An installation view of Game Room, with a view to Wilshire Blvd. (All photos courtesy the Hammer Museum)

LOS ANGELES — Games are everywhere these days. We keep them in our phones, our computers, our television sets. Where once we could content ourselves with a small selection of board games and a pack of cards, we now have a myriad of games at our fingertips, ready to download or purchase at a moment’s notice.

But what makes for a good game? Why do we gravitate toward some games and quickly tire of others? Game design as a field has evolved a highly detailed understanding of gaming, and gaming as a whole is starting to shift away from the stereotype of the pimply male nerd in his parent’s basement.

Game Room, a special exhibition at the Hammer Museum, asks us to revisit games in a less electronic format and start to look at game design in the context of contemporary art. In Sarah Brin’s accompanying essay, “The Aesthetics of Play,” she notes that the show wants to emphasize “the values of process, interpersonal dynamics, and participation.”


A close-up of Eddo Stern’s Moneymakingworskhop.

“Let’s say I have my phone in here right now,” said Allison Agsten, curator of Public Engagement, in an interview with Hyperallergic, “and let’s say, six years ago, I said, ‘How many games are in this room?’, perhaps you’d say six, because that’s how many we have in here.” The ubiquity of games has changed dramatically, she noted, pointing at 2007 as the introduction of the iPhone and the transformation of the field as ubiquitous gaming meant that gamers were no longer glued to Game Boys and Palm Pilots.

The show features works by artists like Noa P. Kaplan, Sarah Bay Williams, Alexis Smith, and Eddo Stern. For those familiar with the recent works of Stern, a prolific video game designer and artist, this particular installation stands out for its lack of electronics or projections.  His “Moneymakingworkshop” consists of a complex series of rules and repetitions around making making money by pounding them out of gold foil. Remnants of previous games lay scattered beneath the table.

“There’s no clear win state,” Agsten noted of most of the games. Sitting next to us during the interview was a pack of Alexis Smith’s “Playing Cards, Made in USA.” It’s striking to see a pack of playing cards, which I’ve not played for years, and note that it’s handheld nature makes it about the size and weight of a mobile phone. The cards themselves feature quotes from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and is skinned to represent moments from American history, in contrast to the monarchy images of traditional cards. Ironically, Agsten pointed out that the cards were handled less than Stern’s installation, perhaps a sign that visitors felt hesitant to open the pack and lose a card.

My attention turned to Samara Smith’s “Chain Reaction (Westwood),” with Situationist instructions for walking around the Westwood neighborhood that surrounds the Hammer. “When I played this game, I saw the neighborhood in a way I hadn’t seen it in a while,” Agsten explained. It was originally designed for Brooklyn, but I felt it had greater resonance in a city like Los Angeles, where the idea of strolling can seem foreign.


What would a Situationist derive look like in Los Angeles? Samara Smith provides cards for exploration.

“She adapted it for Westwood, and originally what she calls the release object, one of them was graffiti. So when I was walking around play testing it, I said, oh my god, we don’t have any graffiti here.” It was a notable change from Westwood’s earlier years and perhaps indicative of the city’s general tendency to forget rather than enshrine its history (captured so well in Norman Klein’s History of Forgetting).


One of Sarah Bay Williams’s papier maché piñatas.

Smith’s Westwood-specific release objects now include a “handmade object,” an independent business, and a “for lease sign,” all of which have resonance in a neighborhood in regular flux as it commercializes swiftly. When a visitor sees a release object, they’re allowed to wander the neighborhood freely until they encounter a “lead object,” which include a Starbucks cup, a Target bag, and a Subway bag.

Game Room as a whole is higly participatory and tactile. Situated in a museum like the Hammer, it may not seem approachable, but Agsten noted that visitors, especially children, felt comfortable with picking up and playing with the objects. As Sarah Brin noted in her essay on the works:

Of all the activities that are enacted in a museum, looking might be cited as the most important — or at least the most common. There is a tendency to regard artworks as static objects and to believe that the museumgoer’s role is to visually examine them. After an item is viewed, some observers will arrive at an evaluative conclusion based on context as well as their personal preferences and associations.

Artists who design games, on the other hand, can create something more tactile and personal, and, as Brin notes, “bridge the gap between creators and their publics.”

The most tempting piece, Sarah Bay Williams’s “Piñatas: Recreational Items from Unfortunate Events,” hangs tantalizingly above the room, with references to classic games like badminton and kick the can. A bat hangs nearby but is secured tightly to the wall. On the last day of the installation, February 17, the museum will host a piñata smashing. What’s inside? With an artist designing the objects, you can bet it won’t be the usual assortment of candies.

Game Room runs at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood Village, Los Angeles) until February 17.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice.