Pay a visit to Eddo Stern's office at UCLA and you'll get a sense of why he's become the poster child for one of the art world's heated debates: should video games be considered an art form? The floor-to-ceiling shelves and the long tables that cut across his large studio are piled high with the stuff of many a working artist: paper, glue, cardboard, museum catalogs and art books. But you'll also find boxes upon boxes of computing manuals, monitors, routers, and all kinds of electronics equipment. Here is an artist with an obsession for technology who spends much of his time making games.
A practicing artist and game designer, Stern is a full-time professor in the Design Media Arts department at UCLA and the founder and Director of both UCLA's Game Lab and the annual Game Art Festival at the Hammer. He first gained notoriety with early work such as "Tekken Torture Tournament" (2001), a performance piece in which willing participants playing the game "Tekken" experienced electric shocks whenever their onscreen fighters sustained injuries. The piece is indicative of the bulk of his work, which often focuses on the ways in which our physical existence and the digital worlds we inhabit collide. He is perhaps the most important artist and thinker in Southern California exploring the intersection between making games and making art.
The debate around video games as art gained notice in 2006 when the film critic Roger Ebert participated in a panel discussion at the Conference of World Affairs called "An Epic Debate: Are Video Games an Art Form?" Ebert argued that games like "Doom" could not be compared to more established art forms such as film and literature. This, of course, sparked a host of counter arguments and the debate continued on for years in various forms before coming to head again last year when MoMA in New York acquired 14 video games for its permanent collection. Wired covered the controversy with a telling headline: "All Hell Broke Loose: Why MoMA is Exhibiting Tetris and Pac-Man." MoMA's senior curator of architecture and design, Paola Antonelli, ended up delivering a TED talk to defend the acquisition.
When the initial controversy first broke out, many of the defenders of games as art pointed to Eddo's work to prove their point. A TED talk by Kellee Santiago, co-founder of L.A.-based Thatgamecompany, argued that the Stern's game "Waco Resurrection" (2004) deserved to be called a work of art, a claim which Ebert flat out rejected. Reflecting back on this today, Stern says that the debate has provoked a valid and interesting discussion, but he believes there's a lot of naiveté in the way it is being discussed: "Most of the people on both sides of the argument should first reckon with the questions of 'What are games?' and 'What is art?' Both are almost unanswerable questions." Stern's approach is to just get on with it, grappling with these bigger questions through his art and design practice and through his work at UCLA.
First to his practice.
Much of Stern's work is about the tensions that exist around technology as a form of simulation that lies in contrast to realism, authenticity, and objectivity. In his early work, Stern was a pioneer of what became known as machinima, short form videos created from real-time footage captured from video games. Today the company Machinima.com in West Hollywood has the second most popular channel on YouTube, but when Stern was doing machinima the term had barely even been coined. In "Sheik Attack" (1999/2000), he used footage from computer games created in the mid-to-late 90s to recreate and critique his experience serving for the military in Israel where he grew up. He used military simulation games created in the U.S. -- Command and Conquer, Soldier of Fortune -- to make what amounts to both a documentary piece and a piece of appropriation art. In "Sheik Attack" he seems to critique Israeli ideology on the one hand, while exposing the games industry on the other. "A real problem for games and the games industry is that they want to capitalize on political tension and fantasies of war while never being held accountable for a specific point of view since everything is abstracted into fantastical versions of reality," he says.
If in "Sheik Attack" Stern is critiquing the mapping of real life experiences onto virtual war games, some of his other works critique the ways in which the virtual is mapped onto the real. His project from 2003, called Vietnam Romance, was about the culture's fascination with the Vietnam war and how the fantasy of the war stands in place of actual history, particularly for generations like his own who were born after the war. "I have very visceral and highly detailed sensibility of the Vietnam war," he says. "But it's all been constructed through film, rock music, video games and literature." The piece looks at how history can be constructed completely through the lens of the entertainment industry, including books. He's currently revising "Vietnam Romance" as theater project, a follow up to "Wizard Takes All," a combination play, rock show, and computer game, commissioned by Houston's Media Archeology festival in 2011. The three-hour performance had Stern playing the role of a wizard who gradually abuses the audience's trust until they revolt against him.
A central theme that wraps the entirety of Stern's work is the paradox between people's desire for technological mediation and a yearning for real, direct experience as well. "People want technology to do more and more things for them," he says. "They increasingly want to spend time in mediated realities, yet they also yearn for unmediated experiences that are more real, more direct, more true, more honest." For Stern, the central claims of technology -- the very fantasy of technology -- is that it will make things more real. One of his chief obsessions is the paradox that this can be achieved through more and more mediation and more layers of artifice.
Stern's project in an on-going stage of development is a sensory deprivation game called "Darkgame" (2009/13), which is about to go into its fourth iteration. Projected onto a wall, the game requires players to wear physical headsets that provide haptic feedback allowing them to sense where they are in the game at any given time. The whole game design is premised on subverting the idea of role playing; the notion that you leave yourself behind when you enter into the framework of a game. What's innovative here is that the attributes in the game that usually belong to your avatar are split between you as a human player and the avatar that you play. There are six resources in the game and three of them directly affect the player's physical experience of the game. The players vision, hearing, and tactile senses can be dialed up or down. If you enhance your abilities as a player, your avatar's abilities will be severely diminished and it can become fickle and unreliable. Or, vice versa, you can play the game by hardly being able to see, hear, or feel what you're doing and your avatar will become a very powerful, almost autonomous super character. A year and half ago Stern started working with the Braille Institute in L.A. to develop a version of the game in which visually impaired players can play together in a network environment with non-visually impaired players. Stern is interested in using immersive technology to probe its own possibilities and limitations.
If in his practice Stern pushes the boundaries of game making as an art form, the goal of the Game Lab he runs at UCLA is to empower his students to do the same. Supported by the School of Arts and Architecture and the School of Cinema and Television, the UCLA Game Lab approaches game design as a multidisciplinary activity. While it integrates students and faculty from other departments, Stern says the Game Lab is unique since it's focused on producing games within the context of an art school. He says his students may or may not be able to rattle off every Nintendo game -- some of them do -- but they will certainly be able to talk to you about Duchamp and the Situationists. Since so many in the faculty are fine artists, Stern says the students in the program are never going to ask whether games are art without first saying, "Well, we are still learning and figuring out what art is."
Eddo wears another hat as curator and organizer of the Game Art Festival at the Hammer. Now in its third year, the Game Art Festival is one of the only game festivals in the world to be held in an art museum. It brings to Southern California games, installations, sculptures and videos from around the world and is intended in part to stir the pot around the question of games as art.
That all this is happening in Los Angeles is especially important for Stern who can often be sharply critical of Southern California's video game establishment, especially when it comes to how it treats its visual artists. Too often, he argues, game publishers treat artists as technicians and mimics working solely on behalf of game franchises whose brands need to be protected. "From where I come from, the idea of art and what it means to an individual is about freedom of experimentation and exploration," he says. "It's about idiosyncrasy, mistakes and crooked lines."
Indeed the type of game making that Eddo wants to see more of is a practice where artistic expression is respected. And this is not only limited to the visual component: "I come from a context of creative programming where software engineers are not put in a box but are also being creative with code."
As the sheer variety of stuff piled high in his studio suggests, Eddo's work moves back and forth from a non-slick, rough around the edges DIY aesthetic to the world of multi-core processors, motion capture, laser cutters, 3D printing and server farms. He's comfortable working with paper, hand crafts, watercolors and glue. But it's the role of electronic media in constructing our sense of reality that lies at the core of his work.