The year is 2072. The world is a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Entire cities are in shambles from tactical nukes. Seven giant mega-corporations rein over powerless governments, and technology has advanced the internet to a vast 3-D matrix. Meanwhile, DNA mutations are sprinkling populations with magic-wielding “metahumans.” This is the world of Shadowrun, a role-playing game where cyberpunk and magic intersect. Shadowrun is described in its introductory materials as “part improvisational theater, part storytelling, and part game.” An all-knowing gamemaster’s narrative leads participants through dangerous missions, and player responses, character statistics and dice rolling determine the outcome.
Every Tuesday, my husband John Wilson, along with fellow shadowrunners Brendan Smith, Kate Janssens, and James D’Amato, sport their alter egos and embark on quests led by gamemaster—and Janssens’ husband—Michael Bessette. Shadowrunners by definition live on the outskirts of society. The group steals, kills, destroys and abducts, all without leaving the comforts of Bessette and Jannsen’s oversized, antique dining room table. “Some games go on for years, with the same group of people, with the same characters,” says Bessette, “It’s like having a show on Broadway that lasts for a decade.”
My husband’s other-worldly immersion flirts with a timeless conundrum, made timely by vast online counterparts like Shadowrun Online and World of Warcraft—why, as adults, do we still love to play? Why do we light up at the suggestion of poker, or build elaborate lives in virtual worlds?
Naturally games and role-play have nostalgic value, transporting us back to our childhoods, but such transportation may also send us journeying into our creative instincts. Many artists, particularly in the midcentury, have embraced play and games as a means of art production. Surrealists played improvisational language games and collaborative drawing games like Cadavre exquis, or “Exquisite Corpse,” favoring chance and experimentation in their practice. Thus the connection of play to aesthetics and art production has instated it as an important platform for artistic and cultural discourse.
Patrick Lichty is a Chicago artist, ad-exec, activist, and professor of new media at Columbia College. Like Bessette’s Shadowrunners, he has an alter ego. His name is Man Michinaga, and he’s a performance artist, but not in the real world. He operates within the vast online virtual world of Second Life. Second Life, which Lichty calls “the world’s most overblown 3D chatroom,” is an online environment in which users, called “residents,” can socialize, work, and engage in various activities through customizable avatars. Second Life even contains relatively user-friendly virtual modeling and animation tools to create interactive props and scenery and offers the ability to import characters and codes from other programs.
Though Second Life incites play activity, Lichty does not consider it a game and distinguishes it from more combat-driven fantasy online worlds like World of Warcraft, where players enter as archetypes–elven, mages, dwarves–rather than themselves. “If you’re in a game that creates personae, people tend to take on that persona and wear it like a mask, and that creates different sets of behaviors,” says Lichty, “In online worlds like Second Life, you’re much more consistent with your own personality and much more likely to make expressions of your internal self-image, rather than having an image imposed on you by the framing mechanism of the game world.” Lichty also notes that although computer and video game engines have set worlds and goals, Second Life is an open-ended platform, leaving participants to write their own story.
Lichty was drawn to Second Life for its potential for machinima, or the use of game engines or virtual worlds to create cinema. Through machinima, Lichty could create animated scenes more quickly and efficiently than when using more traditional 3D animation computer programs. The technique was especially useful in Lichty’s involvement creating animated presentations for activist group The Yes Men, who pose as spokesmen of large corporations and give elaborate presentations at corporate conferences to expose capitalist corruption. “Mike and Andy [of The Yes Men] might call me up and say ‘hey we need a five-minute video in 10 days,’” explains Lichty, “ I thought, ‘Hey maybe I can use Second Life with a quicker turnaround than 3D Studio Max or Maya.’”
