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Playing for Keeps


By Bekah Wright

Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM

Are computer games fantasy or reality, culture or technology? Can they absorb the richness of humanity? The director of UCLA’s Game Lab ponders these and other questions.

Game Lab students Tyler Stefanich M.F.A. ’14 (right) and Nick Crockett ’14 play Beat Down, where players wear foam controllers atop their heads — and when the buttons light up, it’s button-slappin’ time! Photos by Naomi Harris.

You're trying to steer your child safely through a measles-infected theme park. You’re defending American athletes against terrorists. You’re searching for your iPhone after attending the Oscars. Or you’re simply a woman trying to be as perfect as possible.

Real or imagined? Actual or virtual? These scenarios and dozens more are plots at the center of computer games created at UCLA. The games inhabit a disputed territory between fantasy and reality, between physical existence and electronic simulation, between art and technology.

Lab Director Eddo Stern plays the Arcade Backpack worn by student Sofia Staab-Gulbenkian, which was created by the Game Lab to infiltrate public space.

Along these blurred borders is where Eddo Stern, director of the UCLA Game Lab, spends his days. The Design Media Arts professor’s lab differs from more traditional game-development contexts in its focus on conceptual risk-taking and development of new modes of expression through gaming. The lab’s projects emphasize the gaming artist’s self-reliance and personal expression.

A hub of multidisciplinary collaboration, the lab brings together visual art, design, media art, animation, music, theater, film, dance, creative writing, architecture, sociology, philosophy, psychology, history, computer science and engineering.

Stern joined the UCLA faculty in 2008 and the next year established the Game Lab, which “is very much centered on experimentation,” he says. “We incubate game projects, conduct workshops and tutorials and debate the political, ethical and aesthetic questions around games. Video games are political, but they’re also art, theater and poetry.”

An Israeli native, Stern has long had a foot in both science and art. As an undergraduate, he studied math and philosophy at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), but he returned to Israel midstream for a stint in the Israeli Air Force during the first Gulf War. Back at UCSC, he switched to art and computer science. When a gig in virtual reality (VR) drew him to the San Francisco Bay Area, he began to see games as “something I wanted to do.” The Internet was just taking hold, and MMOs — Massively Multiplayer Online games — caught his attention. “This new medium engaged with people publicly and was charged with human emotions,” he says.

Seeking to further merge technology and art, Stern enrolled in graduate studies at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. “I was skeptical of technology but interested in using it,” he recalls. “That paradox runs through my thinking to this day.”

To Stern, games are platforms for questioning our assumptions about human relationships, our understanding of violence and our definition of reality. His work is focused on real experience versus virtual experience. What does “real” mean?

What draws you to games?

I’m interested in the popularity of fantasy — narratives of magic and a return to Victorian, utopian times with knights and kings in the Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings vein — and understanding where the phenomenon comes from and why it’s ubiquitous in the West and in countries like Japan, China and Korea. I want to understand the ideological systems that go into mainstream games and the game industry.

Have games been underestimated?

There’s a catchphrase that comes up all the time: Games have exceeded film as the top-grossing industry in entertainment. That has led me to advocate, especially to faculty, deans and boards of overseers: Shouldn’t games be considered art as well? That debate continues. It’s very difficult to define what art is or isn’t; those boundaries are constantly being expanded. [Marcel] Duchamp made the argument that many things can be art, not just paintings, sculpture and photographs, but eating dinner in a gallery or walking down the street with an ice cube on your head as performance art.

I’m an evangelist for games being a cultural medium. Games are worthwhile, compelling, cultural artifacts that have a lot of richness and variety to them. My mission is to draw diverse, creative voices to the medium so it doesn’t stagnate into a mainstream, industry-centric mode. UCLA’s Game Lab works toward bringing people who don’t normally think about making games into the fold and teaching them the skills.

Students in the Game Lab test out a design-in-progress board game called My spider has a sexy body.

What types of students does the Game Lab attract?

For prototypical gamers — those interested in working for the game industry as it is by making more Halo clones or World of Warcraft — the Game Lab isn’t the perfect fit. Our mission is to evolve the industry. We have a great diversity of voices, to the extent that students with science Ph.D.s are coming over because they’re excited about this kind of work, English majors who want to write games, and psychology and media theory students who want to understand games better. This is reflected in the development of games that are different and interesting.

How do you feel about violence in games?

I’m very interested in violence. Many games revolve around simulated violent encounters with other human beings. What does violence mean when it’s physical violence or violence that has a consequence, versus abstract violence? Some foundational game theorists argue that violence is what games are really about, a familiarization with war, a simulation in a safe place. The role of violence in games is not incidental; violence is inherently rooted in what they are. Then you think: Wait a second. What about fun and games? Is there fun in violence? The thought is pretty disturbing and underlies the darkness I see in games. Games are a powerful medium imbued with darkness — ideas of power, control, addiction, competition, domination and exploitation.

Sneaky Cactus is a two-player stealth racing game that uses live cacti and succulents as game controllers. The game disrupts expectations of safe or fair play, activating the physical properties of plants, the conductivity of soil and the players’ tolerance for pain.

What else is central to gaming?

There is political, historical representation in games, and questions of aesthetics and embodiment and identity formation. What does it mean to play an MMO and form a new identity? What does it mean to have physical and mental embodiment happen simultaneously in games? I’ve done projects that deal with simulated experience versus “real” experience.

What’s next for you?

For the past two years, I’ve been working on a game called Vietnam Romance, a theater/game hybrid that merges the virtual and physical worlds. It has involved studying experimental theater in the context of a social, physical, intimate gaming experience that involves actors, a strong sense of narrative and a fixed duration. The hope is to create the very intense experience that both theater and film provide. Geared toward 30 people playing at once, it relies [not only] on a lot of game mechanics, logic and aesthetics, but also sets, actors and props. It’s participatory theater, related to live-action role-play games popular in Scandinavia, yet is much more reliant on computer technology and projection.

Vietnam Romance is about the pathos of the Vietnam War. Most folks’ experiences have been through “Hollywood” media representations, a historical “reality” where everything mundane was edited out and the dramatic highlighted. With Vietnam Romance, I want to evoke a sense of nostalgia for the Vietnam War, while touching on the perverse desire for an emotional experience. The feeling at the core of the project is a blurring of what experiences are in general. What does it mean to have an experience? What is a real, or true, experience? Can we experience history? So far, we’ve only had human-processed documentation.

Where does the lab go from here?

As far as holy grails go, I’d say exploring how games can expand beyond their core, familiar genres — action/adventure, horror, fantasy, military — into other genres like drama, comedy, suspense, documentary, biography and autobiography. Is it possible for this medium to be robust and pliable? Can it absorb all the richness of the human condition?

Student Theo Triantafyllidis at work on the computers in the Game Lab.