Tag Archives: play

“I worry about reaching outside the camera frame”

Robby Rackleff makes video performances around fantasy gaming scenarios or everyday situations, sometimes both at once, and he plays all of the characters; some characters are more powerful than others, some characters do violence (physical or psychological) to the others, but all of them are played with a faint sadness. I wanted to talk to him about it. “When did you first turn the camera on yourself?” I asked him. “Had you worked with other actors before that? Or do you ever?”

“I think it was in the fall of 2007,” Robby said. “I got to the Mount Royal MFA program at MICA and had a rough start. I was doing a lot of drawing and collage that wasn’t really going anywhere and I decided that it would be a good idea to learn something new. Video was the obvious choice for me since a lot of the artists that I was around before MICA were going in that direction and turning out some great work. I started taping myself for a couple reasons. The first was that I was just trying to get the ball rolling and the idea of trying to schedule a bunch of other people to conform around each others’ free time to make a more complicated piece was too much of a hassle. The other thing was that I was still incredibly nervous performing around other people.”

He paused. “In other words I was impatient and shy and over time I just got used to working that way.”

“I have a feeling that for male artists, turning the camera on oneself is generally a gesture of self-abasement or self-deprecation,” I said. “It makes a kind of loser aesthetics. Does that sound like something you’re interested in?”

“Absolutely,” Robby said. “I am a huge loser.”

“OK,” I said. This made me feel kind of awkward… It was, I suppose, exactly what I wanted to hear, but the way he put it in those blunt terms made me feel bad for asking. Anyway, I kept going, turning it to the specifics of his work. “What interests me about your work in particular among loser videos is the theme of gaming subcultures and how you connect the figure of the gaming nerd to guys in offices, at Subway, or in other everyday situations. What does the gamer mean to you?”

“One set of my videos represents the fantasy, the world of supernatural science fiction,” Robby said “That’s Dark Fortress Occult Master of Space. That’s the adolescent fantasy of comic books and video games. The videos where I dress up in a button up, tie, and slacks are more a stylization of what I perceive to be adult reality: vague and oppressive visits to doctors, awkward forced reunions… They’re both fantasy of course. The fantasy of adult behavior is for me just as unrealistic as super heroes and space travel. That’s something I struggle with psychologically. I’m still playing video games and reading sci-fi comics, but I spend more time wondering about whether or not I should get an Amtrak credit card or buy a new suit than I do wishing I could summon lightning.”

He continued: “There was that article a year or two ago in the New York Times about people my age (early thirties) who are taking their sweet time to grow up… Another way of putting it is ‘redefining adulthood.’ I am absolutely stuck in that situation, but from my perspective I have trouble seeing it as positive or constructive. It feels like the by-product of political and economic largesse and going through puberty during the 90s when America was the unmatched world power. I had so many people telling me to follow my dreams and I did and it got me to the point where I am an adjunct college teacher with no job security and I deliver cakes on the weekends to make ends meet. I don’t blame anyone but myself.

“In this new reality, it’s impossible not to daydream about the world of something like Mad Men or The West Wing in the same way I once idolized Batman and the X-Men. Making videos that mimic these daydreams is really just catharsis. I can spend a long bus ride to work thinking about how great my breast pocket is for storing my MTA day pass and then turn that into Interview. It’s just a way of objectifying wandering adult thoughts.

“There is no one figure of the gamer because there are so many variations. There are those who play for sport, those who play for the social experience of co-operative gaming, those who are just casually gaming on the way to work… It’s like asking what the figure of the reader is. I can tell you this: I’m not personally drawn to the multi-player arena games like Call of Duty or to the more organized team-based games like World of Warcraft. I still respond best to the single-player video games. Part of that connection is based in the fact that single-player games are usually the ones that set technical benchmarks and create milestones for what games are expected to be… Think of Doom, Final Fantasy VII, Half Life, Resident Evil 4, Crysis, Skyrim… These all contributed to the advancement of what I think of as the soul of the gaming technology and its maturation as a medium. There are, of course milestones created by multi-player games—Mortal Kombat, Ultima Online, Second Life, etc.—but when gamers harp on video games as an art form, they usually point out a single player game like Shadow of the Colossus over World of Warcraft.

