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Driving in Mongolia: a digital poet’s accidental transformation into indie art game creator.

The strange journey of Jason Nelson, from digital artist to indie art-game creator. With work which polarizes audiences, an inbox filles with hate/love mail, Jason reflects on his adventure in combining poetry, art and the bizarre within indie games.

Jason Nelson, Blogger

November 14, 2011

10 Min Read

Recently an anonymous player of my newest art game “scrape scraperteeth (http://www.secrettechnology.com/scrape/scrape1.html) ” verbosely, and with great pixilated venom, described all the ways my game entirely and completely failed.  Aside from poor playability, hoboesque design and crashing coding, he spent a considerable effort blasting me personally. Suggesting I was an art school wanker with serious mental health issues, and most likely had a sordid criminal record filled with all manner of sexual deviances, he ended his diatribe with a direct threat to my skin and bones should I make another work.  Others in the same forum quickly leaped to his side, wielding great textual swords of agreement.  But, surprisingly, hidden in the bitter streams are islands of love, chiming comments of adoration. They tend to be quieter (as is the law of internet land), showing me love through back alley emailing or reviews, and sharing my work on obscure and major sites across the net.   

Since 2007, when I released “game, game, game and again game (http://www.secrettechnology.com/gamegame/gamegame.html)” into the gaming world (followed by four more games) the above scenario of extreme hate or love, from a polarized audience, has played out many dozens of times, across all continents, in a bizarrely broad range of web portals, from drug nuts to adult content, in major international magazines and even elementary school syllabi. My games struck and continue striking nerves and brain stems, inspiring the sharing of something so odd, so terrible or compelling, games that are not games, art that is not art, poetry that is, well, poetry.

 game, game, game and again game

Having been raised in Oklahoma, belief systems dominate social life. For some it’s Baptististic evangelism, others are ruled by Sooner football and everyone worships oil. So GGGaG was built for a poetic exploration of such life dominating notions as Real Estate, Pharmaceuticals or Buddhism. The hand-drawn backgrounds were created, both from frustration with the ultra clean/perfect design aesthetic and my yearnings to create a hand-made facade. One of the game’s most baffling aspects are the home videos. In essence these represent my belief system, as cheesy as it sounds, of family. They were shot by my grandfather, with the first level’s clip my mother coming out of the hospital, with newly born me in her lap. I also experimented with game play to reflect these beliefs, from the cycle of suffering for Buddhism to the leaping into danger of Faith or the traffic game of Cars.  

Let’s get this out of the way. The most common comment about my work is simply “WTF?!.” And I will admit it is also somewhat accurate.  I did not set out to share my work in the popular parts of the net, nor intend to play the role of “crazy dude” in gaming circles. GGGaG  and others were created as digital poems for the Electronic Literature community (see http://eliterature.org), built for galleries and academic venues. And while the game was happily accepted by artists and professors, the notion of having an audience of only a few hundred (most of whom are only attending for free wine/cheese or because some course required it) was entirely unsatisfying. Around that time I was helping a German PhD student (Jens Schroeder) with some “research” into video games (mostly involving crashing games conventions), and after a few beers where I complained about the tiny hit counts of art realms, Jens suggested I try sending my crazy game-like creature to some of the gaming blogs.

Later that night I sent a poorly-crafted email to the generic info/tips/contact addresses of such sites as Kotaku, Joystiq, Destructoid, Jayisgames and others. As a lark I inserted a “send me an email” note on the game’s final screen. Not being used to receiving messages from anyone other than complaining students or failed ebay bid notices, I left my email unchecked over the weekend.  Then on Monday morning, my usual four messages were replaced by a few hundred.  And after checking my server stats I found all the above game blogs (and numerous cleverly named others) had reviewed my work, and indeed the game continued spreading and spreading over the next weeks and months. 

As an artist it was an awakening. Here was an artwork, considered experimental in the fields of electronic art and writing, a digital poem and net-artwork for crusty crunk’s sake. And it was being discussed, shared, blasted and praised as a game. But I wasn’t prepared for the extremes of player’s responses. There were creative and disturbingly specific death threats, marriage proposals including images of shaved and unshaved areas circled and labeled with detailed directions. Some people sent money and others gave suggestions for psychiatrists.  Every morning they kept coming, and I became addicted to checking my server statistics and vainly searching for the latest exposure. 

