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:
The text below was edited for the web.
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?
You, a savvy game festival-goer, might be sensitive to the nuances, but please don’t try too hard. The point is that they don’t matter much. The point is that from a distance, or if you squint your eyes, it’s hard to tell. And there are implications for it being hard to tell.
This text will not decry techno parties in particular, or festivals more broadly, or celebrations in general; the fact that capitalism is obliged to always celebrate itself does not give it a monopoly over celebrations. But this text will decry the intensity of our game culture’s focus on celebrations, it will decry the limited ways in which we celebrate games, and how similar they are to the culture we wish to serve as an alternative to.
I will not be talking in absolutes, nor will I pretend that we should invent the wheel. The culture I wish to promote is already here, already being made by many. I will make sure to come back to that in the second half of this text, where I present a list of strategies to employ.
But the culture I wish to challenge is one that most of us, game event organizers, are highly involved in and actively promoting. More importantly, the culture I wish to challenge seems to be the standard and first choice in most places where so-called “alternative” game culture is being made.
Note that I’ll be jumping between two meanings of the word ‘celebration’: celebration as an event of high spirits and high fives, and celebration as approval and praise. The two are intertwined, and mixing them up is useful to my argument, but they are not the same.
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.
The stigma is not for nothing. Digital games are NOT social by nature. One of their identifying qualities is that they can be played by a single human interacting with a single object (that pretends to not be an object). Advanced versions of Solitaire.
On top of that you can sometimes go on raids with your human guild in WoW or frag humans in Quake, but that is a section of the medium that does not define it. Video games can often stem from a personal computer and be consumed on a personal computer without any social interaction happening in between. Videogames won’t be social unless we make them.
Festivals and conferences gave us that. We get together, all the lovers and makers of the thing in our particular territory, maybe we even pull our spare change together to bring a few famous lovers and makers of the thing from other territories, and over the course of a weekend we discover that all of us love not only to play videogames, but also to drink booze, and sometimes even to fuck each other.
We showcase a bunch of things on a showfloor, hand out a prize for the best thing, a keynote speaker gives an emotional talk about the importance of something, and one of us is also a hobbyist DJ and they play a sick set at night.
So what if those are more or less the elements, in more or less the same measures, of industry events. We do it better than the industry, or maybe we remix those elements in cooler ways, or maybe even, we do not separate ourselves from the industry at all, we’re just the cool kids of an industry.
When Monday rolls in we come down, sleepless but exhilarated, we return to our jobs, the bottoms of our backpacks rattling with punk-inspired business cards that our guilt will keep us from throwing away for another week or so, but that peak of energy is over, the lucky ones now expecting the next event they will travel too, the less-fortunate or less-flexible expecting next year.
Do not mistake my sarcasm for condemnation. Awards and parties make our field a bit sexy; that’s a big thing. Tapping ourselves on the shoulder is good, when done in good measure. Haunted by the silly moral condemnations of 90s, and perhaps compensating a bit for the nerds we still are, we believe that no one will praise us, so we do it ourselves.
But those spectacular events are not free of problems.
3. Spectacular Times
In the 2014 edition of Print Screen Festival I showcased one game that uses a virtual reality headset: Soundself, a wonderful work by Robin Arnott. On the second day of the festival, I was walking through the exhibition when to my embarrassment I saw a visitor playing some roller coaster simulator on the machine that was meant for Soundself. Apparently, after playing it, they asked the operator of the station “what else you got?” And the operator was happy to oblige, rummage through the hard drive, and find a few demos.
The existence of curatorial texts around them describing artworks and themes did not impress even the operator that was put there by us, not to mention the audience.
Virtual Reality technology blew up around the same time I started curating game exhibitions. It was and still is considered an new-ish exciting frontier for our field. Nevertheless, I mostly keep it out of my exhibitions nowadays. You see, Virtual reality has been marketed so heavily as a technological spectacle, that the technology itself still overshadows almost every expression made with it.
End of anecdote.
As a cultural producer, I always maintain an aversion of spectacle. That is not to say I do not enjoy it. I do, I desire spectacle. Take a look at my PlayStation games library and you’ll see.
But I do know that a spectacle’s thunder has a deafening effect, not only on its surroundings but also on whatever it is saying. It’s hard to listen when the noise is so loud. I am no longer talking about virtual reality, as you may have guessed. Big loud events can easily overshadow the more complex individual expressions they contain. Simply think of your experience of the 20th game you play on a showfloor, of the talks you hear on day 3 of a conference.
The volume of spectacles manifests not only in loudness, but also in the attention they occupy. Spectacles sometimes want to be your one-stop-culture-shop, so when you’re done with them you go back to your assigned productive role.
Festivals and big conferences are spectacular times, they carry this implicit desperation to contain everything there is to say and do about their culture at their moment, so that we may be freed from the burden of these expressions at any other day of the year.
And while I might agree that those spectacular times can be our temporary autonomous zones, moments of freedom to claim for ourselves in a world that is fully contested — this temporality will forever limit their potential to challenge the powers that be.
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.
But intentional or not, we still convey some messages through it:
The medium (party!) is the message (fun!)
First, consider the two images I began this talk with, and their similarities.
Compare indie events to mainstream events; they are structurally and aesthetically so similar! A selection of short inspiring talks on stage, a selection of the best games of the year on the showfloor, handing out awards for the bestest of them. Some neon lights, some loud music.
