Category: Games

The Art of Video Games?

2011 was a banner year for video games, at least in terms of aesthetic and institutional recognition. Not only did the National Endowment for the Humanities revise its charter to include games as a fundable art form, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum also opened online nominations for a groundbreaking exhibit entitled The Art of Video Games, which opened this year on March 16 and closes on September 30. With the help of a Berkeley Center for New Media summer research fellowship, I was able to visit the exhibit in June and meet with exhibition coordinator Georgina Goodlander, exhibition designer David Gleeson, media specialist Michael Mansfield, and curator Chris Melissinos. What follows is a very brief glimpse into my behind-the-scenes experience at the museum.


The Art of Video Games occupies a modest, three-room footprint on the third floor of the American Art museum. Though many visitors mistake the massive Nam June Paik video installation near the start of the exhibit as its opener, The Art of Video Games in fact begins with a projection wall featuring gameplay footage and a small, introductory area that testifies to the imaginative and artistic merit of games through displayed concept art, filmed interviews with leading game designers and scholars, and my personal favorite—a triptych video installation offering screen’s-eye-views of players’ faces as they game, wearing expressions running the entertaining gamut from disbelief and zombie-like engrossment to surprised elation. (The faces shown belong to actual Smithsonian personnel and their relatives, most of whom are not self-professed hard-core gamers.)


At the heart of the exhibit is its large, softly lit central room, which highlights five games, one for each “era” of videogame history (the eras are labeled Start!, 8-bit, Bit wars!, Transition, and Next Generation, and together comprise the years between 1970 and 2010). The featured games, each playable in its own semicircular kiosk, are Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, and Flower. Chances are at least one of those titles holds a fond place in your childhood memories, though for me it is the last and most recent game, Flower, that has proven integral to my research as one of my go-to examples of ecological gameplay.


The exhibit’s final room provides a comprehensive look at the eighty games voted into the exhibit in 2011, drawn from a list of 240 first handpicked by curator Melissinos and advisory board members from the game industry, game journalism, and academia. Members of the public voted within the pre-established matrix of five eras, four genres (action, adventure, target, and combat/strategy), and historically significant game platforms, and in the end, some 119,000 people in 175 countries cast over 3.7 million votes.


For exhibit curator Chris Melissinos, a longtime video game enthusiast and “chief evangelist” and “chief gaming officer” at Sun Microsystems, games are “a unifying, multi-generational medium.” For him, the exhibition examines “the 40‐year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects, the creative use of new technologies, and the most influential artists and designers.”

Though the exhibition will soon end its run in Washington, D.C., The Art of Video Games begins a limited national tour of 10 cities in October. For more information, visit the extensive online archive.

Playtests and Pie Charts

I’ve spent a good chunk of the past week trying to drum up support for AirQuest, including our first official playtests in Fresno and a trip to University of Washington for the Research/Design videogame studies colloquium. Thanks especially to Donald Brinkman, the Research Program Manager for Games for Learning, Humanities, and Heritage at Microsoft, and Fresno High School teacher Karl Kaku and his students! Here’s a picture of Greg (Niemeyer) explaining our co-design process to the Fresno High students.

It’s not often that someone from a primarily humanities background finds herself suddenly immersed in genuine data and design, but I’ve been spending hours in Google Form/Docs and PowerPoint designing pre- and post-game player surveys, collecting, processing, and representing the feedback data, and even drawing a new flowchart for our game design. Coming from a world where every word is carefully weighed for nuance, there’s a certain satisfaction in generating pie charts and bar graphs for yes/no answers and measurements given on scales of 1 to 10, or using icons and pointy arrows to connect neatly encapsulated domains.

This fall’s SLSA conference will take place September 27-30 in Milwaukee, WI, on the theme of the nonhuman. Since nonhuman agency or an ethics of digital interaction with nonhuman entities (environments, organic and inorganic processes and forces, our world conceptualized as data) is an important component of my work on games, I can’t help but appreciate the organizing concept. (Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, among others, undergird my criticism in often implicit ways.)

Furthermore, Patrick Jagoda and Stephanie Boluk have assembled another fabulous proposal for a critical game studies stream, panels below (I’m listed in #5). Game studies truly has some traction, now. It should be a great start to the year!

