I wasn't entirely sure what to expect walking into Tiny Thumbs, the pop-up video art arcade that materialized Saturday evening at CentralTrak. I'd been briefed, but I was still apprehensive. Here's the thing: I'm terrible at most modern video games and wasn't looking forward to a room of seasoned players and builders watching me stumble through. It's the same feeling that boys who can't dance get at prom, so I braced myself for complete humility. Once I got inside those concerns immediately dissolved. These games were unlike anything I've experienced, and some, like DYS4IA, by game developer and critic Anna Anthropy, didn't even keep a score tally.
DYS4IA plays like an interactive journal, relaying it's transgendered author's journey through hormone replacement therapy. Broken down into four levels (Gender Bullshit, Medical Bullshit, Hormone Bullshit and It Gets Better?), the game uses humor coupled with bizarrely wonderful interpretive graphics to feed you touchingly raw emotion.
It begins and ends with a Tetris-like shape forced to latch into a brick ledge's gap. It doesn't immediately fit. This piece has more angles and edges than you feel it should, but with light shuffling it merges, perfectly completing the chain.
Each new screen is a different experience encountered: in Shaving Is Humiliating, you run a razor over an upper lip. (You'll later do the same for her breasts.) At the clinic, you swab teeth with a Q-tip and get AIDS test results.
Its only agenda is to creatively express a life's interior. It does so wonderfully, artfully and with a refreshing dose of humor. And if the next question is: Well, but is it art? I'd say: there's no question. It's richer and more thoughtful than most of what I see in galleries and it made me want to learn everything I could about the artist who created it and her experiences. (You can play DYS4IA here.)
Back in residency room number four, a group of local game-builders (Spencer Evans, Skylar Rudin, Stephen Billingslea, Travis Ballard and Jainan Sankalia) reveal their newest design: a program populated by the universe's contents called Constellations. It shows on a flatscreen, suspended from the top of a canopy tent, facing down. On the floor, visitors take turns laying on their backs, stargazing. Navigating via joystick, they float and explore the actual NASA-mapped universe, searching for formations worthy of eternal fame. Once found, the stars are tagged, connected and new constellations are formed.
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In this darkened room, a meditatively tonal soundtrack hums. A man asks why he can't expand the screen to make an even larger star pattern than the one he's already greedily put together, which fills the entirety of the allotted area. "We designed it so that this screen is your canvas, and you're able to create within that frame," relays a voice from the corner. The constellations, the makers explain, are being collected in a database. What they'll do with them is still up for debate.
They'd like to add a folklore component, where stories are built around each of the celestial landmarks and visitors can click to learn more. But it's clear that tonight is equal parts premiere and sample test for the programmers, who seem very interested in how each eager player interacts with their provided galaxies.
There's something calmingly romantic about both the design and installation of Constellations. With no set goal aside from floating through unrecognizable regions of space, it's easy to loose your bearings and get completely lost in an infinitely expanding universe. That, in itself, it a beautiful thing.
Tiny Thumbs is planning more events, with a goal of one arcade party each month. Follow them on Facebook to stay on top of our newest group of art game champions.