One of the most interesting recent sightings occurred at the MOMA. It was a piece that put me in mind of the playwright Leegrid Stevens' The Dudleys! A Family Game. Stevens' piece was a theatrical satire of family drama that injected color into domestic conflict through Nintendo Entertainment System escapism. When the characters stumbled into a crisis point, their world collided with projected pixels, and they had to beat, bash, and dash their way past local cops, lost relatives, and the like. The emotions were deeply personal, but the modes were Brechtian.
A similar (though I think more political) attempt is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. It is the 2008 piece 'The Long March: Restart" by Feng Mengbo. (Here's a MOMA link.)
The game itself is a side-scrolling kill-them-all adventure; the avatar of the game is a Maoist soldier wearing a blue uniform, who can either crush his enemies by jumping onto them, or blow them up with exploding Coca-Cola cans. On one wall, the entire 'level' is projected cleanly and comprehensibly, but on the opposite wall, the image of the avatar is magnified, and the details of the level are impossible to discern. Every time the hero reaches the end of a level, the projected image reverses, so that if the player does not turn around, they are faced with the blocky, indecipherable super-sized avatar image, rather than the clean image of a side-scrolling game.
What's odd and wonderful to watch is the interaction between the viewers, the gamers, and the installation. Young men (and some women) grab the controller with confidence and familiarity. After a few seconds of destroying everything they could find, they would turn to strangers in the room and sheepishly admit that they "have no idea what's going on." And then they would go back to blasting. When the player reached the end of a level, they would often refuse to look around and take stock of the situation; instead they would just keep blasting. Occasionally, a player would figure out the relationship between the shifting projections, but this was rare.
If the player asked his or her companions "Where am I?" his or her friends would respond solely within the context of the game with "You're all the way over here," or else they would refuse to answer the question and say something like "Jump on that pipe" or "Blow them up--you missed one." Discussion of the wider context, or the purpose of the game, were inadmissible, naïve, or impolite.
As the placard suggested, the players gladly handed off the controller to other audience members. But with old 8-bit NES games in particular, there is not much of an expectation that we need to "understand" the game; there is no particularly interesting plot, or unspoken rules. And so the players proved entirely interchangeable. If the controller was put down, the game would 'restart' and launch into a fifteen second piece of pixelated Maoist propaganda.
The relationship between the game's theme (revolution) and the installation's action (confused tedious violence) proved rewarding. I observed the game for about fifteen minutes, and at times I was tempted to 'explain' that the magnified avatar switches walls when you complete a level--as if that would really bring any clarity to the game.
I often view violence in terms of status and reward, and my own work details the links between sexuality, violence, and strategic decision-making. But the Mengbo game is largely uninterested in status, rewards, and sexuality, and shows the glowing attraction of repetitious task-completion within a familiar medium. Many people would prefer marching onwards, rather than questioning where they are going. I would love to see Mengbo's work within a Chinese context; it would be a great cross-cultural study...and maybe they could explain why the Maoist soldier is chucking explosive cans of Coca-Cola. I also wonder how Mengbo describes the work to Chinese audiences. Does he demonstrate an underlying challenge to capitalist assumptions? Or does he refuse to reveal his intentions altogether?