Nowadays, several artists use videogames for purposes that include political and artistic expression. Examples that come to mind are Gonzalo Frasca’s celebrated September 12th, a Flash-game about terrorism in the world post-911 or Escape from Woomera, a modification of Half-Life, about a refugee camp in Woomera, Australia…
The list is long.
The common denominator of all these interactive artworks is that the artists involved wanted to make a point about a current issue or event. Serious games or political games, however, are nothing new. In 1996, Italian artist Antonio Riello - who calls himself "an ideas tamer. One of those who normally feed themselves in the contemporary art pasture" - designed a game titled Italiani Brava Gente (literally, Italians Good People) about “illegal” (i.e. unregulated) immigration. In the game, Albanians immigrants are trying to reach Italian shores by boat and the player must prevent them to achieve such goal. The title of the game is obviously sarcastic: it is a sagacious commentary on the stereotype that sees Italians as being more welcoming, warm, and receptive than other societies, where the truth is often very different. Almost fifteen years after its release, it is time to re-assess the relevance and urgency of Italiani Brava Gente.
GameScenes spoke to Antonio Riello.
The title “Italiani Brava Gente” has different layers of meaning. Can you elaborate?
Literally, it means “Italians [are] Good People”. It is a cliché often used by the most populist Italian media to claim that Italians are “better” than other when it comes to kindness, humanity, and openness toward other cultures. In this case, the title is meant to be ironic. There is often a huge gap between clichés and reality. Occasionally, that gap becomes visible. Fiction becomes friction. And trouble ensues...
What the cultural background of your videogame?
In the early Nineties, Italy faced waves of illegal immigrations from the Balkan regions, especially from Albania. For those who don't know, Albania used to be an Italian “protectorate” during the brief but intense Fascist “Empire”. Italy, however, was not prepared to handle this issue. Illegal immigration proved to be problematic on several levels – political, social, cultural. Above all, it created all sorts of problems: the paradox is that Italians have emigrated all over the world for at least a century, and now they seemed unable to manage immigration in their own country. The problem persists today. It is actually becoming more and more of an issue.
Why did you choose to make a videogame about illegal immigration?
I felt responsible, as an artist, to address this situation by creating an artwork that could portray a complex situation and I found that the game medium could provide that kind of complexity. At the same time, games are intuitive enough to be understood by many, unlike most contemporary art, which is cryptic and elitist. I thought that this format was more appropriate to express the tragi-comic national embarrassment and discomfort generated by modern day immigration. Those feelings, by the way, were a manifestation of Belpaese’s inner xenophobia and racism. Moreover, I was fascinated by digital games’ many paradoxes: virtual environments are spaces where Western cultures can enact their fantasies of domination, violence, neo-imperialism, and prevarication. It is as if we erased our deepest urges and desires and confined them in videogames. They operate as one culture's subconscious: anything that has been prohibited in “real life” is perfectly normal and acceptable in games. Political correctness is not a rule of videogames, just an option. Thus, the video game was the ideal choice for my project. And I chose the simplest format possible: an old school shoot’em up, which was subsequently mixed with Italian "huffy-duffy" national folklore and politics: the official rhetorical language of politicians, the National Anthem, “O Sole Mio” songs, and idiotic, pedantic visuals, which evoked the iconography used in Italian primary schools. I wanted to give the game the appearance of government propaganda. The goal of "Italiani Brava Gente" is extremely simple. After selecting the difficulty level, the player has to control a turret located on the South East coast and sink all the approaching ships. The idea is that immigrants from Albania are “space invaders” who are threatening the Belpaese’s lifestyle and values, therefore they deserve to be annihilated. However, in the end the player cannot keep up and loses. It’s just a matter of time before hordes of immigrants overcome the defender.
How did you design the game? Did you use other interactive artworks as models for your project?
I designed the concept, script and the visuals. An Italian coder working for a game design company helped me with the programming. He used Macromedia Flash to put all the pieces together. The company he was working for, by the way, no longer exists. As I mentioned before, I did not explicitly use any existing games as a “model”, but I tried to emulate the game mechanics of seminal titles such as Space Invaders. I felt that Taito’s arcade was a fitting metaphor for Italy in the early and mid Nineties.
When you released the game, the reaction from the press was controversial, to say the least. Why?
Two reasons. First, the Italian media was outraged that somebody would use a game to make a point about a sensitive social issue. Games were – and still are, in many ways – discriminated and ostracized by the so-called intellectuals. Behind its hip facade, Italian culture is old, reactionary and conservative. Second, the media saw me as a bogeyman. When the game was released – between 1996 and 1997 – the press called it a “social nightmare created by a monstrous mind” (that would be me). Italians don’t like to be reminded that they can be racist too. They are too enamored with the “postcard view” created by Hollywood movies and supported by local advertising and marketing. We need to maintain the fantasy for the sake of tourism, which is one of the few healthy industries that we have. There is an unwritten rule that says that you cannot mess with the fairy-tale ideology of Italianism. The most important newspapers and TV channels called Italiani Brava Gente a “politically-incorrect game for right wing hooligans”, “trash”, “juvenile provocation”. Interestingly, in 2009, the Northern League party – [a political group that advocates the separation of Northern Italy from the South, currently an ally of Berlusconi's right wing government Ed.] – released an openly racist videogame that used the same mechanics seen in Italiani Brava Gente. I am happy to report that, once again, Contemporary Art can be prophetic, although reality is always one step ahead.
Where was the game exhibited?
It was presented in some solo shows (Torch Gallery Amsterdam, I'll Ponte Gallery Roma, Artra Gallery Milano and others). It has also been shown at Meran Kunstverein, Placentia Gallery, Wolfsburg Art Museum, and recently at at South Pacific University Art Gallery in California. Albanian artist Gentian Shkurti produced another videogame, GO WEST, that somehow mirrored mine: here too Albanians try to reach the Italian shores. We presented our two games together in an unique installation at Tirana Biennale in 2001 and afterward in several other shows. In short, Italiani Brava Gente has been around quite a bit.
[all images courtesy of the artist]
In 1996, could you predict the rise of serious games? Did you see their potential in influencing the contemporary art scene?
The short answer is yes. I regard videogames’ influence on the contemporary art scene as impressive. To me, games represent an autonomous medium, a medium that followed the tradition of other forms of expression. Take opera, which was originally considered lo-bro entertainment, a format which mixes Art and trashy popular culture in innovative ways. It slowly evolved only to be appropriated by the upper-class and today opera has become a niche activity used mostly as a sign of distinction – in Bourdieau’s terms – for the aristocracy and for the nouveau riches. Games could follow the same path. I wanted to add, however, that term “digital” does not connotate “good, trendy contemporary art”. Just because something is interactive or digital, it does not mean it possesses “quality”. Clever ideas are medium-agnostic. There is nothing intrinsically artistic about games: it’s how you use them that really matters. Alas, this view is not shared by many contemporary artists, who just jumped on the bandwagon. For them, videogame aesthetics are synonymous of “interesting”, “smart”, “brilliant”. Moreover, videogames do not age well. Their planned obsolescence makes them very sensitive to aging. Thus, using a videogame for artistic purposes is very risky and potentially counter-productive, in the long run.
Text by Mathias Jansson. The interview took place in November 2009.
Link: Antonio Riello