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“F, press F!”
“No, no, D’s where you should go. D!”
I have no idea who these kids yelling behind me are, but I’m looking to survive, and I’m dangling from a golden ring on a cliff face, and the water’s rising below me, and so I decide to take a leap of faith and trust the last yeller and stick my leg out and press my foot down, and I look up and …
Game Over. My pixelated avatar falls. Should’ve gone for F.
Not to worry, I was later told. Mega GIRP is difficult. Few people have beaten the game, and those that do are physically exhausted by the time they reach the top. (“My arms,” one scrawny, sweating player said to me, “they just gave out.”) Made up of four modified Dance Dance Revolution pads, some tangled cords, a console, and a projection screen, Mega GIRP challenges the player to reach the top of a gray, craggy cliff by holding onto rings labeled with letters. Save for one spot, every square on the DDR pad has a letter corresponding to a virtual ring on which you stomp to swing, sideways or upwards, and slowly climb away from the rising water level. Every time the simple, long-armed avatar swings to a new ring, the player has to simultaneously press one DDR square, labeled GIRP, and one letter, in order to grab on. It’s like a digital Twister that’s more maddening than Tetris, more physical than Kinect, and more fun than, well, most video games I’ve ever played.
The thing is, Mega GIRP is no ordinary video game. And it’s not located at some ordinary, neon-lit, quarter-devouring arcade, either. It’s at Babycastles, an underground arcade and music venue marked only by an unlabeled door on Williamsburg’s Kent Avenue. Babycastles has been described as a “1970s rec room reimagined by hackers” by the New York Times , the “CBGB of video games” by an anonymous interlocutor in the Los Angeles Times , and “the videogame equivalent of being at a Minor Threat concert, circa 1981” by a writer for Motherboard, an offshoot of Brooklyn rag VICE .
Something exciting is happening at Babycastles. Make it through these articles’ allusions to bearded 20-somethings, cheap beer, and excessive perspiration, and there remains a feeling that the hype surrounding Babycastles and independent gaming is more than just some new New York scene to be made, reported on, used up, thrown out. That maybe gaming, a pastime borne with the earliest computers, popularized with the arcade, translated to the home console, and put on the Internet, just might mean something far more than musty basements and high scores.
At 33, Cory Arcangel is still an obsessive gamer. He’s vaguely reminiscent of a character from a feel good ’90s teen TV show—perpetually wearing a goofy smile, a goofy sweatshirt, a baseball cap, maybe a visor swung a little sideways. Yet Arcangel is considered by many to be not only one of the darlings of digital art, but perhaps its contemporary founding father. He was the first artist of his kind to have a solo show at a major New York art institution—that is, the exhibition “Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools,” which opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art late last May. People commented on his age, of course, when the show was announced. A young New York artist given the laurels of a high-art, high-profile show? That’s the stuff art world dreams are made of. But it was how Arcangel got there that was interesting—not through his drawings, his sculptures, nor his music, though those all helped—but through his modified video games.
To get an idea of just what an Arcangel video game mod is, imagine you’re playing Super Mario Bros. One of the old school editions, with that glitchy soundtrack, those pixelated bricks, the green tubes, angry mushrooms, golden coins, scared turtles, an unchanging blue sky, and two, maybe three, puffy clouds. Now, take away Mario. And the bricks. And the green tubes and angry mushrooms, the golden coins, and coin counters, the scared turtles, and finally the soundtrack. You have clouds, and the unchanging blue sky, and, most conspicuously, silence. The clouds slowly pass from right to left, changing minutely, pixel by pixel. In 2002, Arcangel did just this and called it Super Mario Clouds.
The piece slowly grew in popularity, for, as Arcangel notes on his site, the Internet couldn’t support video just nine years ago: “It sounds funny now, but remember YouTube didn’t start making waves till like 05ish??” More importantly, though, Arcangel posted the directions to make it on his website: it was art for the masses, that you could make, alter, disseminate. It was the art of the hack, done up in 8-bit. Just how did he do it? By getting an old Mario game cartridge and using a wire clip, desoldering braid, 28-pin low profile sockets, some existing chips, some downloaded code, a soldering iron, and, voila—a piece that would divide gamers, theorists, art critics, and, more importantly, the internet masses, who would just happen across it, like most memes, while surfing.
