Interview/Article by Jonah Brucker-Cohen
In the generic "plastic brick" design world of game console hardware, the passive player is usually subjected to standardized devices that they may choose to augment with their own "case mods". Although extremely creative, most of these modifications are embellishments that have no connection to the games themselves. Exploring this contextual rift between mass-produced consoles and their software counterparts is Brooklyn, NY based artist, Paul Johnson. Johnson creates work that challenges traditional console forms by integrating the goals and virtual landscapes of games into the physical realization of the hardware. His projects examine the inherent conflicts between constructed systems and their emotional proclivity. Gizmodo spoke to Johnson about the future of gaming, interactivity, and why the physical design of consoles should be closer tied to the games that they support.
Interview, images, and video after the jump.
GIZMODO: Your project, "Prisoner", consists of a multi-level configuration of game consoles such that every level represents a different stage of a prisoner's incarceration - from holding cells to interrogation. Why was it important to you to structure the physical manifestation of the gamer's dilemma in a layered fashion and how does this design add to the overall user experience of the game itself?
PJ: The piece is stacked so it is possible to see all game screens simultaneously. Each layer can swivel, but there is nowhere to go but in a circle. Restraint and movement are important to the design of this piece. Prisoners move from room to room, but there is no way out. Since these pieces were running with [Artificial Intelligence] and not responding to manipulation from users, my thoughts about user experience did not include game play. "Prisoner", like many of my game pieces, is a closed, offline network that evolves over time. I don't know if I will always make pieces like this, but this was my thinking for this body of work. My commercial experience as a game developer was so tightly tied to user profiles, performance metrics, etc. that I began to resent "Graphical User Interfaces" or GUIs. For an earlier game system, "RGB", I initially gave more attention to game play. The games were fully playable although they employed hidden network logic. I felt it was disingenuous to invite input without allowing meaningful control, so I pulled it. On the other hand, for a game system to be completely autonomous presents other challenges.
GIZMODO: "Trauma" connects a home simulator game to a battle game in order to provoke contrast between the emotional realities of both locations and the player's gaming goals. What was your inspiration for the piece and why did you choose to build it with this particular hardware configuration?
PJ: I wanted to contrast game genres while still having them part of the same system. In the industry, games like the "Sims" cannot network with games like "Quake", for example. That's too bad because the composite would prove interesting as a social experiment and metaphorically. Likewise, I didn't want to focus too much on a single game world in this piece. By contrasting genres it is possible to emphasize a broader system of relationships. An older piece of mine, "like RGB", linked economic and more traditional game indicators between game worlds. For "Trauma" I wanted the link to be more emotional. Many people will experience world events in a very personal way. I used to walk down Broadway [in NYC] on my way to my studio every day. I would look in store windows and might think, for example, "someone ought to make a tennis shoe with springs in its soles." The next week it would be there. Marketers try to anticipate our desires and thoughts, within limits. Political messaging, even policy, is often orchestrated in a similar manner. It is very easy to go from there and imagine an actual back and forth between details of your life, such as how messy your apartment is, and the war. It is a kind of magical thinking, that gives way to paranoia — but there is something to it.
Going back to my commercial experience, a big factor in the rise of the Internet economy was tied to the ability of advertisers to quantify the effectiveness of their ads. Web surfers can be tracked. Therefore, we know if a campaign is working. That's just the beginning. The more data you have, the more secure the client feels and the more you have to work with in the next iteration. When you are spending a lot of money on interactivity, you want to be guided by solid numbers not just sensibility. Everyone knows three is better than two, but it is hard to say whether an ad should be more blue or more red. Pretty soon you are working profiles into game code, more numbers, which explore pretty strange relationships. So, there is a natural tendency to build connections and wrap it in interactive. It is probably very tired to say, but being downtown, [September 11th] had a big impact on me. Smoke blew into my studio for months and the place was a mess. There is a very literal aspect to this piece. With all of this part of my life I started thinking about what I saw downtown, online, on TV, and how they might be related; which brought me to pieces like "Trauma".
GIZMODO: "Dark Network" combines the skateboarding conquest game of "Cruzaders" with the intergalactic puzzle game of "M", so that when players change the orbit of commodities around the earth, the terrain and objective of the skateboarders also changes. How important is the relationship between these two realities? How did you decide to design the display mechanism, and what is the connection between the built physical structure and the games themselves?
