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theory: Playing up: an interview with Molleindustria.
Posted on Thursday, July 15 @ 06:23:13 CEST by rebecca

Labs Italian collective La Molleindustria (www.molleindustria.it) make politically engaged games, which are different to now-familiar Australian examples like Escape from Woomera, and have different targets. Their games run in Macromedia Flash, by now a long-established family of software applications for producing and replaying web animations, games and pop-ups. Molleindustria make games that, in their visuals, basic gameplay discipline (mouse-pointer) and in their emergence in discrete browser windows, resemble the flash and shockwave games that crowd the servers of shockwave.com or are used to advertise commodities, from energy drinks to political candidates like Howard Dean. The difference is that these are games that, for example, seek to make trenchant criticisms of ever-more flexible labour markets and to visualise and make playable the claims of queer theory about the mutability of sexual identity, pleasure and desire.

Molleindustria explicitly position their work in opposition to the mainstream industry, which they see as having been invaded by global entertainment giants, and position their work alongside broader indymedia movements:
We believe that the explosive slogan that spread quickly after the Anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, "Don't hate the media, become the media," applies to this medium. We can free videogames from the "dictatorship of entertainment", using them instead to describe pressing social needs, and to express our feelings or ideas just as we do in other forms of art. But if we want to express an alternative to dominant forms of gameplay we must rethink game genres, styles and languages. The ideology of a game resides in its rules, in its invisible mechanics, and not only in its narrative parts. That's why a global renewal of this medium will be anything but easy.

Their website shows their explicit connections with organisations like Euro Mayday, which stages a yearly event which is a rallying point for new social movements. They explain, too, their decision to distribute their games freely online:

We chose to start with online gaming in order to sidestep mainstream distribution channels and to overcome our lack of means. Using simple but sharp games we hope to give a starting point for a new generation of critical game developers and, above all, to experiment with practices that can be easily emulated and virally diffused..

With such serious critical aims, it may be a susprise for their site’s visitors to discover how much fun their games are.

One, Tuboflex is introduced as being set in the near future of theYear 2010:
The need of mobility has grown to excess since the first years of the millennium. That's why Tuboflex inc., the world's leading Human Resources Services organisation, created a complex tube system that make it possible to dislocate employees in real time, depending on demand. Playing the part of a Tuboflex workhand, you will have to survive in this dynamic labour market.

In Tuboflex the player, armed with their mouse, must negotiate different tasks set for their (cute) avatar in different virtual workplaces, from a fast-food drive-through counter, to a factory floor, to a clerical cubicle, to a Christmastime shopping-centre wherein they must play Santa to demanding children. They are sucked from one job to another without warning, and while their tasks become progressively harder, in between there are periods of unemployment where the clock ticks as the player’s avatar sits idly in an armchair.

In Tuboflex, La Molleindustria’s ideological sympathy with new kinds and forms of political protest such as Euromayday and its Netparade is clear. Of Netparade, which is an online, paticipatory manifestation of the annual Euromayday parades in Milan and Barcelona, and which online visitors are invited to add an avatar to, the organisers say:
The marching avatars are digital simulacra of today's exploited masses of neoliberalism: précaires, precari@s, precari, cognitarie, contingent knowledge and service workers.
We are a mixed bunch, a heterogeneous multitude of precarious jobs and lives. Yet we have not spawn out of fordist assembly chains, but out of dystopian retail chains and office spaces (sic.) (euromayday.org, 2004).

Tuboflex speaks to, and simulates the condition of the same constituency: postmodern, post-Fordist, largely young and Western service and information workers.

