GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of our ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today. The conversation between Matteo Bittanti and Benjamin Poynter took place via email in October 2012.
Benjamin Poynter is a "practitioner of digital media and independent video games in the contemporary art world" currently living in Reno, Nevada and completing his MFA at University of Nevada, Reno. His work investigates the interaction and intersection between the real and the virtual. As he writes in his artist stamement,
"My focus basks in mediums that have come about as an evolution of video art including indie games, interactivity, electronics, digital applications, programming language, and computer graphics. In addition, I maintain my respects toward a skill set which informs clarity I seek including performance, dialogue, animation, cinematography, editing, and open narrative structure." (Benjamin Poynter)
His latest project is a game for smartphones titled In A Permanent Save State, which "imagines the spiritual afterlife of seven overworked laborers who have committed suicide" alluding to real-life events at Foxconn's electronics manufacturing plants in 2010. Predictably, the game was removed by Apple from the App Store less than an hour after it went live on October 12 2012. Apple did not release an official comment and did not explained the rationale behind their decision. We talked to Benjamin about critical video games and technological cults.
GameScenes: I am sure you designed the game to be compliant with Apple's guidelines in order to reach the broadest audience possible. At the same time, Apple's guidelines are deliberately vague and opaque when it comes to "objectionable content" and depictions that "solely target a specific race, culture, a real government or corporation, or any other real entity". What did In a Permanent Save State specifically "violate"? Were you expecting Apple's rejection?
Benjamin Poynter: In a Permanent Save State violated, lets just say, very generous parameters of Apple's guidelines [insert laugh here]. Three specifically with tackling objectionable content, mean spirited nature, and casting villains of a corporate, gender, or racial status. Doesn't take a Miyamoto to decipher what the corporations were. I'm always of two sides of the coin too and if I were the guy pushing the red button on my game, I'd probably do it if it meant protecting my company. Yet I made a strong, if not now futile, effort to censor out company names, artifacts, victim names, and specific mentions to such otherwise. Part of me expected it despite my efforts because a company that somehow managed to put a lid of human rights violations abroad can certainly put a lid on a Friday-release app talking about it. There are also Apple enthusiasts I am sure none too pleased about my work. I wouldn't say I'm doing my job right if is no cause to subvert boundaries. I know the internet well enough and releasing work in that virtual environment is immediate cause for recoil. However, I have received emails and comments from fellow experimental game designers and artists in general of support for me.
GameScenes: What's the afterlife like for the seven Chinese workers? Are they suspended in perpetual limbo? Imprisoned in a mechanical purgatory?
Benjamin Poynter: I built the afterlives of the Chinese workers to emulate the narrative that comes with the passage of the human soul, or souls rather, from death until return to birth. Based on the ramifications of their deaths and the visual-written theory behind certain stages of the otherworld I wanted to render game stages of them as means of getting the viewer to interact directly with what the Western consumer overall has caused. Based on what I researched about Eastern custom, I was staggered by what I found in relation to the human world. The soul separates into two souls after a period, with the hun arriving at heaven essentially and the p'o arriving in hell. Even in heaven their are tiers of social classes and statuses where Gods still rule the heavenly soul even in the afterlife. In Stage 3, entitled "After It", I have the victim in question chase a dollar being teathered by the Jade Emperor up a pagoda in the clouds. The protagonist in question earned through insurance to give to his family what he would have in his entire lifetime. The physical and mental plot move parallel.
GameScenes: Are apps and games more effective forms of social criticism, then, let's say, documentaries or essays? In other words, why did you specifically choose an interactive medium like a videogame to deliver this specific message? Your artistic production is very eclectic, which makes me even more interested in your answer...
Benjamin Poynter: If in discussion with one another, I find all mediums as conduits for criticism equally fascinating. How effective each one is ferments out of clarity and impact expressed for being in a certain time and place. As a fanboy of critical documentaries (e.g. the recent Miss Independent or Ai Weiwei's Never Sorry for examples), I'm familiar with its potential in illustrating an issue at hand as it speaks two languages at once : cinema and journalism. There is no denying the language is embedded like memory through society and there is no reason to reinvent the wheel in that regard. Part of the reason of me choosing the video game parameter for project In a Permanent Save State was ideally for two reasons. The first was a crucible it might create among an unfolding narrative. The true meaning would eventually have been revealed on that very device that caused them to perish by their own hand. The latter reason was developing the game, quite eclectically as you put, to enter the market as a trojan horse. Very easily the game could have become a radically conceptual project with 'just the victims' alone. In that light, I also believe in poetics and narrative to amplify with all tools available all dimensions necessary. I wanted to take the fantasy that had become televised by those very objects and use it in an earnest way.
Benjamin Poynter, Houses of the Holy, 2011
Benjamin Poynter, Houses of the Holy, 2011, installation View at Momentum: Art Never Stands Still, OCK
GameScenes: What is/was your intended audience for In A Permanent Save State?
