Video games come from the heart of machines. They bend us over plastic and make us obey their rules. Game characters are mostly power fantasies: action heroes offering easy escapes from the mundanity of humanity. Game companies push these characters at us on trading cards, comic books, and fast food wrappers. It's not a pretty sight for eyes searching for signs of intelligent life in cyberspace.
But games are the best hope for the future of communication! They encourage us to grab ahold of what we see on-screen and twist it and make it ours. Literally, to play with it - to understand media, situations, all of life as something fun, to experiment with. We cast ourselves into another world, try, fail, try and succeed, and we emerge unscathed - entertained, inspired, awake and aware, prepared for technology and citizenship.
How can we see that our culture of video games stays true to this spirit of innovation? This spirit of failure and play? To keep games from being training for passivity, to ensure games remain the domain of hard-rocking innovators hell bent on making their own stories?
It may already be too late -
Outside the Smell on this Saturday night, a crowd grows. They're in their twenties, faces darkened by the dim lights in the alley. They're smoking, waiting for friends, talking into their cellphones or typing text messages into tiny portable computers. Just past the door, the Smell starts - it's early in the evening, only just after 10pm, and the place is thick with human heat. Bodies are mashed against each other, shoulder to shoulder, sweating. People are pushing past each other, past a weak table supporting hardware from Atari, Nintendo, and Commodore. These devices must be contributing to the warped bleeping coming from nearby speakers. The eyes of the unmoving bodies are fixed on pulsing discolored pixels - an 8-bit era Japanese game being played large on the wall, upside down and backwards, at too much resolution for its own good.
I find Raina Lee near the stage. Raina is the editor of 1-Up Zine, a subtly crafted piece of post-Nintendo understanding. Drawings and essays claim intellectual and emotional space for gamers interested in the cultural experience of the medium The 'zine is as accessible and generous as Raina is - a ready smile, and a wave of the hand, she gestures me to the front corner of the stage where she stands with John Pham, her boyfriend and comic maker. Raina has invited me to a "video game fashion show." What is that? Curiosity had me packed in with the other curious onlookers, waiting for something called "Brick Attack" to emerge onstage.
Pushing through three front rooms into the back room of the Smell, a crowd swells around a catwalk. A catwalk with a rope swing at the end, and two alligator heads spinning, snapping their jaws along the side - recreating Activision's Pitfall for fashion. Long sheets of shimmering green fabric hung from the ceiling, only slightly obscuring the stage behind - a rendering of the castle from Super Mario Brothers, as tall as two men.
And then it started - a band reeking of the 1980s took the stage. Totally Radd!! they were called, and they announced their nostalgia allegiance loud and proud - light colored sport jackets, the keyboardist with perfect Richard Marx hair, the lead singer playing an red fiberglass electric keyboard slung from his neck like a guitar. With a drummer clad in white, they thrust their drinks into the air - each one of them holding Sparks, a screaming orange can masquerading as a battery, a sugary collaboration of alcohol and energy boosting supplements designed to make the user drunk and awake. In other words, crazed.
They launched into their set, a shower of distended beeping. Raunchy fun with the simple songs of early game consoles - they took the epic themes and clear melodies of Japanese game nostalgia and worked some new wave angst over it. Raina said it sounded like the soundtrack to her aerobics class. And a heavy dose of severe performance, building to a crescendo of clothing removal. Perhaps it's not a party until someone strips and lays belly up on a catwalk playing the keyboard guitar over their sweaty man meat. Either way, Totally Radd!! overstayed their on-stage welcome by two songs and they had the audience singing along and screaming and so happy to see them unleash their id - dorky and unafraid.
But we was there for a fashion show. And fashion-wearers managed to walk between the onstage antics of Totally Radd!! and the dancers they inspired. The first wave of costumes were echoes of gaming - looking at them, you'd have sworn they were from something you'd seen on a screen one time. But you couldn't place it. Which may have been the point, exactly.
Men, or women? - in black unitards took the stage wearing pantyhose over their heads, pantyhose festooned with odd shapes. They gathered on the catwalk, and they jumped around - erratic movement, jerking animation - Ms. Pac-Man fashion from design trio GayMover. And then, pirates from Yoaska: men and women with cheeks rubbed red, with hooks for hands and eye patches, sauntering down the catwalk and back towards the castle.