Lichty has since cofounded the performance group Second Front, who, influenced by neo-Dada performance pioneers Alan Kaprow and Al Hansen, have rehearsed and performed over 50 scripted Fluxus-style happenings within the Second Life universe. They often utilize devices like fire and character deformity normally used by “griefers,” or those who purposely cause social disruptions within Second Life communities. In Second Supper, vampirish and fantastical avatars recreated the esteemed Da Vinci composition. The characters partook in a gluttonous meal, complete with giant turkeys and birthday cakes and soon all began to projectile vomit blood–I’m too easily reminded of the nauseating restaurant scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. In Spawn of the Surreal, the group performed a series of Dada-esque happenings, made all the more unpredictable and absurd–pizzas raining from the sky, elastic-limbed people, and buildings collapsing–because of the endless possibilities within a virtual realm. “We’ve really established a name for ourselves,” says Lichty, “We’re sort of chaotic and non-sequitorial, and people have come to accept and enjoy it.” The group sends out invitations to the live performance events, which can be accessed by logging into Second Life and entering the group’s region as one enters a chat room.
Second Front even performs virtual protests and activism with their avatars. One of their more recent endeavors was a streaming event for Low Lives Occupy called The Devil Wears Second Front. In the performance, the avatars worshipped a golden calf then acted as sweatshop workers for a Prada store front. The event was around the anniversary of the infamous Triangle shirtwaist factory fire in New York which killed 146 workers, mostly immigrant women. In response, the The Devil Wears Second Front performers too suffered through a factory fire.
Lichty is also a member of the Super Art League, which uses the DC Online Universe–an online superhero-based virtual world– to place superhero avatars in humorous or culture-critical situations. Rather than the usual clobbering and machismo, Super Art League’s heroes picket, read, and discuss. They’ve formed a superhero reading group in the Gotham City Police Department. “We protested at Metropolis Bank during Occupy Day,” Lichty recalls of one of the group’s virtual performances. “We try to question the intentionality of the game environment or virtual world and say, ‘How can we test the technical and social boundaries?’”
Despite his use of avatars in his practice, Lichty says, “I don’t role-play. Period.” He adopts a more detached method than most conventional Second Life and DC Online Universe players, focusing on the avatar as a medium, not a mask. “I’ve been doing virtual reality since 1996, and I have been interested in what happens to performance art when you take the body out of it,” he explains. Originally inspired by Marina Abramovic’ Seven Easy Pieces in which Abramovic executed classic performance art pieces out of context at the Guggenheim, Lichty’s friends Eva and Franco Mattes “took performance out of the physical context” by doing “synthetic performances” in Second Life. “Second Front expanded on this by wondering what specific properties there were to virtual performance that weren’t possible in the physical,” explains Lichty, “We also saw that as of 2006, there were 35,000 people on at any one time, many of them very connected, and we saw that as a prime opportunity for a relatively captive audience.”
Lichty and his cohorts are not alone in their efforts. Virtual worlds are becoming a recognized vehicle of new media art movements and cultural criticism. Some create works specifically for and within the virtual environment. Others curate visual art shows utilizing what Lichty calls “transmediation,” attempting to reproduce “real” art pieces for view in the virtual world. Both are difficult to display as art in a “real world” gallery context, but Lichty has found ways to offer tangible artifacts of his online endeavors. He records his happenings and edits them into videos, often adding music and captions. He also sometimes creates derivative works of the scenes like digital prints, oil paintings, digitally-woven tapestries, and soon, thanks to his 3D printer, plastic figurines. “Art is art is art,” says Lichty of these reverse-transmediations.
Does art like this, under the facade of a computer game aesthetic, more easily appeal to a general audience? “Maybe it’s a little sexier,” says Lichty, “I think sometimes people get into it for the novelty of the thing, but I think we’re still as accessible as any performance art,” he laughs.
So what is the difference between play as art and just play, or can we even make the distinction? Are John’s Shadowrun gang artists? Like surrealist language gamers, they exchange improvisational narrative. One might argue that their dialogue, operating within a corporation-run, post-apocalyptic wasteland, offers just as much cultural commentary as games packaged as “art.”
Lichty suggests that critical awareness of a game, its boundaries, and its cultural context may be what sets it apart as an artistic practice. “It’s that self-referentiality,” he says of the distinction, “With straight play, you’re happily accepting the rules. We don’t. We use the rules as a medium. I think art is about challenging preconceptions.”
Patrick Lichty is currently working on the upcoming show The Invisible Projects at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219-21 South Morgan Street, date to be determined. Installment two of the Artists at Play series featuring game artist Jeffrey Daniels will be published on June 4th.