Made On Earth — Games That Games Play

Craft & Design


Video games lead lonely lives. The characters are trapped inside infinitely repeating scenarios played out in a boring plastic box. But New York artist Paul Johnson aims to set games free.

His surreal plastic-and-metal sculptural installations contain networked games that “play” each other. In Maiden Flight, the “client” computer assembles a virtual space station under the influence of metabolic data from the couch-potato star of the other game. Crossings holds two games in the same setting: a truck race through a countryside track where wildlife roam, and the the race from the point of view of the animals. The strangeness of the games extends to the hardware itself, a variety of components bolted to powder-coated metal racks and wrapped in plastic, courtesy of a vacuum former Johnson picked up on eBay.

“I’ve always taken apart disparate consumer technologies and rebuilt them to make something new,” Johnson says. “It’s the way I understand the creative process to work, bringing together different things and reworking them to make them my own.”

The son of a computer programmer who worked on the Apollo space missions, Johnson has programmed games since he was a pre-teen. Previously known for his video art installations, he was recently drawn to gaming because it enables more interactivity between the elements. For example, Dark Network contains Cruzaders, a medieval skateboarding simulator with terrain that’s constantly being modified by M, a puzzle of global commodities trading.

“The fact that The Sims can’t network with Quake is interesting from an artistic perspective,” he says. “You’d like to have these games from two completely different genres talk together. Traditionally, it’s that kind of opposition of elements that create interest and conflict in a story.”

These days, Johnson is honing his Linux chops to build PC clusters for future supercomputer- powered installations. “Artists should think of technology as another part of their creative toolkits,” he says.

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