A group of strangers huddles around an upright 1980s-style arcade cabinet. They’ve taken on Triad (2013), a lo-fi computer game designed by anna anthropy, Leon Arnott, and Liz Ryerson, in which a polyamorous trio needs to figure out how to fit on a mattress designed for two people, accommodating the preferred sleeping positions of all parties, including the cat. Across the room, three people face quite a different dilemma while playing Catt Small’s Breakup Squad (2016): they need to intercept ex-lovers who recently ended a toxic relationship before the two see each other, lest the night’s party be ruined for all. Both games take on the social complexities of love with a playful tone.
This is a typical scene at LikeLike, a gallery devoted to independent games and art that borders on play. It is located in Paolo Pedercini’s converted garage in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, a block and a half off the main drag. LikeLike could be named for the tubular creatures in The Legend of Zelda that slurp up victims before spitting them back out, or the last heir to the Hawaiian throne. When I asked Pedercini about the choice of the name, he said with a shrug that it’s a word that can be laser-cut into a sign using only straight lines. A professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art and the force behind the radical game studio Molleindustria, Pedercini runs LikeLike as executive director along with Heather Kelley (“sensory director”) and Tenley Schmida (“reluctant director”).
LikeLike follows in the footsteps of peers exploring independent game culture such as Babycastles in New York, Video Game Art Gallery in Chicago, and the Wild Rumpus in London. (In recent years, big institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image have introduced video games into the galleries, but only in the context of broad surveys of the game as a genre.) Since opening in February, LikeLike’s output has been prodigious, presenting a new show each month. Billed as a “neoarcade,” the gallery typically presents themed shows. “International Playbor Day” celebrated May Day with games examining labor. According to an announcement on Facebook, the August show will gather “delinquent driving games that are not Grand Theft Auto” to commemorate an incident last week when a runaway car crashed into the gallery’s front door. This month, LikeLike has its first solo show, with work by Pittsburgh-based Loren Schmidt.
From virtual reality experiences to tabletop games, the works on display often subvert familiar formats and conventions. For Swordfight (2012), included in last month’s “Fanciful Bodies,” Kurt Bieg and Ramsey Nasser hitched Atari 2600 joystick controllers to dildo straps. Two players don the harnesses on their pelvises and duel to see who can use the joystick to hit the other’s action button first. Pedercini isn’t afraid to explore the full spectrum from art and open source to commercial endeavors. At “International Playbor Day,” this range was demonstrated by a pair of games that are both set in a future where automation has made work obsolete, and new tools help humans remember what it felt like. Pippin Barr’s It Is As If You Were Doing Work (2017) turns your browser into a Microsoft Windows 4 desktop, where pop-up notifications demand the completion of absurd tasks like “Write and save a document of at least 743 characters” and “Set spinner to -8.” There are also occasional inspirational posters combining stock images and cliché phrases (“Stay positive and be happy”). Barr, an experimental game designer at Concordia University in Montreal, released the code on a Creative Commons license for others to share and adapt for noncommercial purposes. In contrast, Austin-based Owlchemy Labs (purveyors of “absurd and highly polished games”) is a company with a staff of twenty. Their Job Simulator (2015), available on the Steam game distribution platform for $19.99, allows owners of the HTC Vive virtual-reality headset to perform tasks from jobs of yore, from office worker to gourmet chef.
LikeLike’s openings are scheduled to coincide with a monthly art crawl, and its environs contrast with the stereotypical ones of the nearby community galleries, where visitors observe paintings while sipping table wine. Kelley’s exhibition design brings a feeling of wacky irreverence. At “Fanciful Bodies,” visitors sprawled on oddly shaped beanbag chairs, holding video game controllers encased in soft, lumpy pink fabric. The wires powering the controllers ran through pink pool noodles sprouting from the ceiling. Gamers absentmindedly snacked on sour gummy worms, edible parallels to the strange anatomies in games like Mario von Rickenbach and Michael Frei’s Plug & Play (2015).
The location in Garfield draws a mixed crowd. The historically low-income and predominantly black neighborhood borders some of the hippest areas in Pittsburgh, and visitors to the gallery include curious neighbors, digital artists, game developers, and overflow from the art crawl. For Pedercini, the best way to be a good neighbor in an area that many fear is becoming a site of egregious gentrification is not to claim it as a community project. “I don’t sell LikeLike as a STEM empowerment organization,” Pedercini said, “in part because some other organizations in this very neighborhood are doing it much better.” That said, Pedercini is thoughtful to showcase a diverse cast of creators without organizing exhibitions around identity positions.
Pittsburgh makes a good home for an independent game gallery. The art scene is small, the real estate is affordable, and Carnegie Mellon’s location nearby ensures healthy communities of new media artists, game developers, and engineers. One of Pedercini’s motives in launching LikeLike was to bring practitioners of these various disciplines together. His favorite kind of visitor, however, isn’t a game enthusiast. “I like watching a middle-aged couple grab a video game controller for the first time,” Pedercini said. “It’s as if the first film you ever watched was a Werner Herzog.” At a time when games are commodified as high-budget endeavors—from AAA video games to escape rooms—the small, DIY space of LikeLike provides an alternative point of entry to play.