This is the twelfth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
Last week I discussed the games of Dr. Pippin Barr, a lecturer at the Centre for Computer Games Research, IT University of Copenhagen (ITU). His games are often designed to irritate the player, edge cases in game design that would otherwise not be made. He achieved mainstream media attention last year with the release of The Artist Is Present, a game based on Marina Abramović’s performance art of the same name.
Does Barr's experience tell us something about the role of academic games?
(Note: This interview was conducted in February before the video interview which I posted last month. Although there is a little overlap between the two interviews, if you've watched the video you'll find there are plenty of different questions addressed here.)
HM: Pippin, your MSc thesis concerned user interface metaphors. For your PhD, you branched out into “play as human-computer interaction”. There is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?
I ended up getting into game studies more or less on a whim. I'd originally planned to continue my research into more traditional forms of software, with a particular interest in the ways in which the interfaces we use are persuasive in different ways. PowerPoint famously shapes the ways that presenters think about information, for instance, tempting us into regarding bullet points as the pinnacle of knowledge. As it happens the software thing wasn't quite floating my boat, however, and when I was having coffee with an academic mentor of mine (a French semiotician, no less!) she asked why I didn't look at games as a form of software to study. It struck me a bit like a bolt from the blue, particularly the notion that that might be a legitimate area of study!
I was fortunate enough to have very liberal and supportive supervisors in the computer science department where I was doing my PhD, and they were more or less immediately on board with the idea of looking at video games as persuasive software, or rather as I put it in my dissertation, as software with values.
And so I became a game studies academic, wrote papers on the subject, went to conferences, met people, and so on. I never gave much thought to the idea that it might not be a "respectable" branch of academia to be in, though I must confess I've never been especially up on the ins and outs of academic respectability in the first place.
HM: You completed your PhD in New Zealand then spent a few years in Canada. How did you end up in Denmark in 2009?
In essence I have the great fortune to be married to a very gifted academic - my wife Rilla Khaled. Funnily enough, after "sharing" a postdoctoral fellowship in Canada, we both applied for the same job at the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen. Obviously we both applied knowing of the other's application! Fortunately for us, we both made the short list and were both invited to interviews in Copenhagen. Whereupon Rilla got the job!
And rightly so. She really is by far the more able academic of the two of us. Additionally, I had already been feeling for a year or more that the academic path wasn't entirely to my liking, and in some ways dreaded the idea of having a full time job as a professor at a university. The position I have here at the Center for Computer Games Research is instead basically involved with the students. I teach a course each semester and I supervise Master's theses for those who want my particular brand of guidance. To my great surprise, I find I really enjoy teaching.
HM: Do you see your games as furthering research? Or simply a way to keep yourself relevant?
Because I'm no longer especially involved in the research part of the academic world beyond working with Rilla on some of her projects, I don't see the games I make in that light specifically. On the other hand, I do see them forming part of my more general interest in video game criticism, which isn't necessarily all that distinct from academic research in the first place - certainly a relative at the very least.
So, I did start making games partly as a form of accountability to my own criticism of games. I spent a lot of time writing about games and what they mean, and particularly expressed my dissatisfaction with the state of the art. At the start of 2011 I was also scheduled to teach a class of game designers about programming. The pressure to put my money where my mouth was and actually make games myself instead of only talking about them got the better of me!
I really like the idea of people who want to understand and discuss an art form like video games actually having a go at making them themselves. Not that I'm suggesting that any critic or academic who doesn't is illegitimate, but I think it's a fantastic angle to come in at, and I think it's very valuable for games themselves to have those kinds of voices involved. Dan Pinchbeck, who is behind thechineseroom's games like Dear Esther and Korsakovia, is a particularly good example of that kind of cross-over.
Ultimately the reason I really make games at this point is that I enjoy it and I find that there are certain game ideas that I wish existed. In the absence of anyone else making those ideas, which are probably more or less peculiar to myself, I feel I should be the one making them. It's very satisfying.
HM: Should we consider academics to be a sort of "third channel" of game development? Mainstream churns out the crowdpleasers, indie garage bands do their thing - and now the academic experimenters are on the scene? Is it possible for academic developers to distinguish themselves from indie experimentation?
I think it's definitely plausible that academic game makers could bring something distinct to games - obviously it's not happening all that much necessarily, but the voices that you do hear - notably Dan Pinchbeck and Ian Bogost - are very interesting ones. I suppose the thing you get when an academic makes a game is a particular kind of intellectualising of the process and meaning of game making. In a sense the games produced are perhaps less "natural" than games made purely from the perspective of an artist expressing themselves, but I think they can make up for that in terms of interest. Hopefully, if you play a game made by an academic you have some small guarantee of a bit of "deep thinking", say, which other game makers are under no obligation to provide (though sometimes of course they do).
