How to start a scene

I co-organized a workshop about art and games. In this write-up, I will talk about why I think it was important, and how we did it.

During the weekend of 6th-8th of April 2018, Reykjavík’s first Art + Games workshop was hosted at IÐNÓ, an old building with a new culture-focused organization managing it. The workshop was put together by Torfi, Sig and myself — game designers all working at Reykjavík Coworking Unit, which is housed in the same building. The workshop is leading up to a one day game event called Isle of Games, also taking place in IÐNÓ on 19th of May 2018.

We invited creatives from across different fields to come together and explore games as a creative medium, with the possibility of creating work for the upcoming Isle of Games event. The participants hailed from a variety of disciplines: conceptual art, architecture, music, game design, graphic design, illustration, interaction design, and more.

The intended outcome of the workshop was to have a library of project proposals that we could consider commissioning or exhibiting at Isle of Games.

One of the first brainstorming sessions

Background

The following is a short personal retrospective of how I got here. I’m not sure how interesting this is to anyone, I just felt a need to write it :). Feel free to skip ahead to the workshop proceedings.

Before I got into games, I had been a software developer and a bartender. I never had any ideas about art, culture or politics. This changed when I started learning about games in my Masters education in 2011. You’ll never hear me say that games are the best medium for any of these things, with any lens. However, they are the best one for me, as it is the one that made me care about it, and taught me how to talk about it. A large part of that journey was fostered at game spaces, events and festivals that I was lucky enough to be able to attend.

Me playing Douglas Wilson’s Edgar Rice Frotteur

I moved to Iceland in 2016 and rolled straight into the amazing game development community here. I attended monthly meetups, joined game jams, started teaching at Reykjavik University, ... But it took the dissolution of Screenshake, and 2 years of acclimatizing in Iceland, for me to build up the energy, confidence and network to start actively working on the type of game space I love to be a part of. I started floating the idea of organizing an indie games exhibition, and was met with tons of support from various places.

I’m very grateful for the existing game development community. After all, making games is still my day-job. But in a relatively large group like that, it can be hard to find people are excited about the medium in the same way as I am. How can I find a place for art and culture, through play and games? A place for people who are on the same journey as me, to learn from each other?

From what I can tell, the most successful places like this are permanent physical locations like Bar SK in Melbourne or Babycastles in New York. They seem like excellent hot-spots for a scene like this to meet, create and consume work, and efforts are made to make the space accessible for people who are not part of the scene. In the absence of such dedicated spaces, temporary events are the next best thing. Interesting events are popping up in a lot of big western cities, and I’ve had the luxury to be able to travel to many of them. A-MAZE, Now Play This, Playful Arts Festival, our own (defunct) Screenshake, Indiecade, are all places where the work of artists working in games is exhibited, valued and validated and external audiences are attracted.

Half a decade of thriving in this space, I am growing a little weary of travel, and it bums me out that I always need to travel internationally (especially since I moved to an island in the middle of an ocean) to get my artistic work and interests validated.

Two birds, one stone: With some like-minded individuals, we started to organize a game and play event, in Iceland, and place Icelandic works and artists at the same level as international works. Awesome. We have a date (May 19th) and a venue (Iðnó). Only one thing left that concerned me: how do we connect to the Icelandic artists outside of our bubbles, artists who would be interested in collaborating or contributing but aren’t aware of this initiative?

We first explored the idea of a game jam. Many jams I’ve attended or organized have had an ambition to attract and include artists from different fields, to make new connections. However, the jams are often dominated by students and industry professionals and are hard to penetrate for new people who don’t feel like the event is explicitly for them. So what if it’s not a game jam, but a workshop, or a masterclass? And what if we explicitly invite artists from different fields, alongside game developers, to come and learn about the artistic potential of games as a medium? We’ll show them examples of the works we would like to show and the types of events we would like to organize.

