Game Happens 2019 — Curatorial Statement

After a one-year hiatus, Game Happens returns to Genova, from 8th to 10th November 2019, with a fifth edition that focuses on the most innovative elements of the European independent video game scene, to highlight their importance and to connect them to the other creative, cultural and technological industries.

The year 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements, and it has thus been proclaimed by the UN as the International Year of the Periodic Table. As the story goes, in 1869 the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev started writing on cards each of the 63 elements that were known at the time, and then arranged them in columns and rows according to their chemical and physical properties. He wasn’t the first chemist to attempt a classification of the elements or to understand that something was missing (elements that still had to be discovered), but he was indeed the only one to use this knowledge to push forward the research. While he used the fixed rules of his Periodic Table to predict the properties of the missing elements, he also attempted to bend the very same rules (by switching adjacent elements) to better understand how to gather the elements in chemical families.

It is precisely his approach to the unknown that later led other scientists to the successful creation of the Periodic Table as we know it. It is the question marks that he left, the unanswered questions that he allowed to be asked by leaving those gaps that helped other chemists make progress. It is the decision to both play by the rules and then challenge them that has granted him the ability to foresee something that everybody else missed.

This is the spirit we want to embrace when attempting to compile a first rough list of the professionals, video games, festivals and magazines that are single handedly managing to promote a much needed change in the European independent video game scene.

As chemical elements interact with our everyday life and combine together to create everything that surrounds us, so the elements of change in our field tend to disrupt the status quo by pushing the limits of the medium, by questioning our practice, by challenging the industry on different levels, by manning the lighthouse. These elements combine together to advance the quality of the games we create and play, to improve the context in which the games are developed, to strengthen the ties of our community.

We wish to dedicate this edition to them, and we pride ourselves on the possibility of offering them our stage.

Beside being the International Year of the Periodic Table, 2019 also marks the 100th anniversary of Primo Levi’s birth: an Italian chemist and writer who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and crystallised them in Se questo è un uomo (1947, If This Is a Man). Transdisciplinarity has always been at the heart of Game Happens, and it should not come as a surprise to find Levi as one of our inspirations for this edition. As a scientist and a writer, he has gifted us with a series of short stories that cross the boundaries between science and literature to deliver a narrative that benefits from the influences of both these fields.

As often happens to those who embrace hybridity and decide not to limit their research to a single discipline, in his writings he manifests the urge to explain how his creative drive is nurtured by his dual life as a writer and a chemist. This is because, at least in the eyes of a common reader, the fact that a scientist could also be the author of novels, essays and short stories, is somehow confusing and needs to be justified. When Levi patiently addresses the perplexities of his readers, he provides some of the best ways to convey transdisciplinarity as a form of fruitful cross contamination between two (or more) fields of research.

For him, it may lead the way to new depth, grant new insights, and transform the specific knowledge accumulated up to that point into something different. In the essay “Ex-Chemist” (in Other People’s Trades, 1985) he lists all the reasons why having a background in chemistry actually gives him an advantage in approaching his new career, making him a better writer: “For all these reasons, whenever a reader expresses astonishment at the fact that I, a chemist, should have chosen the path of writing, I feel authorized to respond that I write precisely because I am a chemist: my old profession has been largely transfused into my new one.”

From this point of view, Il sistema periodico (1975, The Periodic Table) perfectly represents how these two aspects of his life may not only coexist, but fuel each other in creating something that embodies the summa of the two. Structured with the rigour proper of the chemist, Levi devotes each chapter of this book to an element taken from the periodic table, and then builds around it a fictionalised reconstruction of several episodes taken from his past. The properties of the elements, together with their characteristics, are taken into account when setting the tone of each chapter and describing the features of its main protagonists. Levi defines his act of writing as “the work of a chemist who weighs and divides, measures and judges on solid evidence, and does his best to respond to the whys.”

It is in the chapter titled “Potassium” that Levi explains how he has progressively lost confidence in chemistry. While he first perceived this subject as a source of certainty, this belief has now disappeared, collapsed under the weight of new certainties, imposed and forced from above, such as those he had to witness during the Second World War. When new doctrines were presented to the world as truths revealed — opaque and horrible, but nonetheless inconceivably impossible to be questioned without incurring into punishment and imprisonment — doubts arose in Levi: at that point the dogmatic approach he had to maintain while performing chemical experiments became intolerable to him. Thus, he feels the urge to go back, to retrace the origins of this field, and observes that: “The origins of chemistry were ignoble, or at least equivocal: the caves of the alchemists, their abominable confusion of ideas and language, their confessed interest in gold, their Levantine deceptions, like those of charlatans or wizards.” From the esoteric experiments of the first alchemists, to the repeatable and exact experiments of the modern chemists, the evolution of the field has been dramatic: the creation of new instruments, the observation of patterns that naturally occur, the classification of the elements… all these steps were necessary for the successful codification of a subject like contemporary chemistry.

Video games, as a complex and multilayered form of art, imply the knowledge of several fields and the ability to control and balance the quality and quantity of each ingredient, or element, in order to create something cohesive, yet coherent, within the given constraints. The comparison between game designers and alchemists is well known, and dates back to (at least) 2007, when Daniel Cook wrote:

The alchemists of ages past dreamt of turning lead into gold. They performed mad experiments with imprecise equipment and questionable theories of how the universe worked. Modern game designers are not really so different. Those not simply here for the sake of profit instead rally around equally fantastical dreams such as creating a game that makes the user cry or enlightening the world with games of politics or hunger. We crib cryptic notes from past successes and chortle merrily when our haphazard experiments manage to mildly entertain our audience. We are on the leading cusp of deep human / software interaction and yet we know so little.

Twelve years later we certainly know more about the subject, the field of game studies is now widely recognised and booming, the ability of games to make people cry, ponder and learn new things has been established, and we have already entered the era of the “indie apocalypse”: as modern alchemists we have definitely moved out of the caves (garages) into a more visible, less secretive, reality. Some of us are still trying to transform lead into loot boxes, some are more interested in pushing the boundaries of the medium even further, pioneering form(ula)s of hybridisation that will surely lead to new (chemical) reactions, some are still hiding behind the concept of “pure entertainment”, refusing to acknowledge the implicit political value of video games, as if art could be created in a vacuum.

It’s 2019 and we are finally talking about unionising the game industry workers, decolonising the canon, and designing games that can be inclusive and represent diversity at its fullest. The mundanity of our existence, in all its tiniest details, has entered the virtual stage. As more and more games dedicated to the everyday and its inherent struggles are created, we are tackling important issues such as mental health, removing the stigma and empowering many to start a global conversation about it.

Museums have opened their rooms, curated exhibitions and enshrined the precious scribbles, tentative first designs and private diaries of some of the leading game designers around the world. We have started questioning our ways of archiving and sharing our knowledge, so that the next generation of creators will know where to look and will hopefully avoid making the same mistakes.

Things, indeed, have changed, but our periodic table is yet to be built.

While it’s certainly not our intention to act with hubris and to pretend to be able to solve any of the aforementioned issues, we invite everyone at Game Happens to question the reality of the gaming industry as it is now, and to work together to improve our community. We are offering you a place to gather and discuss, let’s make the most of it.

Thank you.

Maddalena Grattarola — Conference Coordinator

Marina Rossi — Event Director

Game Happens is a nonprofit cultural association based in Genova (Italy) focused on the impact of games. #gamehappens