Review

Between games, performance, and audience

Falk Hübner

Ludified

Recent years have shown increasing interest in encounters between the performing arts and elements of gaming. This has been even more explicit in times of the pandemic, where gaming elements are explored as one of the approaches to create work in new online-offline formats. Substantial research has been done on the use of gaming principles in the performing arts, especially in theatre and performance art. However, when it comes to games and/in music, most literature and research is directed on music in games, rather than the use of game principles in musical or audiovisual composition.

The 2021 publication Ludified, edited by Marko Ciciliani, Barbara Lüneburg, and Andreas Pirchner is the result of substantial artistic research into the area of game-based audiovisual works, in the form of the multi-year research project 'GAPPP – Gamified Audiovisual Performance and Performance Practice', initiated by composer Marko Ciciliani (see gappp.net). The ‘genre’ of game-based audiovisual works can be understood as performative works (mostly audiovisual compositions in the cases presented here), which in their form, aesthetic or creation process make use of principles known from games – think about concepts such as rule-based play, winning vs. losing, rewards or level-structures. The research project encompasses research in and through performance, performance studies, and audience research. A number of artistic works have been developed in the course of the research, which are all covered in dedicated chapters, next to complementary chapters that offer conceptual tools, additional context and more overarching pieces of reflection.

I have read the book with two perspectives in mind: the actual project reports, reflections and explorations concerning gaming principles in audiovisual compositions on the one hand, and the form and format of the book as an approach to artistic research dissemination on the other. These two perspectives also reflect the audience to whom the book is directed, according to Barbara Lüneburg: ‘an audience that is generally interested in art, artistic research, and most specifically in the creative use of game elements in an expanded artistic context’ (blue book, p. 8). The book is divided into two parts, actually being two books in one:

  • Artistic research in audiovisual Composition, Performance & Perception (in blue)
  • Game Elements in Marko Ciciliani’s Audiovisual Works (in green)

As the titles indicate, the blue book presents the context and introduction to the overall project, as well as a range of examples in the research area, whereas the green book focuses on the body of work created by Ciciliani (six works in total, created between 2016 and 2019) as the main artistic actor of the project. The two books are subtly interconnected: I found myself going back and forth between both books a number of times, as the materials relate to one another rather intimately. The two books ‘meet’ in the middle part, which holds visual materials with included QR codes to access the online content (also included on the accompanying USB stick) and short introductions to the individual artistic works. This middle part can function as a visually supported ‘map’ of the entire project and a quick overview of the artistic works. I can imagine that this section alone can work very well in classes to introduce a range of gaming strategies used in audiovisual composition to students, with video recordings at hand through the QR codes. The digital content consists of hours of artistic works and presentations – a rich repository of material for anyone interested in seeing examples of this kind of work.

The publication is extremely well-made, designed and produced, which is a delight to experience as an output of artistic research – especially because its content is far from predominantly reflective/lingual, but substantially auditive, visual, and experiential. The full-colour images in the middle part of the book (without even accessing the online material) contribute to a large part to this multimodal experience of the project and provide the reader with insight into the project. After experiencing the book, as a reader I have a good sense of ‘what happened’. The book and its additional content draw me into the project and make me almost forget that it is predominantly a book lying in front of me on my reviewer table. This is a remarkable achievement and a great inspiration for the discourse on the dissemination of artistic research.

Throughout the book quite a bit of game theory comes along, which actually presents a welcome introduction to the theory of the ‘genre’ or area, while at the same time the theory is connected to practical examples, or to the ways in which the artistic works resonate with theory. For me, as someone only tangentially acquainted with games, this makes the book a truly welcome, delightful, and inspiring source of ideas.

All authors, and Barbara Lüneburg in particular, write very clearly and well-structured. This shows a sense of true care for the reader, and makes the book interesting to read not only for a professional audience, but also accessible for students and beginning researchers. In the next few paragraphs, I will shortly elaborate on some of these chapters – not to give an overview of the entire book, but to provide a few examples to give a sense of what readers can expect to encounter.

