Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Heather Logas: Experimental Game Design

15 May

What do Demosthenes, Wordsworth, and students in Heather Logas’s UCSC course in experimental game design have in common? Solitary walks! Art 146, offered this spring, asked students to examine not only the underlying assumptions involved in game-making, but how inspiration can be cultivated.

Among the strategies explored in the interdisciplinary course—comprised, Logas notes, of roughly half computer science majors and half art majors—was a thirty minute walk.  According to a student on the class blog, “the goal, was to seek places and things you normally wouldn’t think about, challenging the definition of what games are.”

Logas proposed only two rules: to be open to possibilities and to walk alone. In one sense, that’s the underlying framework of many of the digital games the students have grown up playing. As to actually taking a solitary walk—that, the blogger reported, was for her an unusual and somewhat challenging experience.

Logas, who is an MFA candidate in Digital Arts and New Media, describes herself as “a game designer and an artist who wants to take these two worlds and moosh them together.” Her own games specialize in allowing players to examine the reasons behind their responses. A player of her Before You Close Your Eyes can come to a seemingly tragic end, receive a score on their compassion and timidity, and find themselves revived and back on the road to the palace, armed perhaps with more awareness.

In addition to Mechanics ( “rules you play a game by” ), Dynamics (“things that happen as a result of the rules”), and Aesthetics (“the packaging, what the game looks like”), Logas told her class, game designers need to think about the thoughts and emotions they want their game to elicit from players.

To that end, classroom strategies included spider web maps representing all the associations that came to peoples’ minds when a particular word –“saw,” say—was mentioned.  Seeing the tangled pathways that emerged between physical objects, metaphorical actions and pop-cultural references (Texas Chain Saw!) gave students another way of viewing the multiple levels that may be involved in a game.  Or an artwork.

Logas’s current interest is what she calls “physical interfaces for digital games.” She’s not talking about joysticks. After watching a speech by Bernie DeKoven, a founder of the New Game Movement (an on-the-ground outgrowth of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue) and Junkyard Sports (using found and everyday objects like chalk and shopping carts) Art146 students went outside to devise games that embody DeKoven’s idea of “coliberation.” By that he means games which address the question of how to truly play with other people rather than merely playing with a game.

What did they come up with?  Students, Logas observed, were “rolling down hills, rhyming in circles,” as well as inventing an energetic form of charades in which a player not only had to communicate an idea to his teammates but get them to perform it.

The solitary walks inspired other games. Hunters and Prey (subtitled Logarithmic Dodge Ball) uses teams made up of two kinds of players—those who can only hunt and those who can only be hunted. What makes things more interesting are rules that limit the hunters’ options and permit prey to develop strategic collaborations.

In Shadow Cube, a solo player uses actual cubes and the sun to cast a shadow line in prescribed patterns. As the student blog reports: “Some designs were easy to achieve whilst others proved to be quite challenging.” Like the art-making strategies of Fluxus, a movement which included John Cage and Yoko Ono and which Logas cites as one of her inspirations, Shadow Cube directs players’ attention to the intricate interplay between plan and chance. A useful observation whether the subject is games, art, or life.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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