“This is a long way of explaining how I view myself as a gamer. I was 12 when Doom came out and I was 31 when Skyrim did. Part of me likes to think that the maturation of games paralleled my own rise to adulthood. Most likely, however, we (me and the games) are still stuck in a cycle of adolescent fantasy and coming up with images and situations that somehow validate that.

“I also wonder if you see the characters in your videos as avatars, or characters in games,” I said. “Or are they roles in the more traditional sense of theater? Do you even see any distinction between those two?”

“I see gameplay as more of a performance,” he replied. “I have a real knack for suspension of disbelief and I try and use it to the fullest when I’m playing a game. I try and play games as if I (as in the ‘I’ who is writing this) am in whatever fantastic situation the game sets up for me. In a game like Fallout 3 where you create a character and then make decisions that affect the story and place you somewhere on the good/evil spectrum, I always ask myself what I would actually do given the circumstances. I would like to point out again that I play only single-player games and so the performance of trying to squeeze my own conscience and politics into these rigid game rules is really done for no one else but myself.

“The end result is that I start to have these really intense feelings toward the action of playing a game that requires my decisions beyond where to jump or where to point a rifle. I like to think that the level of emotional involvement I have with my favorite games goes beyond nostalgia, competition, or irony. The characters and situations in videos like Dark Fortress and Guild are tools for communicating that involvement.

“Where do you get ideas for facial expressions and gestures?” I asked him. “Are there certain comedians/actors/cartoons you draw on?”

“When I was a young teenager I was overweight and I spent a lot of time in front of my bathroom mirror trying to make faces and poses that hid that fact,” Robby said. “If Facebook had existed in the early 90s there would probably be a very interesting historical record to back this up. Point is that I did a lot of weird stuff in front of that mirror and got into the habit of having these sessions with myself that, I am embarrassed to say, continue to this day.”

I tried to imagine him at the mirror, grimacing and frowning and looking surprised, but when I did I kept seeing him in one of his videos. That is, I could only picture him on a screen—not in a bathroom. I thought about myself in the bathroom, trying to make a selfie, but my actions in front of the mirror were more about getting the right angle and light than what was on my face. Meanwhile, Robby kept answering. “Those expressions and gestures are limited by the border of the mirror, however, and similarly they’re limited by the frame of my dinky camera (and the monitor that faces me when I’m shooting myself). I’m a big guy and so I worry about reaching outside the camera frame, over the edge of the small green screen I set up in my tiny living room… and that makes my movements tense and (somewhat accidentally) a little subtle. I think my favorite gesture I’ve come up with so far is in the video Interview when I tap my breast pocket. I basically have all my fingers spread except my middle finger is crossed over my pointer finger. Something about the way I hold my hand in that video has an effect on people watching it and I don’t have any constructive perspective on why that is…

“Whenever I watch Spalding Gray movies or videos I feel SO intense. His presence is like that of a superhuman. I am entranced by every gesture he makes and every time he stumbles over a line or stutters. The level of control he appears to exert in all these subtle half-seconds is spellbinding and he is probably the single most influential performer on my work.”

I don’t know who Spalding Gray is… something to look into. “Thanks for these great answers!” I said. That was all.

What Is Art 2

I don’t think games are art. I don’t think games can be art. This isn’t because I think one is “good” and one is “bad,” that one is “high” and one is “low,” or one is “elite” and the other is “popular,” etc. I really don’t care about those binaries. What I do care about is how games and art operate as social objects. I’m interested in how people engage with them, how people incorporate them in their life. And the ways in which this happens for games and for art are very different—and I don’t think it’s useful or interesting to lump them together under more general rubrics like culture or play. Understanding the distinctions between them is also important because it produces a vocabulary for discussing the special instances when a game has the properties of a work of art, or an artwork has properties of play.

