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Engagements with gameplay

Melanie Swalwell

Melanie Swalwell is a media theorist lecturing at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is speaking at the Plaything symposium on war and games.

Warlpiri Media Bush Mechanics 2002 Warlpiri Media Bush Mechanics 2002
Plaything is this year’s futurescreen event, produced by Sydney’s dLux media arts. As well as a symposium, it features an exhibition showing the work of those experimenting with digital games. The exhibition, opening on October 8, will present 9 works of “game art.” I wonder about the adequacy of this term: combining “game” with “art” continues to generate a certain frisson. However it seems important not to submerge the exciting variety of work under a single, rather utilitarian term. The title’s emphasis on play is helpful here. There is something very heartening about being encouraged to play—to mess around and get dynamic—particularly when supplies of energy and creativity are running low elsewhere. But play is also not easily containable.

Curator Josephine Starrs suggests that the proliferation and ubiquity of games make them a natural form for artists to turn to, work with and comment on at present, and she has assembled works showing various engagements with the form. Local and international content is represented, from artists located both within and outside the commercial industry. Installing these diverse works in one space should manifest several of the tensions around contemporary games development, including questions about relations between commercial and independent developers and artists.

The humorous premise of Natalie Bookchin’s Metapet is that players are managers in biotech companies, where the workers have been genetically modified, injected with an obedient dog gene. This Shockwave game offers an ongoing, Tamagochi-like experience where players are challenged to get the most from their metapet, without them cracking up. With an engaging interface and a range of quirky motivational incentives, the game clearly comments on contemporary work regimes. But strategic management never looked so much fun, making me wonder how much irony might get lost in the course of play. gameLab’s Arcadia also seems to relate to contemporary cultures of productivity and performativity, though in quite different ways. It combines 4 retro 80s games in one. Players are challenged to keep up with them all at once, perhaps the ultimate multi-tasking feat. The remarks of players trying out the free version of Arcadia make an interesting commentary—and not just on the game. Reviews posted at the Shockwave site are split between those who say it’s too hard so don’t bother trying, and those who claim it’s too easy and gets boring. Such disparate assessments lend weight to the claims of scholars like Jason Wilson who argue that games have presaged new attentive regimes. Personally, I like “shrimpy’s” assessment: “wow!! this game is CRAZY!! and i like it!!” (

Beijing artist Feng Mengbo’s ah_Q (movie) and Julian Oliver’s QTOTH: Quilted Thought Organ each critically reconfigure aspects of commercially available games and engines. Mengbo has been working with games and specifically Quake, for several years. An earlier work, Q3, saw him star as an in-game war correspondent, interviewing combatants in the popular first person shooter (FPS). In Q4U, a sequel to Q3, all the characters are skinned as Mengbo, creating an uncanny effect that is intensified when the artist performs the piece in real time and effectively kills avatars of himself. ah_Q (movie) is an 8-minute machinima of recorded Q4U gameplay, in which the artist is an avatar inside the gamespace, this time holding a video camera as well as his weapon.

From this recognisable Quake universe, Julian Oliver’s QTOTH totally alters the appearance of Half Life of which it is a hack. The walls and tunnels appear to consist of lines and grids of colour, more abstract and less grey than your average FPS. But apart from this visual aesthetic, Oliver has turned the engine into a musical environment, so that objects and actions performed in the game trigger sound samples. Oliver is particularly concerned with place, and this hack creates a remarkably different sense of space and place. I’m looking forward to seeing the transformations it effects when installed in First Draft gallery. For me, QTOTH points to the range of possibilities for game environments and the ways they can engage users. This is perhaps a point it shares with Mary Flanagan’s new work Curtain which promises to generate a game environment entirely out of text. Though Curtain was not available at the time of writing, Flanagan’s earlier work [search] will be familiar to some from its recent showing at Melbourne DAC.

Two works in Plaything combine game world references with material forms on the one hand, and ‘real-world’ footage on the other. Troy Innocent’s Semiomorph (reviewed in RT #46 p21) investigates the icons and ‘language’ of video games. In this game, the environment is alternately represented as text, diagram, icon or simulation, with 4 corresponding game characters. The goal is to collect enough energy points to create a significant shift in the graphical representation of the world. Interestingly, the cute, bright icons also exist sculpturally, as plastic models which audiences interact with via sensors. I like the idea of giving these colourful others a scale and materiality close to that of gallery visitors. According to Innocent, giving virtual shapes a material form “make[s] virtual reality more real and less virtual.” But while transposing these others into physical form changes our relation to them, it underlines the fact that our engagements with avatars in games spaces are also aesthetic.

The real/virtual status of Zina Kaye’s Observatine initially had me perplexed. In Plaything, Kaye will show edited footage shot from a remote controlled aeroplane flying over Western Sydney. Starrs explains that the grassy areas and treetops we see from this god’s eye view almost look as if they could be part of a rendered landscape in a game (albeit one without characters). But it is not a game, nor a flight sim; rather, it recalls a certain playfulness, perhaps like the hobbyist’s passion for their playthings.

Bush Mechanics, a Flash game designed by Gordon Jangala Robertson, Robin Cave and Donovan Jampijinpa Rice, evidences yet another angle on play. Though the design of this Flash game is simple, it couples the inventiveness and trickster elements from the television series with a whimsy evident in the tasks players must undertake and in how they meet their fate when they fail. Let’s just say the challenges of the Tanami Track were too much for this player, who didn’t manage to get the band to the gig on time and got abducted by aliens several times along the way.

The final work in the show is Rez, a standout commercial release for the PS2. Apart from the familiarity of its promise to “shock you out of your senses”, Rez combines a highly innovative storyline with quite beautiful, at times constructivist visuals and sounds which players cannot help but be moved by. Though it’s not the first time Rez has been shown in a gallery, its inclusion raises several points. Importantly, it recognises the artistry of those working as commercial game artists. Judging from the discussion generated by an April editorial, which opined that “industry heavyweights...are clueless about true creativity, and rarely have the ability to recognise it when they see it,” the commercial confines generated significant frustration. Without singling Rez out, its creation by “United Game Artists” makes the point poignantly: who are UGA anyway?

The Plaything symposium will be a great opportunity to discuss these issues and more. Expect more than the usual talkfest and maybe even some fun and games.

Plaything, First Draft Gallery, Sydney, October 8; symposium October 10-12

Melanie Swalwell is a media theorist lecturing at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is speaking at the Plaything symposium on war and games.

RealTime issue #57 Oct-Nov 2003 pg. 25

© Melanie Swalwell; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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