Image credits: zamSpielen.
The rise and fall of arcades have in large part shaped how we think about playing video games together in public places, but in their absence, young designers are finding new ways to bring social gaming out into the open.
Austrian for "playing together," zamSpielen is a small crew of designers and programmers trying to take video games out of living rooms and stick them in more unusual contexts. The Viennese collective consists of creators from the indie studio Broken Rules (makers of Secrets of Rætikon and several other small games), game developer Josef "Who" Wiesner, and coding teacher Matthias Menrath who came together seven years ago in the hopes of giving the city's games scene a more material presence.
"We want to bring people together via games," Wiesner said in an email. "But always next to each other at the same spot cause that is the most interesting and complete form of being with each other we think."
"In our opinion games have the extraordinary power to stimulate social interaction and we try to emphasis that with the spaces we create. Besides obviously targeting the development and gaming community we are always trying to reach out for people that have nothing to do with games per se."
This pitch for sharing game development culture more broadly has resulted in a number of different events that range from open art gallery-type shows to their latest project: zamSitzen.
— zamSpielenCollective (@zamSpielen) May 5, 2017
"For the months of May and June we are doing a café in the vein of traditional Viennese café culture every Saturday, but of course with games," said Wiesner. The group will host the zamSitizen, meaning "hanging out" or "sitting together," during the day, inviting people to sit around flickering CRTs and game consoles housed in old suit cases and share a game of Pong or Ice Climbers over coffee and slices of cake.
Coffee first came to the city by way of the Turkish siege of 1683 when the would-be invaders left bags of coffee beans behind after finally retreating. The Blue Bottle Coffee House opened a few years later, and ever since Vienna's history as a cultural, political, and economic capital has been inseparable from the beverage. Leon Trotsky once agitated for revolution in Vienna's coffeehouses.
A century later, game designers hope to mine their legacy for help creating interactive art.
At night, Wiesner and Matthias leave the zamSitzen behind and try to take their digital show to the city's night clubs. Forming a VJ team called The Game Boys, the two take visually striking games like Robert Yang's Succulent or Kenny Sun's Cirka Infinity to let them and their potential players play them under the sonic backdrop of European electronica.
"So during the day families, kids, neighbours, passers-by and of course our loyal guests come to enjoy some games with coffee and cake in a very cosy setting with reduced visual and auditive noise," said Wiesner.
Then at night they invert the project. "Electronic music and live gaming visuals work together — they really do. During our VJ sessions people come to us, try to find out how exactly we are doing this, what kind of hardware we are using (all original, no emulators!) or want to know the name of the games we are mixing right now cause they love what they are seeing and want to try them at home."
The collective has organised other types of outings as well, always with a focus local multiplayer and some level of performative gameplay. Some of these exhibitions like zamSpielen serve as public arcades, while others like zamSchauen are cinematic events where people what someone debuted a game by playing through it. Let's Plays but in real life.
"Our favourite games in our seven years of practice so far have been titles like Chalo Chalo, Flat Heroes, Edgar Rice Soiree, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, vinylOS, Push Me Pull You, Line Wobbler, and Starwhal just to name a few," said Wiesner. "We have never chosen an online multiplayer game so far."
"To achieve this goal we created different formats and are very carefully curating the game selection we are showing. The games should be local multiplayer, performative, super interesting to watch or installation/exhibition games. Ideally not too complicated and easy to pick up. We are mixing current games and games from the past. Our most loved ones in our seven years of practise so far have been titles like Chalo Chalo, Flat Heroes, Edgar Rice Soiree, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, vinylOS, Push Me Pull You, Line Wobbler, Starwhal just to name a few. We have never chosen an online multiplayer game so far."
Wiesner, whose degree is in architecture, even organised a playing of Edgar Rice Soiree in one of Vienna's public squares, inviting passers-by, from the young to the old, to join in and play the competitive PS Move Game where players race to try and hold onto two controllers of the same colour as up to twenty of them shift hues.
— zamSpielenCollective (@zamSpielen) May 13, 2017
"We also more and more try to "hide" the technical nature of the games (like screens and consoles/computers) by combining them fun non-tech stuff. That makes it much more inviting for non-gamers to start playing we have witnessed over the years," said Wiesner. "That is quite important to us so we can reach them more easily." For instance they have a version of KO_OP's GNOG, which was recently released on PS4, that's ensconced in a leather brief case to make the game appear even more whimsical.
At a time when the experience of playing a lot of video games means being bombarded by in-game to-do lists and pop-up notifications for achievements and friends, with the rat race of life seeming to cast its shadow ever further into the games we often use to escape it, an arcade set in the context of coffeehouse leisure is a welcome reversal.
Recalling one of last weekend's events, Wiesner said one of his favourite moments was a couple passing by outside debating whether to come in. "My favourite quote from yesterday was something like two people standing out on the pavement in front of our café speaking to each other. 'Please hurry, come here. I don't want to enter this alone. There are only nerds in there,'" he said.
"But after they came in together they stayed for several hours, chatting and playing with the rest of our guests. Enjoying the company, getting to know new wonderful people by playing some games together. A perfect zamSpielen moment for us."