Queerpower: Welcome to Queerland is another of La Molleindustria’s Flash games, this time focussed on the politics of sexuality and identity. The game’s intro sets the scene: ‘Queerland inhabitants don't have fixed sexual orientations and roles. They fornicate following their highly changeable desires.’ Players (1-2) must choose a preference before play begins (‘dick lover’, ‘pussy lover’, or ‘other or confused’). When play begins, the instruction ‘Fuck!’ appears, and players’ avatars are facing each other. A number of actions are available: the player may approach or retreat from the opposing avatar, change shape between masculine and feminine forms, and between a number of sexual poses, and instruct their avatar to engage with their opposite number, from which actions pleasure is (unevenly) distributed. Progress in the game is measured by the two on-screen bars for each player that measure how much desire one’s avatar feels for the gender-posture combination of the other avatar at any given time (and with the shapes assumed at intimate moments, forms the matrix of the queers’ ‘dynamics of desire’), and one that measures ‘the satisfaction level of your queer’. The game ends when one avatar or another’s satisfaction level maxes out at orgasm.

There is a clear inversion here of the imperatives of 2D beat-em-ups from Street Fighter (Capcom, 1987) or Mortal Kombat (Midway Games, 1992) on, though it resembles them in taking the logic of Pong (Atari, 1972) to a certain conclusion. Like Tekken (Namco, 1994) or Soul Calibur (Namco, 1999), it makes a number of abilities, postures and special moves available to the player in their tangle with their opposite number. Whereas the beat-em-ups use (ever-diminishing) health bars to indicate how much damage a player has sustained (and the equation of such damage with pain is underlined and extended to the player’s body in hardware mods/artworks like C level’s Tekken Torture (2002)), Queer Power invites the player to accumulate and grant pleasure.

There are a range of interfaces between the game and influential strands of queer theory, indeed it could be said that the game visualises and makes playable some of its key claims or problems relating gender and sexuality. The polymorphy of player avatars, and the blur of shifting preferences and identifications illustrates claims about the constructedness, or even the arbitrariness of inviolable categories of homo-, hetero-, masculine and feminine. Identities such as these are here equated with something as mutable and evanescent as the ‘skins’ that players choose for their avatars in mass-market games like The Sims (Maxis, 2000). It is open for players to make it their object either to compete to reach orgasm first, to reverse this and be the first to fill up the other player’s satisfaction bar, or to try to reach this point together. Either way, the game plays up the power inscribed in such encounters, and raises a number of questions around power, pleasure, domination and submission.

In this, their first interview in English, conducted by the author via email, Molleindustria clarify and extend some of the aims of their games.

1. Unless you want or need to remain anonymous, how many people are in the team, what are your backgrounds (political, skills, any history in commercial software industries), where are you based, and what are your roles in the collective?

We don't want to answer to this kind of questions. Strange though it may seem, many European activists (or better artivists) choose anonymity or collective names in order to direct the media's attention to projects rather than people. It's a sort of reaction to the widespread craving for personal success and media visibility of our age.

2. You used a lot of free/open source software in designing your site. Could you please explain how important the open-source and copyright-free ethic is to you, and why?

Copyleft and open source ethic are revolutionary because they can progressively get over the difference between producers and consumers of cultural products. In the game design field it can be a great business for the software houses (eg. the Sims community) but also a great opportunity for everyone who wants to make the videogame a consciousness-raising medium. As suggested in Gonzalo Frasca's "Videogames of the oppressed" we can imagine games that can be easily and radically modified by players. We've just started working on a basic platform for Sims-like games that we will probably publish in autumn under the GNU licence. Of course, it isn't going to be a representation of the consumerist middle-class heaven like the original Maxis game. Expect unemployment, precarity and a lot of political incorrectness. This is an ambitious project so we are designing a modular structure to allow a collective development. Maybe with a large community of programmers and active players we could even worry uncle Will Wright...

But in our opinion this movement is particularly interesting because it has the chance to contaminate the world outside the informatic sphere. There are already many examples: the wikipedia, the opencola drink, here in Italy there are various experiments of open-source literature and music. Someone started to talk about open-source cities applying the hacker's "hands on imperative" to politics and town planning.

