By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
PULSE: Arcade fired up
Interactive installation brings new dimensions to gaming

With her fetching pink bow and sassy lipstick, Ms. PacMan enchanted the arcade set when she debuted in 1982. Now in her 30s, the lady with the insatiable hunger for dots has become a cultural icon so big she fills an entire room—literally.

Ms. PacMan and those irrepressible ghosts are the focal point of Games as Social Space, an installation that brings gaming out of tiny monitors to the walls, the ceiling and to each other. In one of PULSE’s most engaging exhibits, players immerse themselves inside Ms. PacMan’s wacky world, scrolling through mazes and sucking up random fruit.

The lethal ghosts speed by in the periphery, and high scores depend on one’s ability to navigate old school strategy in three dimensions.

Conceived by illustrious game designer Keita Takahashi, 3–D PacMan electrified audiences when it was first implemented last summer at the Museum of Art and Design New York.

“My idea is simple and it’s not special,” Takahashi expressed humbly in an e-mail with Connect last week. “It merely changed the place of the game screen from monitor to walls. But there is a different sensation. Nowadays, there are a lot of new input methods, but here we changed the output  method, just a little — and look at how the possibilities expanded. Having a different perspective is fun and interesting.”

Back in 2003, Takahashi’s Katamari Damacy turned the gaming world on its ear with its quirky, non–violent surrealism in the era of realistic shoot–em–ups like Halo and was an unexpected commercial success for the Playstation 2. It was the first game ever to win a coveted Good Design award, a prize theretofore reserved for cell phones and BMWs. More cute characters followed in 2007’s Noby Noby Boy, and Takahashi is still heralded as a sage in the development of gun–free games that flirt with the odd and innovative.

His re–conception of the classic 80s Ms. PacMan found traction with Dr. Clement Shimizu, a University of Minnesota computer engineer who has “dedicated his life to serving artists, designers, and other creative people through technological innovation.” Takahashi merely showed Dr. Shimizu his sketches, and watched the idea flourish.

“[Takahashi] had a dream about classic video games being played in unusual ways,” explains Dr. Shimizu on his blog. “I volunteered to realize that dream for him!”

That entailed re–writing the original Ms. PacMan code from scratch and using the fish–eye projector he invented via his research and development firm, The Elumenati. Next came collaboration with the innovative arcade design collective Babycastles, who curated the New York summit as well as other immersive video game experiences (including the epic B–Boy dance battle, YaMove.)

Takahashi, Dr. Shimizu and Babycastles’ founder Syed Salahuddin will offer up insights together on a panel Thursday, Jan. 31 at the Jepson Center of the Arts.

Also on the Games as Social Space panel will be Douglas Wilson, creator of Johann Sebastian Joust. The Stanford–educated designer will lead a demonstration of J.S. Joust, which requires no screen or buttons but necessitates face–to–face interaction. Anywhere from two to seven players hold motion controllers and must move around the playspace in accordance to the tempo of selections from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Too fast or too slow and you’re out.

“I often take familiar consumer technologies and try to do something strange or surprising with them. It’s often humorous to use a controller in a way that the manufacturer didn’t intend,” explains Wilson. “Subversion is also useful when you’re trying to branch out beyond seasoned videogame players to reach a broader audience.”

Making a video game without video is only the beginning of Wilson’s cheeky nod to the social implications of gaming. His doctoral thesis, Designing for the Pleasures of Disputation, examines what it means to design games that mirror the unpredictable interactions between humans rather than entice them to sit in dark rooms for hours on end.

“As we already know from classic forms like sports and boardsgames, games are a great way to bring people together and nurture different kinds of social spaces. Videogames can do that too!“ he says. ”I’m interested in appropriating — and subverting — technology to help create fun, social, spectator–friendly experiences.”

Johann Sebastian Joust appears in the award–winning SportsFriends, a collection of four multiplayer games designed to keep people interacting and spectators engaged. Also included in this assemblage of frenetic fun are the Atari nostalgia–evoking BariBaraBall, vault–happy SuperPoleRiders and Hokra, based on simple square graphics but nevertheless highly competitive. Sportsfriends will also be available for play at PULSE.

In these times of Mortal Kombat and Gears of War, reaching back to the kinder, gentler play of Pong and PacMan may seem like aberrations from the avant–garde art world. But the success of Takahashi’s Katamari Damacy and the Kickstarter support of Johann Sebastian Joust seem to show a different trend.

As Telfair Education Director Harry Delorme noted this week in a guest blog post for the Creative Coast, the video game industry might do very well by trading blood and guns for silly characters and blinking rainbows. The demand is there.

Ms. PacMan and her enduring pink bow prove it.

Games as Social Space panel with Keita Takahashi

When: At 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31

Where: The Jepson, 2 W. York St.

Cost: Free