Associate Professor, Design and Media Arts Department, UCLA
Games are often discussed as systems. Complexities arise from working as an artist with technology, which is already a difficult set of systems to interface with on many different levels. Games, as systems, involve many different systems. Even when there is nothing to plug in, games are still a set of systems. I often teach games in this way. I will introduce a concept of a game, then unpack it to its elements and rebuild it as a working system.
One challenge in working with technology and art, and also with games, is that these creative projects need to work. When it comes to technology, most people know what that means. They need to operate technologies and those technologies need to function. But with games, there is a voodoo magic of the system itself working and when you design games we often talk about broken games or broken systems and people say, “This game is beautiful. It’s conceptually rich. Maybe it’s technically working, but it’s broken!”
The idea of a game being broken means that the system may rattle out of control based on decisions that players make. A good system or a good game holds itself together in balance so that the player can’t break the game. If the player can break the game by making certain decisions then that may render an experience completely unanticipated by the creator.
I’ll reflect a little bit about making art within this context: It can sometimes be very hard to reconcile conceptual art and aesthetics with (technological) systems that have to work in any kind of interactive projects. Once you introduce users or players into these systems, they really ‘threaten’ the integrity of these systems and can make both behave unexpectedly. There’s a certain kind of paranoia that game designers have and they’re often very controlling. We want to make sure that this system (of the game) holds together once we let go of it.
I am an artist and a game designer. I’ve been working for 15 years trying to interface those two worlds. I’ll introduce you to my recent projects and we’ll go from there:
This project is called Wizard Takes All. Much of my work positions games within other, I’d say, more traditional art forms. Performance art is not necessarily a traditional art form, but in context of the game art it is. I make games as performance, games as sculpture, and games as video.
Wizard Takes All is an experiment, matching together live performance, live music, and gameplay. The premise of the project finds me situated in a three-story tower playing the Wizard character but also controlling the game in real-time. The audience plays against me. This is about a two-hour experience. The first performance of Wizard Takes All was done in Houston at the Orange Show as part of the Media Archaeology Festival. The Orange Show is a crazy, crazy, crazy venue, hand-built by an obsessive welder as an outdoor music venue, a stage surrounded by an eclectic metalwork and tile amphitheater.
In Wizard Takes All a game is projected on a screen in front of a physical stage. Some of the audience members are cast as players and the rest function as a more traditional audience. In the first act the audience and players are asked to work for the Wizard in a goldmine to produce and deliver twenty gold ingots. The Wizard intervenes behind the scenes by pulling digital strings and the players fail to produce.
This project experiments with what occurs when performance and gaming meet. I was interested in exploring the questions of control in games and in performance, and questions of trust and abusive control. The audience begins by trusting the system, trusting the game and trusting the wizard. As the narrative unfolds over two hours that trust erodes completely. This occurs because I (as the Wizard character) lie. I’m controlling the game system in real-time while it’s being played – changing the rules on the fly. The players can see that I’m breaking the rules by pulling off their arms so they can’t use the tools anymore or moving the moon backwards to change the time and the deadline.
These actions expose the relationship between games as a control system and the ways in which players must submit to the system in order to engage. The player thinks, “Okay. I trust the system. I trust the rules. This is going to be an investment and I’m going to be rewarded,” and the wizard, by visibly manipulating the game code in real time, corrupts those expectations.
When I first wrote the script and the concept for the game I was not planning to let the audience kill the wizard at the end (hence the name Wizard Takes All). I was going to send them home crying. The game is physically very grueling. Each player is up on stage performing for about 45 minutes. The interface is very physically exhausting. The experience was meant to be rather abusive, but in the final moments I decided to change the ending and I decided to let the players kill the Wizard. There was no premade animation or art assets for that outcome. For me the final change of heart was a charmed moment allowing for improvisation in a medium where it’s very rare for a game designer to improvise in a live context. Again, to speak the context to this panel: building a system that allows for itself to be broken and to change in real-time is intriguing as game systems are supposed to be very robust and static once they are ‘released.’ A live performance context for gaming allows a deviation from this norm.
Next I will discuss a new project called Vietnam Romance, a re-imagining of a short video I made in 2003 with the same title. Conceptually, the project explores how fantastical constructs of histories stand in for real histories. In the case of the Vietnam War, the movies, music and literature present fictionalized narrative histories of the Vietnam War. For most people who are not students of the war, such popular fictions stand in for any kind of objective or rigorous historical document. The knowledge and meaning of the war is generated through secondary experiences. Another idea I wish to explore with this project is what may constitutes a sense of longing and nostalgia for the Vietnam war, a perversion that really is a by-product of any romanticization or aestheticization of war.
The game is heavily based on a narrative. Four main characters that collect war memorabilia on eBay are the winning bidders on a trip to Vietnam to access a mysterious new crypt. The crypt apparently contains a very rare prize, which is revealed at the end of the game. The project will take on several final forms: A linear computer ‘sit down’ game with around 50 hours of playtime and an experimental piece for the stage, not unlike Wizard Takes All in format.
Music plays an important role in the game. The wheels of the vehicles function as they would control a turntable. A skilled player will get to hear midi versions of iconic Vietnam era songs in real-time. The art assets in the game are created originally as watercolors. It’s always been very important to me to work in other media alongside the computers I use daily.
I am collaborating on the script for the game with my wife, Jessica Z. Hutchins who is an artist and a fiction writer. We are writing a twelve-act story in the format of a stageplay/screenplay. We’re using script-writing software that places the writer in the framework of playwriting. Anecdotally, the software, CeltX, presents a pull-down menu when you begin a project that asks, “What kind of script are you writing? Is it a television show, a movie, a theater piece, a treatment?” Each has its own rules in how you’re supposed to format your writing and of course ‘game script’ isn’t one of the options in this menu. We had to invent a system of writing where we are simultaneously writing stage and screen directions
A significant amount of technological work is required to build the system that allows for my watercolors to work in a 3D game without using a traditional Maya pipeline. Again apropos our panel – here is another type of system one has to approach. The pipelines of game making are very much inherited from the game industry. Any time you want to use 3D graphics and animation, an established pipeline of texture mapping and modeling is embedded in the software tools. For instance, these traditional pipelines include technological systems for various types of bone animations, rigging and mesh deformations. But, I found that I didn’t want to use any of those pipelines. I want this game to have a different aesthetic. As a result, I had to develop custom software that turns flat 2D watercolors into 3D models that then take advantage of some of the systems I did want to use in a game engine such as real-time lighting and perspective rendering, physics, and non kinematic animations.
The first scene in the game takes place in the Mojave Desert. The various player characters are all introduced as they drive from their homes to the Air Force base in Mojave to board a chartered flight to Vietnam. The game toggles between modern times of 2015 and wartime 1965. There is a gameplay mechanic by which the players can control the year as they progress through reenactments of iconic pop cultural Vietnam War scenarios, alongside a parallel arc of modern-day fetish tourism.
The last project I will introduce is a board game I made in 2012 titled Money Making Workshop, which is a combination sculpture, board game, and performance piece. It’s my take on Monopoly, a role-playing game in which each player plays a different familiar archetype in a capitalist system. The four players can collaborate or compete as they try to win the game. The game components are made by hand and include cards, totems, a game board, and various ritualistic ‘tools.’ Much of what you do in this game is literally make money in different ways. Some players have to manufacture money with their hands, other players manipulate the money that other players have produced, and some players directly manipulate other workers to make money for them.
Another set of systems the game interacts with are different art institutions and contexts for presenting the project. This project was initially commissioned for a show at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which was one reason I wanted to make the game formally stand on its own, sculpturally. This was likely because I didn’t (and still don’t) trust that a museum context is in any way and ideal context for a playable board game. It’s like putting a novel on a pedestal and asking a museum visitor to, “Here, read this thing.”
I tried to create interactions that worked around this limitation of context. For instance, over time the game creates visible detritus. Every time the game is played, the players consume and destroy paper and fake gold ingot-making materials. As visitors played the game over the exhibition’s three months run at the Hammer, there was a nice pile of artifacts of play mounded around and under the table by the end of the show. Still, today, a museum is not an ideal place for games to be presented – a shift in expectations and culture is required to make the context work.
There is of course a great amount of discourse surrounding interactivity and art and games are a clear example of what interactive art can be. They are interactive yet they don’t need computers, games construct systems that create dynamics for interaction between people. A lot of relational aesthetics have already been explored through gaming over the years, and multiplayer games are a huge opportunity for psychological exploration and mapping relationships in a real life-context.
A newer version of the game showed at the IndieCade game festival, which is a wonderful annual indie game festival in Los Angeles and New York. At IndieCade games and players are contextualized in a very different situation, where visitors approach the festival expecting to engage with games as players. On each occasion when I went to shoot documentation at the Hammer Museum there were never any people playing the game, just leftover evidence that someone had played. The situation at the game festival was very different – in a sense the game didn’t exist unless it was being played. I find that public context for presentation is one of the biggest challenges for the interaction between art and games.
Eddo Stern is an artist and game designer. He was born in Tel Aviv, Israel and lives in Los Angeles. His work explores the uneasy and otherwise unconscious connections between physical existence and electronic simulation, surrounding the subject matters of violence, fantasy, and historical memory. He works with various media including computer software & hardware, game design, live performance, digital video, and kinetic sculpture. His works include the short machinima films Sheik Attack, Vietnam Romance, Landlord Vigilante and the game performances Wizard Takes All, Darkgame, Waco Resurrection, and Tekken Torture Tournament. He is an Associate Professor at the Design Media Arts Department at UCLA where he directs the UCLA Game Lab and teaches courses on games and media art. He is a strong advocate for independent game development, and the inherent potential of games as a medium for artistic expression and cultural impact.