Isabelle Arvers is an exhibition curator who has been involved in investigating video games through the prism of contemporary art. To celebrate twenty years of pioneering work in this domain, she has set herself a novel and wild project: to embark on a world tour of video games. For ‘Immersion’, she is sharing every step of her journey in the form of a travel diary in which she details her encounters, impressions and discoveries. She does so with a particular inclination and focus on societal and political aspects to bring forth the wealth and diversity of video games on a global scale.
After twenty years of curation dedicated to the encounter between the art world and video games, I noticed that most the countries I have worked in are Western Countries and that most the content I exhibit emerges from western contexts. This realisation led me to engage in this world tour in non-Western countries, to change my gaze, renew my practices and meet independent and experimental artists and developers in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Considering my own values I also wish do to so whilst focusing on feminist, queer and post-colonial approaches.
My first step in this world tour: South Korea, a society greatly influenced both by both video games and a particular relationship to authority. No strolling around, everything must be efficient, don’t stare at people who are older than you, hide your mouth when you are eating: so many rules that betray a society built on severe and strict norms. All the main streets of Seoul are clean, and it is illegal to smoke or to walk your pets on them. Norms have been internalised and so has authority. SOMI reaffirmed this sentiment, as he described the police simulation “Legal Dungeon” he has built, explaining that the dictatorship still loomed and was still profoundly anchored in peoples minds. On the other hand, there are dissident movements, as protesting and making yourself heard is possible albeit through a rather rigid legal system and in through the acceptable channels. Being a woman in South Korea is also a particular concept, I feel at the same time both close and distant from the ways people behave. There are many differences between France and South Korea, in some ways the situation isn’t much better than it is in France. In Korea, the video game industry employs 27% of women compared to only 15 to 20% in the same sector in France.
My first interview is led at the Chungkank College for Cultural Industries with Dustin Lee. Dustin is a game designer and the organiser of the Busan Indie Connect Festival. It’s about an hours bus drive away from Seoul and in order to get there, I needed the help of YOHAN HAN, a franco-Korean artist who will greatly facilitate my stay in S. Korea. My first jet-lagged adventure begins, as I discover the Korean alphabet mesmerizing me as I travel. During this first encounter, Dustin introduces me to the independent and local scene and to his own position concerning the international video game market. He explains that: “Here we produce for the global market, not the local market.”
Dustin invites me to discover the space in which game design students finish up their games a week before their graduation. There is an even proportion of men and women even if Dustin reminds me that most of the girls are artists and only 3 to 5% are programmers. He adds that when they are women they tend to excel as they are “more focused and calmer” than their masculine counterparts according to him. Every project manager then presented their games to me, and I had a particular affection for a little platform game with a distinct ‘Kawai’ character, which is the only game to present narration and not only a gameplay experience. LIMO: the little librarian, tells the story of a librarian who is attacked by cookie monsters, the main character has to chase them in order to re-establish the memory of the library.
THE OUT OF INDEX FESTIVAL
The next day, I meet with Sun Park, the organiser of another festival dedicated to experimental video games: Out of Index. In his studio Turtle Cream, he is an indie video game creator, and beyond that, he also works with the experimental collective Project.99, who’s slogan is “Gather every month, make experimental games, pack them all. And sell it for 99 cents.” Sun Park welcomed me at the Seoul Innovation Park and showed me around: it was very different compared to the clean and neat down-town Seoul with its huge skyscrapers. I am in the heart of a suburban neighbourhood north of Seoul, in which I discover a Fablab, a coffee shop that runs without electricity, an area dedicated to naps, another dedicated to activities for adolescents, and art gallery set up in a warehouse and I even set my eye on some ‘Refugees Welcome’ stickers. The whole thing reminds me of the Grand Voisin in Paris, and I can’t stop myself from asking if they too have a space dedicated to welcoming refugees. At that time I was still unaware that the population in Korea is 98% Korean and that the last 2% is made up of Americans and Chinese people.
Sun Park then shows me the space in which he organizes the Out of Index festival and shows me the scenography of last years festival, which his brother who is an architect had produced. As a curator, this is obviously an interesting aspect to me. Scenography is often absent in independent video game festivals. During the whole visit, I feel ‘at home’, in a familiar universe. Although quite different in many aspects this festival resembles in many ways the one I set up since 2017 with Chloé Desmoineaux: Art Game Demos. I stumble upon Nathalie Leah Lawhead’s ‘Everything is going to be ok’ which we had exhibited and which has since then received the Indiecade award in 2018.
