GAMES, PLAY AND CONNECTIVITY by MARC GARRETT AND RUTH CATLOW

The particular skills that we evolve with different kinds of play help to construct and shape who we are, how we view our world and what we become capable of as individuals and societies. Among other things play informs our ideas about agency, social relations and the technologies that we develop. The works in the Game/Play exhibition subvert and extend the logic of everyday play and games. They invite audience members (individually and collectively) to take the role of players and contributors to their meaning. When interacting with these pieces in physical space or across digital networks, audiences/players generate alternative, active ‘social spaces’ through their experience of the work and dialogues with each other. The aesthetic experience is primarily “based on the dynamics of communicated consciousness rather than visual criteria” (Larner, C. et al. 1995).1

Much of the thinking that dominated the twentieth century had conflict at its centre; consider Darwin’s descriptions of the competitive struggle for life, Marx’s class struggle, Freud’s neurotic patients at war with an internalised parent (Zeldin, T. 1994).2 In the 1990s it appeared that the age of networked culture might provide an opportunity to use the new abundance of information and connectivity to construct a more holistic, bottom-up view of the world, and that this would make us more able to prepare for (and maybe even to avert) its natural and human catastrophes. So it’s been a bracing start to the 21st Century as governments, corporations and terrorists alike race to exploit networked and mobile technologies, seeking an asymmetric advantage over their competitors and enemies (with political and commercial institutions leveraging legislation to monitor and control the behaviour of the multitude, often in the name of national security). Parallel to this, a proliferation of progressive file-sharing and collaborative knowledgebuilding enterprises continue to thrive.3 In this context, writers, artists and musicians continue to explore digital networks as a free and open medium and distribution channel for an art of relationship, connectedness and participation.

The world’s first computer video game, Spacewar, was created in 1962 by a small team of computer programmers led by Steve Russell, at MIT4 to test and demonstrate the limits of a new technological product, the PDP-1. Its operating system was the first to allow multiple users to control the computer simultaneously through a visual display and keyboard input. The makers of this demo set out to make something interesting within a “consistent framework” that would run differently each time and that would “involve the onlooker in a pleasurable and active way – in short, it should be a game”.5

To this end Spacewar was built. In the spirit of the ‘Atomic Age’, the game pitted two spaceships in a battle to the death whilst resisting the gravitational pull of the sun; two protagonists at war in a hostile environment. So what kind of game/play art does our contemporary ‘Networked Age’ of ongoing, asymmetric ‘War on Terror’ inspire and facilitate?

Here at HTTP the now ubiquitous ‘shoot ‘em up’ takes three very different forms. [giantJoystick] offers a humorous reworking of the multi-player game. The competitive goals of these classic arcade games are already familiar, however the dramatic change in scale of the joystick necessitates both an encounter of the whole body with the artwork and co-operation between a number of players in order to reach them. In the same way that Flanagan’s earlier online game for two players [six.circles],6 explores themes of cooperation and decision-making with incomplete information, [giantJoystick] has players explore and question their notions of agency in a contingent environment – all whilst having fun!

Two of the independent video games selected by Corrado Morgana are also ‘shoot ‘em up’s; Kenta Cho’s Noiz2sa and 2nd Person Shooter, which its creator Julian Oliver describes as “a displacement of agency and a crisis of control”. Oliver’s game-demo places the gamer behind the eyes of a murderous bot over which they have no control and which is set on destroying them. It’s a disorientating experience. The player is not only hunted, but also finds themselves in the nightmarish position of having to quickly adopt a new logic for operating; where their perspective is no longer attached to their body, the customary instrument of their will.

In this exhibition two works use the Internet as a networked, platform for real-time (live), collaborative play and online performance events. In addition to the other works installed in HTTP and Q Arts galleries, Tale of Tale’s Endless Forest and Furtherfield.org’s VisitorsStudio provide the context for interaction between audiences online and at the galleries involved in this touring exhibition.

The artists of both Furtherfield.org and Tale of Tales7 have grown up with the Internet as an experimental space for creating multi-user art projects. VisitorsStudio8 is an online arena for real-time, multiuser mixing, networked performance and play. Where VisitorsStudio consciously activates audiences to participate and collaborate in acts of collective creation, Endless Forest, does not ask its online participants to exercise any skills or contribute their ideas. They just ask them to be there – it is about a state of being. Described by the artists as a “social screensaver”, audiences join other players, in real-time down-time to inhabit the bodies of deer, roaming in a lush virtual landscape.

In keeping with Wirefire9, an earlier project involving a series of intimate live, online performances (usually on the theme of love), the artists intermittently appear as the ‘gods’ of the Endless Forest. Using a system they call Abiogenesis the virtual woodlands become a mutable stage for the artists’ performances. Their avatars resemble two halves of Brancusi’s famous sculpture, The Kiss who have the power to spectacularly transform the landscape around them with a mystical dance of harmony and conflict, while deer chase them, watching and huddling with each other.

In addition to the programme of real-time online performances that accompany the gallery exhibitions Ele carpenter will be exchanging thoughts with participating artists via the Game/Play forum. The conversations and intersections between game-play and art cultures, explored in exhibitions, conferences, fairs and festivals over the years, have often exposed conflicts in philosophies, economies and aesthetic priorities. Protagonists stake out new territories in the theories of game and media arts and at the extremes of technological development. Our approach as co-curators of this project, to the selection and presentation of these works, is that of enthusiasts, connecting up and exploring relationships between works that have sparked our imaginations.

In dialogue with the other curators, artists and writers for this project we are exploring how this fertile field generates different perspectives on how audiences/players engage with both pleasurable and critical approaches to the media artwork, technology and broader social considerations.

References
1 Larner, C., et al., “javascript:void%200;”Hyper-aesthetics: the audience is the work [cyber-art]. Architectural Design (London, England) v. 65 (November/December 1995) p. profile 24-5
2 Zeldin,T. (1994) An Intimate History of Humanity. London, England: Mandarin Paperbacks, page 15
3 Examples of Internet file-sharing would include Limewire http://limewire.com/, and BitTorrent http://bittorrent.com and collaborative knowledge-building, Wikipedia http://wikipedia.org/ a free, collaboratively written, online encyclopedia and Del.icio.us, online social bookmarks http://del.icio.us/
4 MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology
5 For a short history of Spacewar http://www3.sympatico.ca/maury/games/space/spacewar.html
6 [Six.Circles] was commissioned in 2005 by Wooloo organisation for an HIV awareness project called Thank You. http://www.maryflanagan.com/sixcircles/default.htm
7 Tale of Tales, formerly Entropy8Zuper, is the name of the company
run by net artists and game artists Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn.
8 VisitorsStudio http://www.visitorsstudio.org/ a furtherfield.org project co-initiated by Marc Garrett, Ruth Catlow and Neil Jenkins who also designed the interface and did the backend programming for the project. This exhibition coincides with the launch of VisitorsStudio Version2.
9 Wirefire utilized technology, termed a “live online performance engine” by its developers Entropy8Zuper http://entropy8zuper.org/wirefire/