Frag the DJ

Making a Post-Celebratory Games Culture

Written as a keynote for for GAIA Summit 2019. Here is an audio recording of the original speech, delivered in November 2019:

1. Party Pooping

Below is footage from two events. One is an indie game and interactive arts festival, the other is a commercial games industry trade show. Can you tell which is which?

2. What Festivals Gave Us

Videogames, both industrial and independent, are now celebrated all over the world in big yearly conferences and festivals. Those festivals serve not only to celebrate the diversity and quality of videogame products, but also to pull the culture of videogames out of its asocial, nerdy image and into the coolness of main stages and dancefloors.

3. Spectacular Times

An anecdote:

4. The Medium is the Message

In the discourse about the art of game design, we have long since challenged the tyranny of fun as the center of the artform. Yet it is still a paradigm in our culture of organizing game events. The celebratory nature in much of our work as organizers is for the most part not intentional, but rather an underlying assumption.

5. What Festivals Will Never Give Us

Yes, our medium is interesting, but it is not the only thing that is interesting here on our pale blue dot. Society, politics, ecology, belief systems, the sciences as well as other cultural expressions. Yet in celebratory culture, we often have an insular focus on our artform; and when we do find connections to greater realities, we more often than not focus on how those realities reflect back on the artform. Exhibitions about <some issue> through the lens of games often turn out to be about games through the lens of that issue. This kind of indulgence is driven by celebratory sentiments.

6. Celebration = Centralization

Celebrations are exhausting. They are a space where energy is spent. All of us who’ve been to a games festival or a big multi-day conference or a game jam know about the comedown afterwards.

7. Alternative Strategies:

This is the part where I quiet my ranting to make some positive propositions. From the attributes I ranted against, you probably already have a certain idea of some of the attributes I wish to promote: slower, continuous, decentralized, or specifically-targeted activities.

Tours

One of the best things we might think that only big events can give us is the ability for cross-country and international exchange, to bring people from different places together. But we need only look to other media to see there are different ways to achieve that. Performance artists do tours all the time. Tours are definitely international exchange, but on a smaller scale and decentralized. In 2015 game-devs Benedikt Hummel and Marius Winter went on Tour Bueno, a 2-month affair, driving a van like a band, to share ideas and make games with different artists around Europe. Isabelle Arvers has been collecting and then presenting games along her global-south international tour. Can we think of more forms and content for a game arts tour?

Galleries

Galleries are already, I think, an established idea in our milieu, with some known precedents. I am less interested in Museums that preserve the history of the medium, like the Computerspielemuseum in Berlin, but rather in those who exist to present a continued contemporary look the medium, such as LikeLike, VGA, Babycastles, or the game gallery at Gaite Lyrique.

Commissions

One of the biggest things we can do with the little resources we have as curators, is to invest them into freeing artists and art from the demands of the market, and perhaps to offer our own demands. I had the privilege of using my program at Print Screen Festival to commission games last year, and recently we’ve seen some wonderful commissioned games from the Victoria & Albert museum. Commissions should be part of our toolset if we truly wish to serve as an alternative to the industry, and not just as its critics or advocates.

Residencies

Similar to commissions, but happening on-site, residencies are another option for creative curation and international collaboration, one that potentially offers a lot more reciprocity between a visiting artist and a local community.

Workshops

An alternative to Game Jams, the workshop is less free-for-all, more structured. It has specific goals in mind, and a specific process to go through. It is also usually more hierarchical, with somebody serving as guide. This might feel restrictive for someone who thinks they already know it all, but much more inviting to folks who don’t. The Code Liberation Foundation has done fantastic work in game development workshops, and the Hand Eye Society have done Game Curious — “a book club with buttons”, as they call it.

Protests and Demonstrations

While we sit and muse about the political meanings of this or that expression in a videogame, some people are out there doing politics in the streets. The recent wave of game worker unions forming in some territories is an excellent wave to ride ourselves. What would be Game Workers Unite, but for culture instead of labor? Better yet, instead of doing our own thing, what can we offer to Game Workers Unite as allies? And what other fronts can benefit from our voice and skills?

Expressive Programming

In short, no more “best of the year” showcases. Quality can be necessary, but shouldn’t be sufficient. By selecting “the best”, we are subjecting artworks the logic of competition, and usually behind it is the logic of the market. It is the same market logic that is also behind our tendency to only showcase new games, often only from the passing year; a denial of history. Moreover, we are leaving the burden of expression to games themselves, while hiding our own biases behind a veneer of so-called “fair judgement”.

  • Try and interpret games through the physical installations you put them in.
  • Adapt strategies from online critique (for example, many events have held live-plays, where a game would be played live in front of an audience while experts analyze it on stage).
  • Most important: make each program about a specific idea or phenomenon.
  • And for that end, curate some games that have been out for a while. Even new ideas have old roots.

Site-specificity

Last year I was lucky to collaborate with an Israeli curator named Milana Gitzin Adiram, who’s organization creates temporary art venues in small towns, far from Israel’s cultural centers. I called her in preparation for writing this text, to ask her what advice she has for making site-specific cultural programming. She said this:

Record and Document

Who doesn’t get to attend? Who isn’t invited? Recording our events is a way to share them with people who, for a range of reasons, cannot be there in person. The fact that GDC, an event I never could afford attending in person, has a free YouTube channel, is making a big impact on my education as a game designer. And if you’re exhibiting games, learn from the art world as well as from the excellent example of the Game On! exhibition in Buenos Aires, and try to make an online catalogue.

Long-form Programming

This is more of a notion than anything else. Try to not think just about the next event. Think of your work as an institution, that has a cultural strategy. Plan a few events ahead, as if you’re making a series. Yes, there is something about the celebration that is reactive, but try to be proactive, by looking a bit further ahead, and imagining what your programming can mean over a long period of time.

8. Conclusion: between Apollo and Dionysus

The problems I charted thus far are not eternal, and the solutions I proposed are not universal. If I were to succeed in swaying you to my cause today, perhaps 10 years from now the pendulum would have swung the other way, and someone would be giving a talk in GAIA 2029 about how serious games culture have become, and how we should celebrate more; and they would be right.

Thanks to Heather Kelley and Marijam Didžgalvytė for their comments on the draft.

Game designer, curator, and artist based in Copenhagen. See more of my work at shalevmoran.com