‘The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer,’ which runs until June 26, 2016 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, is an unprecedented exhibition that coalesces designer Jason Rohrer’s video games into an experiential art show. Featuring celebrated games, such as ‘Passage’ and ‘Gravitation,’ the exhibition aims to portray the world of Rohrer’s craft in a different setting. Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, NeueHouse Madison Square became the setting for a precursor show, allowing members an opportunity to play some of the famed games before being led by Rohrer himself in an engaging and lively conversation. The California-based programmer talked to us about the experience of tactile exhibitions, the philosophy of designing with meaning, and the freedom of simple living.
NeueJournal: What do you think is the biggest difference from a traditional exhibition as opposed to an interactive one, such as this one? What is the biggest benefit of this?
Jason Rohrer: Well, it’s complicated because video games sort of have trouble in a museum context. When people go to museums they usually interact with a piece of art for about 30 seconds, which even then is longer than expected. Even with something like video art, which is probably on a loop and provides a longer bit of content, people kind of wander past it. So the problem with interactive works is that, given the spectator time frame, many of them don’t get their point across.
Take for instance Passage, which, at five minutes long, is a really short video game, but, in the context of a museum experience, where people aren’t used to spending a long time in front of a piece, those five minutes are longer. Passage, for example, is a game that gets its point across at the very end, so I’ve seen people at the MoMA or another gallery setting playing the game and walking away a minute or so later thinking, “Hmmm, I don’t know. It’s just a little guy walking around in a maze.” They don’t get to the punchline, either because they’ve walked away, or because they become nervous about the public performance aspect of playing a video game.
All of these things serve as challenges, so we tried to navigate them as best we could when designing the show, but even so you’re met with unexpected aspects. We did a donor preview with people who were generally older, and they were very nervous about playing the games or even touching them, even though we had explained the games. The normal crowds that go to museums might be out of their element with the technological aspect, which is another challenge. On the other hand, it’s a very exciting show for people who are thinking of ways to revolutionize and revive museums to make them relevant to today’s audiences. Part of the appeal for museums and galleries to show this kind of work is to interact with non-traditional audiences.
NJ: What is your philosophy when creating a game?
JR: I look back at the things I’ve done and pursue to make something different, but also, I’m hoping to do something different than what other people have done in games, as well. Making a game is a tremendous amount of work, and it’s hard to put that in an outsider context because the end experience of playing the game might be relatively simple and quick. The games I design can take anywhere between three months to three years of very intense work, so I have to be careful about what I decide to make since I’m going to be wedded to it for a long time.
As a creator and as an artist I also want to do something that I feel has some aesthetic meat on its bones, that it’s going to make a contribution, not only to the design or novelty space, but also, in terms of its weightiness or its importance. I feel it’s important to make something with meaning, so I look at my life and the things that are important to me, or the things I’m arguing with friends about, and try to figure out how to make work that tackles those bigger topics. I want the end result to be something that’s new, but that also deals with something I feel is important. Those two elements are always together across the spectrum of my game designs.
NJ: You designed A Game For Someone to be discovered and played in 2,700 years. What was the impetus for this decision? Who do you ideally fantasize will discover it?
JR: A Game For Someone was designed for the Game Design Challenge, where the challenge was having all the winners from previous years come back and design the last game humanity would ever play, and we could interpret that however we wanted to, like some of the designers made games that involved launching the world’s nuclear stockpile.
Video games are very fragile and transient and ephemeral, because what we create depends on other aspects of computing that we have no control over. The fact that even Passage, my most famous game, doesn’t work anymore on a number of platforms makes me worried about that kind of stuff and makes me think about how to make things endure. We are working in this medium that’s very much about the “here” and “now.” So thinking about making something permanent, or not as transient, really pulled me away from making any kind of video game at all and into making something that has no tech requirements in order to experience it – to make it some kind of physical board game.
That decision then got me thinking about what kind of materials would stand the test of time and be playable toward the end of humanity. I thought making it out of titanium and preserving the instructions in a vacuum-sealed tube would be the most enduring way, as well as thinking about how to preserve instructions in a way that could be understood by people who no longer speak English, or maybe not even people, at this point, but a sentient being that comes post-humanity. The design made me think deeply about the long-term history of humanity, while at the same time thinking about how to hide the game so as not to be discovered during this lifetime, but making it findable in a practical way through a long algorithm, so as not to be lost completely.
NJ: You are a practitioner of simple living. Where did this decision come from? What was the hardest aspect of making this change and what has been the most beneficial aspect?
JR: I could go work as a computer programmer for somebody else and make quite a bit of money doing that, but that would involve 60-70 hours a week’s worth of tedious and intense and soul-crushing work in exchange of making money to support my family. When I think about the time that I have, and my time being the most valuable thing, it put things into perspective. I read this book, called Your Money or Your Life, which poses the situation of somebody coming up to you and robbing you, and the conclusion that you’re not going to try to keep on to your money at the expense of your life. Clearly, you’d give any amount of money to save your life, yet at the same time we throw most of our lives away chasing after money while doing things we don’t even like.
I had to figure out how to have a life where most of my time is spent doing things that are really important to me, and where I achieve a balance of getting to see my family a lot more, and not be so stressed out all the time, and do something that I’m passionate about, even if it’s not necessarily bringing in the most money possible. Along with that comes figuring out how to have this freedom, by making whatever budget my wife and I have to make this stretch as long as possible, before falling into the necessity of giving up our lifestyle to go back to a job we don’t like in order to make some means. When we first started out we had a little bit of savings, so we trimmed down the idea of how we can live on the least amount of money as possible, wondering, “Can we live on $10,000 a year? Is it possible? And if so, how and how long could we sustain it?”
Over the course of the five years of seeing what would happen, the things I was working on became popular enough that I could start making a living doing the things I wanted to be doing. It took a while. There were a bunch of things that didn’t work out, a bunch of projects that didn’t take off, a couple of video games along the way that weren’t popular, but having that freedom to explore those things and not feel like I had to go work all day long doing something I don’t like, and then squeeze these passion projects in on the weekends, allowed me to achieve the career you see today. I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m making enough to keep surviving and to keep my family supported.
NJ: If you were to describe the current presidential race in three words, what would they be?
JR: It is refreshing.
NJ: If you could have any special ability, what would it be?
JR: I’ve always wanted to be invisible.
NJ: What is your motto?
JR: Don’t give people advice unless asked for it.
NJ: What do you believe is the meaning of life?
JR: My grandfather used to say, “Life is to be enjoyed.”
Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal