For today’s class we all played Jason Nelson’s four part game series “Arctic Acre Oddities and Curious Lands.” In these games Nelson uses glitch aesthetic to overturn a lot of standard notions about how a video game should deliver meaning and how one should function. Instead of making anymore generalizations right now about all of the games I’ll take a look at the individual games in an attempt to offer some insight into these complex, dense works.
Nelson describes the first game, “game, game, game and again game,” as a “digital poem/game/net art work hybrid,” which is as good a description as any for this unorthodox work. In this game the player controls a black and red/yellow circle with squiggles coming off of it. I’ll call it a cell because the squiggles look like flagella or cilia and because it’s a simple way to refer to the sprite. The cell can only move left or right and jump. The game progresses by “collecting” (moving onto) objects, which in turn cause other text(in the general sense) to appear on the screen. The score at the top of the screen changes whenever an object is collected. The score is tabulated in indecipherable symbols, so the goal of the game is not to collect points, but to explore Nelson’s text. Throughout the 13 levels Nelson shows the absurdity and fallibility of human belief systems by presenting nonsensical takes on various belief systems. For example in “the capitalist level” moves the cell up a stepped graph collecting shining dollar signs, much like real capitalism where the object is to acquire ever increasing amounts of money. The dollar signs are depicted in black and red, which is interesting because black and red can be used to reference anarcho-syndacalism, an ideology explicitly opposed to capitalism. Once the cell reaches the top of the graph, the only place to go is down. Capitalism’s infinite growth model is impossible, once the highest point has been reached there’s nowhere to go but down.
In “game, game, game and again game” the crude nature of Nelson’s design mocks the sleek look institutions put on (think priests in robes, stained glass windows, businessmen in suits, corporate logos) to assert their authority and hide their contradictions. The unpolished look also serves to contradict the expectation that the creator of a work should be giving the reader/player a determined meaning to latch onto. Nelson challenges us to devise thoughts or meanings of our own from the chaotic whirlpool he throws at us. In the first level of the second game “i made this, you play this, we are enemies” incorporates smooth designs into the glitch aesthetic. When the words “buy” or “sell” are collected clip-art-like images of a shield reading “simple is bleak is hypnosis”, flowers, and stars (one even says “smooth brands”) appear. The shield’s message could be a comment on those who criticize Nelson’s work for being simplistic, such a view is “bleak” or boring – showing the critic is unwilling to engage the work enough to extract some kind of meaning. Such critics are “hypnotized” by their pre-existing notions of what a video game should be.
Another aspect of the second game’s design I found fascinating was the use of websites for backgrounds. As objects are collected the backgrounds become more and more vandalized this mimics the sensory and information overload often experienced while surfing the web. Throughout the games as more text (in both senses) appears other parts of the game are obscured. For example, when the pop up videos appear they prevent the reader/player from reading certain parts of the text. These games are not only inaccessible in the non-commercial/non-mainstream sense, Nelson makes it difficult to access, i.e. to interpret, his work.
In the third game “Evidence of Everything Exploding” the artistic movement Dadaism is explicitly mentioned. This is significant because Nelson’s works is a great example of Dada, which uses technology that would be completely alien to the innovators of Dada in the early 20th century. One goal of Dada is to destroy or subvert traditional meaning with seemingly destructive techniques like collage in order to suggest and create new meanings. Nelson accomplishes this by subverting various ideas about video games, thereby leaving us to invent our own interpretation.
In the fourth game “alarmingly these are not lovesick zombies” the reader/player is given the most agency, the cell sprite from the first game returns with a red protrusion, it now can move in all directions and shoot. The score is kept in actual numerals, but once again serves mostly as a way to progress in the text. Advancing through this game requires the reader/player to die, half the levels are death levels and half are living levels. This challenges the traditional role of death in video games where death is something to be avoided. In between levels Nelson kindly gives us a “video theory of games” – videos where he gives his unique explanation of various aspects of video games. These videos give one meaning to “Arctic Acre” as a whole, but whether or not this meaning is satisfactory is open for debate, if it needs to be debated at all. It is a common assumption that reading or watching an interview with an artist will help clarify parts of their work. Nelson does subvert this expectation, but by subverting it the way he does he ends up clarifying the ambiguous nature of the games.