The Plug-In Studio Street Arcade
By Steven Ciampaglia & Kerry Richardson
The Plug-In Studio is a new media art collective. We collaborate with young people and adults in underserved Chicago communities to make art with technology, including video games, interactive kinetic sculpture, augmented reality graffiti, and other media.
We were named 2015 Fellows by A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art.
The support from our ABOG Fellowship allowed us to realize a collaborative new media art project using video games as a platform for community dialogue.
This project is called The Street Arcade.
We spent the summer of 2015 collaborating with teen artists from Chicago’s South Side to create a series of social justice art games using Scratch programming.
The centerpiece of The Street Arcade was the culminating event that took place at Hyde Park Art Center, a partner in the project, on a warm evening at the end of the summer.
We constructed an outdoor video arcade along South Cornell Avenue in Chicago. The games were projected in large scale onto the façade of the art center building.
Family, friends and neighbors passing by played the video games…
…on custom-built, retro arcade-style cabinets installed on the sidewalk.
The video games addressed social issues selected by the teen artists: racial profiling…
…urban violence, illegal drugs, police misconduct…
…and peer pressure, to name a few.
The Street Arcade used the games and the outdoor event as a platform for dialogue.
As community members lined up to play, the teens engaged them in discussions about the issues they chose as themes. This was an important feature of our work; we wanted the teens to have an active role in a public discourse in their own community.
There were 13 teen artists in the project, seven males and six females ranging in age from 14–19 years. All the teens were from South Side neighborhoods.
Some had experience making digital art, but only a few had used Scratch before.
We met weekly throughout the summer months.
We decided at the onset of the project that the games would be created in the 8-bit style of early arcade games and games produced for the Atari 2600 video game system.
We liked the minimalist aesthetic of 8-bit graphics and the simple gameplay of these games.
We thought they were precisely the kind of games we could achieve in our project, given our condensed timeframe (just 20 contact hours).
To familiarize the teens with the style and gameplay of these vintage classics, we had them play recreations made by members of the Scratch community.
Next, we led a guided discussion in which we asked the teens to compare the old video games to the contemporary ones that they play, such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. At first, the discussion focused on the verisimilitude that the advanced graphical capabilities of contemporary 3D games provide.
But as the discussion evolved, the focus shifted to the often negative and stereotypical representations of people of color and women in contemporary commercial games.
This led to a discussion regarding the lack of diversity within the commercial gaming industry, which stands in stark contrast to the demographics of the actual consumers who play the games — such as the teens themselves.
We also introduced the teens to the concept of the art video game, an emerging genre in contemporary new media art. Today the production of a commercial video game is a massive endeavor comparable to that of a blockbuster movie, with a huge staff and a multi- million dollar budget. But art games are generally produced by one individual (or at most a small group), often with very small budgets. They are not beholden to commercial interests and their games can be aimed at small audiences. As a result, art game makers have more freedom to address social issues and critique commercial video game conventions.
Pippin Barr is a well-known video game artist who employs a simple 8-bit aesthetic in games that are actually very sophisticated conceptually. We had the teens play several games by Barr to get a feel for the style that we would use in our games.
There are many art games that pointedly address social issues or contain a political critique. We had the teens play Darfur is Dying by Susana Ruiz/Take Action Games, a well-known and influential advocacy game.
The teens also played Molleindustria’s McDonald’s Videogame, a critique of McDonald’s business practices.
Next, we asked the teen artists to generate possible themes for the games. We conducted a brainstorming workshop and compiled a list of social issues that the teens felt were not being adequately addressed or understood by people in their community, particularly adults.
We worked together to whittle down the list and distill the issues into concepts that could work as video games.
We then worked individually with each teen to further focus the game idea and to make sure that the social issue chosen was not being trivialized in its translation to game form.
Concurrently, the teens started to create the artwork for the games using Piskel, a free 8-bit drawing and animation app.
After a basic introduction to Scratch, we had the teens revisit the vintage game recreations from the Scratch community that we had showed them previously. Our plan was that each Street Arcade game would be a remix of an existing Scratch game.
