Serbian Artist’s Phone Games Fuse Humour and Politics

As a student of film and philosophy at Columbia University, Igor Simic (interview, in Serbian, here) realised the potential of video games as art during a talk given by Paul Schrader, the American screenwriter and director who penned Taxi Driver.

Simic recalls that Schrader’s lecture pointed to the then on-going exhibition of Marina Abramovic’s work at MoMA and the growth of YouTube – and suggested that the key to the future of art lay in greater interactivity in the increasingly interconnected world that video games offer.

When he returned to Belgrade in 2012, Simic initially focused on video art and on directing short films, but kept Schrader’s words in mind.

He turned to two programmer friends from high school, and they produced two mobile phone games that tackled social issues of the day with dark humour.

The first, Crisis Expert, which involves driving a shopping cart over economic charts, was inspired by the Great Recession, while the second, Children’s Play, put the player in the role of an overseer of a sweatshop production line, where he had to keep his underage workers from sleeping.

Their latest game, Golf Club: Wasteland, which features a disgruntled resident of Tesla City on Mars, playing golf in the ruins of Earth in the not so distant future, also draws inspiration from politics.

Initially inspired by his video art-work Melancholic drone, the golf element was added partly in homage to President Donald Trump’s former business as a golf-course developer.

However, the main target is what Simic terms “Silicon Valley Ideology” – which is narratively and visually juxtaposed with the backdrop of ruins, which resemble Yugoslav-era Brutalist buildings and monuments.

This design choice not only reflected the increasing popularity of highly photogenic Yugoslav Brutalism on the Internet, but also symbolism.

“Firstly, it looks great and, then, secondly, it is a great example of blind use of scientific planning on humans, and where that leads us. Thirdly, I liked the idea of mixing ‘Silicon Valley Ideology’ with communism.

“The cult of the personality, like in the case of [Elon] Musk and [Mark] Zuckerberg, and their power and the influence over our lives and privacy, is an interesting phenomenon. [To draw the parallel], the game also features a gigantic monument to Musk, designed to reference the ruined head of Karl Marx in Berlin.”

Due to its unusual themes and focus on the narrative, Simic describes the game as not just a golf game but as something like an “interactive audio book”.

This was bolstered by adding an imaginary radio programme called Radio Nostalgia from Mars, which plays in the background. For that, Simic and his collaborators recorded seven original songs, featuring, among others, two acclaimed musicians from the region, Ana Curcin and Sara Renar.

The radio also includes “interviews” with seven people from all around the world, speaking about their life on pre-catastrophe Earth.

This ambitious approach to the game helped it gain attention and praise even before its official release.

To date, it has received an award for innovative gameplay as well as nominations for Best Game and Best Artwork at 2018’s Reboot Gaming conference. It was launched on June 20 at Unite Berlin, organised by Unity, a game development platform.

The game and its visibility have benefited from the development of the budding gaming industry in Serbia, especially of Belgrade-based Nordeus whose “Top Eleven” football management game was a huge success, and who supported Demagog by providing contacts and advice.

“What is good [in Serbia’s gaming industry] is that people are working together. The reason why people are helping each other is that there is money in the foreign market, so they are in direct competition. [That is very] unlike the local arts scene where everyone is fighting for state grants,” he notes.

Nevertheless, Simic still thinks the local gaming industry has some way to go before it can take over the international scene, despite its competitive advantage of cheap programmers and the increasing international availability of tools.

“I don’t see real drive or innovation in Serbia to make good use of new technologies. Although we are open [to them], the mind-set is not international enough. The easy availability of tools is not a guarantee [of success] because the rest of the world is marching on in other areas,” he warns.

Nevertheless, Simic is determined to continue pursuing his gaming, film and art ambitions concurrently.

He recently developed a new film, which is inspired by a Balkan myth about a woman immured during the building of the city of Shkodra in Albania.

However, after that, he plans to expand his use of popular media and games, as he sees them as the best way to reach greater audiences.

“We live in a time of flux. One YouTube clip can have a larger cultural significance than a feature film. One can argue that Moonlight had less cultural impact [on American culture] than Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’.

“The hierarchy of the media is changing. Maybe we should not expect much innovation is what is called ‘high art’. Maybe the new of role of art is to decode popular culture,” he says.

He is also adamant that there is a role for more artists in gaming.“There is a lot of space for experimentation. [In the gaming industry] are people who are too much into gaming and lack other experiences. The influence of people who are traditionally outside this core can be beneficial for creating new forms… some of which are even close to art,” he concludes.

This post was originally published on Balkan Insight portal.

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