Chungking Espresso

Fluxus Games and Video Game Modification

Posted in Columns, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on September 27, 2008

The Fluxus movement developed out of earlier Dada and Surrealist avant-garde tendencies to take the art world of the 60’s and 70’s by storm. Play featured prominently in the work of these artists, as in the practice of “preparing” or modding traditional game implements to drastically alter game mechanics and thus critique late capitalist cultural assumptions. George Maciunas developed his Ping Pong Rackets (Pearce 81) to make the experience of playing table tennis more unpredictable and fun. These rackets had large holes cut into the middle of them, not completely breaking the game but certainly turning it into something to laugh at more than get worked up over (as in heated ace-ing battles).

This method of turning something completely about skill and winning into something played “just for fun” echoes Bernie de Koven’s well-played game. There are many reasons one might desire to play Maciunas-Pong over a traditional match based on de Koven’s exploration of play. First, there is the desire to continue an enjoyable team activity such as volleying for as long as possible. “Winning” here becomes about working together to see if the team unit can beat a previous best score or just have a good time (de Koven 25). This leads in the end not to volleying as an activity in itself, but as a way for the players to form a “fun community” an learn each other’s body movements and personalities more intimately. All mods constitute for de Koven “changed games” (61), and another reason he might list for favoring Maciunas-Pong is that it introduces a handicap into the game that encourages further play. If one player in a table tennis match has skills greatly surpassing the other, then the game quickly becomes dull. By putting the holes in the rackets, Maciunas has equalized the playing field completely. Other examples of the handicapping affect of
game modification are Saito’s prepared chess boards.

Takako Saito’s Chess works, Smell Chess and Sound Chess
(Pearce 80), turned the already rich intellectual experience of chess into sensory play. Like much avant-garde art, these chess sets critique rationalism taken to an unhealthy extreme; however, the Saito
communicates the critique here in a more direct way: the game cannot be played completely with one’s mind. The need to continually smell or shake the chess pieces to know which piece one is dealing with means that one has a harder time planning the game out multiple steps ahead as expert chess players do, crippling the mind and leading to a more playful experience. The hobby-art tradition continued here in the construction of chess pieces from scratch in order to create a more sensory, personal game carries on into contemporary computer game art such as Pencil-Whipped (80) that “cracks the maze,” turning Doom into a handmade work and a dramatically different sensory experience (Flickinger even re-dubbed the sound effects). Another way that video game art relates to Fluxus lies in the fact that both movements eschew involvement in the capitalist art market and mainstream art gallery installations (although both have been displayed in retrospectives by respectable institutions).

Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set also modifies chess, but to a much more drastic conclusion: when all the chess pieces are white, and all the squares of the board are white, then there is no way to win the game. This constitutes an “unwinnable” game mod. Contemporary examples of unwinnable game mods are the graphics card hacks such as Max-Miptex (Pearce 85) and the Velvet Strike (77) mod of Counter-Strike that turns guns into painting tools. Ono’s White Chess stands conceptually closer to Velvet Strike, because both of these modifications convert a competitive, warlike experience into a peace demonstration. White Chess subverted the violent American impetus of the Vietnam War by making a statement about the nature of mankind: just as all the chess pieces and squares on her board are of the same color, so too are we all humans and inhabitants of the same Earth. De Koven hints that “the well-timed cheat” (de Koven 32) might stand as a way to continue the enjoyment of a game after it has started to feel stale. Game modding seems to be a culturally “well-timed cheat” in that it serves to expand one’s experience of a particular game both temporally and conceptually.

Just as Celia Pearce argues that Marcel Duchamp’s love of chess and game-playing contributed essentially to his artistic career (Pearce 68), Stewart Brand’s tacitly argues in “SpaceWar” that play is an essential part of certain kinds of intellectual endeavors. The development of SpaceWar by “hackers” (less serious, less businesslike, less old programmers) across the country in various AI labs and university computer engineering departments served as a testing ground for the technical skill and concept realization required for more “serious” work. Alan Kay turned this philosophy of play into a work ethic at the XEROX research park, where new recruits to the department would be given extensive periods of time to settle in, play, and explore before being expected to contribute meaningful work over the course of half a year to a year. Playing SpaceWar also seemed to be a good way for computer programmers to meld their bodies and minds to the machines that they were working on. We can see an analogue to this in the present day, where a habit of playing computer games among young boys and girls leads to an organic interest in the programming and control of those computers and games. Just as in the early days of programming one could master computer science “in one year of close attention” (according to Kay), the practice of glitching or modding computer games into game art seems an easy intermediate step between gaming and programming original material. One of the earliest “computer games,” preceding even SpaceWar, was the ARPA’s “Unknown Glitch.” This benign computer virus would periodically make itself known by printing out the message “catch me if you can” and then relocating itself in the labyrinthine series of tubes and wires that composed the earliest mainframes. Carrying on the tradition of Fluxus games, video game mods and glitches clearly seek to critique the dangers of being “too serious” and to develop aesthetic value in unexpected places.

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