I’ve always had mixed feelings about video games. I am no gamer but I have spent my fair share of time crouched on the couch maneuvering cartoon characters on a track, adrenaline pumping and yelling obscenities at the screen. I’ve also sat near by and watched siblings, friends, and boyfriends spend hours speaking in what seems to be a language of their own and transversing universes. Most of these memories I think of fondly. I see them as an innocent opportunity to lose oneself in another world, a world in which one is capable of anything: The ultimate escape from the pressures and limitations of everyday life.

My apprehension for this medium however comes into play when one ventures past the rainbow tracks of Mario Kart and into the world of first person immersive games. We now live in a time when people can actually live their lives in other realities- where one does not have to return to the “real world” to socialize and find human connection. A time where there are virtual parties with guests from around the world and violence is not only meaningless, it is fun. Characters regenerate automatically when their heads get blown off and there are no consequences. I hold no judgment against those who find comfort in these games, as I admit I can see the appeal of a world without rules in which you can be anybody. However, I can’t help but wonder what the affect is on these individuals and if these games have the ability to bring them genuine happiness.

Climax of the next scene, explores these questions from the vantage point of an outsider. Billed as a performance at The Contemporary Arts Center, Climax of the next scene is actually a recorded video which guides you through the artist, Jisun Kim’s, experience immersing herself in two major online gaming communities. Jisun spent several months immersed in these games, meeting players and learning the cultural norms. Her videos are displayed in three channels, projected on to three angled panels. The layout mimics that of a personal gaming set up which surround the gammer almost entirely on three sides. The audience is positioned where the gamer would sit. For the duration of the performance the audience is surrounded by lights, sounds and moving images.

Sitting in the darkness of the Black Box Theater at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, I quickly became completely immersed in this piece. The tryptic of videos gives the viewer new images to explore continuously. Things are always moving on each screen. If one vignette becomes dull, turning the head ever so slightly provides a wealth of activity to focus on, driving home how immersive and mesmerizing games can be.

Much of the performance consists of a conversation between two avatars, one, a red Teletubby controlled by the artist, the other a yellow Teletubby. Teletubbies are not just characters from a children’s show in South Korea where the artist is from, they are a common avatar for gamers. The red and yellow Teletubbies exist in completely separate realities, distanced not only by the screen between them but also drastically different generated spaces. The artist’s Teletubby, is seemingly trapped in a horrifying bunker. Dirty and stark, it looks like a prison. A bare mattress, tattered desk and computer are the only objects shown in the space. We see references to Middle Eastern protests and unrest through posters and graffiti littering the walls. Our guide, the all knowing yellow Teletubby, provides guidance and explanation throughout the piece as they continue to hold conversations despite their distance. He sits comfortably on a beach surrounded by greenery. He speaks calmly and smoothly, maintaining composure through the artist’s questions and confusion.

The dynamic between these two characters is the structure of this piece. The repetitive ‘home screen’ quality of their movements and consistent background center the work. They give the audience something to hold on to. Their conversations are backed by a repeating sickeningly sweet jingle very much reminiscent of game soundtracks. Growing up with my brother’s Nintendo 64 I immediately was brought back to that music, playing on repeat in the living room while I went to get a snack. It acts as a constant reminder that although you may be distracted, fun and adventure are just a few clicks away. The music is monotonous and annoying, although eventually it creates a kind a calm within the piece. It is an indication that we are returning to a predictable and safe space, a purgatory for these characters.

Very little actual action happens on these screens but they set the tone and create a dichotomy between the insider and the outsider. The yellow Teletubby is content. I later learned its player is a teenager living in South Korea whom the artist met through gaming. He not only understands but accepts the culture and practices of the gaming community. He is an insider in this world. He sits calmly at his desk, hands folded in front of him. The red Teletubby is fraught with questions. It paces back forth in its prison, at times swinging a crow bar at thin air as if to ward off invisible demons. It restlessly lays on the bare mattress never fully still. The yellow Teletubby enjoys the sunlight on the beach and occasionally strolls around.

The central screen between them is our window into the actual games. Here we are pulled into the games themselves, following the artist as she explores and interacts with Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft. Both of these games are wildly popular all over the world and consist of hundreds of thousands of users interacting and adding to the game over the internet. Jisun Kim enters these communities of players eager to understand.

