Paolo Pedercini has something of a reputation in the game community. His games often provoke, prod, and pester people thanks to their political content and posturing. Not in the way that Grand Theft Auto comes under fire for adolescent shock value, but because Pedercini’s games wear their overtly antagonistic agendas on their sleeves. Molleindustria, his game-making collective, claims to produce “homeopathic remedies to the idiocy of mainstream entertainment in the form of free, short-form, online games,” and has released a manifesto in which it describes itself as a group that “invest[s] in objects that are small, sharp, and simple like political cartoons; we focus on originality to fuck with a market that has been dominated by copycat titles for years; we want to test practices that can be emulated and spread virally.”
With offerings like McDonald’s Videogame, described as “an anti-advergame for the fast food industry” and Phone Story, about “the dark side of smartphone manufacturing,” it’s clear that Mollindustria’s motives and philosophy are not about subtle critique. This would be a novelty, an aberration, if these games were single occurrences, but since the collective was founded in 2003, its gifts to the games community have stood staunchly in opposition to an idea of what games should be or what games can be. Pedercini’s games loudly assert themselves like a Lars von Trier film—unapologetically themselves, and for all their noise and volume are able to provide a modicum of insight and critical discourse via their repeated, cumulative existence.
Pedercini’s games loudly assert themselves
Pedercini is well aware of all of this, as well as his own perception of himself. At the Art&&Code festival at Carnegie Mellon, Pedercini is showing his new VR experience entitled A Short History of the Gaze. He happily tells me his game is “the most pretentious game here.”
Pedercini’s critics often deny him this agency to be a critic of his own work—his games, obtuse as they may be, also contain a degree of self-awareness. He pursues examination of politically charged topics through the lens of retro game mechanics, playing with a notion of nostalgia retextured as political discourse—an effect that comes off as catchy.
Gaze, while intellectually in line with this previous work, is as a game the next step in a shift begun with its predecessor, Nova Alea—notable for removing much of the agency Pedercini’s previous games used to implicate the player in the game’s messages.
It opens up during the Cambrian explosion, with you floating lifelessly in a near-empty ocean as prehistoric beings circle around you. Some version of the gaze, of senses, ensured that, as a species, you were able to survive. Not having the gift of gaze during this time meant almost total extinction, your species being left forgotten in the annals of history.
You slowly rise to the surface of the body of water you’re in, and find yourself moving across a small, colorless island towards a circular object hanging from a tree. As you approach it, color beings to stroke the trees around you, a sensual experience meant to emphasize the evolution of trichromatic vision as a means of identifying ripe fruits and younger leaves. It’s also a Garden of Eden scenario in which you glimpse humans, reaching towards a fruit for sustenance—an act that in multiple religions is said to have brought sin into our world.
Small vignettes like these make up Gaze, each exploring the notion of the gaze as a violent act. Indeed, Pedercini describes Gaze as “an experiential essay about the relationship between gaze and violence.” Though the early experiences are apolitical in that they explore the realities of evolution, it’s not too long after the grasping of the fruit that Gaze veers into more experimental territory. The vignettes become much more human-centric, more abstract in their exploration of gaze.
It’s not surprising that, during his presentation of the game, Pedercini quotes essayist and critic Susan Sontag on photography as a means of teaching us a new visual code. Just as suited for Gaze would be another Sontag quote:
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”
Sontag speaks of photography, but this capturing as a mode of death can easily be extended into other modes of representation. VR poses an interesting juncture in theory—whereas gaze in the context of 2D visual media has much to do with a notion of “direction” and guided choice, the mediated gaze that manifests out of an overtaking of our visual systems is newer territory.
VR is not liberating but confining
Pedercini recognizes this juncture as well, with a bridge in the experience coming in the form of your disembodied character having an Oculus-like headset placed on their head in the game before then embarking on a truly dystopian vision of the future of the gaze.
Gaze, from Pedercini’s perspective, becomes totally mediated and devoid of choice. Donning a VR headset is not liberating but confining—we have no options besides those that are already laid out for us. He speaks to this in his presentation as well, remarking that “the gaze is central in VR and yet rarely problematized.”
However, reality is already mediated; architecture, class privilege, social feeds, everything—and though we (for now) have the choice of placing a VR headset on our heads, none of us consented to be born, to have or not have the ability to exist and gaze at the world. While Gaze posits that the ultimate outcome of a mediated reality is total control and total manipulation, we’ve already transcended this, pushing society far past the Garden of Eden and into a place where the Garden of Eden can be recreated virtually.