Yes! Issue four of The Arcade Review is finally out and it’s a beaut. Thanks to generous support from Patreon subscribers and individual buyers, the magazine has reached the completion of its first year, and I’m proud to say my work appears in two of the quarterly volumes. In the second issue, I wrote about the fascinating and productive community surrounding RPGMaker horror titles, and in the current issue I review another title that uses the framework RPGMaker offers in unconventional and fascinating ways.
Gingiva is a spiritual successor to John Clowder’s first game, Middens, which Owen Vince wrote about in the first issue of The Arcade Review. While he examines how Middens defamiliarizes familiar tropes and mechanics of games, my analysis of Gingiva focuses on intersections of themes of gender and capitalism throughout the work, demonstrating how these games are fantastic at opening themselves to rich and varied interpretations.
Gingiva and Middens are very different games, narratively and mechanically speaking, and Clowder’s forthcoming project, Where They Cremate the Roadkill (which is still seeking funding for a few interesting stretch goals) seems equally mysterious, but a distinct visual aesthetic ties them all together. Before creating games, Clowder worked in digital collage, and his own perspective on his work shows that creating games is very much related to his collage practice. For the raw material, he draws from sources in the public domain, often old books and other printed materials digitized for the Creative Commons.
The visual style of these games, made in a prefab engine with a highly collaborative community, hearkens back to the earliest incarnations of the mass media we know today, the printing press, situating a contemporary videogame among the previous technological forms of the collage medium. Collage has always had an intimate connection with technological development. The first collages incorporated printed newspapers and other material from daily life, and the work of Dada artist Hannah Höch was given its edged, satirical approach to issues of gender and politics due to the accessibility of photos of political figures and advertisements as printing technology improved. The library Xerox machine made gathering and reproducing images, as well as disseminating the results easier and more accessible, enabling zines as a popular form of collage expression, and allowing for more experimentation and flexibility in using the images. And of course, free image editing programs and a worldwide network with infinite image data available to copy and alter we now have in the 21st century has made the concept of collage even more relevant to contemporary art and design.
Videogames are also intimately tied to the development of technology, and inherently chimeric creatures. Especially in independent games, where a single creator or small team has to cover the bases of visual design, sound design, writing, programming, and so on, drawing on pre-existing resources is a frequent necessity, and the community surrounding the RPGMaker program is one of the biggest examples of this. Like the printing technology and Xerox machines before, programs like RPGMaker democratize creative expression by making collage techniques more accessible and situating them in new formats. In this case, Clowder’s work demonstrates that videogames can be a logical extension of collage practices, and they aren’t always necessarily best served through theoretical perspectives frequently used to situate games in relation to other arts practices, like New Media or Moving Image.
Locating the lineage of videogames within the arts can be tricky, and there’s no one easy answer, in a medium that encompasses everything from Pong to Metal Gear Solid 3 to Animal Crossing, to Gingiva. There’s also a troubling onus on scholars writing about games to take a particular position, as if there’s one approach to analysis (usually one side of a binary, opposed pair), that is best suited to all games. But, if we want to talk about games as art, criticize them with the same rich toolbox that years of arts criticism and research has given us, these kind of oppositions and ultimatums, which often seem to manifest in increasingly byzantine theoretical essays, don’t help. I found that I could equally discuss Gingiva from the social perspectives on gender, capitalism, and alienated labor, as I could discuss it in the historical context of collage practices. Of course, for the article in The Arcade Review I had to pick one perspective, and it was tough. I went with the former because Gingiva’s journey resonated with me both emotionally and intellectually, but the imagery surrounding her voyage is also alternately beautiful and unsettling, and deeply meaningful. The visuals in Clowder’s games aren’t just stunning, but they’re a statement about videogames as an arts practice.
Collage, theatre, performance art, cinema, interaction and embodiment. In the span of the year I’ve written about games I have read articles considering games from all of these art world perspectives, and any initial surprise was soon replaced with appreciation for how appropriate these perspectives were. It’s what convinced me that videogames were worth talking about in this way, and that they’re worthwhile to contextualize in arts and culture institutions. The variety of practices appearing in the medium of videogames has become staggering, especially in light of the increasing democratization of tools and resources allowing individuals and small teams to make games in addition to the traditional studio model, and it will take perspectives from a variety of disciplines, especially outside of standard cinematic narratives of the Moving Image, or goal-oriented game design to be able to account for and articulate what is interesting and relevant about these developments.
I’m glad for spaces like The Arcade Review which embrace this reality of the broad medium of videogames. I’m also glad that I have a space to elaborate when I have more thoughts about a game than I can fit into a brief review, but most of all the fact that such games can be increasingly made by individuals from varied backgrounds is the most exciting.