Learn to Play at the Euphrat Museum of Art

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by Julia Bradshaw

Learn to Play is an exhibition assembled by guest curators James Morgan and John Bruneau at the Euphrat Museum of Art at De Anza College, Cupertino. Running from October 4th – November 24th the exhibition had a preview opening on September 17th and 18th in conjunction with ZERO1. Several of the artist and artist teams were present.

This is a small but important exhibition. There is a sub-culture of people involved in designing games who are interested in creating an aesthetic and emotional experience. These are the artists of the game-world, the indie and experimental game makers; usually known to just a small sub-set of people. Putting together a group of games that ‘people-in-the-know’ talk about with a tone of awe must be rather wonderful. So I encourage you to pay attention to this exhibition and become acquainted with some key indie games as artworks.

Attend the exhibition and you are expected to play – or learn to play. Some of it is instinctive, other games some visitors might need a nudge in the right direction. I was told you cannot break anything in the video games, so I encourage you all to have a go. Of the 20 games included in the exhibit about 15 are playable. The nostalgic retro-computer game graphics on the web-site suggest that this is just an exhibition of electronic games. But this impression is wrong, the exhibition includes board and other table-top games. You also have an opportunity to build a game – some people came to mini-workshops at the event and, in one short evening, were guided into building and creating their own computer game. Children would have fun at this exhibition as well.

Curator Bruneau guided this reporter to play Passage by Jason Rohrer. This is a game that he attributes to giving the indie game movement acknowledgment in the US. In participating in the game, you gain a life partner (apparently you can avoid this, I swear she just glommed onto me), come across obstacles (way to many if you ask me) and then progress into old-age – until the inevitable death of one and then both of the characters. In selecting the games in the show, curator Morgan said he was “looking for games that are actually art.” In his view, Passage’s interactive experience is both an aesthetic experience and also a thought-provoking one about the various paths one can take in life.

Joe DeLappe’s paper soldier – a three-dimensional recreation of one of the fallen soldiers from the free-downloadable online recruitment game American Army– is included in the exhibition. When playing the multi-player online game American Army, DeLappe spends his time typing in the names of the fallen American soldiers. This confuses and sometimes angers other participants so inevitably DeLappe’s soldier-character is killed. At that point, DeLappe would then re-enter the game and once again begin his ritual of typing in the names of the dead. DeLappe has created a three-dimensional paper soldier replica of his fallen soldier. This soldier lies on the floor of the museum like a discarded game-piece. Look closely and you will see that the names of many people are written on the paper form. This is DeLappe’s memorial to the Iraqi war. This is a sculptural iteration of the video Dead in Iraq.

The game Train by Brenda Brathwaite is on long-term loan for the exhibition. This is a table-top game and one game that some of the fellow artists talked about in hushed tones. There is only one copy of this game in existence and the game has to be run by someone who understands how it proceeds. As it currently sits in the exhibition space, it is merely an artifact but a visitor can surmise what the game is about – by looking at the train-tracks which sit on a window-pane or by looking at some of the cards. The curators have scheduled the designer to come to the venue and play the game at some point during the exhibition. Contact the museum for more details.

As a non-gamer I liked the subtlety of Flower by Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen. I enjoyed the playful subtlety of this game and the graphics had a very calming effect as I moved the game controller. Apparently you are meant to try and pollinate the flowers in the landscape and the scenery becomes greener – but that is not important. It is fun flying through the landscape regardless. Playing the game is a playful but aesthetic experience.

I spent some time talking to the collaborative team Dave Walker and Jim Babb from the art project Socks Incorporated. This is a game that children will definitely enjoy. Currently on view as a video of the beta version of this game – the team hope to launch this game as a web-based interactive experience by December.

The US/China ping pong game provided energy to the space. During the opening, four visitors recreated the famous US / China ping pong summit of 1972 when the US and Chinese table-tennis teams visited the other’s country. Created by artist Yunan Cao this game requires cooperation and interaction. A video of the famous ping pong summit with President Nixon runs in the corner of the room and the table tennis table has the words Trust and Mistrust graphically imposed in both English and Chinese. Although the game is fun and lively, Cao successfully makes visitors think of our flawed system of international communication. The artwork is inspired by the Cold War of the 1970s when for 20 years there was no official interaction between China and the US. The project is updated by the use of other visuals on the paddles that represent more contemporary international misunderstandings.  As Cao said “The game has to be collaborative, you have to make friends. The images are all symbolic – using images on the bats that irritated either the US or China.”

During the preview exhibition people could come in and create games in small workshop groups. Attend one of the workshops (open today, September 18th) and you will receive free direct tutoring. This will enable you to create a computer game in a short space of time. The stakes are high, as Morgan said, “If you make something worthy of art, we will curate it into the show.” Both curators believe that games have to reach more into the diverse experience. By creating the game challenge and offering workshops they are acknowledging the need to bring more diverse voices to the table.

Game Development for Everybody Workshop with Marek Kapolka &
Kelsey Higham of SJSU GameDev

The City of Cupertino Balance or Bust board game was brought into the exhibit by Jan Rindfleish who is a curator and Executive Director of the Euphrat museum. The game was brought in because it was an excellent example of local community creativity and involvement in games (unusual in government, and this game was actually used), has won an award, and is particularly timely, since California has just hit a record of days gone by without having a budget. This is a board game that encourages you to think how the city is run. A visitor who works in public service looked at the game and declared “I want this game; I want these pieces.” The game, although simple in its creation, strikes a nerve particularly in this current fiscal crisis.

The exhibition has some nice touches. On each of the computers are a set of cool graphics  and other tags around the museum by the artist RIGO to connect the exhibition to nostalgic video games.  The wall mural, which harkens back to old Super-Mario games is by Sean Boyles.  The computers that run the electronic games would have been e-waste had Bruneau not re-purposed them for this exhibition.

The exhibition will also be open on Saturday 18th September before taking a brief hiatus and opening on October 4th. ArtShift San Jose will run an interview with the curators prior to the October 4th opening.

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