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Screen shot of “dead-in-iraq” (2006–2011) by Joseph DeLappe (screenshot taken by the author for Hyperallergic)

“I’m interested in using games as a way to engage in and critique the fine art world, especially the economics of that world,” said Grayson Earle, an Integrated Media Arts adjunct professor at Hunter College and SUNY Baruch, and member of The Illuminator. An image of Ai Weiwei’s famous triptych “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (1995) flashed on a projected screen.

“This triptych of Ai Weiwei is supposed to be a dialogue about the role of destruction in art and culture. Weiwei’s breaking this 1,000-year-old urn as a subversive, creative person within China.”

Flashback to when artist Maximo Caminero recently dropped one of Ai’s vases at the Perez Art Museum.

“Ai Weiwei and his team said [Caminero] had no right to do this. To me, it was really strange to hear — China is making the exact same claim that Ai Weiwei had no right to break a Han Dynasty urn. And then there’s this similar intellectual regime of Ai Weiwei’s art career telling this guy that he had no right to break his work.”

Earle spoke to a classroom-sized audience at Different Games, a conference on diversity and inclusivity in video games that happened in early April, at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering campus in downtown Brooklyn. The conference drew mostly young game designers who came to hear about how games might cross into other cultural activities and included panels on political topics like the one Earle was a part of, “Games as Art, Activism, and Representations of the Real.”

So what was Earle’s response to the vase dropping? He developed the online game “Ai Weiwei Whoops!” where users can drop as many Ai Weiwei pots as they want.

“Ai Weiwei Whoops!” is one way of thinking about games as political commentary. The game, according to Earle, is meant to ignite a debate about the value of fine art and the role of destruction when you think of it in terms of digital reproduction online. He’s tried to elicit a response from Weiwei through Twitter about his ideas, but has yet to receive a response.

Grayson Earle speaking at the Different Games conference (photo courtesy of Different Games)

Earle’s other work includes illegally advertising “Koch=Climate Chaos” on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and projecting playable games on private buildings, such as “Tax Evaders,” in which anyone with the designated Wii-mote can virtually fight corporate tax dodgers and return the stolen tax money to public institutions.

Another panelist, Kimberly McLeod, a PhD candidate in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University whose dissertation focuses on how performances in new media can assist political engagement, screened performance pieces “dead-in-iraq” (2006–2011) by Joseph DeLappe and Eva and Franco Mattes’s “Freedom” (2010).

“Freedom” uses the virtual space of popular first-person shooter game “Counter-Strike” to stage a performance piece: instead of following the game’s narrative and shooting as many other players as possible, Eva Mattes implores other players not to kill her. As she types and explains she is a performance artist making art in the space of the game, she is shot and killed, only to respawn and have the whole exchange occur again. DeLappe’s “dead-in-iraq” is similar in that he also uses a virtual space, that of video game “America’s Army,” to stage a game-based performance intervention: in using the “America’s Army” texting system, he types the name, age, service branch, and death of every man and woman killed in Iraq.

“These interventions destabilize assumed relations between gamers and frequently provoke very violent reactions,” said McLeod. “While these are both ephemeral interventions and that rely on real-time engagements of the artists in the gaming space, the fleeting but pointed performances have tactical agency. DeLappe and Mattes come from outside of any in-group within these games spaces and they resist the rules put in place by corporate and military game spaces.”

Essentially, gamers that regularly use these games are made to feel out of place and uncomfortable with their actions when confronted by these outsiders who disrupt their space.

As of late, video games might be the medium du jour for the art world: museums have used them as a bid to attract younger gamers to view art; they’ve also curated full exhibits dedicated to indie games and in-game art. Small galleries across the country have been commissioning young illustrators to create video game-inspired work for curated shows.

When asked how these games-as-critiques or how the political art in video games becomes subverted within the art museum context, McLeod and Earle didn’t have a clear answer — only that it’s a developing issue.

Screen shot of “dead-in-iraq” (2006–2011) by Joseph DeLappe (screenshot taken by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Both of these pieces have been screened in galleries and available online and it creates an interesting question about who are they making this for,” said McLeod in reference to DeLappe and Mattes’s works. “Is it really for us to watch and judge these gamers in a heavily edited video after they react? The Mattes have become very famous for these art pranks, they critique that kind of system, but then they’ve also created their own artwork to use within that system as well. It’s problematic.”