As for myself, I don't have a particular academic project I'm pursuing with my own games. I gave a talk in Spain last year where I talked about my work in terms of the heading of "Curious Games". I was trying to get at this (vaguely academic I suppose) notion of games that are about questioning, rather than about a shaped experience. In particular, most of the games I've made so far have involved poking at or flirting with various border cases of what video games do or can do. You're not "supposed" to have to wait in a game (the virtual world is usual there at your pleasure), so I made a game about waiting and following rules. Typing is not a typical part of the literacy of games, so I made a game of speed typing that punishes any little mistake. You're supposed to be able to win games, so I made a dancing game with an opponent you can't hope to defeat. And so forth.
This year I'm interested in pushing this curiousness away from those kinds of "serious jokes" about games in favour of stretching myself a bit more. But that sense of comedy that I think exists in the very nature of playing video games - particularly the relationships between player, designer, and game - is always going to be something I find appealing.
HM: I know the success of The Artist Is Present was a genuine surprise. What went through your head at the time?
The Artist Is Present was really pretty alarming as an experience. It was wonderful to have made a game that people wanted to talk about and experience, but definitely intimidating to be dragged out of total obscurity by phone calls from The Village Voice or a piece on The Huffington Post and so on. Perhaps my ultimate "gravitas moment" came in being part of The Washington Post's summary of important things that happened in technology in 2011. Me? Really?
I have felt twinges of responsibility at times. I've ended up doing a pretty large number of interviews over the last year, associated with The Artist Is Present and also my book. In the end, though, I've spent so much time thinking about games, what they are, what they mean, that I have fairly well developed answers to most of the questions. Nor is there any obvious need to "toe the party line" or anything, since there basically isn't one. The best strategy I've found in dealing with the interviewers who basically don't understand where video games are at these days is patience and empathy.
As regards my new life as a person who makes games, I've definitely teetered on the edge of anxiety about all the attention The Artist Is Present and Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment have got. I wonder if I should make sequels, or whether my games all have to be funny, or whether I have to make games with retro pixel graphics for the rest of my life.
In the end, though, I tell myself that the games I made turned out the way they did because of my personal sensibility. As such, the best bet is to keep making the games I think are interesting. Given that I don't charge for them or expect to make any money any time soon, there's no need to chase the market or fame or anything. When I re-realise that, I tend to feel calm, and then excited about the next project and the fact that it's entirely up to me. People might think it's cool, or it might be more or less ignored, like my beloved Trolley Problem. So it goes.
HM: Considering your experience, do you think mainstream media gets it when it comes to gaming?
I'm not sure I think the zeitgeisty effect of The Artist Is Present was as cynical as just finding an odd game and rolling with it as some kind of representative of "oh how strange it all is". To the extent that I had objectives with that game, I think the mainstream media totally "got it", as well.
It was all about how strange (and therefore interesting) it was to have this game that behaved in this unusual way - whether you were a gamer or not, you knew it wasn't quite right. And yet, on the other hand, it was right - that's the pleasing tension I think the game can create. After all, can we really say it's weird or wrong for the museum to be closed when it really is closed? Can we say it's wrong to have to wait in a queue? The most pleasing thing for me was the way that the response to the game both from the mainstream and from gamers wasn't "this is stupid and wrong", but rather "this is interesting" even as they also freely admitted they didn't bother playing it, or they just found the museum was closed and never tried again. It was filled with these contradictions in a lovely way.
In a broader sense, that's reflective of something I'm interested in doing with games. Making games that are "broken" in one sense (usually in the sense of how games "should be"), but then which are also entirely reasonable given what they're there for. Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment is super boring and not really interactive, but that's also the point - so you find yourself kind of disappointed, but kind of having to acknowledge that, okay, that's what it does.
Most importantly, I think that the reason that a game like The Artist Is Present or Let's Play can capture a broader popular imagination is because they let you be in on the joke or idea of the game. You can play it and almost immediately get it, and once you're in on it, any of the frustrations of the game-as-game kind of go away - you're an insider now.
I think that's an appealing thing for people, and it appeals greatly to me too, not just as the person making them, but as an experience to have. I like it when the person who made the game or wrote the book or shot the movie wants me to be part of it, to be able to have the chuckle of recognition and so on. I think that's a worthy kind of experience.
HM: Thanks for talking to Electron Dance, Pippin.
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