Feminist Gaming 101: The Havana experience


I had my first introduction to feminist gaming in Havana, Cuba.
It seems like an odd place for it, but I happened to meet a bunch of interesting characters the day before they were holding their first ‘game jam’ in Cuba on February 24th 2017. These folks are game designers/artists/geeks who meet outside the commercial circuit of games and are striving to foster creative and collaborative communities around alternative gaming. Thorsten Wiedemann runs the international festival A MAZE with several locations around the world and was there to organize the event with local geeks Rodolfo Peraza and Jommy Barban from Fanguito Estudio. As a curious feminist, I attended without any expectations. And to my surprise, feminist revelations ensued from playing a game called UTE created by German game designer Lea Schőnfelder.

Now, let us be clear: I am not what you would call ‘a gamer’. I had a Colecovision in the eighties where I mastered Donkey Kong Jr. and Saxxon, and I played Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter with my little brothers here and there in the nineties. That’s it. Then in most of my adult life, I have not been particularly interested in games. My general attitude was shaped by the impression that the world of digital games was a hyper-masculine, hyper-competitive scene within mostly militarized violent worlds. Hyper-boring, to be short.

But THIS game.

UTE has a sort of naive, almost child-like drawings aesthetic, with very simple graphics. The protagonist of the game is a young straight woman who is approached by her grandmother in the introduction. Grandma proceeds to explain that the goal of the game is to have the most pre-marital heterosexual sex with a series of characters that include an insurance salesman, Che Guevara, a Philology student, her teenage pupil, the pizza delivery man and so on. Players score (pun intended) by sneaking out with the characters to have (outrageously kinky) sex without getting caught by the other men.

I was surprised by the exhilarating experience of playing this game. Every time anybody would get behind the controllers, men and women, the folks would immediately gather around the gamer participating as audience, encouraging the player to do their sex moves faster, or helping them beware of another man coming. Despite my previous assumption that games were isolating, this was a complete social/collective experience.

An incredible amount of laughter ensued every time somebody played.
The revolutionary pleasure associated to this game can be attributed number of transgressions to gender norms around the sexual virtue of women which are pretty explicit, but it also had an incredible significance that we were in Cuba, and that the Che Guevara was represented here as a hilarious character of a sex-themed video game. Playfully subverting the overwhelming masculinist and serious narrative of the heroes of the Revolution was truly exhilarating. If yet the game doesn’t feature same sex desires, heterosexual practices such as pegging here are too kinky to be deemed heteronormative:

Feminist Utopias

Inspired by a graduate seminar with the late Jose E Muñoz, I have been thinking for a while about the utopian function of art and about the potential of different art forms in expanding our political imaginations (the ways we envision the world, our lives, our relationships, ourselves), in particular feminist performance. In “Ephemera as Evidence”, Jose E. Muñoz outlines how queer performances and performances of queerness are a kind of ephemeral and invisible evidence that point at the “lives, powers, and possibilities” of minority groups whose existence has traditionally been erased from historical visibility. This idea was already developed in Cruising Utopia, where Muñoz suggests that queer acts and performance already enact the potentiality and possibility of other worlds as well as other temporalities that are not linear. Relying on Bloch’s use of hope as a hermeneutic to combat the force of political pessimism, Muñoz conceived utopia as “a critique of the present, of what is, by casting a picture of what can and perhaps will be.” (Muñoz 35, emphasis original).

Building on Jacques Ranciere’s ideas on spectatorship I have argued that our (feminist) political practices are prefigured by our imaginations and our ‘cartographies of the feasible’ and that some forms of performance and art have the potential to expand our imaginaries and our ideas of what is possible. But I have never thought of the role of digital art and games for the reasons mentioned above. After my gaming experience in Cuba as a joyful, non-competitive activity that does not produce wealth, but just laughter and good times, I am definitely more curious to know more about this culture! Can these art forms be subversive of narratives that exploit and dehumanize women? Can games be feminist, sex/queer/kinky positive, and fun? In what other ways can they challenge our worldviews?

Keith Stuart from The Guardian recently made the argument for adults playing more games, on the grounds that they are relevant spaces where culture and art are happening. And I would furthermore argue that they are relevant spaces where politics are being articulated as well, as particular worldviews are assumed, or have to be temporarily accepted by the gamer. UTE is a sex-positive game that just makes you accept this world in which a woman’s (hetero)sexual pleasure is the goal. It is both undeniable that games are relevant today, and that the mainstream portion of it remains problematic for its connections with consumerism, racism, militarized masculinities and misogyny as frequently exposed by Anita Sarkessian at Feminist Frequency Tropes versus Women. However, it is important to identify and celebrate a subculture of alternative feminist gamers, made up mostly women, though not only.

In the special issue WOMEN of A MAZE. magazine I learned about the high involvement of women in the alternative games scene, and about the political potential of gaming through games such as Consentacles, a collaborative cards game for two designed by Naomi Clark, which could lead to players to re-imagine and in a way, to re-socialize themselves about sexuality and consent. Clark herself refuses to see the game merely as an educational tool, but the possibilities of the convergence of feminist politics and digital platforms for art and gaming seem endless.

Feminist Games are Feminist Art

But the question of what kind of art can be considered feminist art is not an obvious one. Not all art made by women can be considered feminist, while some art made by men that deal with cultural norms around gender (including masculinity), sexuality, heteronormativity and patriarchy should be regarded as feminist art.

In my curious quest to find games which envision and present feminist worlds, I found Nina Freeman’s “How do you do it?” which plays with the eroticism of the very taboo issue of the masturbatory fantasy and sexuality of girls. It is a simple, uncomplicated game in which you play with your dolls, make them have ‘sex’ and avoid getting caught by your mother. I enjoyed its narrative of a girl fantasizing about something that feels intriguing, exciting, and shameful at the same time.

Ironically enough, I got busted by my 9 year old playing this game (the reverse situation to the game) and hilarity ensued. She had a 15 minutes giggle fit at the expression of sexual satisfaction of the girl in the game as she doesn’t get caught by the mom.

Similarly, Mighty Jill Off by Anna Anthropy plays around lesbian BSDM themes, and though I haven’t got to play it myself yet, has been praised for its representation of non-traditional forms of desire by mediums like Rock Paper Shotgun.

It is not lost on me that I started thinking of the connections between digital games and utopia in Cuba, where my utopian desires had long lived (but were promptly crushed at the reality of authoritarian and poorly managed socialism). Becoming interested in gaming culture has immediately created space for new conversations with my two daughters, who are digital natives and spend many hours of their life playing games, both on and offline. We have started playing more board games and my oldest daughter is currently obsessed with the program Scratch, which teaches kids how to code to create games. I am excited to continue exploring this amazing scene further!

More sources to read about feminist games:
Code Liberation Foundation
Video Game Niñjas
Perfect Woman review in Kotaku
Posted by Manuela Valle-Castro

A MAZE. goes Havana!

A short note by Thorsten S. Wiedemann, founder and director of A MAZE.

Thanks to the great enthusiasm, planning and support of Olivia Solis, Daniel Cruces-Perez and Rodolfo Peraza we are making our first steps of producing A MAZE. / Havana 2018.

A MAZE. is known for a great number of festivals and pop ups in South Africa, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Croatia, Kosovo, Palestine, Brasil and the United Arab Emirates. Our goals are always to activate the independent local game scene, motivate them to build a community, finding talents and making their work and existing scene visible to the world-wide spread community and the hungry international press.

Beside the mothership A MAZE. / Berlin, A MAZE. / Johannesburg was build from scratch in 2011/12 and kicked off with the great financial support of Goethe-Institut Johannesburg in September 2012. Now it is annual platform of professional exchange for african and european game developers/ digital playful artists. All this wouldn’t be possible without partners like Wits Digital Art Department, European Union in South Africa, Institute Français, British Council, Pro Helvetia, Goethe-Institut and sponsors like Unity, Microsoft and Mailchimp who believe in the uniting A MAZE. vision. Part of Fak’ugesi – Africa Digital Innovation Festival, the City of Johannesburg is funding A MAZE. since 2015, which is a huge step for further game development in the city and outside Johannesburg. A MAZE. has set the pillars and built that brigde developers from South Africa and Sub Sahara Africa are make them move and not feeling cut of them the rest of the world. They do have their own festival, can cultivate their own community and independent industry. People are now moving back and forth and bringing diversity to game festival and conferences. They are giving new perspectives, articualting new needs, and their games with different cultural backgrounds entering finally the western market. I’m very happy about the impact we are creating with A MAZE. and that’s why I like to move on with this agenda and go to Cuba.

I will stay for the next two weeks in Cuba, most of the time in Havana to learn beside meetings, evaluating infrastructure and common rules, more about the local digital movement and the existing game culture in order to create an amazing A MAZE. / Havana 2018.

Also we are organzing a playsession with selected games from the last A MAZE. editons and the first Game Jam Havana on February 24, 2017 in partnership with Fanguito Estudio.

#postivechaos moves on!

Some pics!

Visit A-Maze.net
Visit us on social media

Thanks for stop by!

Cool War: Game Art Across the Straits, a group exhibition of video game art from Cuba and the United States.

