The Museum of Design Atlanta‘s ambitious “XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design” highlights the role of women in such design. A collaboration with the Georgia Tech Digital Media Department of the School of Literature, Media and Communication, this rewarding if flawed exhibition persuasively argues that women are giving video gaming a more social, potentially more human direction. On view through September 2, it succeeds as well in showing the potential of video games as an interactive, provocative art form.
The games range from gentle commercial favorites such as “Little Big Planet” and “Nancy Drew: The Deadly Device” to bold, experimental explorations of social issues. Those — such as Christine Love’s “Analogue: A Hate Story,” which addresses the misogyny of a future patriarchal society — define an activist bent prevalent in many artist-designed games.
Anna Anthropy’s and Liz Ryerson’s “dys4ia,” a literally gender-bending game, explores the travails of a transgender woman moving through the often frustrating exercise of everyday life, while the Kafkaesque “Escape From Woomera” examines the politics of Australian immigration. The game, designed by the EFW Collective, depicts living conditions at the controversial Woomera Immigration and Reception and Processing Centre, presenting players with a series of nearly impossible-to-win scenarios based on real-life operations of the center.
Some of the designers create unusual experiences by upending expectations. The seminal and simple game of “Pong” becomes more complicated when played on the T-shirt of a young model in “Pong Dress,” by Margrete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer. And the game “Kiss Controller,” by Hye Yeon Nam and Sam Mendenhall, becomes infinitely more interesting for participants when controlled by a couple’s kiss.
In “SOD,” Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans subvert the classic first-person shooter game “Wolfenstein 3D” by converting all visuals to abstract shapes. “Uncle Roy All Around You,” by Blast Theory and the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham, explores the streets of a virtual city, presenting unconventional encounters and possibilities.
On the aesthetic, meditative side, Bill Viola, an internationally known video artist and one of the few men in this show, has contributed “The Night Journey,” displayed in a series of projected video clips, as is Kellee Santiago’s, Jenova Chen’s and Robin Hunicke’s haunting multiplayer game “Journey,” commercially produced in 2012 for the Sony PlayStation Network.
Video games are, by nature, deeply personal exercises. The gamer, often alone, sits absorbed and attached to his or her screen, mouse or controller immersed in a world created by the game designers. Turning that experience into one that works in a public setting and maintaining equipment not meant for use by large numbers of people are among the challenges that this exhibition fails to overcome.
It can be frustrating, for instance, to wait while other players complete their turns, and even more so to encounter broken games, malfunctioning computer stations or missing controllers. Displays of several experimental-conceptual game projects are solitary and isolating exercises requiring the viewer to don a pair of headphones. Perhaps a more social display system, such as big monitors allowing groups to watch individuals play, could have solved many of these problems.
Despite the difficulties of conveying its subject in a gallery setting, “XYZ” makes the viewer think about the video game in a different light. In a world dominated by male players and designers (only an estimated 10 to 15 percent of video game designers are women), this show presents clear alternatives, both mainstream and experimental, to the well-known archetypes. In that respect, it succeeds admirably in carrying out MODA’s mission to provide out-of-the-ordinary perspectives on important everyday design that affects us all.