3. Related to the last question: for people to play and distribute your games, they need to have and use proprietary/corporate networks, hardware and software (e.g Macromedia Flash). Could you talk about the tension between capitalist ownership of these technologies and intellectual properties, and your oppositional use of them?

If we want to have an effective impact on society we are obliged to use corporate technologies. We can't expect to make alternative networks and even non-corporate hardware, all at once. Linux is constantly advancing because it can penetrate and replace many gears of the capitalistic machine. Recently, a Linux based system has been adopted by McDonald's.

This is not a contradiction, this is transformation!

Above all we aim at the widest diffusion for our games so we choose the most popular and economical technology available. We would be wery glad to use a open source clone of Macromedia Flash but at the moment there is nothing like that. The problem is that there is a lack of non-proprietary professional and semi-professional applications. Anyway, we must know that SWF is open format. Open-format means SWF files are not exclusively produced by Macromedia and all the information stored is available to the public. Other companies can create files that can be played on SWF player. That's why there are Flash plug-ins for Linux, for instance. With very common applications every SWF file can be decompiled and modified by everyone.

4. You seem to have a strong connection with Euro Mayday and other strands of new social movements (Queer liberation, sexual liberation) Euro Mayday is especially concerned with the effects of a flexible labour market on young people, cultural and intellectual workers etc., and you satirise these labour conditions in your game, Tuboflex. It may be though that labour mobility, multiskilling and adaptability contribute to the ability for collectives to come up with innovative critical art like yours. Could you explore this dialectic?

We are all flexible and cognitive workers. We create games in the frequent off work periods that distinguish all the new jobs in the communication field. Yes, we satirise our own labour conditions but we are convinced that the post-Fordist labour organization is also a dialectical result of the political struggles of the sixties and seventies. People strongly opposed the massification of the production and rejected the prospects of a regular alienating job. This forced capitalism to reorganize itself using more flexible structures, differentiating the production, investing in immaterial goods etcetera. We acknowledge the irreversibility of this situation and we don't want to retrace our steps. But flexibility and labour mobility doesn't necessarily mean precariousness. We can reclaim right like steady income, paid vacation and the right to union-organizing for temps and flextimers, for instance. We make a wide range of claims for a post-Fordist welfare that we like to call "Flexicurity".

b) Could you explain how you see the connection between all the political issues that your games deal with?

Our project is still in an experimental phase. We are testing the rhetorical possibilities of the videogames without following a defined path.

Probably the only connection between all the political issues dealing with our games is the importance attached to the everyday life. Many people think that a game is politicized only when concerns particular events (elections or war, for instance) or politicians. This can strengthen the common opinion that politics are substantially unrelated to our lives. That's why we tried to talk about the women's daily oppression with the orgasm simulator and the flexworkers' conditions with TamAtipico and Tuboflex. Yes, we could have criticized directly our welfare minister but often politicians changes but politics remains the same.

[note: the "ministero del welfare" is the new americanized name of the traditional "ministero del lavoro" (minister of labour). This name was changed by Berlusconi's government]

5. 'Queer Power' is very interesting to me because it seems to me that

a) it makes the claims of queer theory visible and playable, particularly those about the flexibility of desire, pleasure and identity
b) related to this, it seems like it could be played in a number of ways - players could race to orgasm, they could compete to bring one another to orgasm, or they could try, cooperatively, to arrive together!
c) you seem to have built consent into the game - the power switch means that players can stop the encounter at any time
d) in playing with sex we come to think about how sex is always mediated by images and ideologies
e) it seems like a very clever parody of 2D 'beat-em-ups' like 'Street Fighter' or 'Mortal Kombat' where everything in those games is reversed - instead of dealing out pain the player must accumulate pleasure, instead of a health bar there is a pleasure bar, instead of special combat moves there is the ability to change gender, sexual position and so on.

How does all of this fit with your interpretation of the game, and your intentions in making it?

