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Cobra Club by Robert Yang

Game Theory: Now Play This at Somerset House

2 April 2016

Glance at your neighbour's screen on the Underground, and you might well find they're playing a videogame. But what about the games that are too strange and complex to be at home on a smartphone? London Calling visits the opening night of Now Play This, an exhibition of experimental games both digital and analogue.

A game is a surprisingly difficult concept to define. The dictionary first gives the definition of ‘game’ as ‘an amusement or pastime; diversion’, in which case staring at a concrete wall could be considered a game, if done by choice to pass the time. The second definition says that a game is ‘a contest with rules, the result being determined by skill, strength, or chance’. This probably sounds closer to what we think of as being a game; certainly stalwarts like poker or Monopoly would fit this definition. But is multi-million selling videogame Minecraft a contest? How does a player win at an open-ended creation game? If they can’t, can we say it’s a game at all? Three-day exhibition Now Play This at Somerset House addresses some of these questions with a genre-expanding selection of interactive gaming exhibits, from conventional videogames to poetry collections, defaceable graffiti walls and innovative chess sets which look like they’ve been beamed down from another planet.

Some of the exhibited works comfortably fit into our definition of ‘a contest with rules’. Most entertaining personally was Chambara by Team OK, a stealth deathmatch videogame in which two players face off in a Kurosawa-esque samurai duel. What drew my eye was that the game’s world is rendered in stark black and white, with the opposing players controlling a completely black or white warrior. You’re invisible when standing in an area of ‘your’ color, and can only be seen highlighted against shapes of the opposite color. Each match is a deliriously tense cat-and-mouse chase, where the polarised samurai can be hiding within inches of one another and not realise it. Another game that was explicitly a winnable contest was Snakepit by //////////fur////, a German artist collective. Based on Snake, which most will be familiar with as the iconic game featured on early Nokia phones, Snakepit is a battle between two snakes as to who can eat the most dots without crashing into the walls or each other. The catch is that the arena is projected onto the gallery floor, and your snake is controlled with colored pedals situated at different ends of the room. Complex manoeuvres are limited not just by reaction time but by your ability to sprint across the playspace to hit the relevant pedal before your snake meets an untimely end, and the presence of an opposing snake whose pilot may not be as skilled (or sober) as you makes the task still harder. Snakepit is a hilarious, brilliant spin on an old classic, easy to grasp but very difficult to play, and attracted an increasingly raucous crowd as the preview event progressed.

Visitors at the preview of the London Games Festival: Now Play This, © Daniel Griliopoulos

As for the exhibits that don’t fit our narrow definition of a game, they were numerous and fascinating. Joy Exhibition by Strangethink was an intriguing art-creation videogame inspired by Jackson Pollock’s painting practices. The player controls a first-person avatar with a gun, a familiar sight for any fan of mainstream videogames. This gun, however, is a paint-sprayer, and you are tasked not with killing enemy combatants but with creating masterpieces. Different guns have different spray patterns and colors, and after a few moments of aggression against a canvas you have a new abstract painting, which will be admired by the neon-hued residents of a virtual gallery. Another enjoyably off-beat videogame was Palimpeste by French developers Le Chant du cygne, which tasks you with exploring a highly stylised virtual space which can only be viewed using colored eyeglasses - looking at the game without a filter will show only a white screen. The player can change the tint of their filter using a wheel on their glasses, and the maze-like environments of Palimpeste can only be navigated with frequent adjustments of this filter, since different passageways will become visible when viewed with a green or red adjustment. This creates a unique interaction between the virtual and real worlds, as well as the spectacle of whoever was playing seeming to be engrossed by a blank screen.

Visitors at the preview of the London Games Festival: Now Play This, © Daniel Griliopoulos

Some of the games were stranger still, having no apparent intended goal other than to interact and participate. Robert Yang’s smutty and hilarious Cobra Club tasks the player with creating a virtual dick pic, which can then be saved to a gallery of other user-created dick pics. Sliders allow one to adjust length, girth, adornment, testicle tautness, and other factors, before framing and taking the crucial snap. Nico Disseldorp’s Castles Made Of Castles is a fractal building game in which the player constructs bizarre low-fi digital buildings using a tool that replicates the entire existing building within each new brick that’s laid, leading to headache-inducing nightmare constructions within a few minutes’ worth of clicking. Moving away from the digital sphere, No Losers by Camella Da Eun Kim was an entirely analogue game of collective discovery, presenting players with a blank silver wall which could be scratched away with a coin, revealing a yellow surface beneath that was emblazoned with replica graffiti the artist had sourced from various bathroom stalls. Also eye-catching was Orthogonal/Diagonal by LA-based artist Nova Jiang, a collection of little-known Chess variants and ancestors from Asia, each with 3D printed pieces whose forms echoed the moves each piece could make, an attempt to teach the rules of these games without words. Lacking a competitor, I wasn’t able to take any of Jiang’s chess sets for a test drive, but aesthetically they were unique and striking.

I’m not sure I left Now Play This any closer to a unifying theory of what is or isn’t a game. Tense, competitive Chambara hardly seems to exist in the same universe as Kim’s gentle graffiti-hunting project. Perhaps the grand theme was that no exhibit was passive; each welcomed interaction from the gallery attendees, and invited us to explore different conceptions of what it is to play.

 

Now Play This is at Somerset House for the rest of this weekend (10am-8pm Saturday, 10am-6pm Sunday) and you can still get tickets. The London Games Festival runs until 10 April 2016.

 

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