Feb 17, 2014

Exhibition Report: Indie Essentials at the Museum of the Moving Image

by Rebecca Hernandez-Gerber

“Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games” currently occupied approximately half of the third floor of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. The exhibition opened on December 14, 2013 and will close on March 2, 2014. For this report, I attended the exhibition on February 15, 2014. The exhibition was produced to coincide with IndieCade East, an independent video game festival that took place at the museum from February 14 to 16, 2014. This is the East-coast branch of a much larger and more well known, independent video game festival known as IndieCade; it is commonly referred to as “the Sundance of indie games.” Therefore, while the exhibition itself consisted of several independent video games available for interaction, this particular visit coincided with a weekend that included conference panels, virtual tournaments, performantive party-style gameplay, and demonstrations by students as well as industry representatives.
            The exhibition consisted of twenty-six separate titles. Of these, twenty-five were digital games (hence the exhibition title) and one was a board game. Eleven games in total, ten digital and one board game, were included as they were this year’s award winners at IndieCade 2013. The remaining fifteen titles are described by the Museum of the Moving Image as “a selection of games that have had great impact on game design and culture in the last decade.”[1] For further information on the individual titles, please see Appendix A for a list of all twenty-six titles available at the exhibition. For the purposes of this report, the one board game available at the exhibition will be eliminated as it contains no moving images and, therefore, is not a part of this discussion.
            While an exhaustive description of all twenty-five titles would be difficult to condense, a number of summarizations can be made about the available content. The majority of these games, twenty in total, are what are known as single-player games, or games that involve one individual’s interaction with an interface. The remaining titles, five in total, are what are known as multiplayer games and involve not only interaction with an interface but also physical and social interaction with other individuals. Specific media utilized as part of the exhibit is broken down further into displays, sound, and interaction. Overwhelmingly, the display of choice is that of slat-screen digital monitors approximately twice as large as the average laptop monitor. These monitors are horizontal in their orientation and, in all but one case, identical in size. Seventeen digital games utilized this form of display, one of which used a larger display that otherwise retained the same characteristics. Following this, the second most common form of display was that of digital projection of images directly onto a large, flat, dark-colored wall. In total, four titles used this method of display. Least common were the usages of an iPad, the display of choice for three digital games, and CRT monitors, utilized for one digital game. For sound, the most common choice was that of speakers situated beneath the flat-screen monitors, which was the method utilized for fifteen digital games. Of these, most included repetitious music or simple sound effects that lacked complexity. Of the remaining titles, those nine titles that utilized sound were accessed through noise-cancelling headphones. Generally speaking, the titles that utilized headphones contained more dramatic or emotional scores than those heard through speakers. Lastly, interaction can be divided into two forms: that of the player or that of the voyeur. In the former case, the player attempts interaction through the immersion of gameplay. If the individual utilizes noise-cancelling headphones or plays a game when there is no audience, the interaction is a more personal, visceral experience. If other visitors surround the individual, the experience becomes more focused on the social aspects of gameplay rather than the emotional or artistic aspects of the titles themselves. In the later case, that of the voyeur, visitors are invited to watch others play and often comment or discuss aspects of gameplay. Through this method, interaction is more communal and opens up a different interactive route than that of man and machine.

