[giantJoystick] by Mary Flanagan (2006)

Video of the Joystick

For the past few years, computer games have become one of the most fertile grounds for artistic exploration in new media art. Ranging from games developed by artists to mods (modifications of existing games), the spectrum of “game art” has critically examined the architecture, politics, and aesthetics of its commercial counterpart. (Massive) Multi-User games, in particular, have increasingly gained attention and, intentionally or not, have nurtured the emergence of new forms of collaboration, governance, and economy in their respective virtual worlds. Yet the hype of collaborative endeavour surrounding the buzzword ‘multi-user game’ tends to distract from the fact that the ‘territory’ one occupies in playing the game is characterised by various disconnects. As opposed to the good old board or card game, which is framed by shared physical space, the communicative exchanges and group experiences occurring in computer games take place in virtual worlds that are (a few exceptions aside) accessed by individual players from the privacy of their home through the use of devices such as game controllers, mice, keyboards and joysticks. These interfaces themselves exist on the periphery of perception, as translators that extend users’ hands and movements into dataspace.

It is precisely in this space of the ‘in-between’ and disconnect where [giantJoystick] looms large. Inviting users to play classic arcade games by collaboratively moving on and controlling a 9-foothigh joystick (modelled after the 1980 Atari 2600 one), Mary Flanagan highlights the spatial and social role of the interface. The joystick itself becomes a social sculpture and territory for inter-personal communication. Mary Flanagan’s work has consistently focused on the exploration of the cultural and sociological effects of technology, in particular, the merging of the private and public sphere in commonly used technological tools and products – from interfaces to games. The tension between private and public is an underlying narrative of her projects [collection] and [domestic], a game engine modification that transforms the scripted, shared narrative of the public game environment into a narrative space inscribed with personal memories. [giantJoystick] takes the investigation of everyday technological tools to the next level by subverting a common interface and highlighting its function in both a social (public/ private) and physical/ spatial context. The joystick’s traditional role is that of a spatial translator of space, which transmits its (physical) angle to the 2D or 3D virtual world: movement along the X-Y-Z axes of ‘the world’ is signalled by moving the joystick left or right (X axis), forward or back (Y axis) or twisting it left/counter-clockwise or right/clockwise (Z axis). [giantJoystick] requires players to collaboratively ‘perform’ their movements in order to engage with the game and thus makes them acknowledge not only the notion of shared space but also the necessity for shared strategies and approaches in order to pursue their goal.

[giantJoystick] provides a much-needed artistic redefinition of technological conventions, which are revealed and re-engineered in a poetic and aesthetic way. The exaggerated scale of the installation emphasizes the physicality (and absurdity) of interfaces in their relationship to the human body and human interaction. Rather than treating the joystick as mere access point to the “other” of the virtual world on a screen, the project highlights the joystick’s role in and connection to the physical world and the social
nature of play.

By Christiane Paul