First we are led through Grand Theft Auto. We begin by watching her run through the streets, attacking random passersby and eventually stealing a car. Although this may seem dramatic, it is a tame introduction to the game which is known for its ability to act out heinous crimes and reek havoc on the rules of society. I shifted in my seat, hearing the audience chuckle as the artist’s avatar, who is now shown as a realistic human female, punches strangers and beats them. I understand the impulse; it’s just so over the top it is hard not to laugh but my gut couldn’t let it go. Yes, most people do not run down the street with a baseball bat taking out people but it’s not impossible or even particularly violent compared to the mass shootings and police brutality we see on the news every day. In 2017 there have been two murders live streamed on Facebook in broad daylight. The maternal part of me could not let go of the image of young teens acting out these violent and senseless acts on screens in their bedrooms all over the world while others act them out on the streets.

Through the game, Jisun Kim meets a group of players who call themselves “suicide artists”. These suicide artists have created their own game within this vast world, coming up with the most creative ways to die. In Grand Theft Auto characters automatically regenerate after being killed. The game is simply too violent to have characters disappear after being killed; no one would ever get very far. Having mastered the game in its normal capacities, these ‘suicide artists’ have created a new venture for themselves. Jinsun Kim follows them as they blow up cars and yachts and throw themselves off of cliffs. Their antics attract an artillery of police and helicopters. They delight in killing off as many as they can before killing themselves. Jinsun Kim talks to these suicide artists, trying to understand their motivation. They are cool and collected, even tickled by her confusion.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for teenagers in South Korea. It is hard to look at these suicide artists and not question if there is some correlation. Is art imitating life or vice versa? Why do these players, who are so often teens, choose to play this game in such a way? Jisun Kim leaves these questions unanswered, asking the viewer to sit with them and contemplate.

Later we join Jisun in Minecraft, a far less violent game, beloved by children and adults alike. The entire game consists of a generated world of pixilated space. Players can create buildings, gather socially and explore this communally generated world. Here she meets a player whose goal is to reach the end of the mapped world. Jisun explains to the audience that as the result of a glitch in coding, players are actually able to travel to the ‘end of the world’. If they do they will literally fall off the edge of the earth. This feat can take years of walking your character in one direction. There is no alternative goal other than having been able to say you have done it- the mark of a true enthusiast. Again, the audience is left to ponder why someone would invest so much time and energy is something so seemingly unimportant.

Ultimately, Jisun Kim focuses on how gamers have created their own challenges within each game and why. What she uncovers is a desire to create meaning within something that is considered meaningless. Both of the gamers she chooses to focus on are pursuing entirely irrelevant feats, dying creatively and reaching the end of the earth. Neither pursuit furthers the character or increases the players’ prestige; rather they are nihilistic tasks undertaken for the sake of doing them.

I do not believe that the artist dislikes video games. I appreciated that she came into these spaces fresh and ready to learn. Unlike myself, she was able to look at them objectively with an eagerness to understand. The artist spent months living in these games and used less than 10% of the video she captured while playing. It is clear this was a frustrating undertaking for her, not only confusing but emotionally draining. Her portrayal of her character’s space underlines her own feelings of contempt. She was a prisoner kept captive by the games.

Towards the end of the piece there are references to modern warfare and the use of first person shooter games in both terrorist and US military training. More and more actual warfare resembles these games. We are living in an era of drone strikes and remote military bombings controlled by soldiers in strip malls. The lines between games and reality are increasingly blurred. A disturbing clip of a drone strike in the Middle East now seems like game play. The commentary of US soldiers controlling the drones are heard. They speak back and forth through headsets, even laughing as they bomb people thousands of miles away. We hear one say “GOT HIM, Yes!” as he takes out a man running for cover. The parallel drawn here is clear. We need to be careful. We need to be aware of the power of this technology.

The piece ends with dozens of red Teletubbies throwing themselves off of a building. Their red bodies cascade down gracefully to their death. The meaning is ambiguous like much of the piece. Did the Teletubbies give up and decided to end their lives rather than live here any longer? Or are they just now engaging for the first time, taking after the suicide artists, throwing themselves into the absurdity of it all.

Climax of the next scene is a timely and powerful exploration of gaming cultures and human tendencies. Each game brings with it a new set of rules and expectations and with that a new kind of player. There is a beauty in the creativity individuals bring to online worlds waiting to be explored and built upon. There is also a frightening darkness when consequence are no longer a consideration. We are moving into an increasingly virtual world with seamless virtual reality not far in the future. Jinsun Kim urges us to consider what living fully in a generated space will do to our psyches, emotions and ability to feel empathy. The haunting end left me lingering for a long time, wanting some kind of hopeful ending. This piece is plea, not an answer. It does not try to master the games or give us a way to avoid disaster. It just asks the audience to sit with these observations and consider the future.

-Chelsea Borgman is an artist and writing living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the gallery director of C-LINK Gallery at Brazee Street Studios


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