So much has happened recently with regard to people being massive assholes about the Feminist Frequency videos and their presenter Anita Sarkeesian (If you haven’t watched these videos, please do – whether or not you’re into videogames, they’re a really interesting deconstruction of a rather influential media thing.) At any rate, somewhat “in honour of” all this, I thought I might write down some thoughts about the issues Sarkeesian brings up as they apply to my own games, past, present, future, and pluperfect. This may involve me admitted to having been lame in the past with respect to gender, and it certainly involves me admitting (right now) that it may happen in the future despite my efforts to the contrary (sorry in advance), and absolutely that it’s something I’m finding challenging and that I think about.
(When I started writing this I thought I’d cover all my games in connection with gender and kind of “take care of it”, but then I wrote more than I’d expected on The Artist Is Present, so I’m going to split this up and start with just that one game.)
Representing women in my games is something I’ve definitely thought more and more about over time. The first really defined moment I can think of was when I was making The Artist Is Present back in 2011. I was using the classic Sierra sprites for people, and I knew that I wanted the audience at MoMA to be diverse in the sense that it should just look like a bunch of people, not curated/designed. So I used random generation on things like clothes, shoes, skin colour, hair colour, etc. But then there was the “issue” of representing gender. And, yes, I have to admit that I was thinking about it in terms of “how to distinguish women” (see this video on Ms. Male Character from Feminist Frequency for analysis of that, particularly the idea that women should have to be “distinguished” from men by default).
When I turned to Police Quest (my key Sierra reference) I saw some super gross examples of early “breast physics” in their animation. A woman was a woman by having conspicuous breasts and a “womany” hair-style. I initially tried out having breasts as an option, but the resolution turned out to be a problem – there’s not a lot of subtlety in the 80×60 screens I was drawing, and it just felt totally embarrassing to make this the “it’s a woman!” signifier. So I dropped that, everyone is just straight up and down and thus, I suppose, a bit more androgynous? Does that matter? (I may have to write some other thing to think about how these things matter in the context of specific games? I don’t know!)
I did add a “long hair” option, which, again, I have to admit that I think I was thinking of as a “woman” thing, which is depressingly dumb. But I’m fairly sure that crossed my mind. But of course hair length doesn’t actually need to do that, and I did realize that pretty swiftly. So the “story” I got to with the people in the game is that any one of them could be male or female (or something else perhaps) and it was up to the player. They basically just have hairstyles. (I was also going to add dresses and skirts to the game for variety, but it was way too hard to animate and fit into my terrible code, so everyone wears pants or shorts.) Importantly, I think that when you look at the queue, it did end up looking (to me at least) like a diverse group of people, male and female, with different ethnicities, and so on. Or, and this is probably important too, it allows very easily for you to read it that way I hope.
Another key thing about the game for me was that the player would be randomly generated just like any other person at the museum. At the time the focus was just on that being another small way of emphasizing “realism” in the game – i.e. you’re not some special godlike avatar, you’re just another person – and in fact I really enjoy how easy it can be to forget which person you are when you’re in the queue for an extended period. But it does have the obvious consequence that your avatar can be read as male or female (or otherwise), which I’m glad about. The game never uses gendered pronouns (only variations of “you”) so there’s no language stuff either.
As for museum employees, well, the security guards in the game are just regular people with a uniform on, so they receive the full range of random stuff. However, in a classic “not thinking” step, I drew the person at the ticket counter directly onto the background and I drew her as a white woman wearing what I can only assume is lipstick for such red lips. That’s not “wrong” in itself, because there are people in those jobs who look like that, but I’m really disappointed that I didn’t just randomly generate that person as well so they could have whatever appearance turned up on a roll of the random() function. That would have been stupidly easy, dammit. Fortunately, that’s exactly what I did do in dMAI (the Digital Marina Abramovic Institute) last year, so that’s good at least.
Finally, the Marina sprite was obviously gendered as female because it was Marina Abramovic. She has that long braid over her shoulder and the long red dress, as per the actual performance, and it’s fairly obvious it’s her if you know about that. If not, it probably still reads as a woman because of the dress and the braid I guess. In representing Marina’s face at the end of the game I also worked from realism by drawing a Sierra-style close-up of a headshot of Marina from the performance. I particularly like the way this drawing (which most people never see) contrasts with its stylistic reference of “Helen Hots” in Police Quest, a classic sexualized woman-in-a-game who flirts with your character to try to get out of a speeding ticket (and that name! Ugh). In the close-up Marina doesn’t look glamorous or “sexy”, but she looks strong and like a woman of great endurance and focus, which she is.
So today I actually spoke with Marina Abramovic (and Siena Oristaglio) on Skype. This after Marina had emailed me about having played my game version of The Artist is Present. For the record, she tells me that she was queuing and making progress but then went to get some lunch and was pushed out of the queue! How perfect is that?! Imagine Marina Abramovic at a computer with her little avatar in a queue waiting to sit in a chair opposite… herself! It really blows my mind. (Yet another kind of awesome thing is that Marina happened to be wearing red and had her hair over one shoulder, just like in the iconic images of the performance!)
So anyway, this led to us chatting for a bit on Skype this morning. Marina is super nice, very friendly, was sautéing onions at the start of our conversation! Sautéing onions! (The meal she was making sounded pretty delicious actually.) The upshot of the conversation is that we’ll be collaborating in some way in connection with her new and huge project, the Marina Abramovic Institute. Here I pause to point out the institute’s Facebook presence and its Twitter account, they’re kind of ramping all that stuff up at the moment.
