The Pleasures of Objectification
LAZA KNITEZ!! as Carpentry, Pt. II
“An obvious question, then: must scholarly productivity take written form? Is writing the most efficient and appropriate material for judging academic work? If the answer is yes, it is so only by convention.”
“When we spend all of our time reading and writing words— or plotting to do so— we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors.”
“Let’s draw a distinction: unlike tools and art, philosophical carpentry is built with philosophy in mind: it may serve myriad other productive and aesthetic purposes, breaking with its origins and entering into dissemination like anything else, but it’s first constructed as a theory, or an experiment, or a question— one that can be operated. Carpentry is philosophical lab equipment.”
—Ian Bogost, “Carpentry”
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
I don’t have any particular allegiance to philosophy per se, being a long-confirmed interdisciplinary mongrel of the worst sort, but I can’t help but return to Ian Bogost’s call for academics to engage in the world in ways other than writing. It must be said that I can’t exactly deride the written word, either: I shudder to think of the thousands of keytaps, the miles of ink and graphite I’ve put away. It seems obvious that many questions are not best investigated, answered, evaluated or communicated by the written word yet it is clearly the hegemon — projects which are not the written report (with the proper margins and citation style, naturally) are the exceptions, frequently the preserve of teachers of the hip/too-lazy-to-read-hundreds-of-pages variety. In my time at ITU, I’ve spent far more time working on projects with an output where the written report was ancillary to the work of creation and design, and that approach has taught me much. Even more helpfully, it has helped me translate some pretty esoteric ideas about videogames into concrete projects fit for consumption by a much wider audience. At Extending Play and just recently at Free to Play in Antwerp, I had the chance to talk about excessive games by letting an audience see LAZA KNITEZ!! played, to see not just an excerpt of the game but to be able to see the players and experience spectatorship. Free to Play, in particular, was not an academic conference but a celebration of playful culture— inviting the audience not just to listen, but also to play, let me get away with a short lecture on play theory written sixty or seventy-odd years ago.
How’d we end up putting LAZA KNITEZ!! in an arcade cabinet in the first place? Joon and I worked together with a couple of people to turn a defunct arcade cabinet, Scollbar’s Barcade, into a Winnitron. With no budget, broken hardware, few tools, and cabinet owners that were more interested in a warez-based emulator of classic arcade games than an indie gaming platform, we ended up abandoning the Barcade renovation. But along the way, problem solving and prying apart wooden hardware, even cleaning the gunked-up Coke spilled all over the arcade controllers, we learned a lot about what it feels like to get inside the guts of an arcade cabinet, gathering up the obscure materials required for its resurrection, and how to transfer our minimal handiness into useful work.
When we were seeking user feedback in our alpha jam, we were hesitant to ask people to come up to a stuffy room somewhere with the lure of some dry cookies. We’d been in those smelly little rooms, with a team of developers watching your progress with bated breath, too many times to trust that method. We wanted to attract people who weren’t going to try a game for a couple of dusty pastries, and we needed people to play against each other, even complete strangers. With knowledge of wiring up the barcade to hand, we commandeered it for a day and set up shop on the main floor of ITU:
Putting up our shingle for the first time was electrifying. We tested and developed simultaneously, which I think gave players a great chance to understand how integral their contribution is to game design. We got to see people stake part of the cabinet as their own with some well-placed elbows, negotiate the appropriate noise & celebration levels of a public space and slip into a game unobtrusively to do some “testing” of our own. A huge part of our success was the hulking weight of the arcade cabinet, something that lent a facade of substance to four first-semester Master’s students who had never made a game before. It solidified our interest in building arcade installations and games that suited them.
We built our first arcade installation, the Buttfighter (top photo), after being accepted to the Nordic Game Indie Night Summit— something we were awfully surprised by in the first place. We were up against some pretty amazing games, and worse, we needed to figure out a way to show off LAZA KNITEZ!! We hatched a wild idea to build a cocktail cabinet out of IKEA parts, and with some help from Mads’ dad (and the generous use of his workshop) we put the Buttfighter together in about five hours. It’s basically two IKEA tables, a door, four wheels, a screen and speakers. We swap out our laptops when we show it.
I feel pretty confident in claiming that the Buttfighter won us Nordic Game Indie Night — even getting it there was an adventure in taking games into the Great Outdoors, as we had plenty of opportunities to explain to puzzled Metro stewards that we were transporting an arcade machine. The LEDs on the side of the cabinet and the echoing BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM of the death ray got people interested in our game. The cocktail format was great for letting people crowd around and see what was going on, and especially to see the players. All weekend you could hear LAZA KNITEZ throughout the venue, and it felt pretty great.
Since then, we’ve shown LAZA KNITEZ!! all over the place, in the Buttfighter, on projectors, playing behind Chipzel, on a boat. I’m still working on an arcade cabinet in the US of A, which has taught me a lot about the business of arcades — I’ve had a chance to talk to people who renovate machines, people who hoard & sell them, and bar owners looking for something to fill up an empty corner. I’ve talked to engineers about manufacturing a custom button fitting, found out that the CRT era is coming to an end, and moved a goddamn 400 pound arcade machine from some dude’s garage into my parents’ house. More than that, I got to see people enjoying the hell out of themselves playing a game that I helped make. Marx, on non-alienated creation:
Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature.
I’m not trying to downplay what I’ve learned by reading outstanding histories of the arcade era, like Tristan Donovan’s Replay or ethnographic accounts of arcade spaces. At the same time, there’s something to be learned by pulling apart controllers, dragging machines to another country, and beer-proofing an arcade cabinet. Even as home consoles become ever more amazing, there’s still plenty to create and learn from games as a common physical gathering point for people to come together and play. Creating a game allowed me to intervene in social situations. I was able to see how games create a community in ways that would have been fairly impossible as an outside researcher. It also gave me access to communities I didn’t even know existed. I didn’t come to ITU to get involved in game design, but it’s been the most academically and personally rewarding part of my time here. If you get a chance, fellow writers, turn in your pen and keyboard for a little while, and pick up a hammer, drill or paintbrush and see if you can’t learn something by crafting something besides the written word.
This journal entry is part of a series written for an independent study project at the IT Univeristy of Copenhagen under the supervision of Mark J. Nelson.