Earle agreed, and implied that perhaps the video games industry is something the art world wants to possess more of, perhaps for financial reasons, and perhaps just for bragging rights.

“I see a lot of problems with the way that games get integrated within museums,” said Earle. “At MoMA, there was that huge video game exhibit, and 40 percent of the games were broken, they weren’t working. The fine art world is trying to take ownership of this new arts practice and game-based creativity. It wasn’t born within the fine arts community but now they’re saying, ‘Oh no, this is ours now because we’re the art world.’ There’s a conflict there, and I’d like to see a bit more of a push from the other side.”

Different Games took place at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering (2 Metrotech Center, 8th Floor, Downtown Brooklyn) on April 3. 

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Haniya Rae

Haniya Rae is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She regularly contributes to Architectural Digest and Guernica Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @haniyarae.

5 replies on “Artists Stage Political Interventions in Video Games”

  1. Re: Freedom and Dead In Iraq.
    As an artist, gamer and anti-war activist I really want to like these interventions. But at least in the case of Freedom, I’m not sure that I do. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Freedom totally lacks a creative analysis of its medium’s potential. Moreover, I would argue that both projects ultimately fail as effective political interventions.

    I am a bit bothered by the almost comically inflated terms in which McLeod discusses the responses of the other players. It all comes off as a bit… clueless. Because when you get right down to it, the interactions that this article presents as representative of these projects generally fall into two neat categories. In Freedom, the artist is basically treated like a n00b. In Dead In Iraq, the artist is perceived as a spambot.

    In other words, both interventions have in fact failed to “destabilize assumed relations between gamers”. Quite to the contrary, each has managed to replicate a common and familiar role in the online gaming food chain. Anyone who is even slightly familiar with online gaming culture will notice that the other players in the room quickly placed the artists into categories that amount to very mundane sorts of nuisances in their world. The so-called “very violent reactions” are actually quite typical responses in this light. I would define a successful intervention as one that is at least perceived as an *exotic* or *interesting* nuisance before it is dismissed and assimilated into the broader social spectacle.

    In other words, the fact that “DeLappe and Mattes come from outside of any in-group within these games spaces” might actually make them far less equipped to effectively “resist the rules put in place by corporate and military game spaces.” Those who are highly conversant in the rules of a space are far more likely to successfully avoid simply enacting a set of pre-established roles instead of subverting them.

    Not only are these interventions immediately assimilated into the pre-established social ecology of the game environment (after all, a traditional street protest is assimilated just as quickly and as easily), they seem to actually fail to be meaningfully legible as either artistic or political acts to the other players. This is a major failure.

    Perhaps a comparison to one of the more successful ‘interventions’ in online gaming spaces might be in order- an intervention that has proven to be both disruptive in the immediate term and highly memorable in the long term. Lets take the infamous 4chan Habbo Hotel raids as our example. The Habbo Hotel raids made clever use of the particular features of their gaming environment in order to both disrupt the activities of the other players and to broadcast a kind of undeniable and unignorable intentionality. As utterly nihilistic and generally fucked up as the raids were, they managed to take over the gaming environment and make it perfectly clear to the other players that Something was happening.

    And not only did the Habbo Hotel raids cleverly use the technical features of the game itself to achieve their goals, they also utilized the social nature of the medium to do so. Organizing and coordination were integral to the project’s success and cultural legacy.

