On a recent balmy night, in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, I watch a dozen adults hop excitedly between platters of white, gray, and black arrayed in a circle. They move at a waltzlike pace, stepping, stopping, pointing. This strange spectacle isn’t an art project, exactly, but a game: part of a one-night arcade organized by the magazine Kill Screen for MoMA’s exhibition of interactive objects, “Talk to Me.”
The game is called Starry Heaven, after Kant’s epigram that the two things that fill him with wonder and awe are “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The rules of Starry Heaven, however, are decidedly unfriendly to anyone following the moral law within him. As players move from disc to disc toward the center of the circle, they must conspire with each other to point at another player on an adjacent disk, banishing him. “It requires them to collaborate with their fellow players—and to stab them in the back,” says Eric Zimmerman, who designed the game with Nathalie Pozzi, an architect. “It tells a perverse moral fable.”
Another game, in the museum’s lobby, takes a more laissez-faire approach to pitting players against each other. It has only one rule—to follow the instructions that appear on a screen—but the game’s title, BUTTON, for Brutally Unfair Tactics Totally OK Now, encourages players to break it. As I walk toward the five-foot-wide screen, it tells the four men standing in front of it that the first one to hit his button ten times will lose. They run, dive, grabbing their bucket-size rubber buttons from the floor—and then they stop, seemingly at a loss. Cautiously they press their own buttons, watching each other: a suicide pact. Then, one of them grabs his neighbor’s button and starts bashing it furiously. People in line cheer as the screen shows his competitor’s animal avatars blasted by lightening bolts. He walks away with his arms raised in triumph.
“You need to cheat,” says Albert Hwang, an information artist overseeing the action. “One of the directions is to close your eyes. How can you play with your eyes closed? But I’ve seen people fall for it. They buy into the game and close their eyes, and they lose.”
The next group takes up position. They are promptly told to go to another room. One woman runs into the coat check and peeks around the corner. Her competitor leaps behind the glass barrier of a handicap ramp and shifts from foot to foot as he watches the screen, waiting to see whether the game recognizes this as technically a separate room.
“The game can’t see them, can it?” I ask Albert.
He laughs. “No, it just tells them what to do. It tells people to dance like a monkey and they do it.” At that moment, the game tells the players to act like bees, and they go buzzing back to the screen, circuitously, the man flapping his arms.
“It’s only fun because people choose to follow the rules or to cheat in a collective way,” says Matt Parker, a researcher at New York University’s interactive telecommunications program. He points to a woman who, when told to take ten steps back from the screen, takes ten very small steps. The players, he says, “could heckle her about that, but they aren’t. Part of it is that they’re playing the game for the first time. They’re following the rules. Once you go two or three times, that’s when you start getting shoved.”
Games like Starry Heaven create intensely rule-bound worlds that force players into conflict with each other. It’s part of what makes a lot of games fun. The controlled, artificial environment lets people compete more wholeheartedly, and gloat more victoriously, than polite society normally allows. BUTTON, by constantly asking players to break its only rule, pushes players outside the comforting structure of a game world and leaves them to decide, via shoving and wrestling and heckling, where the rules lie. It makes players interact in a less formal and structured way than most games do.
“What a riot!” hoots one participant, trotting away from the screen as the next group finishes doing push-ups and starts singing “Happy Birthday.” “It brings strangers together.”
When Jamin Warren, the cofounder of Kill Screen, describes the trends he wants to highlight in tonight’s event, the first one he mentions is the revival of this social side of games. After a long period in which games were played alone in basements, he says, they are now closer to the way they were when first played in arcades in the eighties. Friends might gather around a Rock Band setup in the same way they rendezvoused at a Street Fighter terminal thirty years ago.
Many of the games on display tonight look like they could have come from that decade. They have pixelated graphics and neon colors. “I think a lot of these independent designers are interested in revisiting the games of their childhoods and putting some new permutation or twist on them,” says Warren. They might, for example, use motion-sensing technology to make players focus on their physical bodies, or they might make players interact more with each other than with the game itself. The game Pxl Pushr does both. One player, her motion captured by a Kinect, tries to match her avatar to neon cubes that another player, using an iPad, draws on the screen. A bystander described it as “digital Twister.” It looks like someone making a human marionette do Tai Chi. “The literacy around games is too much like that of film, too focused on visuals,” says Warren. “Really, it’s what they make people do that’s important.”
Many of the objects in the exhibition are also bent on eliciting action. A charming cardboard robot by Kacie Kinzer trundles along with a sign asking passersby to steer it toward its goal. In an accompanying video, New Yorkers on their way to somewhere else pause to assist the lost robot and discuss its predicament with strangers. There is a backpack that, by measuring stress levels through skin sensors, emits colored smoke when the wearer is unhappy. Jonas Loh, its designer, proposes the pack as a way to make suicidal people involuntarily call for help. There is a video displaying confessions, often heartbreaking ones, written by strangers on homemade postcards. It’s part of Frank Warren’s PostSecret project, which began in 2004 when he distributed three thousand postcards in public places with a request to mail him a secret. He has now received half a million secrets.
These objects are more like games than tools. You don’t use them to do something; like games, they tell you what to do. They stage a social intervention, setting new rules for the way people interact.
Back downstairs, I line up for BUTTON. I’m standing next to an art critic and her husband, a game designer. He complains that people haven’t been cheating enough, but he’s cheered when the group in front of us collapses in a scuffle. It’s our turn. I vow to cheat.
We’re told to stare one another in the eyes. I turn. We lock eyes. We aren’t wrestling, but it’s a shockingly uncomfortable thing to do with people you’ve known for two minutes.
Josh Dzieza writes for The Newsweek Daily Beast.