Interconnections: Videogame art. Is nothing sacred? (Part 2)

 

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This is the second in a two part blog entry on the sacred and profane in our culture and videogame art.

Last time, I asked if political questions should be raised at a museum exhibition. The respect we show for the museum space when we check our coats at the door – is this not based in a sense of art as sacred? Would political slogans not be profanity here?

If there is one issue that still evokes a strong sense of the sacred, I believe, it is that of human rights. Though much may be debated, as a civilised society, we still accord the highest value (in theory) to human life. However, when the terms of discussion are those of rights, freedoms, duties, obligations, and therefore violations and sanctions – the framework is immediately of a political and legal character. Are there not other domains – the home, the school, the art gallery – where there is another dimension to human existence that is a-political, sacred in its own right?

I will be using Dyer-Witheford’s essay (co-written by Greig de Peuter) Empire@Play (2009) as my source text. Dyer-Witheford, however, explores one question about videogames that, due to its scope and complexity, cannot be covered here: the relationship of video games with the military. Entering into this discussion necessarily takes us too far afield, into every socio-cultural, economic and ultimately political dimension of the world today.

But even though we will be setting this larger question aside, it is really the essence of the argument. Because Dyer-Witheford’s criticism is not merely against videogames, but he rails against the entire globalised politico-military-economic system of which videogames are only a small part. It concerns not only the presence of these games in our schools, our homes and in the hands of our children, but it refers to all products of the capitalist system embedded into the fabric of our very way of life.

Nonetheless, to reduce an already lengthy blog entry (I should have written it in three parts!), I will focus on the ambivalence between the sacred value of human life and the increasing profanisation of our artistic cultural institutions. Below, I will demonstrate how every stage in the process of the videogame industry is a threat, if not a direct violation, of human rights. From the excavation of the raw materials needed to make consoles, through manufacture, use and finally disposal, the global impact of videogames is exemplary of what Dyer-Witheford, along with Hardt and Negri, call capitalist Empire.

Nick Dyer-Witheford

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Our argument, need we say, is not that “games make you kill,” in the sense asserted in moral panics about the play of Doom or Grand Theft Auto. It is that digital games are systemically incorporated in the war-fighting apparatus of Empire, in ways that render developers and players material partners in military technoculture, and Defense Departments’ systemic cullers of gamer subjectivities. (Dyer-Witheford 2009)

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But is this technology inherently evil? Even Dyer-Witheford must admit that the resistance to Empire – the “other globalisation” – is as indebted to and reliant upon these very same communication technologies as the capitalist world order they oppose. Maybe GameArt’s “profanisation of the sacred” is an alternative use of this technology, one that justifies its existence? In partial answer, I follow with some examples from the videogame art movement.

With its trilogy of events on videogames (Gameworld 2007, Playware 2007-8, Homo Ludens Ludens 2008), LABoral Centro de Arte hoped “to offer an alternate perspective on videogames that places them solidly at the center of our culture” (Carl Goodman, Playware curator, 2007).

After reading Dyer-Witheford, such exuberance must certainly give us pause. Is the use of such technology necessarily  in the service of Empire or does it also promise something new? Is the issue exclusively political or can this new technology engender some kind of transformation on its own terms?

The videogame industry and human rights

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In what follows, I summarise the human rights related accusations Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter make against the videogame industry in the essay Empire@Play. They concern the raw materials, manufacture, use and disposal of videogame technology.

Raw materials: coltan

 

Columbite tantalite – or coltan – is a metallic ore that, when refined (then called Tantalum), is ductile, heat resistant and can be drawn into a very fine wire, thereby allowing for the manufacture of small condensers and micro-electronic technologies. Coltan is used in a variety of chips and processors from computers, mobile phones and videogame consoles to airplane engines and nuclear reactors. For tech manufacturers, coltan “today, under the terms of its specific characteristics, [is] a very required element” (The Engineer 2006).

Coltan is principally mined in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the DRC, the tradition of “artesenal mining” – i.e. small scale excavations – began in the 1980s, when financial troubles hit the Belgian-funded national mining monopoly (Sominki) and locals were granted small mining concessions.  “As long as Sominki retained effective control over its concessions, artisenal [sic] miners operated in a controlled environment. But this changed after the withdrawal of Belgian Capital from Sominki in 1995 and the subsequent collapse of the state in Eastern Zaire, later Congo” (Pole Institute 2001).