Courtesy of Cory Arcangel Studio

Courtesy of Cory Arcangel Studio

Cory Arcangel, Clock, 2015 (Courtesy of Cory Arcangel Studio)

May 29-June 29, 2015

Cool War: Game Art Across the Straits, a group exhibition of video game art from Cuba and the United States.

Rewell Altunaga / Cory Arcangel / Matteo Bittanti & Colleen Flaherty (COLL.EO) / Yonlay Cabrera / Rodolfo Peraza / Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre & Brody Condon

Fanguito Estudio is pleased to announce Cool War: Game Art Across the Straits, a group exhibition of video game art from Cuba and the United States.

Months after the December, 2014 announcement of the normalization of relations between the two nations, Cool War showcases artists whose work reminds us of the abiding manichaeisms and military technologies that structure video games, while also signaling the ludic and open potential for game art.

Cuba and the United States have often made communications technologies history as pioneering partners: the first telegraph linking Latin America and the US connected Punta Rassa, Florida, Key West, and Havana in 1867; the first deep water cable with a submersible repeater linked the two nations in 1950. After the early 1960s, however, bilateral communication grew strained; these tensions would end up shaping the emergence of the internet itself.

The idea for an internet’today the platform for most multi-player video games’emerged in part from the desire to enable ongoing communication between nuclear foes in the wake of possible attack. One year after the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, an anxious United States founded the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which by 1968 yielded the first computer network, ARPANET. A version of what computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider had imagined in 1962 as an ‘Intergalactic Network,’ ARAPANET was shaped by and shaped the era’s Space Race.

In 1961, the year that the Cuban Revolution allied itself with the Soviet Union, Yuri Gagarin became the first astronaut to orbit space. In 1962 the first video game, Spacewar!, was invented by programmers at MIT and AT&T installed its first digital transmission equipment; 1962 also saw the near-apocalyptic Cuban Missile Crisis. Two years later Paul Baran published a game-changing paper on packet-switching technology, which facilitated construction of the first networked computer systems. War, videogames, and computer networks evolved symbiotically.

By the 1980s gaming had evolved into an industry. Generations of Cuban and US game artists, separated by laws restricting travel and exchange, have had purely gamic relations to one another’s landscapes: Counter-Strike offers a Havana environment, for instance, while Grand Theft Auto IV’s ‘Vice City’ is a version of Miami. Despite these barriers, game art from both sites shares a nostalgia for earlier technologies; an engagement with the unique temporality and peculiar meditation on mortality offered by games’Chris Marker once claimed that videogames alone give us ‘a second chance”; an interest in creating ‘serious games’ beyond logics of winning and losing; and a shared set of raw materials for mods and machinima.

In Untitled Rewell Altunaga offers 3 machinima created from the online Youtube collection of young US gamer Kristopher Tanksley, whose lo-fi films of racing scenes (made with an external camera and outdated consoles) recall Altunaga’s first attempts to record his own gamic successes. Untitled updates a 2003 work by Altunaga, El bueno y el malo [Good and Evil] that modified the same games’Driver I and II; here he adds to his prior work’s Miami- and Havana-based chases several New York scenes.

In Clock Cory Arcangel screens on two LG Volt Android smart phones modified images of a military jet and clouds taken from the game Mig 29: Soviet Fighter. As in other of his works, Arcangel rearranges content within the game’s graphics, highlighting resonances with pop art and comics, adapting an earlier format for today’s most common medium. The piece acknowledges the ways that a particular historical context registers in a game’s themes and settings.

In COLL.EO’s Following Bit the artists restage within Grand Theft Auto’s ‘Liberty City’ (New York) environment Vito Acconci’s 1969 work Following Piece, in which Acconci allowed his urban ambling to be directed by the unpredictable routes of those he followed. Here his avatar moves in a necessarily less aleatory way, following the programmed courses of randomly chosen bots to untimely deaths or endless walking.

Yonlay Cabrera’s Almacenero [Stock Clerk] is a Sokoban-like game in which players manipulate characters based on the percent of profits generated in Cuban stores, per 2014 figures released by CIMEX, a Cuban umbrella company bundling some 80 state-run businesses.

In Jailhead.com & Infirstlife, Rodolfo Peraza recreates a virtual interior and surrounding terrain of Presidio Modelo, a panopticon prison built in the 1920s on Cuba’s Isla de Pinos (now Isla de la Juventud) and turned into a museum in 1968. Still in process, the work will eventually allow players to adopt the avatars of Warden, Inmate (both already available) and, later, Priest and Doctor, and will reproduce the decades of prisoner graffiti still intact on the prison’s walls. The work merges some features of Presidio Modelo with a web-based application (app), crossing older panopticon models of surveillance with the contemporary one tied to the ‘internet of things.’

Two video loops and select prints from Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandre and Brody Condon’s Velvet-Strike modify the ‘Havana’ environment of the game Counter-Strike. The original interactive form of Velvet-Strike facilitated spray paint skins for players to leave anti- or non-military graffiti on the walls, ceiling, and floor of Counter-Strike environments. Conceived at the start of George Bush’s ‘War on Terrorism,’ the documentation for this piece reveals surprising messages amidst typical First Person Shooter rampages through a simulated Havana.

Fanguito Estudio is grateful for the support from Princeton University’s J.D. Brown Fund and Artist By Artist: Carlos Garaicoa Studio.

Staff curatorial:
Rewell Altunaga, Rodolfo Peraza, Rachel Price y Claudia Taboada

Experience and Immersion

VR-HOLE, 25.04.2015
12th Havana Biennial – “Between the Idea and Experience”

Pierre Lévy is one of the authors that has spoken on the virtuality concepts. According to Lévy: imagination, memory, knowledge and religion have been the very first aspects of virtualization since they have brought about the abandonment of the physical space long before computerization and digital networks did. Nevertheless, that process has not stopped us from continuing to exist. The development in telecommunications has conditioned our senses’ experience: the phone for hearing, television for sight, telemanipulation systems for tact and motor-sense interaction. All these devices virtualize our senses and eventually create “virtualized organs”.

Virtualization recreates a nomadic culture, not by means of a return to the Paleolithic age or the ancient civilizations of shepherds, but through the creation of an environment of social interactions where relations are reshaped using a minimum of inertia. Nowadays, virtualization affects not only information and communication but also the bodies, the economic functioning, the collective framework of sensitivity or the exercise of intelligence. Virtualization reaches out even to virtual communities, virtual enterprises, virtual democracy, etc. Though, digitalization of cyberspace plays an important role on the ongoing mutation, it all comes down to a background wave that exceeds by far computerization.

Oculus is one of the most effective devices to establish a connection between humans and virtualized spaces. It is commonly used to enhance the experience when playing video games. However, the Oculus options allow to carry out other types of synesthetic explorations such as those using present reality.

Application (App), Creation and Display
Malla Net is a web application that gives the possibility of creating virtual worlds (metaverse) in which today’s world can be uploaded to the internet. The piece has been developed using open sources and is published under MIT license. It also assumes the collaborative paradigm as a creation process. Malla Net 2.0 emerges as a tool to explore the internet as space and the social relations structured from it. Virtualized worlds are displayed in subdomains that facilitate the users’ immersions in the internet through virtual reality devices.

The piece takes place in El Fanguito, a suburban neighborhood created and mostly composed of the unscheduled settlement of its inhabitants, who don’t have cybernetic virtuality as a priority in their imaginary. Taking into account that the Havana Biennial is focused on the displaying of multidisciplinary creation processes, supported by scientific activity; Malla Net 2.0 project combines artistic worries with pragmatic ones. That is the reason why the piece is intended to have a dual sense, the application and the artistic experimentation. Besides the semiotic value the piece contains regarding multi-sensitive experience and present reflection on the new systems of human communication, it also pays special attention to the use it has as an application to upload, for example, architectonic spaces. Such spaces can be used later not only as files but also as virtual models to achieve, perhaps, a greater sense of space and enhance human experience inside of it.

Repository
During the action and experimentation process of Malla Net 2.0 in the community, all visual information resulting from the scanning of elements such as: people, objects, natural or architectonic spaces will be saved in the repository of the application. This repository will become a sort of ethnographic document on the value of the collective memory of that social micro space. Just like an ethnographer, the artist registers and organizes his field notes and turns them into permanent records to later move on to the analytic stage of memory and filed diaries. The repository recognizes among its procedures these concepts.
The piece stimulates reflection about the new ways of social relations, apprehension of reality, artistic representation and present conditions supported by virtual credibility. The anthropological record and the documentation were since the beginning the main functions of cinema and photography. Even though other tendencies such as conceptualism accelerated the legitimization of these expressive languages, its importance required a special attention, especially after the creation of postmodern art theories. The development of technology and its interconnection channels have encouraged other logics of representing art as well. This kind of work refuses to be framed or moved when going from the real world to the virtual one through a sensory experience. An experience that interrupts the mimesis and expression codes to make room for the immersion ones.

Claudia Taboada Churchman

[1]Lévy, P. Qué es lo virtual. Paidós, Barcelona, 1999.

[2]Ídem.

[3]Crapanzano, V. Hermes’ dilemma: lbe masking of subversion in ethnographic description, en J. Clifford y G. E. Marcus (eds.), Writing culture. The poelies and politics ethnography, Berkeley, University of California, 1986, p. 51.

Try VR-Hole app: http://studio.vrhole.net/