Notes on the History and Politics of Gameplay

Weaponising Play by Hugh Davies/ Machinima. Evolution and artistic license in computer game art by Thomas Veigl/ Understanding the Art Practice of Critical Gameplay Designs by Lindsay Grace/ Big Games and Hipsters: Cool Capital in Pervasive Gaming Festivals by Dan Dixon/ Art-game Traditions in the Modification of Chess by Laetitia Jennifer Wilson
Sunday, 18 September, 2011 - 17:00 - 18:40
Chair Person: 
Helene Black
Hugh Davies
Thomas Veigl
Lindsay Grace
Dan Dixon
Laetitia Wilson

Weaponising Play

by Hugh Davies

Recent disclosures of the CIA Funding Abstract Expressionism as part of a cultural battle during the Cold War have understandably changed popular perspectives on the art of that era. But such revelations also raise contemporary questions. With a similar ideological battle being fought today, and with arts funding ever shrinking while military budgets increase: in what ways might the creative industries be enlisted and even secretly militarised?

One certain approach that is being taken is through popular computer games.

Today, the U.S. Military is openly using the game “Americas Army” to recruit young soldiers. Although computer games are regularly demonised as being influences of school shootings in the US, in that same country, the military s employment of games for training seems hidden in plain view. The U.S Army itself readily admits that the game Americas Army is a propaganda device and is gladly considers it to be a cost-effective recruitment tool. It aims for the game to be to become part of popular youth culture.

This paper discusses the ethics and implications of militarising todays most popular entertainment format.

Machinima. Evolution and artistic license in computer game art

by Thomas Veigl

Combining film techniques, computer animation, and using real-time 3D game engines - the digital art of Machinima – realizes narrations and installations in completely virtual sets. The increasing convergence of the computer game and film industries signals a process of change within digital image and media worlds that has far-reaching consequences for production methods and copyright in both areas.  

Discussing these developments, the talk is about the origins and development of Machinima, a movement that began in the mid 1990s, and seeks to locate traces of its invention and innovation. It describes the invention of this movement as an unintended result of user interaction with computer game technology, which stands as an early example for our, nowadays encompassing, participative media culture. Out of the intention to share experiences from computer games with their community and enabled by the technology of computer game engines, the gamers became producers of new visual content and therefore inventors of a new art technique.

As the invention alone is not decisive for the form of its application or for whether a new media technique will continue to exist, in the second part I will discuss the prototype’s innovation which ultimately shows an independent art form offering increasing competition to traditional computer animation.

Machinima’s strong association with linear narration and aesthetics of film can be criticized from an artistic perspective since the technology of computer game engines offers interactive potential as never before. However under the perspective of media evolution remediation appears essential for achieving cultural and social acceptance which is required for an economical and legal frame that matches the new art technique. New art forms like Machinima are not purely product of their technical pre-conditions and artistic will, but in the same way dependent of their potential of meeting with prevailing, historical grown, established and learned conventions of seeing and media competences.

The talk shows how the digital art of Machinima guides to social and cultural change and offers a theoretical approach to media evolution which shall be discussed at the conference.

Understanding the Art Practice of Critical Gameplay Designs

by Lindsay Grace

The paper explores the recent growth in critical gameplay, an application of critical design to the production of computer games. Critical gameplay games demonstrate alternative gameplay models. They reveal assumptions about the ways in which we play, offering new experiences by reflecting on the old ways of playing.  Such games include the Lindsay Grace’s Critical Gameplay collection, Awkward silence game’s One Chance, Zach Gauge’s Lose/Lose and others.

Where the affirmation design of industry standards seeks to expand through increasingly deep exploration of shallow mechanics, Critical gameplay seeks to expand through the shallow exploration of deeper mechanics.  It is not a matter of improving the way we shoot or jump, but instead asking if there are more meaningful actions that we can afford players.  Perhaps it is the opportunity to undo our biggest mistakes as in Healer, or to help us understand that in life, there really is but, One Chance.     

Instead of imparting values or delivering allegory, these games impart new ideas through their game verbs or rules. Sometimes they comically remind us that walking on a sword is dangerous, instead of a mechanic for collection. Others are serious, costing us the contents of our Hard Drive (Lose/Lose), or leaving us with the guilt of all the virtual people we’ve killed (Bang!). 

These games reflect an art practice that is both intellectual and visceral.  It serves as an experiment, eliciting player response and seeking to understand why these alternative ways to play had not been demonstrated previously. Each of the games pursues a single hypothesis with resolved specificity. The games ask questions about player values, gameplay heuristics and how we find entertainment.  It recognizes the democracy of play, understanding that people not only like to play differently, but that they playing differently expand the potential of games as expressive entertainment.

Big Games and Hipsters: Cool Capital in Pervasive Gaming Festivals

by Dan Dixon

In recent years game designers have been experimenting with blending technology and the real world. These experiments sometimes go by the name of pervasive games, are sometimes called mixed-, augmented- or alternate-reality games and sometimes simply big games. One aspect that links them is that they spill out of specific mediums and particular technologies, into the physical world and back again, blurring boundaries and challenging expectations.

There has been research that addresses the games, but very little on the players and designers. Who are these people? Why do they create and play these games? This talk takes a social and cultural perspective on the formation of these groups and the festivals where these games are played. These findings are based on ethnographic field work carried out, in 2010, at Come Out and Play, Hide and Seek and Igfest; the three largest, and longest running, pervasive, street and urban game festivals.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is used to discuss cultures of taste and why these games appeal to certain people and not others; that aesthetics are determined by social groupings and and those groups reinforced by shared aesthetic preferences. 

Pervasive and big gamers will be compared and contrasted with the now infamous subcultural group known as Hipsters, showing that although they are quite different people there are many functional similarities. Artists, designers and taste-makers from both groups have similar backgrounds and social roles and are engaged in creating cultural capital and constructing markets in cool. Specific attention is given to the emergent aesthetics that are shared between these two groups. These being a tendency towards historic referencing, intertextuality and lo-fi, appropriative design strategies.

The emergence of these groups helps us come to terms with the real world,  situated practice of these games, rather than the traditionally technologically determined rhetoric that surrounds them.

Art-game Traditions in the Modification of Chess

by Laetitia Jennifer Wilson

Over the past two decades the appropriation, modification and subversion of digital games has developed as an ongoing practice amongst artists. This has been discussed by a number of theorists but less attention has been given to historical precedents auguring this trend. Through the example of the game of chess, this paper discusses some of the key elements of association that have defined the interrelation of art and games from the early days of the twentieth century through to our contemporary era. The game form, whether digital or non-digital, will be considered a medium whose tool value is intricately interconnected with game mechanics. Specific examples will be discussed with attention to how they mark ruptures with tradition in game design and demonstrate a critical play impulse that is shared by artists of yesterday and today.