PJ: I was trying to demonstrate a macro/micro relationship with "Dark Network". I thought of "M" as a kind of bloodless Victorian parlor game. The earth is "played" like a simplified puzzle, a lightweight intellectual challenge. On the other side you have "Cruzaders," which is a game dripping with vernaculars: graffiti, goth, sci-fi, and skate punks all melded into a parallel universe. This is a funny thing about video games; they often put you in a privileged, God-like role, but they also lean on colorful popular vernaculars. I was trying to accentuate these tendencies and then link them back together. "Dark Network" is the first game system I made that formed a single piece, not multiple consoles. I wanted to make some indication that it was representing one system despite the different appearances of the games. The orbital commodities make their appearance on the terrain of "Cruzaders" and the avatars will compete for access. Territory is granted with each acquisition. Depending on the status of the game, the manipulation of the commodities in either game will effect the other differently. "M" starts off clearly in control, but the roles can change.
GIZMODO: "Crossings" connects an off-road racing game with an adventure game where the player takes the perspective of a deer or jeep driver on the same landscape or world. How does this juxtaposition effect the game-play itself and why did you choose this type of conflicting scenario?
PJ: "Crossings" is a very popular game system. The idea of the piece was to demonstrate a relationship between deer population and race times. It is a kind of ecosystem which includes a SUV. The faster the car goes, the more reckless it drives, and the better the race time. The wildlife, on the other hand, tends to get run over. It becomes road kill. A good race time for the SUV results in fewer animals. This isn't so much a requirement of a good race time as a statistical trend. My goal was not necessarily to encourage conflict as to locate the race game in a larger game world. There have been plenty of race games that include running people over, where pedestrians are introduced as targets or obstacles. That was not my thinking for this piece.
GIZMODO: With "Maiden Flight", you examine the sedentary effect of a couch potato on the construction of a space station. Why did you choose this connection and what does it say about the future of technological innovation?
PJ: Video games always struck me as being deeply related to the player's metabolism. Like music, good game play will anticipate your heartbeat and nerves. I don't mean this in a purely theatrical sense. Games which people play for twelve hours straight are things you live with. For "Maiden Flight" I wanted to link metabolism to a sort of flight simulator. As much as a video game is something a player can settle into and internalize, it also suggests a vast horizon. It is both physiological and expansive. Building a space station within the simulator was a way of linking the gamer to the game. The space station grows as the gamer remains static and consumes snacks, like a giant carbohydrate. This scenario links technological growth to unlimited consumption. If the avatar is active, however, missiles attack the space station. The gamer may stop eating the junk food and become healthy, but technological growth diminishes and weapons fly. It is a metabolic balancing act between creation, consumption, and destruction. My father worked on the Apollo program and is convinced the United States "won" the cold war based on investments that were made in technology and education. These investments seeded what was to be the microcomputer revolution. This was also linked to expanding our military arsenal and emerging post war consumer economies. Video games, of course, are part of this historical trend. So part of "Maiden Flight" is an allegory about gaming itself, seen in these terms.
GIZMODO: What projects are you currently working on? How are they similar or different than your past projects?
PJ: I have been struggling with a number of games in various stages of completion. I have developed an aluminum framework that I want to use to build out a game cluster. The idea is to make a gaming super computer in which all the games are really part of one big game. The cluster will be scaleable. The piece can be approached one game at a time or as something bigger. I want the ability to develop a single piece, but design it so it may be added to a larger piece or any number of other pieces. The idea of being able to combine and recombine game worlds in a semantic or even arbitrary fashion is exciting to me. I would prefer to think of all that I am doing as being one project on some level. Flexibility is important. As for the games themselves, I am working on a few sports games, which involve primates at the moment. When I was a teenager I worked as a caddy for a couple summers. It was an elite golf course so my friends and I thought we could make a lot of money this way. The opposite turned out to be true. I remember these old men, successful businessmen, having tantrums when they missed a shot. They would fling their clubs at you and you had to catch them or get hit in the head. Nonetheless, I got pretty good. I could estimate distances, recommend clubs, and walk without rattling the bag. I adapted to a game I didn't play.