City of Angels: Play the Game

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It’s night. Two women chat in a corner that floats over the lights of LA. Shot in 1960, Julius Shulman’s iconic photo defined a time, a design aesthetic and a city.

The Gamerz visited the home Shulman photographed, the glass-walled modernist Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills. And each shot a photo aimed at making the kind of statement about 2011 that Shulman made about 1960.

Here’s how you play:

  1. Look at the photo.
  2. Read the explanations.
  3. Rate each photo.
  4. Add your comments.

The most popular photo wins, of course. But more importantly, our goal is to create a curated comment string that could become a new kind of crowd-sourced journalism. In a built-out game, we’d allow players to take their own photos and post them, too.

Go ahead.  Play!

 

Click to examine photo.

PHOTO #1 - Beauty, Redefined

Julius Shulman staged his iconic photo of the Stahl House with the epitome of Los Angeles beauty of the era: a pair of white women decked out in white party frocks. Today, in a minority majority city with a vast array of aesthetic options, beauty is a lot harder to pin down. Still (to steal from Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography): You know it when you see it. – Rick Holter

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PHOTO #2 - “For now we see through a glass, darkly.”

Julius Shulman’s great 1960 photograph of the Stahl house summed up the promise of post-World War Two Southern California: clean, hygienic, modern living,  away from the manual labor of having to till the soil, lives filled with sunlight and plentiful fresh food and water, all that filled us with optimism. Shulman’s young women nearly become angels, floating above the earth. Elegantly dressed, they wait for glamour.

In my 2011 photo illustration of the Stahl house, the family waits for Godot. The house is empty, as was Godot’s world. The promises of the California dream may have been empty promises. Should our miserable economy continue, with the lack of political leadership, failed government policies, extended wars, and environmental degradation, we will see the return of the landless, migrant American family, mired in poverty and dust, California no longer their promised land, just a see-through way-station to flee, with nowhere to go. – Edward Lifson

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PHOTO #3 –  The place where longing is most acute

I longed to step out onto that small, curving cement slab at the farthest reach of the glassed-in Stahl House living room; the last stop before the cliff edge. That’s the place where the ethereal modern gem best blends with the Los Angeles skyline. Visitors aren’t allowed out there; for insurance reasons, we were told. Too bad. I suspect the longing is most acute there. The longing to live in Hollywood, at the top of a treacherous winding road, in a house made mostly of air and sunlight and reflections off the pool; the longing to belong in the elegant Shulman photo, with women in white dresses and twinkling city lights; the longing to live in 1959, when there was a clearer future and a clearer past, when you were either for the Stahl House or against it, when you knew where you stood, when the aesthetic dividing line – as a colleague pointed out – was as clear and crisp as the edge of that curving cement slab.

Speaking of that curve, I long to know how much of the crystalline Stahl House design was owner Buck Stahl’s idea or that of the architect Pierre Koenig. I’m pulling for Buck, the visionary everyman, who hauled the broken cement up the winding road to prepare the precarious foundation. There’s a photo of Buck with a model of the house that may predate Koenig’s involvement. In the model, the bank of bedrooms curve; just like the cement slab that ends at the sky. — Doug MacCash

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PHOTO #4 – Foundation issues

The Stahl House is a triumph of clean lines, purity and lightness. Julius Shulman’s photograph depicts not only a home, but a country, elegantly and effortlessly perched on a hill. Who wouldn’t want to live in that home, in that country?  My picture tilts the lens downwards.  We glimpse the foundation below, the product of Buck Stahl’s mid-century can-do-ism (he built it on his own with leftover chunks of sidewalk!) and the residue of millions of years of geology.  The house appears as if it could fall down the mountain at any moment.  Now, in 2011, we see the precipitous contours that lie beneath our objects of beauty. — Alison MacAdam

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Game On!

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“Gamer.”

For many people of a certain age — and quite a few arts aficionados — that’s a four-letter word (despite the actual letter count). The best-case scenario, in those eyes: It’s something you grow out of. Worst case? A hopeless nerd, usually a white teenage boy, buried in worlds of weirdcraft till the end of time.

But what if those five letters actually offer arts journalists a path out of their ever-narrowing corner? What if the techniques that built a $52 billion-dollar-a-year industry could re-energize and re-invent a reeling profession?

What if gamers could save our world?