The long-term presence of Rwandan, Ugandan, Angolan, Namibian and Zimbabwean forces on DRC soil (1998-2003), as well as UN troops and numerous revolutionary and/or destabilizing armed movements that continue to be active in the region today, have given this conflict the name ‘Africa’s World War.’

With the tech boom in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, coltan was in high demand. Local governmental and military forces capitalised on the lack of control in the DRC region and began to force the locals into mining  under inhuman conditions. This meant no concern for proper safety or health issues and often sending young children into the pits (Pole Institute 2001). “Their bodies caked in dirt from the river beds they are forced to work in, African children are enslaved in lethal mines to power our love affair with… mobiles, laptops and games consoles” (Lavery 2008).

In January of 2001, the United Nations (UN) was given a mandate to look into the situation. “The assumption behind the mandate is that the parties to the conflict are motivated by desire to control and profit from the natural resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that they finance their armies and their military operations by exploiting these resources” (UN S/2001/49).

The UN Panel concluded that the DRC had suffered an initial phase of “mass-scale looting” followed by “systematic and systemic exploitation” of the coltan fields in violation of DRC sovereignty and international law (UN S/2001/357).

Dyer-Witheford aims his attack here: where the increase in the sale of videogame consoles directly encourages the mining of conflict materials. “Prices for columbite tantalite… were driven to extreme heights by the launch of the PS2, setting off a frenzy of resource grabs on the open pit, child-labour mines of the Eastern Congo by the armies fighting Central Africa’s ongoing multi-million death war.”

The Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2) was released in 2000 and met with instant – and overwhelming – commercial success (History of the PS2, GameConsolesedu.info).

Sony, like many manufacturers, “were caught off guard by the explosive demand for laptops, mobile phones, play stations and other compact electronics. The cascade effect was that two of the world’s main buyers of tantalum hedged with simultaneous triple orders, thereby creating an artificial global shortage. As it is not traded on commodity metal markets, speculators and traders were able to take advantage of the lack of communication among the various players and increase the price ten-fold from 1999 to 2000” (Vetter 2008).

Bjørn Willum quotes a price of $10-$30 US/kg for coltan in 1998; this skyrocketed to $329 US/kg in May 2000 (Willum 2001).

There is a vulnerability of undeveloped cultures that is linked to our habits as consumers. This link traverses one side of the globe to the other through the decentralised power structures of capitalist Empire: I buy on a whim, coltan prices go up, they dig at gunpoint. The UN estimates that ore mining brought $750 million US to the DRC in 2000, most of which was used to finance the conflict (Schure 2010).

Manufacture and assembly: ‘maquiladora plants’

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Dyer-Witheford: “But the low-cost, no-care human infrastructure of the play industry has many other rungs: maquiladora plants where hand-helds are made up by nimble-fingered female labor; the regimented electronics assembly lines of South China from which Xbox 360s and PS3’s pour…”

Thanks to NAFTA, there is a free-trade zone between the United States, Canada and Mexico, allowing manufacturers to produce goods more cheaply in the south. Maquiladora plants refer to these low-cost Mexican factories. “Maquiladora plants… employ more than 1.2 million people, account for roughly 40 percent of Mexico’s manufacturing, and pay (from $15 to $20 a day) more than four times Mexico’s minimum wage.” (Hellriegel 2008)

It is important to stress that these plants do indeed offer the best jobs in Mexico: endless mechanical drudgery, six or seven days a week, no holidays, for $20 a day. The rest is even worse. That is the cunning of Empire’s dialectic. Across the globe, it pits developing countries against one another to see who can provide the cheapest labour environment, at any cost; to the point where workers sacrifice their rights to decent employment conditions, health safety, etc., just to get a job.

This is clearly the case with Singapore-based Flextronics, which manufactures components for the XBox system in Mexico (Robert B. Swierupski 2001).

The workers, who live on or near the work site, are treated to the finest in corporate infrastructure investment and all the benefits of the surplus value gleaned from landscaping and urban planning.

“To see the operation firsthand, you have to travel along a pothole-riddled road that would be less bumpy if it was just plain old dirt, maneuvering past livestock, gasoline trucks, rice-and-bean stands, and the occasional local peeking from beneath a giant cowboy hat. Clear the guardhouse in front and suddenly everything changes: manicured lawns and shrubbery, flawless roads, a corporate cafeteria, and what the locals call “the best soccer field in town.” With 4,800 employees, Flex’s Parque Integral is a $250 million, 124-acre oasis of Silicon Valley-style opulence in a desert of poverty. (O’Brian 2001)

But when it comes to their rights as labourers and their expression of free speech, the opulence begins to resemble a gilded cage. Together with labour rights organisation Centre for Reflection and Action on Labour Rights (CEREAL),  in 2008, the Electronic Industry Worker Coalition in Mexico denounced the fact that several electronics companies – including Flextronics – were not respecting the due process of law and sharing their economic growth with their employees, as is required by Mexican labour law. The protest cry of “También somos parte de las utilidades y las generamos” (“We are also part of the profits and we produce them”) was met by the company firing the protesters and hiring even cheaper labour in their place (reported at Ekumakad.cz and goodelectronics.org). This was the case despite the company admitting that the same year, 2008, had been the biggest for XBox sales in history (Martinez 2009).

Microsoft and Flextronics have also had operations in China since 2002 (Microsoft 2002). Since then, China and Mexico have been rivals for future Flextronic investment (HR Consulting 2009). The contenders try to demonstrate “cost-advantage,” which is translated as lower wages – meaning workers in both countries are competing to see who can do more for less pay (Culpan and Balfour 2010).

Another example could be Mitsumi Electronics that supplies the Wii’s LAN module and Nintendo DS parts. Aside from offices in their home country Japan, the U.S. and Europe, they also have manufacturing plants in China, West Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand (Mitsumi 2011).

The strategy is to have more than one source for the same part.  “This way, Nintendo always gets the best price and production is not an issue” (Financial Times 2007).

Tianjin Mitsumi electronics strike. July 2010

Meanwhile, the 3,000 workers at Mitsumi Electric Co. factory in the Chinese city of Tianjin have felt compelled to go on strike, protesting their excessive workload and low pay (NTDTV 2010). One worker said: “We’re on strike because the factory has never increased our wages and they keep increasing our workload.” Another quoted a wage of 1500 yuan (A$162) a month after working on Saturdays and putting in two hours overtime every working day (ASAP 2010 and Reuters 2010).

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Use: ludocapitalism

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Dyer-Witheford:

Perhaps the best single demonstration of the game factory’s stratified planetary space is, however, the online fantasy game World of Warcraft (WoW). Of the 11.5 million participants of its virtual continent of Azeroth, about 25% play in North America, 20% in Europe and some 55% in Asia…. Where Empire’s inequities transform WoW, however, is via virtual trading. A “ludocapitalism” by which virtual goods or skills exchange for real currencies generates an interdependence between North American players and as many as half a million planetary poor country “gold farmers,” the majority probably in China, for whom looting monsters round the clock is an alternative to labour on the strike-swept assembly lines of the Pearl River cranking out the very computers on which WoW is played world-wide. Such migrant avatar-service work at once sustains the gaming habit of time-stressed North Americans [and] incurs their racist antipathy for “ruining the game…” It thus typifies the bipolarity of “Chimerica,” the current US-China axis of Empire, virtually replicating a relation where one side is all play, the other all work. (Dyer-Witheford 2009)

World of Warcraft has set the standard for what has become a new business enterprise being carried out across numerous international virtual gaming platforms: ludocapitalism. The seemingly innocent hobby of playing online games in virtual worlds has generated a new form of financial trading: real money for virtual goods or services (Heeks 2008).  North American players may be unwilling to go through the time and effort required to earn game points or virtual game currency (“gold”). Looking for an escape from the oriental version of Mexican maquiladora plants, many Asian labourers have turned to “gold farming” – performing the repetitive, menial tasks in games that more financially privileged players would rather pass over.

Gold farmers sit at their computers for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, with only two or three nights off per month, trading their virtual goods and services for real money (Dibbel 2007). And they do their job with tenacious persistence. “Instead of people enjoying the games, now it’s about gold farmers taking over a certain area” of the virtual world, complains one player in Ge Jin’s recent documentary, Gold Farmers (2010). “It’s a job. It’s a business. It’s a cutthroat business.”

Image of a Gold Farmer sweat shop taken from 'Gold Farmers' (Ge Jin 2010)

The images of exhausted labourers huddled over tiny work terminals cannot but remind us of sweat shops. But this commercialisation of the play area offends some participants. In a strange twist, it is the gaming which some take as a sacred trust. “Gold-farming has come under criticism from ‘legitimate’ game players, who feel that it ruins the gaming experience and contributes to in-game inflation, to the point that some players feel justified in killing any gold-farmers they run across while playing” (Leonard 2008).

The killings are often mass slaughters, sometimes organised in advance by frustrated players. Here is an example I found of such a culling of gold farmers in a game called Rune Village.

Screenshots of a 'Rune Village' gold farmer killing spree 2007

For some writers, such as Nick Yee, the parallels between these virtual killings and historical mob violence against Chinese immigrants are disturbing.

The Great Driving Out of the Chinese (from Yee 2006)

“The tropes of pestilence and eradication are particularly chilling because there are historical parallels of this exact rhetoric against the Chinese. During the late 1800s, as Chinese immigrants were blamed for many problems ranging from unemployment to the economic depression itself, they were portrayed as vermin that lived on rats and thus were a sub-human race that should be exterminated to protect the American way of life. And indeed, there are well-documented mob lynching and massacres of Chinese immigrants. These were particularly prevalent in the period known as the ‘Great Driving Out'” (Yee 2006).

In his press statement, Ge Jin said: “Whose game is reality? To those who are stubborn about keeping it real or keeping it virtual, my film has a statement: we can accept anything but reality.”

Disposal: environmental concerns

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In 1995, “the Commission on Human Rights, aware of the growing practice of the dumping in Africa and other developing countries by transnational corporations and other enterprises from industrialized countries of hazardous and other wastes, adopted resolution 1995/81 in which it noted with grave concern that the increasing rate of illicit dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes in developing countries continues adversely to affect the human rights to life and health of individuals in those countries” (UN Human Rights Commission 2007).

Up to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is dumped in Africa every year, without any restriction or liability (Carney 2006). Companies like Microsoft and Nintendo take advantage of this situation and dispose of their excess hardware without official observation or control, polluting remote locations like Africa with ever-expanding dump sites, allowing the materials to release toxic byproducts into the environment.

In its Guide to Greener Electronics, Greenpeace, for example, ranks Microsoft second-last and Nintendo last in their list of 18 major electronics manufacturers. To cite one issue, neither have been clear about when they will be phasing out the use of toxic PVC plastics in the wiring of their game consoles. They do not actively promote proper recycling of “end-of-life” hardware, and Nintendo (worst of all) keeps no record of where it dumps any of its consoles outside of the continental United States.

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In addition, mention could once again be made of the coltan mining in the DRC, which also has devastating environmental effects. These include pollution of the local waterways, deforestation and a direct confrontation of human populations with endangered species such as the lowland gorilla and the bush elephant. (Watch this informative slide show by Levin 2008.)

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Videogame art

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It was Oscar Wilde who wrote:

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium…

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style….

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless. (Preface to ‘The Picture of Drian Gray,’ 1890)

Times have changed since the late nineteenth century. But let us take the position of the devil’s advocate for a moment and defend Wilde’s position while discussing GameArt.

From this point of view, when anything – including a videogame – becomes the medium for artistic expression, two important things happen. One, from the aesthetic point of view, ethical questions must be suspended. Art, for Men of Letters like Oscar Wilde, has a touch of the sacred about it, deserving reverence and humble admiration. This would be a standard condition for art, and one that strikingly clashes with our everyday experience of contemporary art in the 21st century. Our art is frequently of a protest or political nature, “vulgar” in the general sense. For Wilde, ethical concerns need to be put to one side in order for the appreciation of art to be possible. For Wilde, the purpose of art is beauty, not socio-political commentary.

Is the change in our expectations for art since the time of Oscar Wilde a sign of the profanisation of culture in general?

 

'RC Racer' by RetroYou (2000)

Two, for it to be properly artistic in a pure sense, videogame art needs to be beautiful, but in a way that transcends utility. By this, I think “beautiful games” would need to have something more than just really good graphics; they would need to impress us with more than an immersive verisimilitude. Instead of providing a useful place to train troops or play with your friends, GameArt needs to show new possibilities of virtual space. For a start, mention could be made of RetroYou’s R/C Racer (2000) which took the original computer game and, by hacking the code and modifying it, turned the standard racing game into a surreal and beautiful exploration of impossible virtual worlds.

'Desert 2' (Chatonsky 2010)

This line of exploration continues today, for example, in the work of Grégory Chatonsky who modifies game engines to produce alternate virtual worlds that encourage exploration. Instead of being pragmatic or dogmatic, art must be innovative and clever, titillating – even witty. It should be a tasteful détournement that elides any promotion of video games as a commodity. Art galleries are not game arcades. That, Wilde might say, would be tacky. GameArt should be more than just useful publicity for the ever-expanding machinations of global Empire.

This second argument: is it more compelling than the first? If museums and art centres begin to exhibit videogames as art – relying on the philosophies of Huizinga or Agamben – will this bring even further profanisation of this sacred space? Will the hallowed halls of the museum become a kitsch market for the sale of the latest trends in ludic technoware?

The answer, I guess, depends on which pieces you choose to exhibit.

There is, on the one hand, an interesting group of GameArt works that explicitly address the issues brought up by using videogame technology for art. There are also, on the other hand, just as many (if not more) GameArt works that do not. The kind that are sanctioned by an exhibition or gallery space will determine the tone in which the technology is presented to the public.

One sub-genre of GameArt that stands out is machinima: virtual videogame environments are used to stage short animation films. These pieces satisfy Wilde’s requirement of clever reflexivity and wit, but they are far less political in nature. Pau Waelder, art historian, curator and contributor for the UOC, wrote an excellent introduction to the subject. (Although the text is only in Spanish, I strongly recommend all my readers explore the links he has so laboriously put together.)

In machinima

videogames are used as the basis in various artists’ work. Understood as art (according to the parameters established by galleries, museums and critics), the videogame usually becomes a reflection on digital culture. It is subject to a series of deconstructions whose objective is to question the very logic of the game itself (often in detriment to the game’s playability) or they are “elevated to the category of art” in a manner similar to Pop Art’s use of the products of mass consumer culture… [A]rtists usually choose to transform or subvert the game’s rules in such a way that the resulting film questions the game itself or it uses the virtual scenario to stage a fictional story that substitutes the autoreferentiality of the videogame for that of the art world. (Waelder 2011, my translation)

We get a strong sense of nihilism and despair in machinima work like Flames (1997) by Miltos Manetas, where the player refuses the imposed game objective and subverts its dynamic from the inside. The result is a fragile and haunting dance unto death.

Or in Portal: The Day in the Life of a Turret (Smooth Few Films 2008), the meaning of virtual existence is humorously explored by dramatizing the lives of two devices in the virtual world (gun turrets) that are normally passed over without notice during game play. The skit ends with the turrets asking what their purpose is in virtual life as they plunge to their deaths; but this amusingly reflects back on the spectator who must inevitably ask him or herself: “what is the purpose of playing this game at all?”


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Other GameArt works are even more explicitly critical and political in nature. They also subvert the game’s intended purpose and dynamic, but with less aesthetic goals in mind. Take, for example, three GameArt projects that protest the explicit connections of videogames with the military. (It is here that I most regret not having had the time to go into this more fully.) Immensely popular games like Counter-Strike (the world’s most popular online military simulation game) or America’s Army (sponsored by the American military) are tactical, first-person shooter games that combine the thrill of military combat with the latest in online multi-player game technology. When video gaming is one step away from recruiting, its popularity speaks of an expanding “military technoculture” that intentionally encourages “gamer subjectivities” that it will later exploit to its own ends.

Screenshot of 'Dead In Iraq' as another player urges the artist to shut up

In his piece Dead In Iraq (2006-present), virtual artist and activist Joseph DeLappe protests the military action in that country. He uses his play time in America’s Army to type the names of American soldiers that have died in the conflict into the dialogue box, communicating them to all the other players, rather than actually playing the game itself. The list of names grows and the “dead-in-iraq” character soliloquizes them in mid battle field. For other players, his motionless avatar is an obstacle and a nuisance, obstructing game play and rousing angry responses – but this is precisely the point. It’s less about sacred art and more about passive resistance.

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Velvet Strike

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Anne-Marie Schliener has invented Velvet-Strike: a modification of Counter-Strike that lets you download virtual spray paint cans that leave anti-war messages on the walls, floors and ceilings of the game environment. “Our mission is to seek out those who would attempt to propagate the vile seeds of strife and division upon the burgeoning fields of online entertainment,” says Schliener (King 2002).

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'What it is without the hand that wields it' (Harmon 2008)

Riley Harmon also modifies Counter-Strike, but his piece What it is without the hand that wields it (2008) takes the protest directly into the exhibition hall. Kills that take place in the online game are translated into streams of synthetic blood that run down the wall in the gallery: a game server keeps track of online occurrences in real time which become disturbing physical stains of protest before the spectators’ eyes.

Playware at LABoral 2007-8

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There could be no more of a marked contrast to this grim tone than the playful – even lighthearted – ambience that surrounded LABoral’s Playware exhibition (2007-8). According to the curator, Carl Goodman, “the desire to create an engaging (and yes, fun) experience” led them to show two kinds of works. One group were “multiplayer interactive art installations” with play as a major feature (which we won’t deal with here) and “art game software made for everyday computers and gaming systems that differ from their more commercial siblings in their use of abstract, whimsical, or surreal animated environments” (Goodman 2007). In other words: beautiful games. And without a protest slogan in sight.

In other words, LABoral opted to exclude these political variations of GameArt in favor of what we might call a more Wildean aesthetic sensibility. And perhaps with good reason. Gather enough of the protest games together and it might be hard to tell the difference between the exhibition and a political rally.

Nonetheless, when we look at the pieces actually chosen to fill the gallery space, the beautiful veneer of the works fades quickly before a more critical – and more political – gaze.

Armadillo Run (Peter Stock)

'Trance.' A Line Rider video by Namtlade

Independent and low-budget games were of the most interest to me, as they demonstrated a greater level of ingenuity. Armadillo Run by Peter Stock, for example, is a clever physics game based in trial and error, where virtual play is combined with real-world design constraints. The player learns about physics in a fun way. Or Line Rider by Boštjan Cadež where the player is more of an etch-a-sketch architect, designing landscapes with black lines on a white background that become the track upon which a small figure will ride his sled. Once set in motion, the mini worlds create an extended sense of space and visual narrative as the little figure passes through them.

This meager offering, however, was dwarfed by a far greater representation of the major video game console manufacturers. Below I will quickly list and describe the games of major corporations that were promoted at LABoral’s Playware. I will leave their aesthetic evaluation to my reader.

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Electroplankton (Toshio Iwai 2005). By selecting and guiding the plankton using the DS’s touchscreen and microphone, the player creates, alters, and layers a pleasing variety of shifting electronic musical patterns. Nintendo DS

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flOw (that game company 2007). Flow theory describes a state people are thought to achieve when skill set and challenge are perfectly matched. flOw seeks to bring players to this state. Sony PlayStation 3

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LocoRoco (Sony Computer Entertainment 2007). Players navigate worlds not by moving the game’s characters but by shifting the landscape to roll the little blobs along. Sony PlayStation Portable

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Neon (Jeff Minter 2006). Interactive audio visualization software that is embedded in every Xbox 360 game console. Microsoft XBox 360

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Okami (Clover Studios 2006). The game utilizes cel-shaded animation, a nonphotorealistic rendering technique designed to make computer graphics look hand-drawn. PlayStation 2

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Rez (United Game Artists 2002). Drawing inspiration from Kandinsky’s theories on the synesthetic associations between colors and sounds, as the player zaps offending computer viruses, beats and rhythms emerge based on the gameplay. PlayStation 2

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vib-ribbon (NanaOn-Sha 1999). The visual imagery is simple two-dimensional, black-and-white line drawings, drawing attention to the music that drives the action and determines the game terrain. Sony PlayStation

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In their accompanying two-day symposium on “how play has evolved in our digital times” (Homo Ludens Ludens 2008), LABoral invited only one token lecturer to speak about the adverse side of the videogame culture – a culture that, they argued, is a “necessity for our contemporary societies.” (Julien Dibbel spoke on ludocapitalism April 19, 16:20, 2007.)

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Behind Dyer-Witheford’s discussion of video games is his critique of Empire: the world as world market, dominated by corporate giants. The term comes from the work of the same name by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000).

Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. (Hardt and Negri 2000)

This is the most menacing aspect of Empire: it has no outside. Both laterally, across the surface of the globe, as well as vertically, throughout the strata of society, everything comes to be defined in terms of the production of capital (i.e. the almighty dollar).

[T]he rule of Empire operates on all registers of the social world. Empire not only manages a territory and a population but also creates the very world it inhabits. It not only regulates human interactions but also seeks directly to rule over human nature. The object of its rule is social life in its entirety, and thus Empire presents the paradigmatic form of biopower. (Hardt and Negri 2000)

Already in his early work, Cyber-Marx (1999), Dyer-Witheford takes the assertion that Empire “creates the world it inhabits” to mean that the progressive march of capitalist production has immersed us in a network of advanced communication technologies upon which we are becoming increasingly dependent.

Whoever today says ‘capital’ says ‘globalisation.’ For nothing has been more

“central to the current restructuring of corporate power than nomadic range of manoeuvre, deterritorialisation from old centres, systematic subversion of national sovereignty, and planetary political planning. And whoever today says ‘globalisation’ says also ‘communication,’ for the emergence of this new world order would be unthinkable without the telecommunications and computer networks that now form the electronic pathways for the circulation of money, commodities and power” (Dyer-Witherford 1999).

This Empire with no outside of itself is so all-encompassing that it even incorporates the movements that oppose it. In an appreciation of the dialectic worthy of Marx himself, Dyer-Witheford acknowledges that telecommunications technologies have not only empowered transnational corporations but they have also allowed for the organisation of numerous international resistance movements. He calls this “the other globalisation.” Anti-globalisation protesters, for example, can only become informed of the crimes they protest or coordinate their marches thanks to ICTs. Things have changed since the 1960s.

In an earlier era, prospects of breaking through the net of the world market were often thought to lie in the piecemeal withdrawal or disassociation of liberated zones, which would succeed first in peripheral zones, and gradually surround and destabilise the capitalist centre… [But] such concepts become increasingly problematic. At the very least, it is paradoxically apparent that any localised delinking can only succeed as a moment in a series of highly linked, mutually supportive regional and transnational projects of withdrawal. (Dyer-Witheford 1999)

Resistance seems to have no choice but to mount its opposition from within. “Through circulation the multitude reappropriates space and constitutes itself as an active subject.”(Dyer-Witheford 1999)

In other words, in Marxian fashion (turning Hegel on his head), the opposition of thesis (Empire) and its antithesis (resistance networks) is overcome (sublation, Aufhebung) through the technological struggles of materialist history. A new spirit can only arise from within Empire’s own central-nervous system: the fiber-optic cables of the world’s telecommunications networks.

So how are we to act? Here, our authors are less clear on the matter. (It is not an easy question, to be sure.)

How can the actions of the multitude organize and concentrate its energies against the repression and incessant territorial segmentations of Empire? The only response that we can give to these questions is that the action of the multitude becomes political primarily when it begins to confront directly and with an adequate consciousness the central repressive operations of Empire. It is a matter of recognizing and engaging the imperial initiatives and not allowing them continually to reestablish order… (Hardt and Negri 2000)

As my reader can see, we have gone from a discussion of games and art exhibitions to full-blown global political revolution! This is what might happen whenever we examine any subject matter through the lens of what could be called political subjectivity. Yet there are other modes of subjectivity – such as aesthetic contemplation – that, from our viewpoint, must also be considered.

LABoral main entrance (photo by Marcos Morilla)

Is it possible to find a synthesis between these two perspectives without negating one by the other? Can one admire art produced by the machinations of Empire (i.e. games produced by Microsoft or Nintendo) while also maintaining an “adequate consciousness” of their moral offenses (human rights issues)? Could an art critic and an activist occupy the same Playware space? Or would the critic end up hushing the protester, appealing to the sacredness of the art experience with edicts such as: “this is neither the time nor the place” ?

Is LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial an “imperial initiative?” Or do we need to push back the tides of profanisation and safeguard the distanced aesthetic attitude that reigns in its sacred and sovereign exhibition space? Does the Agamben experiment with the gallery produce “conditions for the interaction” of new ways of living and organising or is it just another advertising campaign?

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I thank my reader most wholeheartedly for having reached THE END of this essay.

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