I need to remain a bit mysterious about the nature of the collaboration, because mystery is exciting and fun, but the institute itself is super interesting. It was something I’d had an awareness of prior to all this, but hadn’t necessarily delved into all that deeply. But it’s basically this project to bring the experience of performance art and its general weirdness, amazingness, awkwardness, changefulness, uncomfortableness, etc., to… well everyone in theory. The plans they have for it all really sound pretty crazy and ambitious and great. Importantly, they involve getting to wear a white lab coat and getting involved in all this performance stuff yourself.
So I don’t know where it’ll all go, but it’s pretty exciting you guys! More as it happens!
Last Friday I went to the opening of the show Space Invaders at Nikolaj Kunsthal in the city. I must confess that part of my attendance was related to the fact that my game The Artist Is Present is part of the exhibition. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the curator being a friend. And then, of course, there’s the matter of it being a contemporary art gallery devoting a show to video games. All different kinds of awesome.
The show itself has an excellent variety of pieces, many of them playable – you’d have to go and see it to get the effect, really, I’m not going to try to catalog it all. Well okay, maybe one or two…
There’s an interesting video work of cosplayers in China by, I believe, Cao Fei and titled Cosplayers. In essence it shows us a series of mostly urban tableaux with cosplayers either posing or moving through. It’s interesting because of the ambiguous (to me) attitude the film takes to the cosplayers themselves. My first take was that it depicted a kind of narrative of these (faux) superheros as they came from a rural area (briefly featured at the beginning) into the city, and then had this kind of disaffected and less-than-heroic existence there. But then also also wondered how “seriously” the film took the cosplayers. There was a particular shot where you see a line of golden-armoured dudes standing there, and then a herd of cattle just walks past. There’s no denying it’s a pretty amusing framing and so on – but what’s the relationship between the film and the cosplayers, then?
There’s a bunch of other stuff, but one I was particularly keen on seeing was The Night Journey by Bill Viola in collaboration with the USC EA Game Innovation Lab. I’ve only had a bit of time with it, but certainly am interested in getting more. It’s a black and white affair with a soundscape, and you navigate around on a standard controller controlling movement and camera location in standard console-FPS fashion. It has an odd effect where moving the camera at all causes everything to blur massively and it’s only when you sit still that you can see anything – oddly pleasing sensation.
Finally, of course, I did have a chance to see The Artist is Present installed in a gallery which was pretty fun. It’s pretty hilarious and wonderful that the gallery closes (usually) at 5pm, and MoMA opens at 4:30pm Copenhagen time. So there’s generally only 30 minutes that the galleries are open simultaneously, and in that time you need to get through the queue in the game, rendering it basically impossible. The notion of a gallery locked inside another gallery and both in different timezones is pretty great, right?
Since I’ve spent today evaluating students’ design pitches for experimental games and also awkwardly trying out some initial words about why Trolley Problem is the way it is for the (very few) people who have tried it out, I’ve been thinking about this whole thing of explaining elements of games. In particular, because I teach this course of “experimental interaction” and consider myself engaged in the process of creating “curious games”, I find myself constantly asking why about each element of a design or game.
This is a good thing because it’s really kind of hard to answer the question when the raison d’etre of your game is not “fun” but rather some other purpose or meaning or experience. In particular, in that case you really should be able to talk about why it is the way it is, I think. And it’s only in practising answering the question that you a) get any better at answering it and using half-way decent combinations of words to express what you think you’re doing and b) often, have any chance of understand what you were doing in the first place (since it doesn’t all come out fully baked, or whatever).
The point being that while I got to a place where I felt like I could explain certain aspects of The Artist Is Present intelligently (waiting as antithetical to games, pushing against overblown notions of “fairness” in contemporary games, etc.), I’m finding it really hard to talk/write about why Trolley Problem is the lo-fi, unhelpful little thing that it is. Yet I know I made it that way on purpose and for various reasons.
So more on that later.
After hearing various people talk about how they’d quite like to be able to break into the virtual MoMA of The Artist Is Present after hours, I was thinking about that particular aspect of games. That is, in games there are presumably things happening that we can’t see – well, at the very least this is true of The Artist Is Present. In that case, for instance, before you go into the museum (when it’s open) a bunch of dudes materialise in the main hallway and stride off toward the front of the line. The screenshot here is me teleporting to the scene of that particular crime.
I don’t know if there’s much to say about this except that it’s plainly awesome and it’s a great shame we don’t get to see more of these behind the scenes scenarios in our play. The notion of the program “getting ready” in some other local is a very charming one to me. I guess there are some similarities with, for instance, using ‘noclip’ and so on to walk to the locations of cut-scenes and so on in games – I seem to remember doing this in Half-Life 2 for instance.
To some extent it might seem to melt into thinking about how interesting glitches are. All of this feels like it takes place in some theatre or film metaphor, of course – imagining the actors preparing or hanging around just outside the range of the camera (behind the scenes), out-takes where something goes amusingly wrong (glitches). In all cases it’s about the attraction of getting that extra step closer to the game as a game, rather than as a world. And yet, because you perceive these elements through the game world, it’s like the personification or anthropomorphising of lower level code and structure. Which seems great and interesting.
Anyway, that’s what I got. Are there any classic situations like this in games I’m just completely blanking on? Particularly of the “behind the scenes” kind, rather than glitches? I guess in some GTA games you can use ‘Blue Hell’ to get to cut-scene locations, that seems like a bit of a classic…