That’s the question our team set out to explore. We four aren’t exactly the gaming industry’s traditional targets: We’re range in age from 34 to 55. Only one of us had Angry Birds on an iPhone. Only two had ever played the world’s most popular social game, FarmVille. None had even dabbled in the grandaddy of all massively multiplayer online role-playing games, World of Warcraft.

But we had played soccer. And basketball. And Monopoly. And Pong, Ms. Pac Man, Words With Friends. Not to mention Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

Turns out we are gamers.

Staggering Numbers

The four of us have spent the last week talking with gamers, game designers, game scholars and executives at game companies ranging from start-ups to the world’s third largest. And we’ve discovered some things that blew apart our preconceptions:

The gaming world is huge. Frank  Gibeau, president of game giant Entertainment Arts, told us people will spend $52 billion on games worldwide next year. Activision Blizzard Inc. released its new $60 console game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3″ this past Tuesday. Six million copies were sold in the first two days. Analyst expect to see 18 million copies sold by year’s end. That puts it on track to make as much money as the megamovie “Titanic.”

The demographics are shifting. The game company PopCap did a survey of the fastest-growing segment of the business: “social games” like FarmVille and CityVille, most of them on Facebook. Among the surprises: 55 percent of social gamers are female. The average age of players is 43. Almost half of American social gamers are older than 50.

The money is moving: The experts we heard from universally agree: Social gaming is transforming the business from a console-based model (XBox, Playstation 3, Wii) to a cloud-based model (the way Zynga’s FarmVille or EA’s Sims Social exist primarily on Facebook). And nearly 60 percent of the revenue from social games comes from “virtual goods” — imaginary things a player buys within a game, like the sugar skull trees that our teammate Doug MacCash paid $11 for in FarmVille.

Even charity is changing: Chris Swain, a USC professor and founder of the gaming startup Talkie, points to how social gaming company Zynga reacted to last year’s Haitian earthquake. FarmVille offered its players a chance to pay real dollars to plant their virtual acreage with a special type of seed that would raise money for earthquake relief. The company collected $1.5 million in five days.

Birth of a Game

To test how gaming ideas could be used to deliver arts journalism, we proposed a game: A FarmVille-type of social game where players, instead of buying cows and raising crops, would build their own personal arts and entertainment meccas — a virtual space where one corner might be dedicated to sculpture, another to techno music and another to architecture.

Once you built that mecca, you’d invite your friends to visit, and you’d visit their meccas, play their games, read and interact with the content they’d created or collected. The people with the coolest meccas would rise to the top. And there would be built-in revenue possibilities, from players paying extra to trick out their meccas to arts and entertainment companies paying to sponsor a corner of players’ meccas.

Julius Shulman defined an era with his photo of the Stahl House Case Study No. 22. (Getty Research Institute: Julian Shulman Archive)

In honor of the fellowship’s host city, we’re calling our game “City of Angels.” And we decided to build out a tiny corner of the game in our mecca — an architecturally significant enclave called Sashaville.

This mini-game is based on photographer Julius Shulman’s iconic photo of a glass-walled modernist home in the Hollywood Hills called the Stahl House.

It’s night. Two women chat in the corner that appears almost to float over the lights of the city. Shot in 1960, Shulman’s photo defined a time, a design esthetic and a city.

Each of the four of us got out our cameras (or iPhones), visited the Stahl House and took a photo aimed at making the kind of statement about 2011 that Shulman made about 1959. We’ve posted them with our explanations, and players can rate the photos and comment them. Our goal is to create a kind of curated comment string that could become a new kind of crowd-sourced journalism. In a built-out game, we’d allow players to take their own photos and post them, too.

City of Angels. Give it a visit.

Why We Play

Henry Jenkins

If our team – the Gamerz (wink, wink) – was going to rewire the world of arts journalism using techniques and ideas from gaming, we needed to understand the basics. So we asked everyone we met this question: “What game do you play and why?”

Henry Jenkins

Take a listen. It’s a sampling — the bits I threw at the radio wall that stuck. (And yes, there’s some truth to the idea that we have limited attention spans for audio links. Gotta keep it short.)

Maybe the most famous guy we talked to – Henry Jenkins, the bearded, bespectacled guru of convergence culture – didn’t make the audio cut. What he said, however, tied our themes together beautifully.