Games have rules. Games are rules—the rules are what gives them form. Gameplay is what happens within the rules’ structure. A game can be repeated limitlessly, and each iteration of play is unique.

There are rules in art too, after a fashion, but they are rules in a broader sense: the rules of how perception is organized, the rules of how relationships are formed and recognized, rules that are more like the ones in grammar than the ones in a game. What makes art special as a social object is that art points to a set of rules and also to how they might be broken, to what lies beyond the domain of those rules. Art is special because it reveals many possibilities of meaning, which it does by simultaneously revealing rules and revealing how things could be otherwise, whether those rules pertain to the relationship between church and state (i.e., Pussy Riot) or to the relationship of lines to a plane (i.e., Agnes Martin).

Works of fiction that follow a set of rules are classified as genre fiction—mysteries, romance novels, thrillers. Paintings that follow a set of rules hang in hotels. Working with the genres and mediums of art while adhering to formal rules produces entertainment and/or decoration. Again, this is not a dis—it’s a distinction! People need entertainment and decoration as much as (or more than) they need art. I just want recognize the differences of those needs.

I suspect that a lot of the guys who insist that games are art (for the purpose of defending them against charges of sexism or making them seem Important or whatever) are the kind of people who think that The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings are art, when in fact those are entertainment. They’re good entertainment, because they push against the conventions of their genre (The Matrix) or invent the genre (The Lord of the Rings, though this is an invention that depends on the rules of folklore’s archetypes), but these pushes remind the audience that the rules are there and their presence gives comfort and satisfaction.

Perhaps the main distinction between a game and a work of art is in the uniqueness (or variability) of form, and how that limits (or enables) audience engagement. A game is unique in each of its iterations, whereas the artwork is unique in its creation. If not physically unique—if it is a poem or a novel or a video or a photograph that can be reproduced—it has a limited form that generates the experience of the audience’s encounter with it. A game’s rules generate the form of an iteration, and that form is unique.

When John Cage introduced elements of chance to music and ceded some of the composer’s decisions to performers, he injected properties of the game into the composition and performance of music—he made something that had certain rules that would be unique with each iteration (to a greater extent than that to which any musical score is unique each time it is played). But by retaining the framework of the audience, the composer, and performer Cage remained within the realm of art. His artistic gesture was to indicate the rules of the artist’s control over the artwork while also indicating how it could be otherwise.

Jason Rohrer is a game designer whose games include Chain World, a modification to Minecraft that can only be played by one person at a time, and which upon completion must be passed along to another player who is willing to accept the rules, and A Game for Someone, a board game constructed from titanium and buried in a desert in Nevada that (Rohrer hopes) will only be found and played hundreds or thousands of years in the future. These games are about limiting how, when, and by whom the game can be played—Rohrer is making games but he’s imposing limitations on them that are close to the limitations inherent to the work of art. A game can played by anyone who knows the rules, and by concealing the game and the rules Rohrer indicates this truth while also indicating how it could be otherwise. As a result, these works of Rohrer circulate primarily as stories or legends among people who haven’t actually played them—and this reminds me of the performance pieces Tino Sehgal, which aren’t documented and are passed to performers verbally, without written instructions.

I admit that I don’t know a lot about the world of indie game design but from the outside it seems like more and more designers are trying to expand the idea of what a game can be in the way Cage tried to expand the idea of what art can be. Games and art fit in certain social context (i.e., the home and the museum, respectively, to name two) and so the areas that are ripe for crossover between them—the places where art can be the most like games—are performance and net art, where artist/game designers can work with the modes of bodily contact or network contact that have been used in both games and art. It will be interesting to see how these new works negotiate between the satisfaction with order that comes with gameplay and the fascination with the mysteries of meaning inherent to the experience of art.