ACID GAMES Talks: Games, Collectives and the quest to take back our sense of Wonder. (Gabriel)

This is the third of our four ACID GAMES talks we gave at Università IULM in 2018. The others can be found here and here.

The text below is not an 100% exact transcription of the talk, but a reproduction of the notes I used to prepare for it.


I want to speak a little bit about collectives, games and how both can be useful for political struggle.

What are collectives? In general, a simple definition of a collective is a group of people that are motivated by a common interest, and working together to achieve a common objective.

I would argue that collectives (and art collectives in particular) have always been political to a certain degree. Very often they have been leaning to the left side of the political spectrum. But you also have right wing collectives - as we are in Italy I will just take the example futurism, which, at least in parts, was famously very sympathetic towards fascism.

Regardless of partisan orientation, collectives often are constructed as political entities aiming to fight the real or perceived power in place. Art collectives are often built as a response to state oppression, or to challenge the artistic status quo (to get marginalized artists into galleries, to give minorities more visibility, etc.).

Very often collectives are places of political activism. But what can they be today - especially in the game world?

I think the first question to ask is: what are we even fighting today? What are we up against?

I guess you could say our main problem is Capitalism.

I don't speak of capitalism as an economic system. I don't even think capitalism is really a good word to describe the economic system we live in. I also don't mean capitalism as a political view.

I mean Capitalism as a generalized experience - as a way to be in the world.

What is the experience of capitalism? I think capitalism is an experience of loss:

All of which results in a perceived loss of alternatives to the current status quo.

The loss of the Future

Do you ever think that the future never happened? Are you ever disappointed by the hopes you had as a kid? Where are the spaceships reaching to Andromeda, the teleportation pods, the benevolent aliens and the cool hoverboards?

We think of the internet as something so revolutionary but go back in time and show to your younger self that the best we could do in the future is basically a glorified encyclopedia and see what your past self thinks of that.

So there is this sense that the future is disappointing - which is probably why we have this strong nostalgia for the 80's, a time where the future seemed fascinating and open.

The loss of community

It is not only the future that disappeared, capitalism also eroded the social fabric itself.

While promising us the ultimate community through social media, smart objects and constant communications, the digital revolution has made us increasingly alone and isolated as seen by a worldwide epidemic of solitude and mental illness.

This has many causes. The collapse of the division between work and leisure time, the destruction of labour unions, hyper-individualisation and the constant push for self-representation, rapid urbanisation and the collapse of local communities have combined to produce a new lonely but productive individual - someone who is constantly their own business and brand  - but is also alone, someone who lives everywhere but is nowhere at home.

The loss of the sacred/magical

When you look at the news, you might think the world is strange, weird. But I think the problem is not that the world is strange, but that it is not strange enough.

Somehow, the invisible, the mystery, the sacred, has disappeared. God, famously, is dead. Ghosts are debunked. The aliens might never come or if they're already here they don't seem to care much about us. Sure, mysteries still exists in weak versions of themselves,  through conspiracies and so called "fake news", but the real wonder is gone.

Seemingly everything has been explained:  when we look at the skies we don't see god's anymore, we see Easy Jet planes flying to Majorca. When you mysteriously lose your phone in your home, you don't think that fairies stole it, you just go buy a new one on Amazon.

What it feels like to be digested

When we don't have a community in which we can thrive, when we don't have a fascinating future to look forward to, when we have no gods, no spirits, no mysteries to enchant our everyday routine,  what happens is that we get trapped by the present. All that exists is what is now and the slight variation brought to the now by already expected future technological evolutions (we know we are going to Mars one day, but even that seems boring now).

This constant infestation of a never ending present, is what it feels like to be digested by the capitalist superorganism. This uncanny feeling that we are living in the wrong world, that somehow we entered a parallel universe where the future never happened, where everything is kind of dull and the most exciting thing is to work for a start-up.

What can Collectives and Game Artists do?

I think they can do a lot.

Collectives mainly allow two things:

  1. The sharing of resources: as an artist, working in collectives allows you to share money, material resources (PC, workplaces, etc), knowledge (someone knows how to make shaders, someone else how to paint, etc), contacts/networks and even art (assets). This helps to get out of the capitalist trap of the single genius artist, the glorification of individualism which forces you to be good at everything and almost always leads to failure and burnout. It's very important to remember: you don't have to be good at everything! Less time spent trying to be the best alone, is more time spent getting better together. More time being able to think about the world around you and to question it. Put simply: working in collectives is simpler, more effective, and good for your mental health.
  2. The creation of a culture: becoming not only a group of people who work together, but a collective of minds, cross-pollinating with ideas, working towards the same ideals while avoiding getting trapped by the prejudices of one's own skin. Of course, the inherent risk of a collective is always to end up creating a bubble or an echo chamber, but if you manage to be open and permeable to ideas, if you continuously take inspiration from the different people inside your collective, you can become a sort of organic entity, continuously shifting and adapting, never losing yourself in the limits of the self. Collectives are places of discussion and debates, compromise and healthy disputes. Don't hold too tight to an idea. Don't write a manifesto, capitalism will swallow it and assimilate it. Be open and fluid - change your point of attack, learn from others, get over yourself. From this, a culture will emerge and it will allow you to get a long lost sense of community back.

The future should be weird

In addition to the power of collectives, I see two main advantages in games :

  1. Games are THE medium of capitalism. We play games on a computer: the ultimate tool of modern capitalism. Also, games and capitalism share two very essential aspects: accumulation of wealth and the exploitation of nature. This is what capitalism does, and it is something that you can find in most games (collecting resources, making money, making points, terraforming, building infrastructure, gaming the environment, etc.). Not to mention gamification and how this concept is slowly infesting every interaction we have, at work, on social media or even at home. So basically when you make games, you are deep in the middle of capitalist production - which you can use. You are fighting back with the tools of the enemy.
  2. Games can put the magic and the weird back in life. We need magic. Not the disney kind but the kind the Celts called Anderswelt, the sense of an Otherworld, a mysterious place lurking in the shadows that can help us escape but also make sense of the real world, and most importantly bring a sense of wonder back into our lives. Games can do that very well. Why?

Even more than other form of arts, games create places that you can explore, that use all these sensory effects, sound, visuals, storyline to create a completely immersive experience. To some extent, games come closer to a psychedelic drug trip than any other form of art. And if ancient shamans used drugs to create a bridge to the sacred, could we maybe do the same with games? I think we can.

Games use all these sensory tools and these complex systems to produce their effect. In this sensory overload, they perfectly mirror the complexity of our society. And any Underworld is always a mirror of the world above ground. Any magical realm is the pulsating shadow of the mundane.

Of course, you can use games to build giant worlds with new experimental political systems. But you can also just create weird magical, nonsensical places. As opposed to a medium like literature that is around since ever, games are extremely new.

They still have a future.

Everything is still possible. Every weird world you can think of is just waiting to be created.