Ahead of Manchester International Festival 2021 opening next week, video game designer Robert Yang talks about his "queer gardening simulator" and decency decided by algorithms
Despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic, next Thursday sees the 2021 Manchester International Festival (MIF) open for another 18 days of world-first interdisciplinary art.
This year’s edition is delivered at venues across the city in line with current COVID-19 restrictions. Unsurprisingly, given the ongoing crisis, MIF’s digital programme for the summer is the most significant in its history. Among the work held in the metaverse is a brand new commission from Robert Yang, a highly respected but controversial video game designer who tackles heteronormativity, politics, emotions, and sex through playable work.
‘Intimate, Infinite’ was his art game adaptation of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ by Jorge Luis Borges, exploring repetition, infinity and sudden endings. ‘Hurt Me Plenty’ looked at BDSM subcultures and consent. ‘The Tearoom’ sets its scene in a public toilet, where eye contact leads to sexual encounters. And ‘Rinse and Repeat’ positioned players in a communal male shower, where they could rub down other guys.
All that washing earned Yang widespread bans on Twitch. In 2017, he then made industry headlines for offering censors “glocks instead of cocks”, highlighting how guns and violence are fine in gaming culture, but the human (and specifically male) anatomy is not.
His latest offering to the world, and MIF, is ‘We Dwell In Possibility’. The festival has dubbed it a “queer gardening simulator”, and the mobile app presents gamers with a public space before asking them what constitutes acceptable use. Options include erecting Winston Churchill statues en masse, public displays of affection and fornication. Rough sleeping is another aspect, and vulnerable people can either be moved on or allowed to congregate.
“The Hollywood elevator pitch for this would be like: it feels like the Sims, but also like a big crowd, but also kind of gay, but also kind of about environmentalism a little bit too… That’s a terrible Hollywood elevator pitch,” Yang quips when we get the former New York University game design teacher on Zoom. A self-described “recovering academic”, he relocated to New Zealand in 2020.
“It’s like a public park or garden. So it’s kind of up to you to design or cultivate or grow, and what you think this public space should be and who should be allowed to do certain things in it. Or whether you decide that some things should not happen,” he continues, before diving into specifics.
“You kind of have this God’s-eye-view, looking down on all these little people, which have a very simple kind of political and cultural AI that I’ve made. Sometimes they’re kissing, sometimes they’re picnicking, sometimes they’re dancing, sometimes they’re fucking,” Yang says, explaining ‘We Dwell’ is a sandbox simulation light on structure but heavy on choice.
Our conversation moves to what he hopes the impact on players might be. “A lot of them might not have played games like this before, like overtly political games that might have an activist perspective. People might be used to thinking of games as free-to-play commercial things, designed to exploit children. This isn’t necessarily like that, it’s more an artistic, personal perspective, to broaden people’s minds about how a virtual space can be political or how our virtual interactions can be political.”
The work also raises questions about video games as art, not least thanks to the visuals by illustrator and cartoonist Eleanor Davis. It’s a hotly debated topic never more relevant than today, when triple-A titles are advanced enough Lonely Planet makes guides to their playable universe. Meanwhile, independent developers produce breathtakingly stylised titles for the thriving mobile gaming scene.
Towards the end of our call, Yang explains whether fine works or hand-eye fodder, access to and the gatekeeping of digital content like games is something we should all be worried about. Simply put, we need to be aware of which communities are and aren’t given representation.
“Video games have already transcended the ways we consume art… bypassing museums, bypassing galleries. It’s just what people are directly consuming and thinking about engaging with. And the big obstacle and barrier there is that almost every type of platform, I would say, is starting to close in its walls and starting to censor the content that they allow on there,” Yang says.
“I was actually talking with the festival about what we should do for this game. Should we stream someone playing? And we were talking about how Twitch or YouTube could ban the festival because there’s a little bit of nudity, there’s a little bit of raunchy stuff. I actually don’t think it’s that much. And it’s kind of like cute and charming, but you don’t know where the line is.
“It’s just this weird algorithm or tech giant thing, which can decide ‘Oh, yeah, this type of gayness on Instagram, we’re gonna ban’, or ‘Oh, this type of gay person on Instagram is OK’. Even eBay has recently started banning adult content. The list goes on. All these different platforms starting to crack down on what they perceive as immoral, unacceptable content. So to me as someone who thinks art is kind of supposed to challenge us and make us think about stuff, right now the infrastructure is being set up to protect people and not let them be challenged in any way.”
‘We Dwell In Possibility’ is a free-to-play online game accessed through MIF’s Virtual Factory. You can dive in from Thursday 1st July, for more details head to MIF.co.uk