Art + Games workshop proceedings

Schedule

DAY 1 Introduction & Brainstorm

It was a huge challenge to try and come up with a lecture that would explain people why this is happening, and what we hope to come out of it. We decided to split it up in these parts:

  1. A general introduction to the idea of game development as an artistic discipline, and the state of the art in both games and cultural game events (by me)
  2. A list of ±10 examples of digital games (by Torfi)
  3. A list of ±10 examples of physical games and installations (by me)
  4. A summary and a few examples of how to constructively incorporate these ideas into the following brainstorm.

During the introduction, I tried to disambiguate what we, the organizers, mean when we say “art games”. Without going too deeply into definitions, I tried to draw simple parallels between games and other forms of media. The following slides helped me support that argument, and zoom in on the niche we wanted people to become aware of.

Please marvel at my diagram crafting skill

Because of the relatively low literacy in the public when it comes to video games as an artistic medium, we often get clumped in with the industry or mainstream. Our work sits in the same marketplaces as AAA games, and people are often simultaneously part of the industry and an alternative subscene. I can say without exaggeration that every single person I tell that I work in games, asks me if I work for CCP (the largest game studio in Iceland). It’s messy and somewhat frustrating, but of course understandable.

Games are not the first or only medium battling with cultural validation, we are just fresh on the scene with a muddy past. Screaming too loudly how nobody gets your art doesn’t feel super productive. I’m personally trying to transform my need for cultural validation into a desire to connect with other artists who have similar ambitions and interests(grossly oversimplified those are exploration and expression), working outside of games. The creators of the games we want to exhibit have more in common with experimental artists in other media, than with game developers whose only interest in the medium lies in the mainstream industry.

Let’s connect through the things that we share, as artists, rather than through the specifics of our prefered medium. Like other media, games have the potential for self expression, aesthetic exploration, political statements, and it is those games that we are interested in. To learn how to discuss these works critically, I believe we can get more out of looking at other media and its people than trying to mine the game development community.

(NB: My ideas here are greatly influenced by Romancing the Lookie Loos, by Dave Hickey and FUCK VIDEOGAMES by Darius Kazemi)

More disambiguation, and finding the right lens

More disambiguation is needed. I didn’t attempt to make more diagrams, because stuff is far too chaotic to map out meaningfully, but: just like other media, games don’t need to have a purpose beyond existing. Please leave your expectation for revenue, nostalgia, entertainment, etc… at the door and join me in here to start pushing boundaries.

For a variety of reasons, I think cultural game events are at their best when they acknowledge the physical and social spaces that they create, and break out of the “video games on arcades” box. Accessibility is one of them, but the ambition to tear down the walls between games and other media is wrapped up into this as well.

As an example of how to do this in practice, I used the work of Keita Takahashi. Among a plethora of other things he created Noby Noby Boy. He also designed conceptual playground installations. From a curatorial point of view, I see a great connection between his digital work and those playground concepts: they are both examples of his way of playful design and thinking. This is why, in 2014, Deville Arcade was commissioned by Screenshake to actually build one of these installations.

On a personal level, I love games and events because they are so good at enabling me to have new physical and social experiences. Through game studies, I learned what kinaesthetic pleasure is (pleasure derived from physical movement), and I think about this every day. Keita’s installation is one of the best examples I can think of to underline this feeling.

Co-host Torfi took over with a list of games, drawn in part from his personal list of favorites on itch.io “Torfi’s cool list of cool games you should play”. While showing a gif of a game, he gave a quick personal description on why each one of these games is interesting. He prefaced this rapidfire review stream with some of his own thoughts, that I’ve decided to just include, rather than paraphrase:

How did we get here? What is the state of video games in 2018. For most of video game history, even making a simple game required massive amounts of technical know-how. It’s as if every time you want to write a book you had to first design and build an entire printing press before you wrote the first word. The result is that the history of video games is largely made up of the creative efforts of engineers. That’s not to say that engineers can’t make culturally relevant games but if the only writers in the world were those who could also build and maintain printing presses, literature would look very different.
This has been slowly changing and in the past couple of decades, tools have become increasingly accessible. Game engines like Unity and Unreal provide ready-made tools to make games. Although complex to learn and use, you at least no longer need to know how to build a printing press, just how to operate one.
This has resulted in an explosion of games from people who simply were not able to make games before and the variety of games made with a clear expressive intent is wider than ever. I would like to, in the next few minutes present you with a few recent highlights. Games that we hope to involve in the Isle of Games exhibition.

