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If you’re anything like me—known by your friends to be “into videogames,” whatever that means—you’ve probably found yourself standing around at parties and fielding a surprising number of questions about VR. Now that the champagne has been poured and quaffed for 2019, these questions feel even more peculiar because, honestly, those of us who do the whole #videogames thing have been over VR-hype since about 2017. Microtransactions, diversity, distribution consolidation quashing artistic indies, industry unionization, bloated AAA, and the vagrancies of live-ops/streaming culture, these subjects weigh far more on our minds than our unused (but still sweaty) Oculus Rift. But the queries from those outside of videogame fandom continues unabated.

There’s no way I’ll make it through an article complaining about the failings of video essayists without naming names or giving specific examples, so I’ll just get it out of the way right now: this post was inspired by Joseph Anderson’s A Critique of Subnautica. It is one of the most stunningly asinine pieces of criticism I’ve seen in a long time. To save you a view, he spends about five minutes barely scratching the surface of the tone and themes of the game before dedicating the remaining 55 minutes of his critique to uninformed technical complaints and backseat game design, proposing various fixes that would turn Subnautica into a “smoother experience” - without ever to pausing to consider how these changes would affect the rest of the game, or whether a smoother experience is even desirable in the case of a notably spooky survival game.

Considering what we normally associate with Youtube, it feels petty to even mention my misgivings with this video. It’s not that like Anderson is doing something offensively bad, like trying to “take down” Anita Sarkeesian or showing kids how to gamble with their in-game weapon skins. In fact, longform videos such as his often act as a counterargument to that exact stigma, the image we have of Youtube as the exclusive domain of personal brands, paid promotions and people talking directly into a camera.

Curating artwork that deals with video games has a number of unique and often hidden challenges. In the past, most video game art shows took place at informal or mixed-use fan spaces like comic book stores, parties, or conventions. As video games become more mainstream, and the fine art world increasingly engages with video games and video game culture, the venues and curation of these shows become critical factors for how these broader audiences experience the art.

Fresh from curating and installing the art show “Screen Knowledges: Photography in the Era of Videogames” at a space called ETA (a hybrid music venue, bar, and gallery in the trendy Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles) Kent Sheely and Eron Rauch sat down to share some of what they learned from curating the show.

Photography, and how we use it to understand the world, is undergoing massive changes in the era of digital information technology. While these fractures, slippages, and mismatches can be frustrating, they can also be incredibly fertile sites for artistic production. After all, what could be more apt a metaphor for media-bombarded 2017 than the awkward, sometimes distressing act, of trying to figure out how use a technology that is almost 200 years old to deal with the implications of the futurist-media du jour, video games?

My own work, dealing with photography, virtual landscape, glitches, and the unseen traces of online gaming, has been fueled by this tension. And who would be a better partner in conversation about this often amusingly awkward, but also surprisingly potent, act of making art that combines these two massive cultural forces, than Kent Sheely, an artist who is perhaps best known for his video art/performance piece “Modern Pacifism,” in which he tried to play through Call of Duty without killing anyone. Inspired by our collaborative curation of a show about photography and video games called Screen Knowledges, we sat down to discuss the ways we find subject matter in our relationship to video games and art history.

In the lead-up to collaborating to curate an art show Screen Knowledges, which looks at what contemporary artists are doing to advance screenshot and in-game photography, Kent Sheely and I did a large number of studio visits. These meetings involved looking at each other’s work, but also sprawling conversations about the threads that wove through our own artistic oeuvre, our personal lives, the work of each other, and of our fellow artists.

My massive ongoing project Valhalla Nocturnes, which is made up of long-exposure abstracts and self-portraits shot while playing video games late at night, became something of a focal point for our conversations around artistic process. After we finished the show, Kent used this project as a jumping point to talk about some of the often thorny and contradictory aspects of the process of making art that often get covered over by institutional wall blurbs and PR language.

Though it waxes and wanes in public consciousness and gets called by different names (screenshots, virtual photography, or more recently, in-game photography) over the past decade there have been a whole host of artists who have explored video games through photography. My first project that combined the two was a series from 2001 which re-printed cryptic landscape images found on Everquest forums, after learning the reason one of my old friends had dropped out of high school was to play the game. Kent Sheely has also been exploring this far-flung cultural space for just about as long as anyone else.

After collaborating to curate a recent art show about video games and photography, titled Screen Knowledges, I had a moment where I realized what a long, winding trek it has been to get to this artwork in 2017. Given his status as one of the most veteran artists in this genre, I wanted to talk to Kent about the arc of his oeuvre and hear his thoughts about how the field has changed over the past years.

The following essay by Pascal Wagner was first published in issue 95 of the wonderful Unwinnable Monthly.

You should think playing Nazi shooter Wolfenstein: The New Order while living in Germany must feel alarming. The whole concept of the game is to mock your own past, after all. And who likes to be mocked, even more so by one of the parties who put your country back into place after it ventured into the abyss? It has to be humiliating.

But let me tell you: it isn't. Experiencing a fictional Third Reich dystopia like Wolfenstein's is fantastic. It feels incredibly healthy, not only because playing a good game is fun in itself. The game conveys a message that can be very hard to understand for people not socialized in Germany.

Bridging Worlds is artist Eron Rauch’s ongoing series of in-depth articles on the curious places of connection between video games, contemporary art, and culture.

After a 24 year break from playing Civilization, my friends recently roped me into trying the new Civilization 6. For reference, the last time I had played a Civ game was in 1993. I was 12 and didn’t even have a computer with a color screen at home. After stumbling around the overwhelmingly massive campus of new junior high, my proclivity for reading Dragonlance novels at lunch accidentally made me a new friend who would open the geeky technicolor doors for me.

Let’s call him J.T., and after bonding over our mutual love of 20-sided dice, Robotech, and the number 42, our daily after-school ritual became to head to his conveniently located house. Yeah, it smelled like cat pee, but his mom always brought us nacho cheese dip made with Velveeta and taco seasoning packs so that evened out. But the main attraction was that JT’s family had a full-on computer room in the basement, the lair of a towering beige beast with a massive 15-inch 256 color monitor.

We’d fail our way through Eye of the Beholder’s early stages (too hard); try to pick fights in Star Trek: 25th Anniversary (too boring); and eventually settle into the original Civilization for a long afternoon of mayhem. Nothing could cause more squeals of laughter from us than playing as Gandhi and rushing for nuclear missiles and blowing up the world.

DEEP-ROOTED GAMES is series of four interviews with four game developers from four different continents who looked for narrative inspiration and found it in unusual places: In the folklore of their own people, region or family, and in other storytelling-corners of the world which are too often neglected by the mainstream.

DEEP-ROOTED GAMES is series of four interviews with four game developers from four different continents who looked for narrative inspiration and found it in unusual places: In the folklore of their own people, region or family, and in other storytelling-corners of the world which are too often neglected by the mainstream.