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 "When you try to accomplish something purposeful, you're no longer engaging in play," says Greg Niemeyer, relaxing with a computer game in his office. (Wendy Edelstein photo)

They're not about whether you win or lose
Greg Niemeyer finds both pleasure and insight in games from Roshambo to Pac-Man

| 08 February 2006

According to Greg Niemeyer, games are much more than mere diversions. "Everything we know," he says, "we learn from games."

A professor of art practice who creates installations that blur the boundaries between art and science, Niemeyer is teaching Game Design Methods, an undergraduate course, this semester.

Niemeyer uses the term "play" to include any activity that "accomplishes no purpose at all." Play begins at a very early age. When a father greets his baby with the words "good morning," and the infant gurgles back a response, that interaction, says Niemeyer, is a form of play. It also provides pleasure, "a strong motivation" in play, and teaches the baby mimicry, a useful skill for a child learning how to speak by pretending to do so.

While pleasure is the common denominator of all play, games themselves are "lab settings in which we try to relate to other human beings," says Niemeyer. For instance, in the children's game Roshambo (a.k.a. Rock Paper Scissors), "we learn to synchronize with another human being." The game teaches basic rhythm as well as fairness, he points out: "If you don't sync with the other player at Roshambo, you cheat."

Niemeyer lists a host of games, activities, and social institutions that yield lessons in human interaction. The hide-and-seek swimming game Marco Polo teaches call and response, he says. Even in the hallowed chambers of the U.S. Senate, lessons in interaction occur. Judicial confirmation hearings often (though perhaps not lately) include "a sense of verbal jousting and challenges, humor, and even occasional elements of pleasure." He sees an evening of Wagner or a rock concert as a highly evolved form of play. Look through Niemeyer's figurative lenses, and much of life appears to contain elements of play. Often play and the rest of life - a category that Niemeyer calls "everything else" - mingle together.

Let the games begin

Niemeyer grew up in Switzerland, where he devoted himself to photography and the classics. In 1992 he came to the U.S., earning his MFA in new genres at Stanford University's art department. Once he began using computer graphics in his graduate work, initially in a project on California historical monuments, he became curious about how he could connect not just to the graphics but to the program itself - "so that I could make the artwork interactive." He set out to design games in which viewers could interact with other people and the program or game would function as the medium.

Niemeyer founded the Stanford University Digital Art Center (SUDAC) in 1997, anticipating an interest in removing boundaries between art and technology. "The essence of new media is computer programming," he explains. "I realized that programs are the rules for interaction between machines, people, and information. If the goal of art is to seek beauty, and the goal of computing is to run a program, by combining the two activities, we end up with programs seeking beauty. If people interact with a program seeking beauty, we end up with computer games."

Niemeyer's own artwork fits squarely in the "new media" category. His latest piece, Organum (2005), is a video game employing sound, images, and technology. Participants navigate through a model of the human voice box using their own voices as game controls.

Oxygen Flute (2001), installed briefly on the Berkeley campus the following year, was an elevated plastic tent with bamboo trees planted on the floor. The sounds of chirps and flutes are emitted from speakers, based on the fluctuations in carbon dioxide triggered by the presence of a visitor. As the installation's sensor relays information to its computer, the pitch and volume of the sounds changes. Niemeyer and co-designer Chris Chafe, director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford, were moved to create Oxygen Flute after 58 Chinese immigrants who had stowed away in a shipping container suffocated en route to England in 2001. They wished to raise awareness of the relationships between air quality, breathing, and survival. "Every project I do is a deliberate exercise in studying interactions and relations among persons and their environment," explains Niemeyer.

It's how you play . . .

Courses in game-design methods, such as the one Niemeyer is teaching at Berkeley, are springing up in universities across the country, he says. While art history examines the aesthetics of objects, Niemeyer is trying to convey to students the "aesthetics of interaction," in the process of which "they study particular qualities of interaction itself, such as moments of creating and sharing." With e-mail, for example, the speediness and length of a reply provides cues to the sender's relation to the recipient in addition to the missive's content. Students in Niemeyer's course examine how games influence personality, the difference between new-media interactivity and traditional activity, the role of games today, and the reasons people follow rules. Students will also develop their own games.

To make his students aware of how the games they played as children have shaped their characters, Niemeyer assigns them to write "game autobiographies" at the first class session. "Your character is how you relate to others," he explains. "Some characters like to compete, while others like to solve mysteries, and yet others prefer to bond. Games help shape and strengthen these affinities."

Niemeyer's own favorite childhood game involved standing on frozen puddles of transparent ice. He would step on different parts of the frozen surface to see how the water and air trapped beneath the ice would move around. "It was a game of pattern recognition," he explains.

That was a simple game of Niemeyer's own devising. Parents, though, can have a "massive impact" on a child with the games they introduce to them, he says. Games serve different purposes: They enhance social, puzzle-solving, or memory skills, and can encourage players to use their imaginations and creativity. But they can also promote destructive behavior.

"The game's message is not in the game itself but in the way it's played," says Niemeyer. "You could turn Tic-Tac-Toe into a violent game if you played it a certain way, making your sibling feel bad every time he or she lost." If only one game existed in the world, Niemeyer says, people would play it in different ways. He offers Pac-Man, the video game developed in the '80s, as an example. "One way of playing the game is to see it as an exercise in eating your way through the world," he says. The yellow Pac-Man character navigates through a maze, trying to eat as many dots and as much fruit as possible before being killed by the four ghosts chasing it. But the game can also be played as a straightforward exercise in problem solving.

Games can, perhaps obviously, reflect the zeitgeist, the contemporary sociopolitical climate. American Idol teaches class emulation, says Niemeyer: "We get to pretend anybody could be rich and famous if they try." He mentions that high-school students have ranked getting on American Idol as their top career choice in exit interviews.

"There's a bit of humor in that, but it's also sad," reflects Niemeyer. "It's too bad so much ambition is trapped in surface accomplishments like that." He suggests designing an alternative game in which students would aspire to world leadership, and where the winner would serve a term in a state assembly. "What if students contemplated being good civic leaders," he ponders, "rather than obsessing about looking good onstage in a pair of jeans while performing a song?"

Greg Niemeyer is organizing a June 6 conference, "Down With Serious Games," to be held in Moffitt Library. For information, visit art.berkeley.edu/060606.