After GGGaG ‘s viral (a terrible cliché) spread tapered, I itched to make another art game.  I spent months creating the zombie shooter inspired “alarmingly these are not lovesick zombies”. (http://www.secrettechnology.com/zombie/lovesickzombie6.html)  I explored a perpetual enemy shooter engine as a way to create an interactive sculpture generator. I crafted background videos for mini-narratives and toyed with the notions of absurd scoring goals and having levels reachable only upon losing. And sadly the game was a disaster.  I had let the www attention get into my head, and created a game weird for the sake of being weird. Somehow the internet collective consciousness picks up on disingenuous creations and destroys them with the hammer of disinterest. If you are going to create an abstract hand-drawn poetry art-game, do it from your unique imagination (the back of your head), and not from what you think will disturb others or get the most hits.  The game was met with relative web silence and sank like a chubby, cake heavy synchronized swimmer. So, I decided to go back into my safe academic world and never make another game, ever, never, ever. Sniff. Sniff.

 alarmingly these are not lovesick zombies

Thankfully, my gamer-hating, zombie-loving, emoesque party lasted less than a month. What broke my brief funk was, oddly and appropriately enough, the webmaster of series of “adult video” sites.  Almost a dozen teen, clip, hot, kitten, humping websites listed GGGaG as a top link.  As you might expect, the visitor count was massive, and with my work saving tons of lubricating jelly and paper towels I was recharged.  If my game could disrupt the hormone fueled drive of money-shot seeking browsers, maybe my brand of artsy-crazy still had legs.


For my next art game, I decided to thematically centre it on what had been preoccupying my mind for the previous year: the strange bi-polar space of the gaming community, and its love and hate of my craptastic creations.   So in mid-2008 “I made this, you play this. we are enemies” (http://www.secrettechnology.com/madethis/enemy6.html)  was born. The aptly titled game used screenshots of popular web portals, from the lumbering beasts of Yahoo/Google to fancy-pants sites like BoingBoing and Metafilter, for the level designs.  I wanted to create the effect of doodle annotation, of marking up the screenshots with commentaries about the portals and what they represented. The player becomes the doodler, with each coin-like reward adding to the visuals. Oddly, introducing the idea of an intermission seemed to spur incredible numbers of emails, a pause in the frenetic insanity. I also attempted to introduce more traditional game elements, more enemies, harder level design and secret transporters. Indeed, another version is floating around with five hidden levels inspired by ESPN, Suicide Girls and others.   

 I made this. you play this. we are enemies

IMTYPTWAE spread even more than GGGaG, showing up in newspapers like the NY Post, Der Speigel, Russian MTV and in magazines like Wired and others.  This repeat success seemed to signal one thing, there were gamers hungry for the strange and unique, for the odd combination of poetry and art in a world dominated by clean graphics and complex game play.  It even inspired some lovely copyright battles. Deeper in the game are three appropriately sequenced levels, with Disney’s main page, the RIAA (the folks that sued grandmotherly pirates), followed by Mininova (at the time a major bittorent destination).  I received a few threatening emails from prestigious-sounding law firms demanding all sorts of madness. I would like to think my academically-driven responses, hinged on satire laws, made them go away. Instead it was most likely all those that stole the game’s SWF and placed it on gaming portals that made their task seem impossible. And, I suppose, my living in Australia didn’t hurt.

The follow-up, and perhaps my most literary and theory driven game, was "Evidence of Everything Exploding "(http://www.secrettechnology.com/explode/evidence2.html) . Continuing with the annotating doodle notion, I chose documents for the level designs. Each of the documents represented pivotal or interesting moments in recent human history. There is Bill Gate’s Computer Brew letter where he argues for charging for software, a government warning about the pre-WW1 pandemic flu, the NASA moon landing document and the patent for the Pizza box among others. Moving away from the platform engine, I used a top-down shooter engine while including some of the same tricks as previous games for pop-up narratives and other artistic content. And keeping with the theme of these documents as keys to our social puzzle, I included locked areas and required exploration for keys chased by more complex enemies. In some ways the increased difficulty of EoEE made for a smaller audience, as it hit that murky middle ground between proper game and art experience.

 evidence of everything exploding

I’ve made other games since then, as well as a whole herd of other less gamey excursions into interactive poetry and straight dynamic/generative digital art.  These works, while well regarded in some realms, never reach the same massive audience as those using a game engine.  Games are a common interface, a universal language. They are a ladder and a foothold for the average player to experience abstract art/poetry.  When driving in Mongolia you might not know what the signs say, but you know enough about the shapes and directions to find your way to the hotel without smashing into overloaded delivery trucks. And like all other creative tools, games can be anything the creator imagines, toying with or destroying entirely player expectations. 

My latest art game Scrape Scraperteeth, commissioned by the San Francisco Gallery of Modern Art was built from the directive to make a small-scale creation, simple and representative of my previous works. And while it doesn’t do anything particularly new, it does focus on one of the dominate events of the past few years, the real estate speculation crash. I love the notion of creating micro-games as artistic/poetic commentary on important news events or controversial topics. It might not be very successful as a game, but as an artistic statement I’m charmed by its singular focus.

In no way is this missive detailing my game making experiences intended to “look what a great artist I am” or “I’m more popular than Kangaroo Jack.” (I’ve always wanted to type that) Indeed, I admit I am not a great game maker. My drawings are messy, and my work is difficult for those outside the net-art/digital poetry spheres to understand. Instead, my intention is to show how creating games that are truly unique, creating with a reckless abandon, without regards to convention, can actually lead both to interesting artwork, but also to an substantial audience. Yes, half your audience might hate you with words of violence and bitterness, but the other half will send you long, adoring notes of how your work reached some unused part of their brain, a brief crazy escape from the madness of their daily life. 

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