States of Play: Roleplay Reality is the current exhibition at FACT. It showcases gaming related artworks and includes installations of industry games from across the globe. If you’re planning to visit it comes with a warning; you’d better ring-fence a few hours as you’ll end up engrossed in some of the interactive exhibits – we lost half a day!

The exhibition forces the viewer (or player) to question how intertwined their real and virtual personas are. As technology advances and video games become more and more realistic, the lines between our real and virtual lives have become increasingly blurred. Today, video games are often becoming more of a social commentary rather than an escape from reality.

Our fundamental delusion today…is not to take fictions seriously enough. You think it’s just a game? It’s reality. It’s more real than it appears to you.
Slavoj Ziek on The Matrix

Carefully curated by Lesley Taker and Lucy Sollitt, the exhibition examines key questions, such as:

  • What is the importance of role play in video games?
  • Are video games just about escape?
  • How do the video games we play reflect our identities?
  • How do video games reflect and help us move beyond wider issues of the world around us?

To give you a flavour of what to expect, here’s three of our highlights:

The Game: The Game, 2017

Angela Washko

Whilst propped up on a bar stool, the player is presented with a screen and a set of headphones to fully immerse themselves into this intriguing installation. The player is presented with numerous chat-up lines by the dating simulator. Each chat-up line feels vaguely familiar, which is no coincidence as every line is taken from the real life practices of several prominent seduction coaches (AKA Pick Up Artists).

The installation is named after the controversial book ‘The Game,’ written by Neil Strauss in 2005. This book spawned a whole ‘seduction’ community of males who were dedicated to the ‘game’ of picking up women. It is based on the argument that since empowerment and equality of women has improved in western society and traditional gender roles have become less prevalent, it has become harder for some men to attract a mate. Many commentators have described the practices as sexist or misogynistic. We’d be inclined to agree with them.

Within the piece, the player is given multiple options on how to respond to the Pick Up Artists (PUA’s), with each answer determining how the PUA responds next. It becomes exhausting; even if you choose to reject every offer, they just keep on coming. We became so fatigued that by the end of the game we were starting to become inclined to say ‘yes’ to the requests. Which highlights just how easy it is to wear someone down with these persistent and clever techniques.

Many of the practices are based upon high level Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) methods and psychology. It’s easy to see why some women may be persuaded by a PUA employing these techniques. Perhaps most disturbing though, is that it would be easy for men to prey upon weak or vulnerable women in this fashion. We walked away from the piece feeling enlightened, but also concerned that not enough women are aware of this movement and how it manifests. The Game : The Game thereby proves that games and simulations can be used to raise awareness of societal issues and can even help us to combat them.

Down and Out in Los Santos, (2015 – ongoing)

Alan Butler

Alan Butler has been capturing the lives of non-playable characters (NPC’s) within Grand Theft Auto V, for three years. Butler is particularly drawn to the NPC’s who are part of the homeless population within the game. Whilst these are background characters, they are ‘programmed to self-identify’ as they seek out and approach others like them, much like the homelessness network does in reality. This social critique of mass capitalism and the American Dream calls on the viewer to question the marginalisation and economic divide within their own community.

We particularly enjoyed this exhibit for two reasons; it draws the viewer’s attention to the multitude of characters and details which are included with Grand Theft Auto and just how ‘real’ the environment is. It makes you stop to think when you last walked past some of the characters in your own ‘background’ or environment who may be homeless or in need. How invisible are they to you? Did you notice these details in your own version of reality?

The second aspect is the glorious set design, which is attributable to Chiara Stephenson, a graduate set designer from LIPA. The entire gallery space is a mock beach, featuring litter washed up and various detritus. The visitor is forced to consider the slow degradation of their own environment and the consequences that this has for all of us.

Away with You, 2017

Rindon Johnson

Bias can be found in almost every area of the tech industry. The video games industry is no exception. It is evident within the lack of people of colour as protagonists and it is even embedded within the design of the games themselves. Many players are forced to embody an online persona that does not accurately reflect their offline persona.

As a result, the facial recognition software used in games like NBA 2K16 cannot replicate black male faces that do not comply with certain stereotypes. In order to demonstrate this Johnson scanned his own face into the game’s avatar creator to see how it would perceive him and he shares the outcome with the viewers. Through his installation Johnson is asking the viewer how, as a society, can we be comfortable with such alienation and misrepresentation?

This highlights what we’ve known for some time about the tech sector; that who codes really matters. If you have a diverse team behind the creation of technology you will end up with a final product which is more fit for purpose and does not exclude anyone.

…games, as with all works of art, contain the values of the people who make them. Which is why more than a single group of people should access to the means of creating them.

Anna Anthropy, ‘Rise of the video game Zinesters’

Final thoughts…

The gaming industry has undoubtedly come under a lot of scrutiny, particularly since the scandal of gamer gate, which exposed deep-rooted sexism within the industry. Yet there are widespread movements to improve the sector and there’s been a lot of progress made. It might be slow going, but there is an absolute willingness to make the industry better.

The rise of ‘games for good’, whereby games are used to address societal, behavioural and mental health issues, amongst other things, illustrates how gaming can be used to drive positive changes. For instance, curing people of phobia’s using the Virtual Reality (VR) environment.

We would urge you to visit the exhibition to see for yourself how games can be used to enhance reality rather than distort it, and to reflect on how they can be used as a force for good.

FACT’s States of Play: Roleplay Reality exhibition is free to attend and runs until 17 June 2018. Some of the content is unsuitable for younger viewers, please check with the FACT team on arrival.

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