As 2020 comes to a close, and we mark nearly one year of navigating the effects of COVID-19, we've invited a group of curators and programmers to reflect on how they've evolved their work to meet their mission during these "uncertain times." First up, game designer Paolo Pedercini on LIKELIKE Online.
Since February 2018 I’ve been running LIKELIKE, a space for independent games and playful arts in Pittsburgh, PA. LIKELIKE is somewhere between an art gallery and an arcade, combining a rather rigorous curation with an unpretentious night club vibe. The venue itself is a small, windowless, dark cube where local gallery crawlers huddle together, sharing breath, laughs, drinks, and game controllers.
In other words, a perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19.
Our programming went completely virtual at the beginning of April. The transition was rather swift. Those of us existing in game-adjacent fields have a certain familiarity with remote practices, being it in the form of streaming culture or online games. I personally took this unfortunate situation as a challenge to experiment with different curatorial modes, and show works that didn’t fit our monthly one-night-party format. I should mention that LIKELIKE is not a source of income for me or my collaborators, and unlike most art institutions, I don’t have to justify the existence of a highly specialized piece of architecture.
The first iteration of LIKELIKE Online was a multi-user environment faithfully recreating the physical venue. You pick an avatar, check some games, and chat with friends and strangers in a couple of small pixelated rooms. The opening nights were loud and crowded like the real deal; on weekdays it was more chill and gallery-like. There wasn’t really much to do in there beside feeling each other’s tiny presence and doing small talk. The conversations had an early-internet chatroom quality.
The retro style was chosen in relation to the first two online exhibitions, which showcased works made with the popular game making tools Bitsy and Pico-8. Both tools use low resolution as a creative constraint to produce small, zine-like interactive works. More crucially, both Bitsy and Pico-8 games are browser-based, which made for a more seamless experience: the artworks are only one click away, they require no installation and can run on most computers.
LIKELIKE Online was an attempt to recreate some of the social aspects of our events (believe or not, people go to gallery openings to hang out - not to look at art!). It was also a reaction to the conference-call aesthetic that took over our locked-down lives. Suddenly all cultural programming defaulted to dreadful Zoom panels.
The experiment was quite successful. Being accessible from all over the world, LIKELIKE Online got more visits and coverage than the much, much more interesting real life counterpart. However, the public became more international and more game/digital art oriented, which is a shame because the Pittsburgh venue intercepted many local non-game and non-art people.
Due to the unexpected popularity, only two weeks after the launch, LIKELIKE Online “gentrified” opening a new wing: the online Museum of Multiplayer Art. The oMoMa is made of nine playful environments that, quoting the pretentious press release, “interrogate our notions of mediated sociality and digital embodiment. The virtual installations, operating at the intersection of art and technology, draw from the tradition of experimental chats, net.art, conceptual language games, and online roleplaying worlds.”.
The oMoMA is both a tongue-in-cheek response to the forced virtualization of the art world under COVID-19, and an attempt to leverage the peculiarity of mediated spaces. There is not much to see at the oMoMA: to experience the rooms, you need to have conversations with other users. Some “pieces” go entirely unnoticed by lonely or shy visitors.
Most of the rooms encourage subversive play and revolve around client-server power relations. Whereas traditional multiplayer games attempt to distribute an “objective” reality to all players, the oMoMA plays tricks on its visitors, manipulating what they say or how they look.
The code behind LIKELIKE Online is open source and easy to remix so LIKELIKE-like exhibitions have been popping up all over the place (mostly end-of-the-semester student shows).
The third LIKELIKE Online show was focused on text-only games so the virtual space mutated accordingly. The users had to explore a textual space reminiscent of Twine games and Multi User Dungeons. They could also catch “language viruses” from other uses that affected their way of speaking, making them siiiiing, SCREAM, or adding funny affectations.
The current exhibition showcases experimental first person games, so I recreated the gallery in 3D with an emphasis on first person interactions. There is a sophisticated avatar creation tool that lets you be any salamander you want, you can dance uncanningly, lick hallucinogenic frogs, and track other users’ gazes with a precision you rarely see in online games. I find the space hilarious and I even got married in it, but I think at this point the novelty aspect faded, and only a few people showed up for the opening. Maybe the art folks became less desperate to find online surrogates for real life experiences. Maybe they are all watching some Zoom panel, who knows?
Rhizome’s knowledge-sharing related to born-digital cultural practices is supported by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.