Sun Park then shows me the games he has created with Turtle Cream and some more recent ones he created with Project.99. What I truly connected with is that for his team the most important is to enjoy making video games. It’s often the case that the name of the authors vanishes once the game is distributed which raises questions related to the act of collaboration, a question which I have worked on extensively for the Archée publication. When I ask him about the division of labour in his collective, Sun Park answers that: “Nobody is any one’s hand, we decide things collectively”. His wife, Seongyi Yi, who is also present is a musician trained in classical music who composes the music for his games such as for 6180 the Moon, a platform which depicts the moon in its quest for the sun and which is based on a rather disarming gameplay mechanic, as the top and the bottom of the screen are connected together. When I ask him how he works, he tells me that its a step by step collaboration; every element of the gameplay, every moving object, every level is though out in collaboration.
Project.99 reminds me of the work of the independent developer Pipin Barr who tweets often to develop ideas related to novel gameplay and who’s video games often borrow concepts from contemporary artists (The digital Abramovich institute for example). Every game comes with an original gameplay idea. I like this equation; a gameplay idea = a game. Mirroring the Neen movement started by Miltos Manetas in 2000 when an experience or expression gave birth to a URL or a web site.
THE LABOUR OF MEMORY
My meeting with Gamebridzy, who is an independent studio of nine people that are developing a game on the history of “comfort women”. This time I am led to the south of Seoul and will be late to most my meetings, which is usually seen as rather disrespectful. Nonetheless I am received divinely by Minesok and Hyun Cho, two members of the team.
Between 1931 and 1945, close to two hundred thousand young Koreans were captured by the Japanese army and forced into sex labour in military camps. Of these women who were often teenagers, very few have survived, the Japanese having to massacre them during the debacle. Kim Bok Dong is one of them, she was found by her stepbrother in a hospital where she was working after the war. She only felt comfortable speaking out about her experience a decade later. With Kim Bok Dong and other survivors, they started protesting every Wednesday morning in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in order to ask for their stories to be heard and to obtain reparations. This is why the game they have been developing which is inspired by these women’s stories is named The Wednesday.
In The Wednesday, Kim Bok Dong has the power to travel through time and can, therefore, use the information published in our day and age to prevent the violence of the past and escape the camps in which she was held on the Indonesian island of Ambarra. Developed under Unity, the different scenes of the game are based on real elements of the camp. The game should be released in the fall of 2019, after a crowdfunding campaign launched in August. This encounter with the Gambridzy team was truly fascinating and that was in great part due to the characters of my two hosts. Minesok is the director of the studio, who continuously asked Hyun Cho to intervene, who is the game developer tells me I should really see the games developed outside the studio.
He explains that he wants to invest himself in the production of video games that have a social impact, and that he wants to give meaning to his work. I would later understand through my conversation with Hyun Cho that these aspects are also felt in the way in which the studio organises labour. In most of Korean society, labour is organised in a very hierarchical, patriarchal and vertical manner. Nobody uses each other’s first name, and there is a general coldness in professional relationships. Everybody owes submission and respect to their supervisors. Gambridzy’s organization works very differently, it is much more horizontal: the members of the studio use each other’s first names, and all are welcome to express their ideas. Furthermore decisions are taken collectively. This non-withstanding the fact that the studio is partially funded by a large video game company.
MIGRATION AND ECONOMIC DEPENDENCY
My next encounter is with Jung Yeop Lee, the previous script writer of Guild War, who has today become a professor and a theoretician of video games. He has greatly contributed to game studies thanks to his book: “Digital Games: New Territories of Imagination, Digital Storytelling, and Indie Games”. He explains that he gained a special interest for independent video games in the early two-thousands when according to him most MMPRPG players lost interest in the narrative aspect of games. After discussing the Korean video game market and learning that online gaming represents 60% of the market and about 40 per cent is dedicated to independent video games, to which he added that a staggeringly low 3 to 4% per cent of the market was dedicated to gaming consoles. I then ask him if he knows other games that have an explicit will for social impact.
He then tells me about a game called 21 Days, a game developed by his students that focuses on the story of a Syrian refugee that tries to reach Germany. That’s how I met the creator of a video game I knew well as I had presented during the 2017 Art Game Demo festival when the event had been dedicated to migration and borders. When one mentions such issues in Korea it is hard not to invoke the spectre of Japanese colonisation, as Yohan Han explained that Koreans had not been colonizers but rather colonised and which led to Korean becoming refugees in their own country. Yeop Lee then points out that this should not be a reason for ignoring the issue of migration in Korea.