Some commentators viewed Super Mario Clouds as an intense and pointless experience, or a meditative process, not unlike playing video games themselves. Others looked at it as homage to surrealism. Arcangel, in a late 2009 interview with The Guardian, explained it as a sort of abstract societal representation. “Now, looking back on it all—it’s about … what do these pixelated clouds represent? It represents the whole progression of humans, communication and technology. But I couldn’t write that down.” And yet, in its YouTube incarnation, viewed over 50,000 times, there are more likes than dislikes, and the comment board is a maelstrom of users defining art, interpreting the game, or knocking Arcangel and Super Mario Clouds.
“This is stupid. What a load of shit,” wrote BlackMesaProgrammer, while littnguy said, “this is crap art. Archangel’s work shouldn’t be included in the annuls of history under the category of art. Nice try Cory, but there are Programmers out there that actually program, not just erase what others have done. You’re a joke...” “Right,” the user percieval said to littnguy, “programmers program. Artists make art. The intersection can be a really interesting place.” It was the push and pull of art commentary, outside of the white walls of galleries and museums, thrown on to the exceedingly messy canvas of the Internet. The work was complicated and contentious and done in a medium that was all too familiar, and yet foreign. Video games became a means, and a subject, about which and through which you could say something. And the high-art world took notice—by and large, it accepted video games as a medium. In 2004, Arcangel’s piece was included in The Whitney Biennial. And then in 2009, The New Museum featured Flywrench, a video game by programmer Mark Essen in their exhibition Younger Than Jesus. Then, in late 2010, The Whitney used CLICKISTAN, an avant-garde online video game by Internet duo UBERMORGEN as a part of their annual fundraiser. And then 2011 came—MoMA included video games in its design show Talk to Me, which focused on communication between objects and people. Placed in these contexts, the games felt new and slightly rebellious. It seemed that, maybe, a new movement in the art world was shaping up.
And, of course, in 2011, Arcangel got his solo show at The Whitney. The hype was big: profiles or reviews in almost every major New York publication. The show featured game mods, but also drawings, sculptures, chromogenic prints, and appropriated videos (not to mention free Wi-Fi ).
Yet for the seeming acceptance of Arcangel’s digital medium, and the hype that Pro Tools attracted, it appeared that, once the show arrived, people didn’t really know what to think. Art critics, upon seeing the show, struggled with reconciling their historical knowledge of high-art media and high-profile names with Pro Tools’ YouTube mashups and use of PlayStation 3, Arcangel was compared to high-art names, Bruce Nauman, Richard Prince, Joan Jonas, Paul Sharits, Thomas Ruff, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock, and Marcel Duchamp. And this was just one review.
And viewers? Well, they struggled with the pieces in Pro Tools, too. But that was what Arcangel wanted of his audience: failure. Inescapable, endless, inevitable failure. The exhibition was haunted by it—it greeted you at the beginning of the exhibit and followed you until the end. Arcangel’s Various Self Playing Bowlinr “g Games (aka “Beat the Champ”) was the first failure: a monstrous, six-panel projection that subsumed the first room, while the trill of its soundtrack boomed throughout the rest of the museum. Each of the six projections showed a giant bowling video game, ranging from the earliest, pixelated version of the 1970s on the far left, to, finally, a complex, three-dimensionally rendered game on the right. They were on a programmed loop—no one used the controllers that sat on a table, which visitors weren’t allowed to touch. Avatars and locations became more complex, the games went from no dimension to having realistic perspective to having multiple perspectives. Rules stayed, for the most part, the same, and many had consistent measures like pin count or power or accuracy.
And so you watched all the games playing themselves, mesmerized. Then you realize something. That the game’s a bit … off. The avatars, no matter their pixel composition, weren’t hitting any pins. They’d aim, walk up, swing, roll the ball, and it would veer to the gutter. Again and again. Gutter ball. Gutter ball. Gutter ball. Power? Accuracy? Ha. Fun? Not really. Funny? Maybe. Depressing and isolating? Indeed. Arcangel showed us the impression of amusement, the evolution of technology, the appearance of things getting better; but all we were left with was repetitive defeat.
Pro Tools officially closed at The Whitney on Sept. 11. It just happened to be the same day that, on the opposite bank of the East River, Babycastles debuted Mega GIRP in Williamsburg. The man who created Mega GIRP wasn’t there that night, though. Bennett Foddy was an ocean away in Oxford, probably sleeping, as players in Brooklyn tried for the first time to translate their foot movements to cliff climbing. It was that first night of playing Mega GIRP that, for me, something apparent was finally made important: Arcangel never let you play his games. I wasn’t pretending to bowl when I watched those games. I wasn’t playing Super Mario Bros. as the clouds passed by. Foddy, however, let you play. So, while climbing the golden rings of Mega GIRP, a question came up: do video games have to be non-playable for you to get meaning out of them?
Foddy, however, thinks differently and programs differently. He wants you to have fun, for the most part, when you play his games, and he’s created a few that are pretty popular on the internet. GIRP, the keyboard and computer predecessor to Mega GIRP, and QWOP, where you try to coordinate the body movements of a runner’s thighs with the keys QW and those of the calves with the keys OP, are responsible for accruing millions of hits to his website. But Foddy isn’t a video game designer by day. He’s the senior research fellow and deputy director of the Programme on Ethics of the New Biosciences at the James Martin 21st Century School of Oxford. Which, to put it plainly, means he’s a philosopher. The man isn’t the type to do something without thought—he’s not mashing some pixels together, putting an arbitrary goal into the system, and calling it a game. So QWOP, GIRP, and Mega GIRP are independent, fun, challenging, and thought out. But are they art?
Depends who you ask. “I know a lot of Japanese gamers have classified QWOP as a ‘kusoge,’ (shit game),” Foddy tells me in an e-mail. “But I am trying to make *good* games, even though they are all experimental, unfinished, and unpolished. And sometimes silly.” Like many people who have dug past the surface layers of gaming, he resists saying what art games are, or whether they exist, or what they do, exactly. “When you say ‘art games,’ I guess you [are] indicating games that are pursuing art at the expense of function (let’s say, a fun or compelling experience) or commerce. That’s what we mean when we say ‘art films’ or ‘high art,’ anyhow: we mean that they have a commitment to being works of art, over and above their functions as pieces of entertainment or commercial products.” But the fact of the matter is, as Foddy tells me, he thinks all games are art. GIRP. Mega GIRP. QWOP. Even FarmVille.
“One of the real secrets to the value of videogames is that you can sit still, like a meditating person, and enter a kind of trance where you become embodied in an electronic world,” he says. And a lot of his games deal with this analogy between body and game: QWOP dissociates your keyboard typing from the body movements of the avatar. Mega GIRP closely mirrors them. It’s virtual, but at the same time, our body acts in a physical way, as if it’s reality. It’s a strange experience when you realize that. An experience not unlike the transcendent moment you can have when a painting or sculpture or film or photograph really affects you. Yeah. It’s just like that. Except a lot more fun.
To really understand the moment gaming is having now, you have to go back to 1978. A peanut farmer was in the Oval Office , the arms race between America and the USSR was ever-present, and Space Invaders —the name that would bring gaming from sideshow to center stage—was released in Japan . It was a simple shooter game: a grid of aliens descended, firing pixelated lasers (nothing more than dotted lines) at your shooter, and you tried to shoot back at them. Hit one, and you got some points: annihilating the total grid of aliens would get you a score of 990. Rumor has it that the highest score ever achieved was just above 55,000.
Space Invaders was one of the originators, along with predecessor PONG and follower Pac-Man , that would come to define the first portrait of the gamer: high score mongering and quarter collecting, a little bit manic. These were the initial geek gamers. The people that first played Space Invaders are often referred to as being “old school gamers.” These were the kids who made arcades a viable economic entity in the ’80s, the kids who forced Pac-Man into our cultural canon. And they were the kids who were harbingers of our technological obsessions today—after all, Steve Jobs started out as a technician for Atari .
Most people think they understand this era. I mean, the ’80s practically are happening right now—what with the endless rehashing of punk, shoulder pads, Madonna -figures, neon, get-ahead business ethos, buy-it-now consumer habits. But for those that missed this era, Gen Y’ers and following, there is some illusion about what gaming was really like in those days. We can play first edition Frogger and Super Mario Bros. on the Internet all we want, but something was fundamentally different when those games were collected in an arcade.