The conceptual and analytical core is the ‘Polar Diagram’ by Marko Ciciliani, which he describes in depth in his chapter ‘A Polar Diagram for the Analysis of Gamified Audiovisual Works’ in the blue book. This diagram is a method and analytical tool that works through a number of axes around one central point in the middle. Each axis covers certain attributes or areas of a game-based audiovisual work, such as interface, ludus, presence, determination, and agency (see image 1). Working with it makes it possible to describe and compare aspects of works that seem to be very different at first sight: Christof Ressi’s Game Over and Marko Ciciliani’s Kilgore might look very different aesthetically, but show a comparable amount of liveness – even though they have entirely different amounts of performer agency. Barbara Lüneburg elaborates further on this diagram and its application in her chapter ‘Visiting the Virtual-Performance Practice in the Virtual Artworks of Rob Hamilton and Christof Ressi’, in which she uses the diagram in order to analyse two GAPPP works and reflect on these works from the performer’s perspective. The two chapters offer an insightful ‘pair’ for this analytical tool, in particular because not only the creator of the tool himself demonstrates and uses it, but another researcher as well.

Image 1 © Marko Ciciliani, from the book Ludified published by The Green Box.

Image 2 © Marko Ciciliani, from the book Ludified published by The Green Box.

‘Gamified Composition and Performance – A Symposium in Artistic Research’, co-authored by Marko Ciciliani, Barbara Lüneburg, and Andreas Pirchner, is another core chapter: a report and reflection on the symposium that was part of the research project. The symposium, transdisciplinary in character, was given shape in an interesting format of ‘proposal and response’, where both proposal and response can be either artistic or academic.

All proposals and responses can be experienced through the USB stick or the accompanying website. These materials, including the lectures, are all extremely well made and make it possible to experience not only the distinct contributions, but also (part of) the dynamic between the different proposals and responses. I was particularly impressed by the film of Rob Hamilton’s ‘Trois Machins de la Grâce Aimante’, in which string instruments have been replaced by the ‘Coretet instrument’ (a system of controllers to use the various bowing gestures of string players) and process these gestures into sound and image. Especially the relation between the entirely technical set-up, the rather ‘clinical’ way of presentation and the synthetic sounds on the one hand, and the strange intimacy of the players’ movements and gestures and the strong reminiscence of the electronic sounds with actual string instrument sound on the other, has been striking to me (see gappp.net/english/Ludified-Trois-Machines.html). Later chapters, and particularly Rob Hamilton’s ‘Composing (and Designing) Trois Machins de la Grâce Aimante’ elaborate further on this piece and its creation process.

As happens often in writing on technological artistic works, quite a substantial part of this and the other chapter related to the artistic works is quite descriptive, elaborating on the different elements of the works such as controllers, software, and the possibilities of interaction. Different readers will appreciate these parts in different ways: they present a lot of information for makers who are looking for inspiration to design their own works, or for scholars who are interested in ‘how things work’. Personally, I am less interested in these parts and more fascinated by the questions and reflective discussions these pieces generate on aesthetic, performative, social, and ethical levels. In Hamilton’s case, it is fascinating to me how he reflects on the idea to relate to the long history of string instruments’ performance practice (how he puts it, ‘descended from traditional ensemble instrumental performance practices’, p. 89), while at the same time being somewhat limited by the technological possibilities of the newly created physical-virtual instrument.

To finish this review, I just want to mention two more chapters: ‘Investigating Audience Experience’ by Andreas Pirchner provides inspiration and tools for artistic researchers who are interested in audience perception; an area that is complex to investigate and often difficult to carry out well in artistic research projects. Pirchner shows a range of useful perspectives on how to carry out such an audience research, such as a three-dimensional tool in which the audience could indicate their focus of attention in a triangular field between music/sound, performer, and the visual (see image 2). Such tools and their underlying ideas can be of great use for other artistic researchers, regardless of the context of gaming.

Image 3 © Andreas Pirchner, from the book Ludified published by The Green Box.

Finally, the only chapter that seems to be slightly out of place and detached from the rest of the book is Olli Tapio Leino’s ‘Performing and Audiencing Profound Boredom in Euro Truck Simulator 2 Multiplayer’. The chapter does offer insights into gaming situations that are not competitive or guided towards winning, so to speak, and it reflects on computer games, their ‘worldness’ and notions of performativity. These aspects relate to some of the discussions in the book in some way, but this relation remains implicit, and the chapter itself does not show any particular interest in resonating with the other parts in the book.

Despite this critical note it should be obvious that Ludified has much to offer, on the research areas it covers, as well as for the discourse and practice of artistic research dissemination at large – especially when it comes to the combination of physical engagement with a book and online materials.

+++

Falk Hübner

falk.hubner@hku.nl