1. Virtual Worlds and Procedural Stories
Chair: Priscilla Wald
– Stephanie Boluk/ Patrick LeMieux: “Dwarven Epitaphs:
Procedurally-Generated Storytelling in Dwarf Fortress”
– Victoria Szabo: “The City Talks Back: Traversing Annotated Landscapes”
– Katherine Hayles: “Mapping Daemon : Geography, Power, and Mixed
Reality in the New World Order”

2. Aesthetics of Play
Chair: Patrick LeMieux
– Patrick Jagoda: “Games of Failure: Thresholdland and Transmedia
Aesthetics of Play”
– Mary Flanagan: “Playful aesthetics”
– Eddo Stern: “The design philosophy behind Darkgame”

3. Family Resemblances and Videogame Histories
Chair: Patrick Jagoda
– Ian Bogost: “Bone of My Bones and Flesh of my Flesh: The Genesis of
Ms. Pac-Man”
– Zach Whalen: “A Counterfactual Historiography of Three Game Platforms”
– Nick Montfort: Three Family Reunions and Some Black Sheep”

4. Simulation and Its Discontents
Chair: Stephanie Boluk
– David Golumbia, “Game of Drones”
– Ed Chang, “Gaming the Posthuman”
– Luke Caldwell and Tim Lenoir, “Reality is Expensive: Making a Better
Military-Entertainment Complex”

5. E-Cologies and (Post)human Nature
Chair: Mark Marino
– Lisa Nakamura, “Sexual Harassment and the Discourse of Indigeneity
in Digital Game Culture”
– Timothy Welsh, “The Vitality of the Digital: Bioart and Videogames”
– Alenda Chang, “Playing Nature”

SCMS and our new AirQuest Promo

It’s been a hectic week trying to squeeze all I can out of this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Boston, while fielding requests from the other coast in the lead-up to a grant deadline for our AirQuest game. The good news is, there’s been a substantial game studies line-up at SCMS this year, with one rather unexpected highlight being a presentation by Ralph Baer, the developer of the first video game console and the well-known game Simon, as well as the Video Game Studies Scholarly Interest Group’s celebration of Baer’s 90th birthday with a cake in the shape of a Magnavox Odyssey:

The raw and the cooked? The actual Magnavox Odyssey and its tasty simulacrum.

The Motorola empowerment grant is also in, and the short video that went with the application shows some of the interviews and other footage we recorded on our last trip to the San Joaquin Valley (in early March). It’s great to see some sort of product come out of our crazy stops on the side of freeways, our tour of the cogen/waste incineration plant in Stanislaus, covert stops at dairy farms, and months now of building relationships to Valley communities, including students, educators, air officials, air-quality advocates, medical professionals, families and more.

Please watch and pass it on–the more views and feedback the better!

New farm games article available

I’ve just received an advance-access copy of a short piece I wrote for Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, called “Back to the Virtual Farm: Gleaning the Agriculture-Management Game.” The print version will be out in the next issue, 19.1 (Winter 2012), but you can now access the PDF here. This article is a slightly expanded version of a talk I gave at ASLE this past summer (and the essay that was awarded best paper)… here I’ve added more detail regarding farm games’ treatment of water and soil, but the full, chapter-length version will have to wait until I publish my larger dissertation work.

I’ve received several requests for the paper from ASLE members and artists and scholars working at the nexus of food politics, environmental justice, and environmental history, so I’m happy to make this work available. If you get a moment, please let me know how you use the work in your classes and whether or not it’s helped you to bring both games and food-related issues into discussion. For example, I believe that Barbara Eckstein at University of Iowa has incorporated the work into a “Locally Grown” Literature & Society class (involving undergraduates, actual farmers, and IT professionals), and I’ve had several stimulating conversations with artist Amy Franceschini of Futurefarmers over the potential for a different kind of farm game: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife are pursuing one such idea, and the University of Washington Bothell has turned social farm-game mechanics toward wetlands restoration. But I think we’re just scratching the surface of what is possible!

Asian American Arcade Exhibit Open

“Asian American Arcade”

Last week, a special exhibit devoted to the “interplay between video games and Asian Pacific American Experience” (as stated on the call for art) opened at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, WA. My brother, Edmond Chang (Ph.D. candidate, UW English), served on the community advisory committee that helped put this exhibit together and also designed a short live-action roleplaying/alternate-reality game for the exhibit opening last Thursday night.

The exhibition features, among others, Jenova Chen and his work on games like Flower. When I interviewed Jenova in 2010, he described his own experience moving from Shanghai to California as a driving impetus for Flower‘s bucolic imagery and the game’s thoughtful consideration of the relationship between urban and rural landscapes.

The exhibit is open until June 17. Please check it out!

New HASTAC Forum on Video Game Studies

If you’re interested in the growing field of game studies, check out the new HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) forum called “Press Start to Continue: Toward a New Video Game Studies.” As the name indicates, we’ve tried to not only identify ongoing trends in existing work but also suggest areas that could benefit from elaboration or exploration.