We are glad you remarked our purposes. The funny thing is you are the first who paid attention to the power switch. It's a recurring element of our games: we provocatively emphasize it to invite the player to not waste too much time with a silly game. Queer Power started from a reflection on game genres. Nowadays, the mainstream videogames industry is stuck in the same old genres, there is a great technical advancement but no one wants to take the risk to propose new structures and new gameplays. There are many analogies with the "golden age" of Hollywood: a massive and expensive production based on few narrative models. We saw in this stagnant situation an opportunity to play a trick on players used to these standard structures.

Unhinging the typical workings can be an excellent way to make the people think. For example, in Tuboflex the typical level gradualness is broken. In the real world, for the flexworkers there are no social climbing possibilities so we decided to show this with a frustrating random level structure. In the Orgasm simulator there is an unwelcome identity swap, the player starts in a disadvantaged situation instead of being put in a hero's place.

Reversing all the "ideological" features of the beat 'em up genre like the win/lose scheme, the violence and the stereotyped gender roles we quickly come to Queer Power. Unfortunately in Italy the queer theory is almost unknown due to our different feminist traditions and the difficult academic language used by its followers. We hope that our simple game can help to spread this fascinating theory.

6. Are any of you videogame fans?

We used to say: we don't like videogames, that's why we make videogames. We rarely play commercial videogame but sometimes we find something interesting. For example Postal 2 in spite of its poor engine is a clever satire of the violent, paranoiac and individualistic American society. In this dystopia where everyone goes round armed its even impossible buy some milk at the market without making a big mess. We also liked Tropico, a game in wich you play the role of small island's dictator. It's very instructive because you must learn to build the consent day by day meeting your subject's needs, using force, controlling the media and so on. More or less is what happens in our democracy.

7. Following from the previous question, are there any past or current games that you think qualify as art? Why? How? Is your intention to reclaim games and fuse them with your politics of liberation related at all to a sense that games are art, or were once? Is it possible to describe your ambitions as being for a kind of 'folk' game design, and for games to circulate as other forms of folk art do or have?

We don't feel the need to define a privileged category called "art" in the field of cultural production. We simply consider the videogame as a mass medium like cinema, television or literature. A medium with specific peculiarities, limits and potential. A medium that needs a specific field of research and criticism. Sometimes we talk about artistic and political emancipation of videogames suggesting the possibility to use them for expressing author's ideas and feelings instead of conceiving them as mere entertainment machines. But this emancipation mustn't imply a higher level elevation. Videogames are very popular medium and the challenge is to find an alternative way in the given context without creating a niche for cultured players. In short, your definition "folk game design" fit us perfectly.

10. Your games are a lot of fun, are beautifully designed, and have some really cute characters. Pleasure is a strong theme here. How important is the relationship between politics and pleasure, and how do you think about this relationship?

Last year, Bertolucci directed a movie called The Dreamers. On the whole is a bad and irritating movie but his good point is that it focuses on the forgotten connection between pleasure and politics. If activism stop being pleasant and proposes just a furious antagonism will surely cause damage. Here in Italy this is proved by ten years of political terrorism. But these new social movements won't make the same mistakes, in their manifestos you can read claims like "We reclaim access to Housing, Loving, Hacking!", in the seventies very few people talked about "love" from a political viewpoint.

11. New media theorist Sean Cubitt once said that "Digital arts have the responsibility for freeing machines from the tyrrany of their design". Along with your other political commitments, is this a fair description of your collective ambitions?

This is an evocative phrase but it adopts a technocentric approach that can be functional to the market. From Nam June Paik to the new Flash designers, electronic artist have always been an elite of new technologies testers. Freeing machines from the tyranny of their design they often opened up new lucrative prospects for the companies that exploited their discoveries. We prefer to focus on that is outside the machine and create the machine. If there is a tyranny, probably is in the designers not in the design…

Jason Wilson

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Playing up: an interview with Molleindustria.

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