“I get out of games the same joy I get out of any artistic experience… It’s about helping me see the world through new eyes.”

Amen, Henry.

A Game That Works

Cards from Jeff Watson's game for students.

Jeff Watson may be the Orson Welles of social media cinema. The Canadian PhD candidate at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts has devised a playful deception to entice freshmen students to enter the movie biz while they’re waiting to enter the movie biz. Watson has invented a sort of secret society centered on an elaborate card game. Here’s how it works.

Cards from Jeff Watson's game for students.

Like a game of Hollywood-style Texas Hold ‘Em, Watson deals out custom-made cinema-oriented cards printed with fragmentary instructions. A typical hand might instruct a student to make a music video, based on a failed love affair, featuring a teddy bear – or something like that. The student then teams up with other talented players and, presto, they whip up sometimes remarkable cinematic creations. As time goes on, Watson says, the deals become more complex, the teams become larger and the students earn more points. Points translate into movie-style treats such as tickets to exclusive screenings.

And all this takes place outside the classroom, long before some more stodgy faculty members feel the students are ready to sit in the director’s chair. To lend the activity a subversive underground vibe, Watson says he recruits by word-of-mouth only and has designed a sinister faux-political logo. With a sort of alluring simplicity, he calls the game “The Game.” Players follow their individual and team progress on a website, as they pioneer a new style of collaborative social media cinema. It may not be “The War of the Worlds,” but Watson’s “The Game” has apparently reeled in a hefty chunk of Hollywood’s next generation. He says 125 of the school’s 140 freshmen are playing.

Who knows? It may someday influence how media is made.

Dreaming Up Other Corners of ‘City of Angels’

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Looking to dive deeper into the world of City of Angels? Here’s a trio of ideas we discussed:

Fantasy Museum

A major, encyclopedic museum exists in Sashaville. You run it. You play Museum Director.

Think Fantasy Football. Buy points. Use them to buy art. Art you want in your ideal museum.
Invest the money to make it grow. Sell art when you no longer need it. Buy more art.


Created with flickr slideshow.

What would you buy and why? What stories are you telling in your museum? How many crowd-pleasing pieces of art do you need, along with the more difficult works?
How would display them? In what order? Which media? How do you deal with provenance? How do you certify a work is authentic? When do you collaborate and when do you compete with other Museum Directors playing Fantasy Museum?

Save LACMA!

You run the show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

You’ve got a world-renowned collection of art from may eras and places. A major earthquake hits the epicenter of LA – Ray’s Bar at LACMA. As the earth shakes and quakes you have a few minutes to run through your museum and save five objects. What do you save and why?

Running to save the works, don’t get stuck in the tar pits!

Don’t run into Tony Smith’s Smoke! Go around it, and up the stairs!

Don’t get trapped in Chris Burden’s Urban Light!

Don’t get crushed by the Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass!

photo: LACMA

Stills via Yahoo! News, Photoshop rendering via Curbed

Figure out quickly how to get to the galleries at the Broad Contemporary Art Museum!

 What art will you save? Why?

Pershing (not so) Square


You are given the worst major metropolitan central square in the world, Pershing Square in Los Angeles. It is currently designed to keep people out. How would improve it? What would you take away, what would you add? Earn points to buy and sell “urban furniture,” public art, fountains, lighting, colorful banners, a music series, food stands, what else? Compete with other urban squares around the world.

Double points when you provide amenities for the people who live in the square.

A Skeptic’s View

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A skeptic might ask:

How is this City of Angels game of arts journalism better than other forms of storytelling, to communicate our ideas about the Stahl House and Julius Shulman’s famous photograph of it?

Our goals are to expose people to culture, to inspire thought, and learning. Ultimately, to help them understand the world, and to help them learn to ask good questions about who, what, when, where, how and why. More traditional journalism used to accomplish that well, when it was easier to keep people’s attention with an essay. A photo essay might be a perfectly good way to tell a story of the Stahl house and Julius Shulman’s photograph of it.  So why a game?

  • When learning is fun, people learn more.
  • People might spend more time with this subject, and return to it, if it’s presented in the form of a game.
  • Competition is a good motivator.
  • Games with social networks, such as ours, share and broadly disseminate knowledge.

But are the purposes of games and good art at odds?

The best art causes us first to experience, then to deeply feel something authentic, to process that through thought, to arrive at a meaning of existence.

