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Interview with Pippin Barr - »The Artist Is Present«

I am writing in English today because the Next Level Blog has international guests. Mathias Jansson interviews Pippin Barr.

Barr's game The Artist is Present was all over the web in the last days. In the game a famous performance of the same name by artist Marina Abramović is remediated in a Sierra-style »adventure«. By clicking this link you can play The Artist Is Present in your browser.

I am very happy to announce that this interview with Pippin is the first in a whole series. Mathias will regularly contribute to the Next Level Blog by interviewing the finest independent game developers and artists. You might also want to have a look at Mathias' past interviews he published at gamescenes edited by Matteo Bittanti.

Mathias did two brilliant interview series about the relationship between art and video games. The first deals with the development of the Game Art genre and is entitled »Game Art Worlds: The Early Years«. The second includes interviews with critics, curators, theorists and so on and is called »Game Art Worlds: Contemporary Practitioners« (I'm in it, too!). The interviews are so good that they will be turned in a book soon! Enjoy the interview!

Interview with Pippin Barr - »The artist is present«

Pippin Barr is currently working and teaching at the Center for Computer Game Research at IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He has a Ph.D. and wrote his dissertation about »video game values«, i.e how human values are promoted, both overtly and subtly, in the games we play. He frequently blogs about videogames and has recently started to create his own games. Games that in short time have caught the indie games scenes attention. Mathias Jansson got an interview with Pippin Barr about his latest work.

Mathias: In your latest game The Artist Is Present you have recreated a performance by the artist Marina Abramović which she did at the Museum of Modern Art in New York 2010. What’s your own relationship to Abramović’s art and why did choose to make this particular performance into a game?

Pippin: On one level the decision to make a game of The Artist Is Present was just on a whim - it seemed intuitively clear that it would be fun and funny to produce a game version of such an important piece of contemporary art. I didn't see the performance when it happened, but certainly followed it while it was going on and was fascinated not just by the work itself (two people sitting opposite each other, looking into each other's eyes) but the surrounding aspects too: the giant queues, the celebrities, the controversies, the artists who performed in the performance, and so on. It's definitely a work that was a lot larger than »just« itself.

Looking back, it's fairly obvious that performance art is a good choice when you're trying to represent an artwork in a game, and that Abramović's piece is particularly good because it had certainly game-like qualities: crucially, it's *participatory*... the audience is a genuine part of it (one at a time!). You really need to have that quality if you want to make a more »literal« game version - a literal version of Duchamp's Fountain, say, would be really boring, just an image of the piece and perhaps the ability to walk around it. (Which is not to say my own game isn't boring - it certainly can be.)

So it was the »procedural« elements of the work that appealed from a game making perspective. And as I said, not just the performance itself, which is fairly low interaction from a game perspective (you look into her eyes), but also the surrounding elements of queuing and getting there early and so on. And in fact they became the main »mechanic« of the game, because it was the committed *waiting* and relationship to time that interested me the most from a design perspective. Waiting is such a no-no in games (Narthex is a notable exception and there are others, like Desert Bus), it's regarded as so abusive, and yet it's a major part of life. To the extent we want games to (sometimes) be »about life«, waiting is fair game.

Mathias: In your games Safety Instructions and The Artist Is Present you describes the graphic as »Sierra-style«, after the videogames producers Sierra Entertainment from the eighties. Why do you and many other indie game developers chose to work with a style that remains of old videogames from the eighties and not a more photo-realistic approach which is used in the commercial gamescene?

Pippin: Interesting question. Funnily enough when I started »seriously« making games early this year I swore to myself I'd stay away from these pixel-style graphics because I was tired of seeing them as the house-style of indie games. My game GuruQuest went at least some way toward a different graphical style.

I used the kind of »Sierra« style for the last two games for different reasons. With Safety Instructions I knew I was going to be doing a lot of animation, which is not something I have much experience with. My original concept was to much more closely mirror the instructional design style of the actual instructions cards - very smooth lines with just enough information to communicate. But animating that kind of aesthetic, and in fact just producing it in the first place, isn't really in my skillset. In going to a »low res« view I gained the chance to represent the same kinds of images much more straightforwardly. In a literal sense, there are fewer pixels involved! This becomes doubly true when you're animating - the difference between animating a 300x300 pixel image, say, and the 50x50 pixel images I was working with is enormous and beyond me. By using fewer pixels I had fewer decisions to make in each frame, fewer details to represent, and so on. It made life easier and, as a side effect, ended up looking nice (I think).

