Friday, October 22, 2010

"Arts & Crafts" Materiality in (and out of) Digital Games

©2010 Nintendo, Inc., Kirby Epic Yarn promo materials

This week Nintendo released it's newest installment of the Kirby series, Kirby's Epic YarnWhat piqued my interest about the game is its use of arts & crafts as an aesthetic motif - everything looks like it's made of string, buttons, yarn and zippers. The aesthetic is supplemented by some clever looking game mechanics, which add to the sense of materiality and texture introduced by the game's environments and imagery. For instance, backgrounds contain loose threads that can be pulled, and things made of yarn (including Kirby himself) can change shape. I should add in a d
isclaimer at this point that this description is based on a cursory review of the demo videos (such as the one I've posted below) and early reviews - I haven't actually played it yet:

Of course, this immediately reminded me of LittleBigPlanet, which obviously also applies an "arts & crafts" aesthetic, albeit in a significantly (i.e. stylistically) distinct way. But as I thought about it a little more, I started to list all the other games I've come across that "play" with materiality, textiles and crafts, and realized that there is a small but notable genre emerging here. Nintendo itself has applied a similar "material" or "arts & crafts" aesthetic to a number of games in the past - most notably in the Paper Mario games, but also in the cardboard cut-out environments of Yoshi's Story:

Games like Crayon Physics, And Yet It Moves and Okami might also be included on this list, though more on the arts aspect than crafts. From Majesco, we now have Crafting Mama for the NDS. And there must be just about a million "girl games" or "pink games" that incorporate crafting to some degree - though I suspect this is predominantly in the form of mini-games, rather than on an aesthetic dimension.  Searching for more examples, I came across this website for KNiiTTiiNG!!, a game that uses the Wii to simulate and teach knitting. Apparently, the game is still in Beta, but it got some media coverage last year (e.g. Kotaku), and is currently being featured as part of an art exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Again - not quite what I have in mind when I'm thinking of materiality and an "arts & crafts aesthetic" - but worth mentioning nonetheless.

All of which leads me back to the other side of this burgeoning relationship between arts & crafts, materiality and videogames, which manifests as physical objects, crafts, embroidery, etc., that reify (reproduce, remediate?) elements and characters from videogames. Aldo Tolino calls these "ludic artifacts": player-created objects that are inspired by video games, but created outside of the games themselves. Oftentimes, these objects aim to transport game themes or characters into the physical world, thereby extending the game experience into other areas of cultural experience & fan practice. 

Gaming community members have long engaged in these practices, which include everything from knitting Metroid Prime dolls, to dressing up as Pacman characters and running around the city, to baking the Portal cake (based on a recipe included in the game as an Easter Egg). For Tolino, one of the most important features of "ludic artifacts" is that they are quite often shared online - through pictures, videos, and other digital artifacts - with other members of the game community. There are also online communities that have formed around particular forms of "ludic artifact" production. An example of this is Sprite Stitch, a blog and forum dedicated to "videogame inspired crafts" and the people who make them. The forum community includes over 1200 knitters, embroiderers and other craftmakers who exchange pictures, patterns and advice about making videogame characters into tangible objects. One of the things that interests me most about these practices is how frequently they combine traditionally feminine (or do I mean feminized) craftwork with videogame fandom - baking, knitting, sewing, carpentry and metalworking. The transfer from digital to material and back to digital again (as the objects are photographed and filmed to be shared online) is simply fascinating. 

More Examples:


shenerd said...

Great post Sara :)

I can't help but feel that the rise of craft practice is connected in a really interesting way to the growth of UGC. Specifically our increased capacity, and indeed, the expectation to 'create' intimately binds digital and analogue 'makerly' acts.

The real, and tactile, world of making manifests the digital as a kind of meaning-making process. The feedback loop you point to could be a way of working through expressive potential. So understanding through our hands.

From a game design perspective games like LBP speak to non-gamers through this address to craft, fitting to industry rhetoric of appealing to new markets. At the same time you point to a rather horrid gendering process in some of these games. I was speaking to a colleague earlier about a similar trend in wearable tech.

I had a plenary at CGSA about LBP in this context but am still working through some thinking on this so it is great to see your post.

Sara M. Grimes said...

Thanks so much! I'd love to read more work on this - I agree that the feedback loop is key. I'm also really interested in developing some more focused thoughts on the gender dimensions. Whenever I come across anything that implies digitized craft work it reminds me of Sadie Plant's The Future Loom. I just know there's more to be done here, just not entirely sure where to start.

Great to hear that you're working through some of the trickier, experiential facets of object manipulation + meaning making. Any papers or other writing coming out on this in the future?