As a game designer, Jason Rohrer often starts a new project by thinking about computer-game conventions and ways he can go beyond them. Play models social behavior, so his formal experiments tend to open up profound questions about how people understand themselves and relate to one another. His retrospective at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum presented a near-comprehensive collection of his games, both in their “natural habitat” of laptops (most of his games can be bought on his website) and in interactive installations conceived for the exhibition. Passage (2007) maps the inexorable pace of mortality onto the side-scroll of two-dimensional adventure games. You guide an avatar through a simple maze from boyhood to death in a few short minutes. The consequences of your movements become clear only at the end, when you look back on how the game unfolded. Immortality (2008) is an interactive thought experiment that asks you to choose between death and a life of eternal labor. In Inside a Star-Filled Sky (2011), you navigate the insides of enemies and objects through a dizzying series of scalar shifts generated by a recursive fractal that Rohrer says would take over two thousand years of play to exhaust. There’s no real end to these single-player games. Your goal isn’t winning so much as reflecting on your place in the universe.
Rohrer’s two-player games prompt consideration of how rules calcify social forms of competition and cooperation that then get reanimated through play. Cordial Minuet (2014) is a betting game that privileges skill over chance. The playing board is adapted from a medieval grimoire, and the game’s name is an anagram of “demonic ritual,” as if gambling were the wicked spirit summoned through play. In Between (2008), two players work from separate screens over a networked connection to build a tower from colored blocks. But the colors and the environments look different on each screen. How is constructive collaboration possible when everyone’s perspective is so conditional, so unique?
The exhibition was the first museum retrospective of an independent game designer, but games have made enough appearances in art museums in recent years for the question of whether games are art to sound tired. And it’s moot if you believe that the most interesting developments in culture happen when established disciplines overlap. Michael Maizels, curator of the exhibition, smartly set the question aside with the reminder that museums were invented to show objects that aren’t art—ancient relics, fine crafts, fragments of architecture, and so on—and that long view is well suited to Rohrer’s own interest in the history and anthropology of play. There’s a flavor of the encyclopedic museum in a narrow rear gallery, where vitrines containing Rohrer’s sketches, working notes, and preliminary game pieces were interspersed with laptops loaded with his catalogue of games. It was a tactile, engaging way of visually presenting material that could otherwise be accessed only through play.
In the main gallery, four of Rohrer’s games were presented as installations. Designed by Cambridge, Massachusetts, architecture firm ikd in consultation with Maizels, these presentations largely failed to spatialize game play in a compelling or convincing way. The platform for playing Inside a Star-Filled Sky had plexiglass squares lined with strips of blue LEDs. The rows of reflected lights in the transparent material were supposed to echo the game’s gesture toward infinity, but the setup looked clumsy, with a palette and forms that didn’t match those of the game. Cordial Minuet was enclosed in an ungainly tent with gratuitous mirrored panels. But the architects found a neat solution for presenting Primrose (2009), a game where the player removes tiles from the board by building borders of like colors around them (it’s Rohrer’s attempt to match the elegant complexity of the ancient Chinese game Go). Primrose was projected high on a wall, with the controls installed at a window on the landing of the staircase that leads down to the gallery. Before reaching the exhibition, visitors were encouraged to peer through the window and play. The building was configured as a machine for looking at and engaging with art. The museum became a console.