Games in art.

From a paper on games in art by Tiffany Holmes from the Digital Arts and Culture::2003 conference in MelbourneDAC 2003 conference in Melbourne, I found a reference to a flash game called Tropical America which discusses themes of exploitation and violence in Central America, focusing around the El Mozote massacre.

I’ve hoped for a while to see more videogames with Latin American thematics and settings (Malvinas 2032 is an interesting start, although it’s sort of Command and Conquer with a grudge), but I’m afraid that I was disappointed by this offering, and it goes a long way to explaining the limitations of the click-and-tell “interactive” narrative vis-à-vis a simulation model.

For one thing, almost all of this “game” is simply clicking on the one hot-spot on every scene. That’s not playing a game, that’s watching TV with a hand crank. And if you compare the story being told here with the complexities and nuances of the actual historical situation, you see just how much is lost by sticking to an “other narratives” approach towards game design with a social/political goal. There was so much material available in the actual historical event that simply gets left out by the somewhat melodramatic narrative: the sociopathic vendetta against the radical radio station, the interplay between El Mozote’s born-again Christian community (strongly anti-Communist and frankly more aligned with the military government than with the guerrillas) and their Roman Catholic neighbors (under the influence of liberation theology, Catholic villages were more likely than Protestant ones to support the guerrilla movement.) I have nothing against melodrama, and it has its valid, as well as suspect, political functions. Melodrama is a central element of the Final Fantasy games and other games that I think highly of, but in those cases it is at least problematized and often vacated by real game logics.

I’m inclined to be suspicious of a game-designer who makes a politically-inclined game without giving me options. The designers of America’s Army make it impossible to play the “terrorists,” nor to look under the hood of terrorist activity in any way. The opponent is always seen as a terrorist, even though they are required to see themselves in the same uniforms and identities as the Army. The hood of the car is weld shut; pay no attention to the man behind the screen.

Though I share the political concerns of the designers of Tropical America, their reluctance to give the player any freedom – or rather, either their technical inability to do so or, more likely, the habit of the stance of the didactic artist who wishes, consciously or unconsciously, to micromanage to emotional and ideological processes of the audience, disappoints me. It’s unplayful, in more ways than one. That’s an idea that could endure in a radical ludology: playfulness. Playfulness unravels somber rhetorics and, I’d argue makes the horror of real horror – the facts of buried bodies, all the more lucid. The open play aspect of good games can generate a Verfremdungseffekt – a distantiation effect – which Brecht considered central to the mobilization of peoples in their own political interest, and which respected their agency. The “click-and-tell” model of interactive narrative doesn’t exhibit the same faith in the viewer. The melodrama-artist is going to tell you where we are going: they only choice you have is how hard you press the accelerator. I very much like the visual aesthetics of the piece, with its Mesoamerican-inspired figures and woodcut aesthetics. There’s a debt, I think, to Eduardo Galeano’s Las Palabras Andantes illustrated with the woodcuts of J. Borges (and the theme of the corn which occurs in both). I also think that the works of Galeano are a perfect springboard for a videogame, with their dissembled logics, their short scenarios, the implicit yet inaccessible arch-structures of history played out over the bodies and lives of the inhabitants of the land and of the cities. When I see a failure of vision wed to such a visual wealth, the feeling of disappointment is sharper.

I just noticed this paper by Andrew Stern which also gives some voice to this kind of dissatisfaction. I suppose I should read the comments to my own blog more!

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