One teen, Atieno, chose an 8-bit racing game to serve as the template for a game about healthy consumption habits.
We then modified the racing game project by abstracting the sprites of the original Scratch project from cars to shapes.
But we kept most of the code intact.
As the game concept evolved during each week’s session, we tweaked the template to accommodate the changes. As Atieno completed the artwork, she placed it into the template.
Together we developed a scoring system and Atieno assigned values to the different sprites.
This iterative, collaborative process was repeated until a final, playable version of the game was achieved.
We had planned that all of the games would be produced this way.
What we did not anticipate was that many of the game ideas that the teens generated would not fit so easily into a pre-existing game format.
Another teen named Noah was interested in the representation of African Americans in action movies.
He noticed that black characters are often cast as expendable sidekicks who don’t survive to the end of the movie and therefore never become the hero who saves the day.
Noah found a zombie game to use as a model. In that game, your character is trapped in a room full of zombies and must avoid them in order to survive.
Noah re-imagined the game as taking place on the set of a zombie movie in which you cast either an African-American actor or white actor to escape the encroaching zombie horde.
When you choose to play as the white actor, you have to navigate through the zombies. Once you sustain seven life-draining “hits,” an escape door will open and you have the opportunity to flee.
When you choose to play as the African-American actor, the zombies attack and each hit lowers your life; but this time the escape door never opens, regardless of the number of hits. The black character always dies before he can win.
This subtle use of gameplay brings to light white privilege; in this case, the rules of the game are stacked against the African-American character to the point where it is structurally impossible for him to win. Furthermore, if you only choose to play as the white character, the difference in the rules (your privilege) will remain invisible to you.
As the game evolved, we realized that the original zombie template needed extensive modifications. By the end of the project, we had essentially programmed a new game.
In another example, a teen artist named Gary wanted to address racial profiling and police brutality.
We were concerned that forcing such a weighty subject to fit into a retro video game template could trivialize the subject matter, and it might not make for a very compelling game.
So we worked closely with Gary and eventually the game evolved into a training simulation for a rookie police officer before his first day on the beat.
The white officer encounters encounters several scenarios: two African-American teens having a heated argument…
…an African-American jogger…
…and another white officer beating an unarmed black teenager.
With each scenario that you, the rookie officer, encounter, you must decide how to respond.
We quickly realized that this game would require a new template so we made one ourselves.
And this is one of the reasons that Scratch was so important in The Street Arcade.
Scratch is such an accessible entry point to coding. Scratch made it possible for the teen artists — all novices at both programming and game design — to have an active role in all aspects of our collaboration. We are not ourselves professional programmers or game designers, but by using Scratch, we were able to create 12 different games with the teens over the summer.
But Scratch was more than just easy to use; it was a critical component of our artistic process. Before we launched The Street Arcade, we knew we wanted the teens to select important issues and address them in a way that would be complex and nuanced. We wanted the games to be conceptually sophisticated in order to address the themes in the way they deserved.
By necessity, the games themselves would have to be complex and nuanced. This meant that a game engine — with its rigid, predetermined format — would never have the flexibility to be adapted to the range of concepts we envisioned for the games. Scratch enabled us to remix, reinvent, and even create brand new games on the fly as the project developed.
One of the Plug-In Studio’s goals is to help teens from underserved communities become critical producers of programmable media rather than passive consumers. We hope that our Street Arcade project can open the door for these teen artists to envision themselves as game designers, programmers, artists and activists.
For more info on the Plug-In Studio’s Street Arcade project — and to play the games — please visit: pluginstudio.net.
The Plug-In Studio thanks the generous supporters of the Street Arcade project:
Carris Adams and Mike Nourse, Hyde Park Art Center
Pete Nichols, Designer and Fabricator
Sue Frame and Kye Kim, Sharp Instructional Shops SAIC
A Blade of Grass Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art
Northern Illinois University
Special thanks go to Luca Ciampaglia for his Scratch programming expertise and patience.