Keep Games Weird

Tomorrow is the third annual No Quarter Exhibition and I’ve gotten quite a few questions from people wondering about the show, as well as our motivations for mounting the exhibition each Spring. I’ve been the curator of No Quarter long enough now that I think I can explain to some degree my interest in the show, what I think it represents, and how it fits into the overall character of the NYU Game Center.

No Quarter came about as something of an accident. When the Game Center was first being organized we were looking for any way to tell people that we existed and that we had a particular perspective on games (though it was still nascent at the time). Both our Director, Frank Lantz, and I had close connections with NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, which got a lot of attention each Spring for its student show. Since we didn’t yet have any students we couldn’t display that kind of work, but what we did have between all the staff at the Game Center were acquaintanceship with a lot talented, independent developers in the still relatively unorganized New York game scene and beyond. It was then that we hatched the bizarre plan to find designers that we thought did interesting work, and some who needed more exposure, and give them money to make new games. We would then premiere these games to world in a big show at the end of the Spring semester.

Around the same time I became friends with Anna Anthropy, who was still living in the Bronx before she moved to Oakland, California. During an interview I conducted with her for Another Castle she introduced me to the idea of ‘the New Arcade’. This was a movement of designers and artists that were interested in creating games to be played specifically in social settings. Though video games at the time were becoming more social, online multi-player already being mandatory for most console games and social Facebook games on the horizon, with the decline of commercial arcades there were fewer and fewer places to play video games around other people.

It was this combination, the circumstances of a newly minted game design department and a parallel growing design movement, that shaped the heart of the No Quarter Exhibition. We have remained dedicated to the idea of presenting games that work best, or only, when they are played by people who share a physical space, but we have also always kept our conception of games wider than simply digital games, as befits the Game Center’s general adherence to ‘platform agnosticism’.

What developed for me out of these beliefs and constraints has at this point become a coherent set of ideas about the role of No Quarter and my responsibilities as its curator. First, the maintenance of spaces for social play should not be done out of a sense of nostalgia or historical preservation, but to conserve and cultivate a certain line of design challenges. Second, the goal is not to setup events but to foster institutions. Third, many games are social institutions themselves, and work best when approached that way. Finally, we should celebrate the ever shifting morphology of games rather than wring our hands over its implications.

Over the past three years the games we’ve supported have been both evidence for these ideas and have shaped them. Mark Essen’s Nidhogg and Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra have been toured around the world by their creators since they were premiered at No Quarter and become small sport-like institutions in their own right. Many No Quarter works have been examples of the different shapes games, and their play, can take. These include Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea, Matt Parker’s Recurse, and Charley Miller’s A Good Player is Hard to Find. The Exhibition’s artists have also found new avenues of design by exploring classic formulas, as in Terry Cavanaugh’s two player, two screen, puzzle game At a Distance. Beyond this we have tried to strengthen other institutions that explore games in social spaces by showing work that they discovered. For instance, Eric Zimmerman and Natalie Pozzi’s 16 Tons was commissioned by the Art History of Games conference and featured in the first No Quarter, while last year’s featured game was Luke O’ Conner’s Clock, which I first encountered at Babycastles.

This year I believe we are continuing these traditions and expanding on these ideas.

Barabariball, by Noah Sasso, is set to become a high level competitive institution in the vein of Nidhogg and Hokra but unlike those games it expands much more literally on an existing design tradition, namely Masahiro Sakurai’s Super Smash Bros. series. Sasso’s game looks at the faults of a great series of games and tries, if it’s possible, to rethink its core insights and make a game that emphasizes a sporting nature to an even greater degree, with a singular visual and auditory aesthetic sensibility to back it up.

Beside Sasso’s work we have Tennnes, a game by Jan Willem Nijman (also knows as half of Vlambeer). Instead of being just a refinement of its source material, Tennnes challenges our expectations of digital games by presenting a set of mechanics with few directions other than its puckish title. Where video game players have gotten used to having structure without much ‘stuff’, Nijman presents a game with a great deal of well tuned ‘stuff’ but not much structure. One might say that Tennnes is merely a piece of software with which players can play a game resembling the time honored sport, but just like a tennis ball can be used for activities other than tennis the game does not insist on being just a simulation.

Zach Gage took on one of the harder design problems when creating a game to be experienced in a social space, namely creating a traditional card game. Guts of Glory is in many ways an act of pure chutzpah. A deep card game that nonetheless plays in little more than ten minutes once its simple rules are digested. Gage has taken a type of game that lends itself more to quiet parlors that allow for long contemplation and created a lean design and evocative theme that allows a community of players to spring up in the course of an evening.

As our featured game we have YaMove, which was built by a team originating from NYU Poly’s Innovation Lab and NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program in collaboration with Syed Salahuddin, one of the founders of Babycastles. This piece lives in the fertile middle ground between games and the performing arts, event and work, expression and optimization.

Finally, there is Margaret Robertson’s Drunk Dungeon. Out of all of our games it is perhaps the most experimental and the one designed most specifically for the ecology of No Quarter. A large scale strategy game that will be played by two teams, and most patrons of the Exhibition, Drunk Dungeon presents a central game board while its hundreds of pieces, which are coasters given out with each drink, will be distributed among the event’s attendees. What is most fascinating to me about Robertson’s game is that even as the curator I don’t know if it will work, and for me there’s nothing more in the spirit of No Quarter. What seems most certain is that Drunk Dungeon will exist for tomorrow evening and maybe not ever again in its fullest form, which saddens, excites, and puts me in awe.

When I sat at that bar with Anna Anthropy three years ago and heard about the New Arcade I did not anticipate how much the movement would flourish and that I would be able to play a part. The past three years we have seen the rise of numerous organizations that exist to activate their local communities and present opportunities to play games with other people. These include New York’s own Babycastles, Toronto’s Hand Eye Society, the Mount Royale Game Society, IndieCade, and recently Austin’s Juegos Rancheros. However, there is a lot of work still to accomplish. As honored as I am to be able to offer funding to brilliant people so that they can create games that might not ever happen otherwise, there is still a question of what happens to these games after they premiere at No Quarter. My hope is that as the New Arcade movement continues to gain momentum we will see an infrastructure rise that allows these talented designers to tour their creations at enough of a profit to justify their continued development. As I said before, our task is not just to mount events, but establish institutions that will benefit both players and developers and allow this vital mode of creation to persist and expand.

Ultimately, this is what No Quarter and, for me, the Game Center in general represent: a bet on the future of games. I don’t believe that games should ever be any one thing, anymore that I think that those who explore the artform should come from any one perspective. My hope is that No Quarter will always be an exhibition focused on helping games thrive in their multiple and extraordinary forms. The future of games is bright, and it will be brighter the more opportunities that games have to assume shapes both familiar and alien.