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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Swordfight is Good Art

Swordfight is a new physical game using modified Atari 2600 controllers created by Kurt Bieg and Ramsey Nasser. Each player straps on an adapted Atari controller over their crotch. The goal of the game is to push the other player's button (the button beeps through an custom, internal circuit board). Player's end up moving around, laughing, embarrassed, trying to push their pelvises toward each other and push the button on the other player's controller, but also dodging the other player's stick. I've not played it personally, but after watching some video, the game looks pretty absurd.

At first, after learning about the game on Indie Games blog, I thought it was simply a joke and moved on. But the idea of the game kept me thinking.

A View of Art

One concept of art for me is an expression created by someone else that brings new perspective to my life and things around me. A lot of times intent and context are a big part of things, and art created can also be very personal. Munch's "The Scream" doesn't do a lot for me until I consider it from a point of angst and despair and then I can start to make sense of it. When I look at Rodin's "The Cathedral", I admire how delicate the hands look, yet it's made of metal. It looks like it could be lover's hands coming together or hands of people in a church being to say a prayer together.

What I Like About Swordfight

I see Swordfight as rearranging and changing game industry and societal conventions. The controller with the stick and the button now conceptually replaces the gender of the person playing. Each player is now the same gender. Each player has both a stick and a button (like a phallus and a clitoris). Classic console and arcade games are traditionally played by males. Here, both players are changed into a new, combined conceptual gender.

The players are then guided by the game rules to get close and to touch buttons, but they shouldn't get too close, as that will allow the other person to win. Most people would find it rightly awkward to get so close and poke their friend's crotch (unless of course this friend is your girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse!) But here, the game encourages close contact and the game rules present an equally embarrassing situation for both players. Players now interact in a new, physical way. It is not a hug, a pat, or a tickle (and no, not even sex), but is guided by the game.

The experience here is only possible because of a game. Photos or videos don't do it justice. No amount of reading about it (don't quit reading! :) or watching conveys the full experience, it must be played. Interaction being the defining distinction of games.

The 30+ year old Atari 2600 controller is now sexy, brought into present day and at the center of the game. You're goal is to press the button on the other player's controller. In most games, pressing the button on your own controller is part of the basic gameplay.

Kinect and the Wii may get you up and moving, but here you are physically grabbing each other. Swordfight uses game hardware, but goes even beyond current-gen consoles in terms of promoting physical movement, by repurposing decades old technology. For a group as traditionally un-sexy as gamers (as opposed to say dancers), it's pretty wild to design a game around waving their crotches at each other.

The development duo responsible for the game were interviewed on the indie games blog a few days ago. They point out a lot of the key elements of the game's concept. "It's a very intimate place to have a game, between two people's hips, but the controller acts as a buffer, and the novelty of it allows players to engage with each other in a way that would normally be off limits."

Deep Thrills

While the basic concept of moving around, trying to thrust your hips at your friend is definitely absurd and crazy, I think there's a lot of inventiveness and depth to the concept of Swordfight, beyond mere entertainment or cheap thrills. I think Swordfight is good art.

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