This games showcase was followed up with some examples of physical game installations that I’ve built or seen at events. I tried to split this up into a few categories, and I’ll provide a few examples of each. I showed examples from the alternative controls scene, adaptations made for events, performances, and inspired works. The categorization in itself is not particularly useful, but will hopefully help people see how they can apply their own discipline to the topic in various ways.

(I decided not to include the lists of discussed games and installations because this article is already so long, but let me know if you’re interested and I’ll post them somewhere else)

A summary and a call to action is important when starting a workshop like this

With these final slides, I hoped to summarize

  • why we’re doing this
  • why we’re doing it in this way
  • why the people in the room were invited

Because I was worried people would feel overwhelmed or lost after this rant, I tried to end in a call to action: “Can you find meaningful connections between your work or discipline, and contemporary art games culture?”

After a break, we got everybody back in the room and did a circle of introductions. We had about 20 people, and I asked people to speak briefly about their work, interests and if anything from the introduction spoke to them significantly. Doing this standing in a circle is a good way to make sure it happens fast and keeps people’s attention.

After a quick ice-breaker, I randomly split people up in teams (I taped a Post-It to everyone’s shoulder, each in one of three colors), and they formed groups in each corner of the room. We tried to scramble the groups every 15 minutes, to avoid rabbit holes or potential friction.

There was an abundance of Post-It notes and markers, and I asked people to write down any ideas they had and tape them to a central wall. That way there would always be a memory of the ideas or conversations around it, that could be picked up again later. It also allowed for people to attach comments or follow-up ideas to each other’s notes.

I repeatedly made it clear that nobody was committing to anything, that we were just exploring the possibility space. We ended that evening with some drinks, and invited people to come back the next day.

DAY 2 Consolidating ideas

I told everyone I would be there from 10 AM on Saturday, with coffee and a fresh mind. Only a handful of people came before lunch, but the morning turned very pleasant as I finally had the chance to find out what the other people are about. Spontaneously, people started showing past work and projects to each other, and often extra devices would pop up with games or videos that were relevant to the conversation. The political potential of art came up organically, and following that thread we ended up playing through 1977 Radio Aut in a small group. Around noon, we had a group lunch. More mingling, getting to know each other, and getting a chance to talk to people you hadn’t been able to so far.

After that, I drew people to the Post-It-idea-wall and asked them to start thinking out loud about how to move forward with some of these ideas. Some were vague ambitions, some were over-scoped ideas, but people nonetheless found nuggets that they wanted to work on in smaller teams or individually, and throughout the rest of the day people came in and out.

People in deep thought about the Post-It wall

Concrete ideas started to take shape, and people started to prototype stuff. Not necessarily with the intention to make something finished, but to answer feasibility questions and concerns before zooming in further.

A paper prototype for an installation idea which includes 2 barcode scanners and a label printer, that prints out pieces of coastline.

DAY 3 Wrap-up and Going forward

On Sunday, work continued in the morning and afternoon and at 5 PM, the group gathered one last time to review all the ideas that had been adopted out of Friday’s brainstorm. We spoke about where the idea came from, how it evolved and what we could do to make it a reality. I made an effort to remind people that all ideas that came forward this weekend are shared, and that everyone should feel free to adopt them and make them their own. Again I was surprised by people’s commitment and support. Almost everybody in the circle had an idea that they had formed over the weekend and were seriously considering continuing, and had already been laying the groundwork for.

Semi-public

I made the deliberate decision to make the workshop private for a few reasons. First of all, we wanted a good balance between artists from outside games and game developers. Creating a public event and inviting people across the board would leave us with no way to control that.

We also decided early on (while planning the workshop) that the focus was to be on creation, not education. Game jams often have a large contingent of people, often students, who want to take advantage of the opportunity to learn new skills. In this workshop, we were hoping to address people who are already experienced artists and designers with an ability to discuss our topic critically.

