engagement with the material.

  5. Oh I think I finally see what you are talking about.

    I will compare it to what I was hinting at by referring to Starbucks in a demeaning fashion.

    I feel that Starbucks is a kind of cultural pit in-so-much as it seems to think itself the epitome of culture simply because they have crammed as many languages into their menu as humanly possible in a very blind and ignorant fashion.

    But I do not feel that Starbucks use of an Italian word at all improved their knowledge of or participation in culture, just like you do not think that simply using a reference to a gaming fad makes anything more artistic.

  6. A great read. And must have been quite a lovely exhibition too.

  7. James Patton

     /  July 19, 2011

    “But what I want to see is the RPG equivalent of the Odyssey or the Iliad, not the equivalent of some performance artist reading the ancient classics backwards while on a pogo stick.”

    I absolutely agree. I sometimes feel bad about criticising “postmodernism” when I haven’t studied it in depth, but from what I’ve been able to understand, it seems almost entirely pointless. It’s either controversial nude pogostick people, or people composing poems by taking random lines from other poems. I get the impression that a lot is written or performed to prove a point or to be clever, rather than because it’s actually engaging. Yes, picking random lines from other poems makes a valid point about what poetry actually *is* – it’s not some secret message imparted by the Writer but is actually just a series of things being read out, and the reader is vital in making links between lines, so picking random lines will yield a sort of poem – but in my experience these poems aren’t very good. They cause us to question the form and engage with it without really being able to enjoy it as poetry.

    Which is, I suppose, acceptable to do for poetry. It’s been around for a long time so maybe it’s time for a postmodern phase. But with games, as you say, we’ve barely got going so it seems ridiculous to applaud bizarre, postmodern work when the classics haven’t even been written.

    Some people just tell me that postmodernism is what we have now, and that in their time all artistic movements were considered as a) new and b) not as good as previous movements. But I think there’s a vital difference between, say, the music of Mozart and Handel (classical composers), and the music of Birtwistle (a postmodern composer). The former sound like the breath of God, while the latter sounds like somebody throwing a harp down the stairs. For me, most postmodern works are simply less “good” than earlier works, and I say that knowing how slippery that word is. I know that nobody can declare a particular work of art to be better or worse than any other, but when I hear 19th century requiems I feel emotionally uplifted and inspired, whereas when I listen to Birtwistle I just feel confused and irritated. It’s not that I think all postmodern work shouldn’t exist: I’m very much in favour of experimentation in art, otherwise it’ll stagnate. But to say that postmodern work is somehow better than other, more meaningful work, and to encourage the creation of artwork like that of, say, Tracey Emin seems not just reprehensible, but ridiculous.

    Anyway, sorry, rant over. I just see this going on in other spheres like literature and modern art (of the painting/sculpture kind) and I really don’t want it to spread to video games. There is such huge potential in the medium which has barely been tapped, and it’d be tragic if it were squashed out in favour of sensationalist nonsense.

    So, in principle, I agree with this:

    “If we start believing that the only games with artistic worth are the games that aren’t fun to play, we’ll soon be as irrelevant as the postmodernist novelists whose novels aren’t really meant to be read, only to be admired.”

    But, I feel I should say something about “fun” before I agree completely.

    There are a lot of people on the internet who claim that if a game isn’t fun then it has no worth. I think this is incredibly short sighted. If a film isn’t fun, is it still a good film? I doubt anyone would call Schindler’s List fun, but it’s considered an excellent film. I think people unnecessarily confuse having fun with being engaging. A game can be meaningful without being fun, but if a work of art doesn’t somehow engage the audience then it’s simply not good art. That’s the experience I have with postmodern work: it’s not that they’re not fun – often they are playful and could be said to be fun in some way – but they simply don’t engage me at all. So if games are to reach the artistic heights we want them to reach, I think we need to worship “fun” a little less – while still bearing in mind that it’s an important element of any game – and think about emotional and dramatic engagement with the player.

    Also, for future reference, how do you quote in these comments?

  8. I absolutely agree with everything you said, including the point about fun. That’s why I phrased it the way that I did (the danger being that we make fun a criterion for what’s *not* art). I do think that there’s more to what games can do than “fun” (whatever that means), and what I love above all is a game that is truly engaging.

  9. And let me know suggest a lovely book by the good David Harvey:

    “The Condition of Postmodernity”

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