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New generation of game creators invites the world to play

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With techno rhythms reverberating in the Hammer Museum courtyard and hundreds of guests taking in the action onstage and across a dozen flat-screen monitors, the UCLA Game Art Festival was party, playground and art exhibition all in one.
 
Guests at the free come-one, come-all festival, which ran May 9 at the Hammer and May 10 at the Broad Art Center, played experimental video and arcade games and viewed game art and machinima — a type of film-type storytelling in the virtual domain — created by students and artists from UCLA’s Game Lab and beyond. Among the game makers present was was artist-in-residence Caine Munroy, the 9-year-old mastermind behind Caine’s Arcade, viewed by almost 3 million people on YouTube.
 
Hosting the festival was the UCLA Game Lab, a collaboration between the School of the Arts and Architecture — where the lab is housed in the Design Media Arts (DMA) Department — and the School of Theater, Film and Television. Open to undergraduate and graduate students from a wide range of disciplines, the Game Lab serves as a classroom and incubator for all-things-games, from learning the latest technology to exploring the socio-historic-political issues surrounding games.
 
UCLA graduate student and game designer David Leonard emceed.
Onstage at the Hammer, DMA graduate student and game designer David Leonard emceed, sporting a bright-red jacket and competing to be heard above the cumulative din. "Be sure to check out all the games on the monitors," he barked. "Cart Life, a simulation of the life of a street vendor. Discrimination Pong — you’ve experienced discrimination in real life, now experience it in a Pong game!

"And the shouting over there," Leonard said, pointing to a crowd gathered around a green arcade game, "those are the screams from Talk Therapy." Chris Reilly, a DMA graduate student who created the "physical/electromechanical dogfight" game, explained later that the game is powered by a combination of button-pushing and yelling. "It’s really primal," Reilly said. "People don’t often get a chance like this to really unleash."
 
Playing Add Adipose Pose.
Leonard also introduced onstage demonstrations of such games as Add Adipose Pose. Asking for two volunteers, its developer, DMA graduate student Joanna Cheung then inserted deflated balloons connected to air tubes beneath their shirts and instructed them to press buttons as quickly as possible to inflate their opponent’s balloons. The result: One player appeared to have silicon breast implants gone wild, while the other bore a close resemblance to Quasimodo.
 
The majority of games at the festival were developed at UCLA, explained Eddo Stern, Games Lab director and an associate professor in design media arts, but students from other universities as well as several independent artists also took part. His primary intent, Stern said, was to find "new work that hasn’t been shown before."
  
Game Lab Director Eddo Stern
An accomplished game designer himself, Stern said he steers clear of commercial approaches. "I’m more interested in games as an art form," he said. "The freer it is from market concerns, the more opportunity there is to innovate." His latest game, Goldstation, features characters engaged in a battle of frenzied gold-digging.
  
Relativity Runner
Relativity Runner
Among those games pushing the limits was Relativity Runner by Georgia Tech graduate student Chris DeLeon. His game challenges the player to navigate the dizzying visual conundrum that is the M.C. Escher work "Relativity," as viewed from four shifting camera angles. While the task looks easy, in the same way that Escher’s artwork appears at first to be navigable, said DeLeon, "it’s excruciatingly hard to do. People leave [after trying the game] asking themselves, ‘How did I get it wrong?’ It’s about the assumptions we make about what’s happening."
 
Festival emcee Leonard also introduced his own latest creation, FataLATour. The game, part phone app and part real-life walking tour, introduces players to locations around Los Angeles where murders, real and fictional, have occurred. Leonard assembled a database of some 3,000 actual homicides and movie murders through research at news morgues, the L.A. coroner’s office and film websites.
 
Talk Therapy creator Chris Reilly (left) and fellow student Seph Li compete by yelling.
"The city is just full of real and imagined murders," said Leonard, who offers small-group tours of murder hotspots where he shoots fake blood at tour participants while they use Leonard’s phone app to pull up details of the violence that occurred at the exact spot where they are standing. At one downtown site, for example, participants learn about an actual shooting near the Rosslyn Hotel as well as nearby cinematic shootouts by Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in the movie "Heat."
  
Leonard's intent, he explained, is to give his game players "some sort of experience that isn’t just looking at a phone app, but is sort of empathic."
  
Festival curator Stern, summing up the offerings, said, "Most of the game makers here are experimenting, taking very different directions. Hopefully, they extend your idea of what video games and computer games are and what they can mean in the future."
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Find the complete festival schedule along with links to interactive games at the Game Art Festival website. And learn more about the UCLA Game Lab in this UCLA Today story.
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