Han then tells me about the negative reactions he gets from his peers and Korean players who often mockingly call people interested in such topics ‘Social Justice Warrior’, claiming that these issues don’t concern them because Korea has no immigration problem comparable to western countries. Nonetheless, Jung Yeop Lee explains that five hundred Yemenis have been stuck since 2017 on the Korean island of Jeju and that only a couple has received refugee status. The Korean policy when it comes to migration is extremely strict, but these refugees had managed to enter the country on tourist visas when Korea was seeking to bolster its tourism industry on the island.
As protectionist as Korea is in terms of migration it is deeply tied to the Chinese market economically speaking and has less success in protecting itself in this massive economy it has become dependent on. The “Indieapocalypse” is the name given to the current crisis in the independent video game sector and it has greatly to do the with changes in Chinese economic policy. About four years ago China stopped giving the relevant licenses to Korean developers generating a huge loss in independent video game exports to China. It seems as though China is slowly reopening its market for Korean developers and there is a so-called grey market on Steam for these games, but the massive online platform has its own problems as it is incompatible with Random Boxes, a tool to share items from one server to the next which is very frequently used in the creation of video games in South Korea.
We continue speaking and the conversation moves on to what is described as the western ignorance when it comes to Asian, Chinese and Korean machines. I myself discover the MSX, the computer which was most widely used in Korea before the arrival of IBM PCs in the 1990s. This completely stunted the development of local and national hardware material.
REPLICA AND LEGAL DUNGEON BY SOMI
I follow my series of interviews with a game developer called SOMI who lives in Busan, and who’s video games are very distinct and particular even for the independent Korean scene. Replica and Legal Dungeons immerses us in a universe of control and surveillance, and seeks to bring forth in citizens awareness of issues pertaining to the dangers of recent anti-terrorist legislation which is often-times intrusive. One that stands out had been voted in 2016 to counter the so-called menace of North Korea. This was his way of offering a critical view of Koreas powerful neighbour China, but also to warn Korea about what and the authoritarian government employing surveillance technology could look like.
In Replica, on the other hand, we embody someone who is detained by the Interior Security after a terrorist attack. Alone and incarcerated, we can only use a phone to get out, and we must hack the phone of a stranger and use his data, conversations, photos and social media information in order to get out of this predicament. The game is inspired by the novel Little Brother written by Cory Doctorow, and greatly references the security-driven policies of the previous regime. Even if the country is now a democracy and the role of the Interior Security has been curtailed, SOMI reminds me that “the law is the law” and that it must be prevented from “encountering its regime once again”.
In his last game, Legal Dungeon, the player embodies a police officer and must organise documents related to a police investigation in order to evaluate criminal proceedings. This is done in order to show the player what it means to hold peoples lives in your hands, to have power over them. It is a very realistic game which has deeply educational aspects in regards to the current legal framework in place in Korea. There are eight cases the player must evaluate, and through doing so the player learns how to cross-reference older cases and focuses on current legal proceedings giving the game a character resembling a documentary.
“I created Legal Dungeon, explains SOMI, for people to understand who the real criminals are. In the game, the player can live the same situation police officers do. Like them, you must manipulate criminals and victims to get results, promotions and points. I wanted to reproduce the legal procedures with exact precision. In the same situations, players are lead to make the same perverse decisions which normal cops do daily. In Korea, the police are obsessed with scores and numbers which often leads them to forget the human character of the cases they are working on.” Here is an article LINK describing theses dynamics in the Korean police force.
Once again I feel strangely close to home in a very alien context, as I remember the beginning of the French police state developed by Sarkozy. This leads me to discuss police violence and the yellow vest movement with him and the dozens of anti-terrorism laws that have come to pass in France in the last decades since 9/11, and I wonder if there are games in France that address such issues.
Independent video games, as Jung Yeop explains in a column published recently in Game Insight Korea need these types of “strategic approaches, and the voluntary creations of developers linking games to social impact. This would permit to overcome some of the issues riddling the Korean video game industry and would foster greater respect for video games”. My trip through the South Korean independent video game scene is rather edifying in terms of thoughts related to the future of these games, and in relationship to the political impact, these games might be able to have.