With The Artist Is Present I much more consciously chose the Sierra/AGI look as a part of the game's inner and outer aesthetics. It's not just that I wanted it to look like a Sierra game (kind of a »what if Sonny Bonds from Police Quest went to MoMA?«) but also in some ways catch on to some of the interactions. Sierra games from that era were very unforgiving and unapologetic - Police Quest in particular is one of my favourite games and it has this obsession with procedure - doing things right. Make sure you read suspects their rights, handcuff them in the right way, and on and on. That felt related to what I was doing with The Artist Is Present - it's a game about following the rules (in this case the rules of a performance and the gallery space it's in).

On the other hand, it backfired to the degree that some players familiar with the Sierra style felt it implied there would be puzzles to solve, so when the museum was closed, for instance, they immediately felt there must be some way to break in, when there isn't. So the visual aesthetics of these games speaks hugely to player expectation and to the kinds of underlying mechanics they might have (though of course it doesn't *have* to be this way).

Mathias: How do you experience the development and interest for independent videogames during the last years? And how do you like to contribute to the indie game scene?

Pippin: Huh... well I'm very new to this world, and I really don't even characterise myself as an independent developer, at least not to myself. I started making games at the start of this year because I've researched them for a number of years and began to feel that for me personally there was something a little off about thinking about games all the time but never making them. Perhaps because I have degrees in computer science and know how to program (if not all *that* well), it seemed absurd for me to spend all this time talking about games, playing them, critiquing them, wishing they were different, without making them myself.

As such I'm not really »part« of anything I think of as a community of designers and developers, though I like the idea of that. I think the indie games scene is just amazing and I'm deeply impressed by the projects I see out there. In some ways it doesn't really need any »contributions« in the sense of helping it along - it's just happening, people are making games... in some ways it's an unstoppable force.

Of course, this comes from my personal perspective which is that, for now, I'm completely happy just making the little games I want to make and putting them out there. I'm not making any money or asking for it. I can imagine that if I was wanting to rely on making games for an income things would be radically different and I'd have a different view - but for now I'm able to teach and so on at university and my wife has a more stable career, also as a games academic.

Mathias: Your academic expertise is »video game values«. What does it mean? And do you see any different in values between indie games and commercial games?

Pippin: Funny to think about that - my Ph.D. dissertation seems like it was a long time ago now. And yet I do still think about games at least partly in those terms. In my dissertation my interest was in the idea that games communicate values (that is, an idea of »preferable conduct«) through their various aspects (asethetics, mechanics, social setting, etc.) and that this was an important way to look at what games are and do - in my case from the perspective of human-computer interaction. Ian Bogost has written very eloquently and well about these kinds of ideas, of course, particularly in his Persuasive Games book.

I still think about those aspects of games, but my attention has turned much more toward thinking about the kinds of experiences people have with games and could have with games. One of the courses I teach at my university is »experimental interaction«, where I try to help (and convince!) the students to go away from conventional design practices to find something new. Generally by bombarding them with as many different ideas as possible.

As to value difference between indie and commercial games - it's inevitable that they're there. At the most obvious level, indie games take risks and, by and large, commercial games just don't. There's not a lot of money in risky, unusual, and »alternative values« games. That's part of why, by and large, indie games are so much more expressive (and for me interesting) than commercial games. The range of values an indie might want to promote or embed in his or her game is just so much larger than commercial producers could dream of - when something like No Russian or calling one team the Taliban is the height of controversy, you really have a long way to go in terms of commercial games taking risks. Meanwhile, games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG! or Beautiful Escape are really going for it in terms of risk and values. Whether or not we like them or want to play them, it can't be denied these games are doing things large-scale commercial games may never manage.

And that's probably alright, too - not everything has to be mainstream. Still, wouldn't hurt if some of the indie spirit rubbed off a bit more (okay, a lot more) on the commercial world - and that includes the player bases of commercial games, who are just as much a part of the system that keeps producing the same small set of ideas each year. Myself included!


Mathias Jansson