The forum also features some wonderful invited guests, including Lisa Nakamura and Mia Consalvo. Please join us!

Keywords for Video Game Studies Colloquium
Saturday, May 19, 2012
8 AM to 3 PM
Communication 202
University of Washington, Seattle

The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group (GIG) at the University of Washington invites game scholars, artists, designers, developers, and enthusiasts to participate in our one-day colloquium on critical gaming.  The colloquium, broadly themed by the keywords “research/design,” is the capstone event to our year-long series of workshop sessions on “democracy,” “time,” “altplay/fandom,” “gold farming,” and “hack/customization” and hopes to provide a space for individuals and groups to present their work, to discuss and collaborate on what it means to study or make digital games, to network, and to play games.

Full details here.

Visualizing Data

Good word is in! I’ll be co-chairing and presenting on a panel at this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston (March 21-25, 2012), with my colleague Kris Fallon from UC Berkeley’s Film and Media Department. Kris and I brought these papers together in an attempt to get at the growing transition from “optical” and photorealistic media toward “nonoptical” and interactive media. At the core of all the panelists’ concerns are issues surrounding how we convert or interpret data into forms amenable to handling and understanding, and how such practices exert both rhetorical and epistemological effects on data that in and of itself is neither objective nor sufficient.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012 02:00PM-03:45PM (Session C)

C1: Scaling Data’s Many Faces: Data Mining, Information Visualization, and Other Non-optical Vistas
Room: Alcott
Chair: Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Berkeley)
Co-Chair: Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley)

Kristopher Fallon (University of California, Berkeley), “The Optic-less Unconscious: Data Journalism and the Quest for Visible Evidence”
Alenda Chang (University of California, Berkeley), “Exponential Vision and the Powers of Ten”
David Bering-Porter (Brown University), “Screening the Genome: Visualization, Speculation, and Uncanny Vitality”
Lyn Goeringer (University of Rhode Island), “Emote = Ping : Data Mining Emotion as Conceptual Art Practice”

Here’s the abstract for my particular talk:

In 1977, Charles and Ray Eames released the short film Powers of Ten, which uses the mathematical and visual framing of a geometric progression to take viewers on a journey from macrocosm to microcosm in just over nine minutes. Touted as surpassing the static image in its presentation of movement between scales, Powers of Ten was itself the inspiration for another qualitative leap in the visualization of scientific information—the evolutionary video game Spore (2008). In Spore, players develop from unicellular organisms adrift in primordial oceans to terrestrial creatures that eventually pursue social organization, progressing from tribal communities to city-states to sophisticated spacefaring civilizations.

Meanwhile, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have articulated the history of science as a series of overlapping visual epistemes, beginning with truth-to-nature, proceeding through mechanical objectivity, and ending with trained judgment in the era of nanotechnology. Given the close ties between documentary and scientific ethos, what do we make of an educational science film like Powers of Ten, in which the images are often imaginative composites based on real data, or a game like Spore, where interaction replaces viewing as the dominant perceptual mode?

As Daston and Galison begin to suggest, and as Colin Milburn elaborates in his recent treatise on nanovision, the extension of scientific sight into the subatomic realm promised by Powers of Ten has been fulfilled in unexpected ways—bypassing optics in favor of proprioceptive intimacy, a kind of touching-seeing or Deleuzian haptic vision exemplified by the images produced by scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs). The strange reversals of nonoptical molecular imaging (not to mention the artful depiction of data garnered outside the visible spectrum at the macrocosmic scales of radio, ultraviolet, and infrared astronomy) offer one reading of the transmedia journey from book to film to game that describes Spore’s revival of Powers of Ten. At such scales, and as the cinematic medium evolves into the algorithmic, visualization becomes fabrication, and seeing cannot take place without doing, with important ramifications for the politicization of science.


So, please stop by if you’re attending or presenting at SCMS. We’d love your feedback!

Engaging the Digital We

I’m currently enjoying a day at “The Digital We” one-day symposium here at Berkeley (subtitled “Apps for Citizenship, Health, and City Life from the Social Apps Lab at CITRIS Berkeley”). Particular points of interest have been Chris Kelty’s presentation on applying ecological models to Internet participation, based on his work in the Center for Society and Genetics at UCLA (see “Birds of the Internet” and Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software) and the showcase of “serious” games under development at the new Social Apps Lab, including Dengue Torpedo, City Sandbox, and Pathways (now called Equimano).

Also included: a brief peek at a new game, at present called Pwning Asthma, which will help people learn about the risk factors and triggers for asthma. I recently joined the development team for this project, so expect future updates (we’re conducting our first official location research in the Central Valley agricultural city of Fresno in early January).