Though apologies for the crudeness of the drawing, this is an accurate representation of the exhibition layout. Please see Appendix A for the list of games numbered in this diagram.
            To describe the content, it should be noted that many of these digital games are best described not as what they are but instead as what they challenge. The culture of indie gaming was originally created to rebel against the standards and conventions found in mainstream video game culture. As such, the importance of this exhibition’s games is not what the games stand for, but how the mainstream conventions can be subverted. One method in which these titles accomplish this task is by attacking the mainstream focus of gameplay mechanics over narrative and atmosphere. A common argument against video games and their place as artistic or cultural items is that they focus too heavily on designing interaction than on the environment in which one interacts. Games such as Dear Esther, Flower, Kentucky Route Zero Act I and II, and Today I Die contain exceedingly simple gameplay functions. Instead, these titles focus on a larger narrative that calls into question such philosophical concepts as memory, transcendent thought, mortality, and beauty. Narrative and atmosphere become the focus of these games; therefore, these titles challenge the focus of mainstream gaming. Another method found in these games is that of locating aspects of the subculture that have been considered problematic by society at large and subverting those aspects, thus putting into question whether video games themselves are troubling as a medium or whether instead certain aspects are troubling. For example, games such as Quadrilateral Cowboy and Braid challenge the concept of the lone hero fighting for the damsel in distress by instead questioning whether such a protagonist is in fact representative of male privilege and patriarchal cultures. Flower, Everyday Shooter, and Minecraft focus on genesis and creation rather than conflict and violence. One last method commonly found in these games is a rejection of the mechanics that mainstream gaming considers of upmost importance. In more traditional games, it is assumed that players who interact more frequently will eventually gain an advantage over players who have interacted less frequently. This gives an advantage to serious players over more casual ones. Challenging this theory are games such as Spelunky and N., which contain rules that constantly change so that a player is never able to become familiar with the games. The result is that all players, regardless of their experience, become equal, attacking the hierarchal nature of mainstream gaming culture. This is merely a selection of the content available at the exhibition, and by no means representative, yet what is critical to understand here is that these titles are artifacts of resistance rather than representatives of a culture, and as such, they are artifacts whose context is critical to their comprehension.
            Four curators put together this complicated exhibition. Three of these individuals are aligned with the IndieCade festival: Stephanie Barish, IndieCade CEO as well as Aaron Isaksen and Matt Parker, IndieCade East Chairs. The remaining individual, Jason Eppinik, is associated with the Museum of the Moving Image through his institutional role as Associate Curator of Digital Media.
            According to Stephanie Barish, the goal of IndieCade was always to “create an equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival for video games.”[2] The festival’s institutional mission “encourages, publicizes, and cultivates innovation and artistry in interactive media, helping to create a public perception of games as rich, diverse, artistic, and culturally significant.”[3] “All weekend we’ll spotlight work that provokes thought and conversation, and that pushes the boundaries of interactive entertainment and how we see games.”[4] It can be inferred from these statements that the festival’s CEO considers indie games to be the true artistic legacy of the medium, and as such, she has strong ideological and marketing reasons to advance this argument.
            Partnering with the Museum of the Moving Image is an obvious choice for IndieCade, as the museum has a long reputation in regard to video games and other forms of digital media. In 1989, the museum was the first to premier an exhibition on the art of videogames with “Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade.” Museums moved into the permanent collection in 2006, as playable games were added to the central “Behind the Screen” exhibition. The museum’s mission statement “advances the public understanding and appreciation of the art, history, technique, and technology of film, television, and digital media.”[5] However, the museum’s characteristic treatment of video games is not necessarily in line with that of IndieCade. Rather than focus on the question of whether the exhibited games are or are not an art form, the museum instead chooses to focus on a broader audience. Jason Eppinik, in the aforementioned press release, stated “IndieCade East offers New Yorkers a great opportunity to dive into the world of independent games – there’s something for everyone from the casual gamer to the dedicated scholar and emerging gamemakers.”[6]
            There appear to be two groups that form the bulk of this exhibition’s intended audience. First and foremost are those involved in video games themselves: players, developers, and academic scholars of the genre. This is the audience that IndieCade appears to target most frequently and the one directly cited by the Museum of the Moving Image. Throughout the exhibit, text boxes that accompany the digital games include instructions on operation less than half of the time, further inferring that the intended audience is one already familiar with video game conventions. There is a second intended audience in family groups, though this audience is a focus of the museum rather than IndieCade. At the exhibition, a flyer was available with a checklist of appropriate video games for children along with discussion questions for parents to ask their children after they interacted with the games. The preparation of such an item indicates at least some expectation of a youth- and family-oriented audience, though the focus is certainly less than that of individuals involved in gaming communities.
            My own insight on audiences is by necessity biased, as I attended the museum during a conference weekend, which might skew the audience toward a gamer community-dominant model. In my experience, the audience was primarily that of younger adults involved in gaming communities. There were a few scattered groups of older adults, but these appeared to be, without exception, accompanying children. Those visitors attending in groups tended to congregate and discuss issues such as indie gaming in general, representation and marginalization, or the rebellious elements of the games on display. Solitary individuals tended to linger around a particular game and engage for a lengthier time, largely ignoring the more social aspects of the exhibition unless directly spoken to. Family groups, in contrast, moved quickly between games, spending less time with each title but visiting a greater total number. These groups focused on the titles found in the family-friendly flier rather than the more difficult, atmospheric titles.

My personal interaction with a single-player game that utilizes headphones.

            However, in a review of the exhibition, Matt Akker of Paste Magazine noted a more peaceful atmosphere in which adults and children both wandered quietly and interacted with the games at a less frenetic pace. As a game player, Aker noted with wonder that he “was watching them [visitors] learn a game, perhaps even learn what it means to play a game. It was intimate, peaceful, and a first for me.”[7] While I did not experience the exhibition in the same way, it is easy to see how such an interpretation is possible when the space is less crowded.
            Shaping the viewing experience were a number of multimedia elements. Perhaps the most noticeable of these is ambience. Many of those playing games were quite noisy, cheering and reacting viscerally with the titles with which they interacted. Added to this was the noise made by those watching the action; many of them were just as rambunctious as the player. There were also a variety of sounds due to discussion groups, press interviews, and the never-ending noises coming from over ten different video game machines. It was a loud, celebratory ambiance, one that contributed to the idea of communal space and social setting. Unfortunately, this sort of interaction also contributed to a more arcade-like setting than a museum, in some ways lessening the argument of video games as art and heightening their status as entertainment items. This is especially obvious when one walks to the nearby “Behind the Screen” exhibit, separated from the space by an open pathway. This exhibition is quieter, more museum-like, and lies in stark contrast to the ambience of the Indie Essentials exhibition. Viewing experience also was affected by questionable lighting choices. Throughout my many visits to video game exhibitions, it appears to be quite common that video games are presented in a dim setting. Perhaps this is meant to imitate the arcades of yore, but the result is that the screens shine out all the more brightly. They call the visitor like moths to a flame. It is a beautiful effect, but when used too heavily, it creates a disconcerting atmosphere where those not engaged in playing a game feel lost in the darkness. This turned out to be the case in the exhibition, as lighting was primarily aimed at where a player uses a game’s interfaces and not elsewhere. While players have sufficient light, visitors that merely watch are not given the same levels of visibility. One particular element that did not shape the viewing experience, but has the possibility of shaping it, was the use of text boxes. Each video game is accompanied by a text box that state’s the game’s title, creator, release date, platform, and then two short paragraphs regarding the importance of the title. These text boxes could have been used to grant some level of context and to differentiate these video games from games in general, aiding the visitor that is unfamiliar with video games. Instead, the information contained on the text boxes is lacking, focusing on what the video game accomplishes rather than whether or not those accomplishments are subversive or representational. Had these text boxes contained more contextual information, the entire exhibition would have benefitted and less game-oriented audiences would have found it to be more accessible.
            Interpretation of the exhibition is problematic. On the one hand, the overall argument of the exhibition is clear: indie games are artistic objects, unlike games created by larger studios, because they challenge players to consider what is play and what viewpoints are currently underrepresented in the mainstream gaming industry. This argument argues for the importance of indie games as representational items with aesthetic values yet with the power to innovate and push the entire medium forward as cultural objects. On the other hand, the choice to present these video games in this particular method cannot be linked to such an argument. The layout of the exhibition is difficult to understand. When several games are placed within a room, there is no thematic link between them. In fact, much of the layout seems poorly thought out, as some small rooms contain several games with speakers that drown out the noises of the games around them. Furthermore, there is no explanation as to why some video games are projected while others are placed on variously sized screens. The lack of consistency is confusing at best. There may be a less overt argument at play, but I could not discover it through this form of presentation.
           To conclude, the exhibition succeeds in a number of respecst. It displays a number of indie games that can be considered artistic forms of cultural importance. The wide variety of aesthetics, gameplay mechanics, and genre styles chosen give a wide range of titles for the visitor to choose from. The inclusion of both single-player and multiplayer titles allows the visitor to either join in social interaction or choose a more solitary experience of engagement. However, the exhibition has several noticeable weaknesses, including a distinct lack of context and poorly planned layout and lighting. In the end, the question of curatorial success depends upon the targeted audience. To an audience familiar with gaming cultures, the exhibition succeeds in displaying video games as artistic forms, but in some ways this audience has no need for the argument. As fans of the medium, they are already predisposed to this line of thought and have no need for institutional reinforcement. To an audience unfamiliar with the games, the exhibition successfully shows several notable games, but it does not give a larger argument toward why this artistic and technological movement is one of note. “Indie Essentials” is a moving, beautiful exhibition, but in the end, there is so much more it could have accomplished.
            For more information on this exhibition, please see the official exhibition website at http://www.movingimage.us/exhibitions/2013/12/14/detail/indie-essentials-25-must-play-video-games/. 

Appendix A: Game Titles
1)    Passage, 2007, PC
2)    Canabalt, 2009, iOS
3)    World of Goo, 2008/2011, iOS
4)    Killer Queen Arcade, 2012, arcade
5)    Diner Dash, 2004, PC
6)    Minecraft, 2011, PC
7)    Spin the Bottle: Bumpie’s Party, 2013, Wii U
8)    TowerFall Ascension, 2013, PC
9)    SlashDash, 2013, PC
10) Alien Hominid, 2002, PlayStation 2
11) Spelunky, 2009/2013, PC
12) Flower, 2009, PlayStation 3
13) Spaceteam, 2009/2013, iOS
14) Machinarium, 2009, PC
15) Braid, 2008, PC
16) N., 2004, PC
17) QWOP, 2008, PC
18) Dog Eat Dog, 2013, Board Game
19) Quadrilateral Cowboy, 2014, PC
20) The Path, 2009, pc
21) Today I Die, 2009, PC
22) Dear Esther, 2007/2012, PC
23) Perpentine’s Twine Compilation, 2012-2013, PC
24) Kentucky Route Zero Act I and II, 2013, PC
25) Gone Home, 2013, PC
26) Everyday Shooter, 2007, PlayStation 3

[1] “Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games,” Museum of the Moving Image.
[2] Ben Fritz, “IndieCade, the Video Game Industry’s Sundance,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 1, 2009.
[3] “Mission,” IndieCade.
[4] “IndieCade East, IndieCade’s East-Coast Edition Of the Premier Independent Video Game Festival, Returns to the Museum of the Moving Image For Year Two,” IndieCade Press Release.
[5] “Mission,” Museum of the Moving Image.
[6] “IndieCade East, IndieCade’s East-Coast Edition Of the Premier Independent Video Game Festival, Returns to the Museum of the Moving Image For Year Two,” IndieCade Press Release.
[7] Matt Akers, “Indie Essentials: A Must-Play Museum Exhibit in Queens, NY,” Paste Magazine, Jan. 7, 2014.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.