In some ways it is about showing the best of our medium in the sexiest, best light; but shining the best light is the attitude of a salesperson. If our game culture events are similar in structure to industry PR events, perhaps it is because they are in fact PR events, meant to sell games to others, to ourselves. Perhaps I am wary of this attitude because it feels like it is covering up for, and perpetuating, a lack of confidence. Perhaps practices from profit-seeking events put me in a profit-seeking mood — which actually spoils the fun quite a bit.
And second, I’ve yet to say anything about the games themselves. A celebration complements only certain types of games — loud, fast, spectacular. That is not to say we refrain from showing other things: most of us who curate games probably wish to also showcase games that are cerebral, sensitive, delicate, or insightful, and we do. But in an event that is loud, fast and spectacular itself, some types of games will forever attract more attention, while others will forever not fit the mood. And it is always the same mood.
All this may seem to apply only to events that are audience-facing (or should I say consumer-facing?). But it should be applied to the culture of game jams as well. Game jams, and hackathons in general, have become the productive manifestation of our spectacular times. You know how every big game jam now has a keynote speech encouraging jammers to take care of themselves, be kind to others, experiment and fail and focus on making friends? These speeches are there as a balancing force! Because the jam itself, in fact, does not encourage friendship or creativity. These are happy by-products, while the jam itself is a race, a race to produce and to hone skills of production, more about efficiency than about real ingenuity, usually with an actual competition at the end.
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.
Yes, our medium is wonderful. But it is also a few things other than wonderful. Just this year, the World Health Organization declared “gaming disorder” officially as a behavioral addiction. The most recent Call of Duty title paints a US war crime as having been perpetrated by Russia, while the makers of one of the world’s most beloved indie games are now known for union-busting. Celebratory culture does not encourage us to face those less-than-great aspects of our medium; when we do look at them in the midst of a party, we are compelled to blink, and after a short while to avert our eyes, lest the topic will kill our vibes. “End on a positive note”, right?
Celebrations are limited in their capacity to contain difficult subjects, and VERY limited in their capacity to contain complexity; and we really need complex thinking right now.
Celebrations are also not great for sharing some emotions: anger, fear, grief, to name a few. And we feel anger at bosses, we feel fear of our economy, we feel grief for our ecology. Those emotions are a part of the human experience, and they absolutely play a major role in contemporary games, yet they are rarely seen at all in the game culture we make. Just happy joyous high-fives all around, most of the time.
And while we’re not creating outlets for these emotions, others do. Perhaps not for grief, as it isn’t well-recognized in macho culture, but think of how conservative and reactionary online gaming communities are an outlet for fear and anger. In celebratory culture, the alternative we propose is to just not feel these emotions at all. And why shouldn’t we? There is grace in grief, there’s depth in fear, and there’s passion in anger. Where is our version of angry gamers?
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.
When culture happens outside of the normal flow of life, as an anomaly, and when it asks participants to exhaust their energy, it wants to be exhaustive itself. Since it cannot be a continuous experience, it wants to be a “creative explosion”, so to speak; to offer its participants, both audience and makers, as many things as possible. Celebratory game events don’t have to monopolize their audience’s interest and energy, but the push towards monopoly complements their celebratory nature. And this monopoly needs not to cover the entire spectrum of game culture — as we established it does not even wish to cover certain aspects of it — it only needs to appear as covering a wide range of experiences.
The centralization of game culture in big celebratory events can be monopolizing, inhibiting smaller or non-event cultural expressions, inhibiting a game culture that wishes to be continuous instead of staccato.
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.
The following list of strategies is non-exhaustive. I hope they will serve more as a conversation-starter than as a guide, though they are, collectively, a call-to-action.
So when we’re done with jams, festivals and big conferences, what else can we do?
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 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.
Imagine a games culture where the principal cultural space for games in every territory is not an event, but an actual space. That when a city wants to celebrate games, it does not begin with a small festival that can grow, but with a small gallery that can grow.
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.
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.
I’m happy to see game residencies happening a bit more. From the more accelerator-like Stugan program in Sweden, to the more art-driven Arcade of Anything in Austin, Texas, to the nationally-limited Brain residency in Berlin. This is also a space where we are graced by the art world: more “normal” art residencies are now accepting game makers.
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?
I’m not sure if examples exist, but we can perhaps recognize this energy in Lost Levels, a free unconference that happens each year outside of the influential and highly-inaccessible Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. In this context I’m less interested in the content of Lost Levels, but rather in how it serves to demonstrate GDC’s limits and shortcomings.
Remember: a party is rarely a good demonstration, but demonstrations can often be a hell of a party. If you’ve never taken your date to a demo, I highly recommend it.
As this text is not advocating the abolition of celebratory events, and many of us work and will continue to work in the context of festivals, conferences and jams, allow me to offer a few approaches that may expand conferences and festivals beyond the celebration:
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”.
Instead, make your programming and curation expressive:
- Make it a habit to write curatorial texts — for collections as well as for individual pieces.
- 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.
This is what we’ve been trying to do in Print Screen Festival’s games program, and it is what spaces like the aforementioned galleries are doing as well.
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:
It is not enough to bring things that fit the local culture and are inspired by it; you should also try to bring things that fit the community’s capabilities and are inspired by them. In other words, don’t be a traveling circus — make the kind of culture that locals can imagine themselves doing once you’re gone, that they can realistically demand from their institutions to continue after you’re done.
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.
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.
Balance is the eventual goal. To reach a balanced, richer, more potent game culture, now we must widen our focus, so that it brings into view more than just celebrations.
Thanks to Heather Kelley and Marijam Didžgalvytė for their comments on the draft.