It was difficult to strike a balance without feeling like elitist gatekeepers. To combat that worry, I made a public post about the workshop’s existence in a few places, which created a middle ground, and a way for people to tag friends who might be interested.

Mini-expo & mini-museum

Throughout the entire weekend, we made a point to always have 2 or 3 games running on computers around the room. Playable versions of some of Torfi’s examples, or other games we deemed relevant. Catacombs of Solaris proved a very powerful and thought-provoking piece, that is experienced differently when playing it than when watching someone else play it.

Play sessions

To support the idea that not all related works need to be games, and not at all digital, I brought an assortment of stuff from my personal collection that was on display in the room. It was useful and powerful to be able to grab a zine, or toy to support a conversation that we were having in the same room.

Part of the museum, mostly consisting of zines and toys

Take-aways

  • Structure activities hour by hour
    We did not schedule starting and closing times on any of the days, meaning people didn’t have any anchor points in when would be a good time to show up. On Saturday, it felt like some people just came whenever it was convenient, rather than committing to the workshop, since our schedule was so vague.
  • Don’t be intimidated by artists
    I was super intimidated by the idea of working with ‘real artists’. Will they be interested in group brainstorms? Will they feel silly when we play ice-breakers? I made a deliberate choice to treat everyone the same, regardless of stature, but I think I would’ve scheduled things differently if I was able to completely overcome my imposter syndrome. I would’ve probably included a few more group activities like ice-breakers and mingling games.
  • The Game Jam/Hackathon formula isn’t the best
    A weekend is a long time. We had modelled the workshop after a game jam, which is usually 48 hours, but since we weren’t really expecting people to make games, or to have something finished by Sunday, the interesting moments were too spread out. I think we could condense this into a full-day event, or maybe 3 Sundays in a row, rather than try to block out an entire weekend. We saw that it is hard for people to commit to that due to conflicting responsibilities (kids, jobs, …).
  • Let people play
    We should have prepared a more significant game-playing session. Most participants unsurprisingly had never heard about the games we mentioned, so we would’ve gotten a lot out of having them play some more games before going into conversations about the medium.
  • Moderate brainstorms continuously
    The brainstorms were fruitful, but several times people got excited about conceptual work that they would never be able to manifest. Designing installations as well as games with a certain level of required intricacy or technological complexity can be fun, but not very productive, and despite our best efforts it was often unclear exactly what the participants could expect from each other and the organization. Finding a way to encourage people to brainstorm even more within the limits of their own existing skill set would be an improvement to the format. A lot of the brainstorm conversations still ended up in “this would be a cool video game”, but since it wasn’t a game jam many of the ideas would be difficult to pull off.
  • Find a way to keep momentum after
    Since our “organization” is just a few people who work in the same office, people were a bit confused by exactly what or who we were representing. It seems like we hopped on the train before actually laying down any tracks, and I’m somewhat concerned about how to keep this momentum going.
Group lunch with all the artists is a must

Outcome

The mere fact that these people showed up with such an open mind, and a willingness to participate in this was hugely validating for me, and makes me believe we did something right. It’s too early to tell what this workshop will have meant in the grand scheme of things, but it has taught me a lot about facilitation, working with artists and the intersection of art and games itself. I am grateful for the support and giddy with excitement for the future :).

People’s reaction has been unanimously positive (at least so far), which leads me to believe that we estimated their understanding correctly without being patronizing or alienating. We took a conscious effort to create a diverse group, and spent time considering inclusivity, and it looks like that was energy well spent.

The other organizers and myself were very happy with the outcome, and that we were able to reach so far out of our comfort zone and personal bubbles. Learning to talk about this stuff, building a vocabulary, is important for the medium to advance. And through this workshop, I feel like we’ve improved our own vocabulary, and that of the artists who participated.

I hope this retrospective will be useful to someone in the future, and if it is, please reach out to me as I would love to know what you are up to. For now, I will put this behind me, and continue prepping Isle of Games 001.

A functional prototype of a 3rd person non-virtual reality headset, with IÐNÓ in the background.