And why do people play games? I do not profess to be an expert. But the escape from reality while playing World of Warcraft differs greatly from what happens when you look at the Stahl House. (It even differs from listening to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.)

In most games, the balance between excitement-focused-on-the-external and inward contemplation seems to lean towards the external. One loses oneself and gets wrapped up in the game, the player serves the game. The best art causes you to lose yourself in your self. Look at it enough and you begin to understand yourself, your society, your motivations and satisfactions and neuroses.

Journalism and games tell stories. Both can add bells and whistles other than the story itself. But the games we saw this week add superficial satisfactions such as points or more sugar-skulls, to propel the player. I’m afraid that the true meaningful meaning of what the journalist wants to express gets buried in the (ersatz) Sturm und Drang of the game.

This skeptic’s conclusion is that a game of arts journalism might very well bring in many people who otherwise might not come to a world of art and arts appreciation. That is a good thing. But I fear that it might not take them to art’s promised land of deeper understanding of what it means to be human. The game’s distractions and fabricated rewards are too potent.

We live in a world of quantification over quality. Of bits and bytes over brushes and Beethoven. My advice – seek not points, but the power of self-reflective contemplation. This good life ends before we know it, getting through it is a game enough, a terribly wonderful journey across rivers, dodging boulders and traps and avoiding bullets as we seek the light and the end. See it as such from within. Escape when you need to, and enjoy that. Compete and share. Then find your unique expression. Move on up, to your own next level.

Questions We Struggled With

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If Rick is the visionary in our group, I am the inquisitor.  My first question was this:

“Farmville? Really?”

But we had more serious questions to confront.

  • What problem in arts journalism were we trying to solve?
  • Should journalists – literally – play games?  Should journalists ask their audience to play games?  Should media organizations become game designers?  Or will we be best served by exploring the ideas behind games and then applying the concepts?
  • Is there something unique to “gaming” – the animated blam-blam boink-boink kind of game – or should we expand our exploration to games in general?  Why do we play Monopoly, despite its capitalist tedium?  Why do hockey players take pleasure in slamming each other up against icy walls?  Why does President Obama golf nearly every weekend?

And then there’s the question we kept returning to: “Where’s the journalism?” 

If we ask our audience to play the game – are they the journalists – the new i-team?  If we play a game in the course of reporting a story, are we just having fun, or are we performing actual journalism?

If we are the “game masters,” are we curators or facilitators?

If games generally involve rewards (as we learned, intrinsic or extrinsic) – what rewards can a newspaper, website, radio program or podcast offer?  In other words, what is the incentive to play? (My favorite answer: The ultimate reward is self-expression.)

And as Jeff Watson of USC’s Cinematic Arts School told us, the question should not be, “What is the motivation for the player to play?” but “What is it that motivates potential players in real life?”

Games inspire social interactivity.  So what sorts of interaction are we trying to inspire?

How do you grow the “’fan base” – the population of people playing your game?

And then there are the practical questions: Money? Staffing? Expertise? Ongoing game management?

OK.  I’m tired now.  Wanna play?

Artini, or the Arts Drinkalism Game

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We took a boozy detour on our way to arts journalism nirvana.  At least in our minds.

As we stood admiring the Stahl House illuminated by the sunset, we were separately and simultaneously seized with the desire to have drinks in our hands.  The scene and the architecture – the feeling of it all – inspired us to drink very specific drinks.  And so … a game emerged.

What drink would you want at the Stahl House?  This airy geometry, this simplicity, this perfection of light and line… It certainly did not call for beer.  It did not call for the intensity and darkness of scotch.  We fantasized about the lightest sauvignon blanc (or at least I did).  We imagined savoring martinis in glasses whose architecture reflected Pierre Koenig’s design.  Two olives, reflecting those round, floating bulbs.

The point was not only that it’s fun to drink (and remember, games should be fun!) – but that we were making connections.  We were witnessing architecture and translating it to a feeling.  And translating that feeling to another medium: mixology.  You could play this game anywhere!

Tour a museum, pause and admire a Picasso or a Baldessari or Cindy Sherman.  And think: What drink would you like in your hand?  Go hear Mozart, listen to Arcade Fire.  What drink would fit the moment?

It’s not a game if you don’t talk about it, debate it with your friends or your partner.  And then – do I even need to say it? – visit the bar.