Eddo Stern is a multimedia artist working around the politics and philosophies of games, and the games of politics and philosophy. In a review of his recent exhibition at Young Projects in LA, Sharon Mizota makes note of two games displayed for public play, Darkgame and Goldstation, which touch on existential issues core to gameplay mechanics. In explaining Darkgame, Mizota reveals the doubled-edged sword of creating a conceptual art game that privileges the mechanisms of fun over fun itself:
“Darkgame (v3.0)” is a wall-sized projection of an avatar — a slim, black, humanoid silhouette — running through a partially darkened, indeterminate space. Floating around this shadowy body are clusters of organs — eyes, ears, hearts, etc. — that accompany it wherever it goes. These represent the player’s attributes: The more eyes clustered around you, for example, the more of the landscape you can see. You determine your path with a standard video-game controller, as a disembodied female voice directs you to encounter mysterious, god-like creatures that may give you more powers, but might also take some away. For example, if you run out of eyes, the screen goes black and you must don a vibrating headset to “feel” your way around.
As a video game, it’s a bit monotonous, but as art, it’s an existential exploration of one of the governing tropes of role-playing games — the constant need to monitor and recharge one’s vital signs. Of course in a conventional game, this process is a means to an end — achieving the next level of play, being strong enough to defeat the next enemy — but in Stern’s piece it becomes an end in itself, and something of a metaphor for sheer survival.
Mizota goes on to describe Goldstation, a game that is equally invested in exposing a reoccurring mechanic of videogames: level-grinding. She explains,
In similar fashion, “Goldstation” allegorizes the notion of progress for progress’ sake. Styled like an old school, 8-bit video game, the projection, flanked by walls lined in reflective foil, depicts a large golden asteroid, moving through outer space. The player controls a row of figures arrayed in a production line across the top of the rock. They take chunks of gold that fall from above, smelt them into bars, and send them off on an interstellar horse cart. Every time the horse departs with a bar, the asteroid moves more quickly. If you don’t get a repetitive stress injury first, you can get the workers going at a good clip, and the asteroid starts speeding through the stars.
What does it mean for an artist to make art-games about mainstream-game mechanics? Why not just make a game outside the art-gallery context? Though not for everyone, Stern’s work seems to holds value in challenging and appropriating gaming through art, bringing to light issues that might otherwise go unconsidered; smart gamers and artist alike will take refuge in Darkgame and Goldstation‘s inward-looking criticality.