City of Angels: Play the Game

shulman_julius_14_2001 361

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

Click to rate this photo.




Click to examine photo.

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

Click to rate this photo.




Click to examine photo.

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

Click to rate this photo.




Click to examine photo.

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

Click to rate this photo.

Game On!



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.

A Skeptic’s View

Getty Pacman

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.