“That sort of environment of going to a central location to play video games with your friends and strangers is something that I think a lot of younger gamers don’t realize,” Cayden Mak, an adjunct professor of media theory at the University at Buffalo , says over Skype. “That’s how gaming started. It was this hypersocial, hyperlocal activity where even if you didn’t play at the same time as somebody, you were still competing with someone from your town at Pac-Man, [for example].” Meaning, those three letters representing someone on the high score list would be someone from your town, your arcade, maybe one of your friends. Maybe, if you were that good, it was you.
So where did we get the idea that gamers were often isolated, Vitamin D-deficient basement dwellers? Blame it on the home console. Arcades started slowly fading out in the late ’80s, when the boxy behemoths of SEGA Genesis and the Nintendo Entertainment System (then Super Nintendo ) were popularized in the marketplace. Super Mario Bros. made its blockbuster debut, consoles transitioned from 8-bit to higher resolution 16-bit, and people found that they would spend just as much money renting games and owning consoles as they would at the arcade. As Mak says, between the interest of capitalism and the evolution of high tech, gaming became a loner sport.
And, since then, it’s been a whirlwind of gaming developments: the Dreamcast, N64, PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation3 , Xbox 360, Wii, Kinect, Wii MotionPlus, and, inevitably, something else. Games got more realistic, faster, more complex, more complicated. They hooked up with the Internet, engaged your body, and could store more information. Like the pre-19th century history of Western art, games have mostly followed the swift track towards figuration. So why are people today again attracted to the lo-fi, 8-bit aesthetics, old-school soundtracks, and relatively simple premises used by independent and/or art games?
Maybe it’s nostalgia. The good old days of Sonic on SEGA and Super Mario on NES . When games weren’t terrifyingly real, and your mom still made your dinner, and life wasn’t so goddamn complicated. But it’s more than just that. It’s the fact that the people making these games are different from those working in Silicon Valley. Old games are easier to modify and easier to code. They are made by individuals or small teams from around the world. No one’s making a ton of money from them. They circumvent the typical gaming industry and the typical gaming paradigms. And so they get to do a lot of stuff that normal games can’t do. It’s like la vie boheme of the gaming world, an alternative version of alternate reality.
There’s something comforting in knowing that it’s possible to make games like this. That you can create something totally your own, or that you can take a game cartridge or console produced by some big, unintelligible industry, and craft something new from it, something that’s your own—or at least plays by your rules. So when Arcangel shows you failure in his games, he’s also giving you some sort quirky, digitized hope. Sure, it seems like losing is inevitable. That it’s out of control. But these are game mods, game hacks, quite literally, game changers—and they give us some sort of handle on what often seems to be the big, bad and totally unstoppable world of technology.
Even this doesn’t explain today’s video-gaming moment. What does explain it is the same thing that made arcades popular two decades ago, the same thing that makes Babycastles viable today. It’s being engrossed in something with other people. One of the most compelling things about this new scene isn’t the digitized worlds people create, but that you get to explore these worlds with some friends, or perhaps, some strangers. It’s a transcendent experience you get to have within a community. Call it Schopenhauerian , maybe, or new-age, even. Or fun. Or, if you want, call it art.
Because in the end, I think video games can be art. But there’s something in me that wants to say no, too, in order to rescue independent video games from the white-walled existence of museum-life. The thing is, I can’t remember the last time a painting in MoMA has drawn people together like video games have, making them want to talk and write and debate about some sort of human creation.
I’m standing around Mega GIRP at Babycastles again, watching people watch a gamer, who watches the pixelated figure, who’s got a firm grip on two rings, U and Y. We’ve all been here for a while, yelling out letters he should choose, like a Brooklynized audience on Wheel of Fortune . The figure is pretty far up the cliff—much farther than I’ve ever made it, at least. He puts his foot on A, puts his hand on Grip, and moves up, little by little.
The next logical step is A to X. X goes his foot, Grip goes his hand, and swing goes the pixilated figure. Something went wrong. Splash. The player turns to a scruffily-bearded, confused-looking kid just coming to the group. “Want to try it?”
The kid’s hand pulls at his beard, eyes flitting between screen and player. “I don’t really get how you do it.”
The player steps off the mat. “Well, really,” he says, grabbing his beer, “you just gotta play and figure it out.”
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