Associate Research Professor of Visual and Media Studies, Duke University
Moderators: Victoria Szabo and Joyce Rudinsky
Participants: Hye Young Kim, Soraya Murray, and Susana Ruiz
The CAA 2016 New Media Caucus Media Lounge session on Procedural Art: Game Platforms for Creative Expression, led by Victoria Szabo, Associate Research Professor of Visual and Media Studies at Duke University, and Joyce Rudinsky, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel-Hill, focused on the design, aesthetics, and affordances of game platforms for new media art, as well as in critical approaches to this emerging genre. We were especially interested in sharing projects that demonstrate the creative use of game platforms in fine art contexts, and in highlighting the full range of possibilities this new medium offers. Three presenters shared their work, followed by a lively discussion around procedural art and games. Each presenter came at the conversation from a different perspective, but with common themes emerging over the course of the session. While Hye Young Kim, an Assistant Professor of Art at Winston-Salem State University, described an installation art project that used game platform technologies to facilitate new kinds of virtual/physical interactions, Soraya Murray, Assistant Professor of Film+ Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, introduced the work of Andy Kelly, who mobilizes video games as tools to share moving experiences of procedural space. Finally, Susana Ruiz, also an Assistant Professor of Film + Digital Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Co-Founder of Take Action Games, explored the potential of game design for social justice and non-fiction storytelling. Taken together, their presentations set the stage for a wide-ranging discussion of art, games, and the new forms of artistic and scholarly production they make possible.
First Hye Young Kim presented her project Can You Change My Bedroom, a hybrid physical/virtual project. In this example, the “game” element comes both from the use of the game platform, Unity, and the interactivity of the experience created when allowing other people to determine the layout of her private environment. Kim described how in the first iteration of the project, she was confronted with the loss of control over her private reality despite her initial enthusiasm for the project. This change subsequently shaped her conceptualization of the work in Can You Change My Bedroom Rockville, an installation at VisArts at Rockville, MD from July 4-26, 2015. Here online players directed the rearrangement of the space by rearranging the virtual 3D representation of the space online and then placing “orders” for it be executed by Kim herself in the material world. (The interface is available at http://www.CanYouChangeMyBedroom.info).
Kim described the project as a “psychological endurance experiment” that operated “by blurring the boundaries between virtual and real space thorough the participant’s creative participation and artist’s physical labor.” Documentary video draws the connection with—and tensions between—the virtual order and its material instantiation. As she described, “our ultimate goal is that to transform the artist’s studio from private/closed space only for the artist to public/open space for artists and community with active participation and communication.”
The next presenter was Soraya Murray, whose presentation, Flâneur in the Microworld: The Procedural Art of “ultrabrilliant’s” Other Places examined the work of artist and journalist Andy Kelly. Kelly exploits the atmospheric places featured in game worlds, rather than game play action, through his video productions.
Murray pointed out the ways in which Kelly brings a cinephilic eye to mainstream game environments, moving beyond producing generic machinima in favor a more filmic approach that “pays homage to the immersive, sublime spaces of games.” Murray drew attention to James Sharp’s notion of conceptual and experiential affordances of game spaces in order to highlight the ways in which such game environments are initially designed for the “predatory viewing” of conquest-oriented gameplay. The prospects, refuges, and hazards that landscape architects employ, she suggests, also offer opportunities for new kinds of experiences when viewed through Kelly’s cinematic eye. In this way, richly conceived immersive game spaces can be read against the grain of the expected action, with their hidden qualities and values revealed through new ways of looking, highlighting the collaborative aspect of games as spaces of possibility realized through interaction. As Murray puts it, “Kelly’s sustained view on these ‘Other Places,’ when de-contextualized from their typical purpose as playgrounds for heroes, casts the viewer as a flâneur in the microworld, inviting a complex and more contemplative relation to these imaginary spaces.”
Our final presenter, Susana Ruiz, discussed some of her projects with Take Action Games, a design collaborative focused on “innovative game design that traverses the intersections of art, activism, ethics and documentary.” Ruiz’s talk, Crafting Creative Intersections Between Social Justice, Non-Fiction Storytelling, and Game Design, introduced some principles for creating such work by example. She described the process of “co-creation of a language around play,” and of “working and sharing best practices” in creating the groundbreaking and award-winning Darfur is Dying, a game focusing on the international refugee crisis in Sudan. As she pointed out, there really weren’t any online casual games leveraging social networks in 2006, and Darfur is Dying’s concept and platform ran counter to ever-increasing expectations for videogame mechanics and themes. Since then, casual and “serious” games have emerged in counterpoint to commercial games, offering opportunities for social action, activism, and documentary.
Ruiz went on to describe “RePlay: Finding Zoe,” a game focused on abusive teen dating relationships and gender stereotyping, sharing how the interdisciplinary design team attempted to bring anti-oppressive principles into the structure of the framework and development of the game. Ruiz also introduced the concept of transmedia games that combine mobile applications, play, documentary filmmaking, and analog objects, such as card decks, in order to yield a positive social effect, highlighting the ways in which playful elements and serious messages can co-exist in this emergent medium.
Our conversation concluded with a discussion of how academic institutions understand new media and games, both as artistic production and as the objects of scholarly analysis. We acknowledged the inherently collaborative nature of such work, and the challenges for evaluating it within conventional frameworks. We also noted how the College Art Association has increasingly validated digital scholarship, considered what the procedural art landscape might look like in the coming years, and how best to create opportunities for growth in this emergent, interdisciplinary field.
Victoria Szabo is an Associate Research Professor of Visual and Media Studies at Duke University, where she directs undergraduate and graduate programs in computational media, arts, and cultures, as well as the Duke Digital Humanities Initiative. She teaches courses that combine media history, theory and practice. Her current work focuses on spatial digital humanities, with an emphasis on mapping, augmented reality, and archives related to historic places and events. As a media artist she has also co-created game based installation artwork, and is an leader in the ACM SIGGRAPH digital arts community.