Whether he’s owning a crowd of wet, drunken rockers or depriving his players of sight, sound, and touch, game designer Eddo Stern brings games into untrodden settings, onto unfrequented media. An artist, developer, and professor at UCLA’s Design/Media Arts program, Stern has destroyed the distinctions between computer simulations, tabletop shenanigans, and physical existence. His “Wizard Takes All” is part theater, part concert, and part fantasy role-playing game. His “Money Making Workshop” channels Monopoly into a hyper-competitive struggle staged on a vertical, sculptural board, ringed by the glitter of destroyed pieces and placeholders. In order to play his “Darkgame,” gamers have to don a spider-like helmet. Inspired by the nightmarish thought of being hurried through a desert blindfolded, “Darkgame” leashes resource-gathering mechanics to sensory perception in a surreal scramble. His works have made it to E3 and IndieCade, but also to the Tate museum and Sundance. Visiting Chicago, Stern stopped by the Logan Center for the Arts on Valentine’s Day to share these and other projects with a crowd of local designers and enthusiasts. Afterwards, the Weekly was able to talk to Stern about gaming past, projects present, and the industry’s future.
Your games and other projects mix up the boundaries between play, narrative, and performance. But I wanted to learn how you yourself got mixed up in games and game design.
I was a child of the eighties. It’s called the Golden Age of gaming. The Apple II was very significant in my upbringing. I had a lot of games that I got copied on floppy-disks without any manuals, without any game art—without any context—so the entry point for me was always very, very difficult and mysterious. You’d sort of boot it up and you knew often that there’s some kind of booklet that came with the game. But I didn’t have it. So games, I think, were very opaque initially but were also very mysterious in that sense.
I really did not play games from age fifteen until I was in my mid-twenties. Then, in the mid-late nineties—as the Internet came on—multiplayer games over the network were happening in computer labs where I was studying and working. They reentered my life. I think for me the iconic game experience in my life was—as an adult, already—playing MMOs [massively multiplayer online games]. “Ultima Online,” first, and “EverQuest” and then a whole litany of MMOs between “EverQuest” and “World of Warcraft.” I think for me, MMO’s are a genre of games that have influenced me the most in their all-consuming powers. It really kind of blew me away.
That all-consuming power came up in the discussion: Play being circumscribed in order to get something highly focused and very intense. Are you all about narrowing play to get the perfect experience, or do you think that there’s something more—a freedom to break the experience?
I think a good analogy I can give is the difference between “Second Life” as an open-ended, freeform sandbox game and “World of Warcraft” as a highly constrained game experience. “World of Warcraft” also has opportunities to counter-play, or break the rules, but within a scripted space—an authoritarian environment. For me, the agency that’s allowed between the lines of constraint is much more compelling than the agency in a completely open world. It doesn’t matter what you do in “Second Life,” because everyone is doing something. Whereas if you do something unusual in “World of Warcraft,” there’s a will behind that action. An intent and perhaps a sense of resistance, but also a sense of play between the cracks, if that makes sense.
In “Wizard Takes All” you use the tropes of the fantasy RPG. You had the wizard-avatar, you had the mobs that were literally crowd-controlled, you had the quest-like idea of getting twenty items out of twenty. Why did you want to access these?
I’m particularly interested in the construct of fantasy—swords-and-sorcery fantasy—as a kind of amalgam of icons and quasi-historical elements cobbled together to create some cohesive whole, very much derivative of Tolkien and his aggregation of many different mythologies into his own world. He introduced wizards and dwarves and elves and swords—and magical swords—and invisibility potions and rings and treasures and dragons and princesses. That whole construct stands in for the word “fantasy” right now for a lot of people.
There’s always been a research question—a sociological question of “Where does this come from?” and specifically the correlation between that particular world and computer technologies. Why has this become the iconic narrative skin around so many computer games? Magic as a metaphor for technology, that does not acknowledge technology. It allows for a sense of suspension of disbelief in a perfect way.
For me, the use of fantasy—I suppose it’s been a muse of mine in some ways. I also find it very ridiculous. How it’s always the same. It’s such a cliché of gaming and of “gamers” that I deploy it semi-ironically. But at the same time, I also enjoy it. It’s comforting: the familiarity.
Why transport that onto the stage at all, then? You’re taking a digital world and translating it into something performative. Why is performativity such an important mission?
I think it has to do with the first mature work I made that was playable: a piece done in 2001 called “Tekken Torture Tournament,” which involves mapping real physical violence and fear onto a context of virtual violence.
Community meant something to me, and “Tekken Torture Tournament” was done in an artist-run space that I started with a bunch of friends called C-Level. The idea of playing games with a group of people in public was very important to build our community. The idea of a shared experience in a certain space, at a certain time, that’s somehow entwined with everyday life. You’re sitting next to someone, you’re drinking with them, you’re looking them in the eye in a way that’s an alternative narrative to the isolated gamer playing online or playing alone.
But also, I think getting people together in a social space has been a vehicle for engaging different communities at the same time. And with “Wizard Takes All”—I wanted to do this game/rock show. With people who, in a way, could have stigmatized gaming. I’ve always been enamored [laughs] by these combinations: Led Zeppelin and their interest in both being this super-cool band, but also being into fantasy. And a whole bunch! Marillion and Jethro Tull. This whole connection of heavy metal and fantasy. This punk-meets-geek kind of place.
This seems to be one of the challenges to games as an art form—the people who would take it out of that public sphere. Do you feel optimistic? What do you expect within the next five or ten years?
I think there are many trends in gaming that are parallel and contradictory. On the one hand you have the proliferation of casual games, in a sense. A casual gaming on the iPhone. And on the other hand you have MMO’s which are in some ways the opposite of these games. Like the Icelandic space MMO, “EVE Online.” Which is one of the harshest games! And all these new trends of perma-death—survival games—is the counter-trend.
You have a lot more game festivals. People are playing in public, on projections. You have physical peripherals back. We saw them in the eighties and then they disappeared and now they’re coming back. The Kinect and the Wii and all of this integrating more family members into a game. Cross-generational gaming as opposed to “the gamer,” the male teenager. It’s a very diverse and sophisticated field that you could carve up into many different types of players and types of play.
You also have this generation of gamers that grew up with computer games entering their forties, having children, not wanting to give up on games, still wanting to play, and—in a way—not being satisfied with the same types of games. Wanting games to start to address different genres, different issues. So you start to see that. I mean, I don’t think the examples have been exemplary. You start to see games like “Heavy Rain,” “L.A. Noire.”
You know, what’s it going to mean for 60-year olds who grew up on Atari who still want to game? What are they going to be playing? I find myself looking for new ideas, and in some ways the indie game community is providing some of that. If you look at games like “Kentucky Route Zero” and “CartLife”—they’re games with a much more considered, nuanced—dare I say—mature [laughs] look at the world. They’re really breaking away from genre. I think that evolution of the medium is an important one.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 20, 2014
Due to a layout error, an earlier version of this story misformatted Eddo Stern’s comments on “magic as a metaphor for technology.” The paragraph (“There’s always been a research question…”) came from Stern; it was not a question posed by the writer.