Then Ripinsky Jaclausov took the stage - stripes extending from his stockings to his arms, he preened in an Eastern European accent into the microphone, announcing the arrival of several players from fictional games. With Totally Radd!! radding away, a boy surrounded by a large translucent bird took the stage. He was a prince destined to save a distant world, Jaclausov explained. More of Jaclausov's designs emerged: a schoolboy with a giant ruler sauntered out, tossing books from his bookbag. He was swiftly attacked by a mugger, with giant blocky cardboard feet and hands.
Early video games might represent the final resting place of innocent heroism, where we suit up as superheroes and do battle against absurdist archetypes. So it was on the catwalk - the models and the clothes did battle. They were torn, ripped, slashed. And then they were knitted back into each other, with their sexuality all kinds of confused. There were schoolboys in their underwear and pirate boys in skirts, sexy girls and androgynous boy beauties, street thugs and a broad-bellied "Insanty Claus" throwing presents from a giant trashbag. The audience grabbed ahold of him on the catwalk and stripped him of all his boxes. They were empty inside.
The nudity, the conflict, the sweat and the heat thickened in the room. Finally, the headliners took the stage. It didn't seem like they could take our attention back from the dangling dicks of Totally Radd!!. But the Minibosses were the most mature side of video games that night - rock musicians who knew how to turn chords into controlled chaos, controlling the crowd. Two guitars, a bass and drums - they announced "Our first song is called MegaMan 2" and the crowd erupted in furious, exultant screams.
And they proceeded to rock out, to take memories by Nintendo and turn them into thrashing energetic anthems. They played Goonies 2, Super Mario Brothers 2 - NES-era standards. People started moshing, and crowd surfing! Crowd surfing to Miyamoto's music! There was something deliciously incongruent to the moment; little children playing alone with plastic controllers grown into rabid young adults collectively leaping into the air.
And the fashion parade continued - a blur of fast-walking models in mindbending clothes, costumes signifying action and potential. Men and women in JeromeJerome's bright orange towel clothes. Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeel's schoolgirl carrying an AK-47. Fetish-clad models swung briefly over the catwalk and alligators on the rope swing, from SprFkr. Tatooed bespectacled nerds with plastic pistols shoved in a belt of bullets.
A woman in a shimmering purple gown with blood on her arms took centerstage. She pulled out Deckard's BladeRunner gun and shot herself under the chin. Blood spilled out from her mouth. The Minibosses began their encore: an extended rendition of the Zelda song, drawn out into loving minutes in the dark.
And then it was over. A fan clambered up on the catwalk to kowtow in worship. I caught up with the woman with blood on her arms and chin. Her name was Crystal Silva, one of the organizers behind the event. She said she was dressed up as Mistress Citrus, the acid queen miniboss from a video game where players seek nirvana through drug use. The game doesn't exist in any electronic medium; it may only exist in her mind. But this night the Brick Attack crew made hundreds of people play their mind games.
The state of the art in this industry debuts on giant screens with free cocktails at vaguely upmarket hotels. People talk about graphics and marketing, licenses and sequels. This night there wasn't a corporate sponsor in sight, only the crowd's deep-running affection for Atari, Nintendo and Konami. The budget for the event was $150, Crystal said laughing, rubbing at the dried red caked on her fingers.
There weren't consoles and televisions and computers strewn about The Smell, there was little chance to actually interact with electronic entertainment. Instead the enemies and heroes, art and struggle were lifted out of the screen into the physical space. Here you could get ahold of games, dance with their pieces and their players, see game culture reflected in the sweaty faces around you.
Games in your face. Games in question. Games appropriated. Games under siege. Games making you sweat. I didn't touch a joystick, keyboard or mouse all night, and I had a multiplayer blast.
Writer Justin Hall recently moved from Oakland to Los Angeles; the adjustment is made easier by late night hard rocking video game parties. Starting in August, he's pledged three years to the University of Southern California's School of Cinema & Television's Interactive Media division, to practice game and media design.
Justin Hall wishes to thank Raina Lee and her 1-Up Zine crew for the invitation, and the use of her camera, and some of her photos when his device ran out of batteries.