Benjamin Poynter: Part of the iOS, and later Android, platform was its slight ramification of expression outside of this 'subculture' video gaming has beautifully woven for itself. With the subject matter at hand it was a goal to approach the political vernacular of the content as well and merge both languages together. I have been recently reading "In the Making" by Linda Weintraub and the theory mentions classes such as 'one for all; one for some; one for none' and so on. It would be naive of me to say I have created one for all. Yet, in availability through the Apple shelves, a conclusion jumped to could in fact be one for all based of the mass appeal and consuming of the products. A positive for future developers if transfer to the platform is desired with caution thrown to the wind that the 'Apple religion' might be less of a one-liner day by day.
Benjamin Poynter, Ghosts of Lovers Still Gambling, 2011
GameScenes: What makes a game "serious"? This epitet recurs in both the description and the slogan of your game? The games designer' approach, the "content", the game mechanics. Please explain.
Benjamin Poynter: Serious games can be defined as works in the gaming development realm pertaining to investigative qualities and conveyance of a social-political message even in sacrifice of entertainment value. It is a developing field which has strong basis as casual games online. A game I might reference is 2003's "September 12" which is a newsgame (subset of serious games) by Gonzalo Frasca. Artists I would also cite in this field are Brody Condon, Eddo Stern, and Joseph DeLappe. As a matter of fact, you might say Joe is my sensei right now as I am pursuing my Masters degree at the University of Nevada Reno in fine arts [interdisciplinary]. I mention the academic context as with him as the professor and myself as independent study teaching assistant we instructed a course entitled "Critical Play" that took specific focus in the middle of the term over this. We even had the students build an entire computer game together where in one issue with America was tackled per student-level. My approach to 'serious games' with my project was to create a work which served as an interactive, interpretive painting (in fact all the levels are vertical scrolls) which through Chinese traditionalism merged with contemporary crisis embedded the message at hand. Given the weight of the world in each victim's thoughts, there was an effort to reveal beauty in the crossfire as opposed to representing reality which was-is all too present. For this, I wanted to talk a tightrope between a narrative and functioning mechanic where feedback for every action either constituted one more page of the narrative or a visual that had iconography value. As for serious games as a whole, the subversion of removing the 'fun' mechanic out of a game to enter in message has a capability to take the average player off guard with results that range between distress or further interest in the matter. Not all 'gamers' per se want seriousness. Some just want fun. Hopefully serious games can arrive soon at a point where both parties are pleased!
GameScenes: What's your take on Molleindustria's Phone Story?
Benjamin Poynter: I commend Phone Story for addressing the matter in its own light and I will cite the game as part of the influence of making In a Permanent Save State in addition to the mass rooftop protest atop Foxconn at the beginning of 2012. Where as Phone Story tackled the overall theme from a 'Westview' of sorts channeling the manic consumerism we're driven by, I wanted a more wintry, dark approach to the subject matter that underlined the human effect and 'Eastview' of the corporate decisions being made. Phone Story does in fact cover the whole 'lifetime' of a smartphone where I put a vignette on a certain timeline to achieve focus, which in turn is not the whole picture. Paolo has emailed me in fact and we've exchanged minor words with another in recognition that "yeah, okay, this is still happening so lets start a conversation".
Benjamin Poynter, The Dreamer: You Are Now Part of the Spectacle, 2011
GameScenes: The oneiric theme recurs throughout many of your works - including your second game, tutled The Dreamer: You Are Now part of the Spectacle - the idea that our dreams turn into nightmarish reality and that somebody, somewhere is always paying the bills for the lucky privileged. Are games the opium of the masses or can they awake us for our state of torpor? If so, how?
Benjamin Poynter: Games have done a substantial job of taking all of us away from what may be a more or less distressful existence. Some people's existence are the greatest it can be, in fact, because of games whether it be from a developer's stand point or gamer's. Growing up in Oklahoma City and working my way through as a blue collar worker to get to where I am in Nevada for my degree, you begin to shut your eyes to the heaviness of the world around you and make sense of everything not externally but internally. I like to think of this existence as a dream in of itself because we have that prosthetic capability now. I can be that avatar, that protagonist, and that villain if I wanted to given the proper board game or computer game format. I now believe in the process of maturing that games can be escape and 'even more'. Video games can infiltrate the state of mind of society and while in delivering entertainment value bestow a social message that is even more deeply bolted because of the time invested to spend. Games put us to sleep because of how beautiful they are. I believe the game must sometimes become a nightmare in order to keep society 'wide awake'.
Benjamin Poynter: There was a live orchestra performance, on part of the Reno Video Game Symphony [look 'em up!], set directly to projected visuals of the game for a 22 minute playthrough. The gallery director told me in person it was the greatest and most immersive exhibition she had seen in years. The game was housed in a massive, cardboard "store" to further amplify the immersive effect of the game (re : "Those Who Assemble the Dreams of this World" on my site). Academically a success as well with good word of mouth floating around for those who were attendance. It was a labor intensive process that had a good payoff, even if the "payoff" virally is far from over. In a Permanent Save State is set to release on Android November 12, 2012.