    So how can we loosely apply some of the lessons of the Habbo Hotel raids to these two projects? Lets start with Freedom. To my mind, Freedom is pretty half-baked right out of the gate. So you log on to Countr Strike and ask people not to shoot you. Cool story, bro. Why Counter Strike? That just seems like a lazy choice to me. Wouldn’t a game that allows for a greater range of avatar customization and gesture (“emotes”) make more sense? If the point is to be a non-combatant in a warzone, why not pick a game where you can use clothing and gestures in order to broadcast your commitment to that role? A deliberately customized and visibly unarmed avatar with its hands in the air is far less likely to be mistakenly identified as just a n00b who doesn’t understand the game. A dozen matching avatars marching in a coordinated pattern would broadcast the artist’s message even more clearly and dramatically. To quote Arlo Guthrie’s famous anti-war song:

    “You know, if one person, just one person, does it, they may think he’s
    Really sick and they won’t take him.
    And if two people do it, in harmony, they may think they’re both faggots and
    They won’t take either of them.
    And if three people do it! Can you imagine three people walkin’ in, singin’
    A bar of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and walkin’ out? They may think it’s an
    Organization!
    And can you imagine fifty people a day? I said FIFTY people a day . .
    Walkin’ in, singin’ a bar of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and walkin’ out? Friends,
    They may think it’s a MOVEMENT”

    Of course, the performers of such a piece would likely be pegged as ‘role-players’. But at least ‘role-player’ is a subjectivity that is at the very least adjacent to ‘performer’ and ‘artist’, and it is one that the other players are far more likely to be receptive to than the ‘clueless n00b’.

    And wouldn’t a persistent massively multiplier world make a better proving ground for the ‘freedom’ theme of the project than a game that subdivides its population into rooms of 20 or so players?

    Dead In Iraq is a *far* more well thought-out project. America’s Army is the Pentagon’s official propaganda game. It basically chooses itself. The text is similarly well selected. And while the artist’s commitment not to respond to the other players might make him look like a spambot to the other players, it also adds a kind of solemnity to the whole affair. As does the ritual of typing out each line and marking the page after the end of the game session. And while the medium doesn’t really allow for avatar customization and range of gesture, the artist at least does what he can by dropping the gun. While it might not play very well on the game server, it works well enough once it is documented and uploaded. Something that I cannot say for Freedom.

    The organization and coordination aspect of a successful online intervention cannot easily be applied here without somewhat denaturing the project. While filling a large number of America’s Army servers with actual spambots reciting the names of the dead might be a more impactful political protest, remaining a lone witness is an artistic decision that I can at least understand and respect. Mattes’s choices on the other hand seem to lack any such coherence.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      The quotes in the article are from specific moments in a talk I gave about these interventions. I think Haniya does a great job delving into a lot of the issues that came up in our session, but of course she couldn’t get into every aspect of the talk.

      I agree with a lot of what you write, and in my talk I actually covered a lot of the issues you raise here. While I noted the various ways that each intervention potentially disrupts normative gaming practices, I also considered how these disruptions may be counter-productive. For example, both reinforce the centrality of a single artist and close off possibilities for engagement from other players. While their interjections may prompt their audiences (both in the game and those watching after the fact) to think about the space, they don’t provide a clear means of participation. Their refusal to answer questions or work with anyone else reinforces notions of the artist as superior. And, of course a lot of players treat them like n00bs (in both interventions).

      While I agree that DeLappe’s work is a lot more nuanced, he definitely has an uncompromising approach to the space of America’s Army. In his chapter in the book Understanding Machinima he claims “A successful performance of dead-in-iraq inevitably concludes with my avatar being kicked from the game by a unanimous vote. The narrative of the game has been subverted. The intended audience has been reached.” I believe this overtly oppositional stance that only looks for negative reactions limits the scope of the work.

      This is reinforced by the fact that perhaps the primary intended audience for these works is really art watchers who only see edited videos of the interventions online or in a gallery, and these interventions only serve to reinforce views many non-gamers have about these spaces. That said, I’ve found both projects really productive as jumping off points for considering the potential of artistic/political interventions in gaming spaces.

      I like your idea of creating an army of avatars that run around a game space with their hands up.

  2. I love the concept of gaming as art. They too were created on the whim
    of imagination and passion. I feel as if just because it is interactive
    and reactive to the player’s control does not mean it cannot be
    observed. We can draw similarities between drawing style and focal
    points in paintings with the gameplay and storyline in video games. If
    done well, they all serve a purpose in evoking thought, creating
    emotions and making implications on society.

    I found another article discussing how with a closer look, video games
    can also be viewed as rhetoric with their own social and cultural
    implications. Let me know what you think. Here it is: http://topshelfgaming.net/2015/04/the-art-of-pikmin/

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