The Politics behind Babycastles
At the Center for Civic Media, I make art, software and social processes which empower people to become more creative, more effective, and more informed. My recent projects include the Festival of Learning, research on gender representation in the news, and tablet tech for social checkups.
I'm an intentional polymath and range widely across the arts, tech, charities, ideas, and education. Before MIT, I worked in UK startups SwiftKey, Dressipi, and Texperts, developing technologies used by millions of people worldwide. I also helped start the Ministry of Stories, a creative writing center in East London. I was a Davies-Jackson Scholar at the University of Cambridge from 2006-2008.
The Politics behind Babycastles
Babycastles curates, hosts, and install independent games made by small groups of people or individuals around New York City and around the world, creating an arcade setting for people of all ages and identities to experience games.
Speaking to us about Babycastles is Syed Salahuddin, an adjunct professor at the NYU Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and NYU Polytechnic and instructor at the Institute of Play. He has also taught at the MoMA Teens Program and the Museum of the Moving Image. Syed joins us for the MIT Media Lab's diversity speakers series.
Why does Babycastles create arcade settings to exhibit games? When videogames appear in galleries and museums, people rarely play them. We have the assumption that you don't tangibly engage with the work. With interactive art, the interaction is more clear. But with games, you have to pick up the game controller and start playing.
Syed tells us about their recent installation with Keita Takahash at the Museum of Arts and Design. Keita is the designer of Katamari Damacy and has a history of releasing very crazy games through mainstream game companies like Namco and Bandai. With babycastles, Takahashi designed a 3d pac man which was projected, using a fisheye lens, onto the walls and ceiling of the room:
Another installation at the Museum of ARt and Design was a sidescrolling shoot-em-up game in 20 monitors across the gallery. Players had to rush from computer to computer in order to keep playing the game, with the sequence ending in a ball pit.
Syed shows us the Space Cruiser, asteroids game they installed at the Hayden Planetarium:
In addition to curating games installations, (including "Meowtown," an installation of cat arcade games). Last fall, Babycastles also taught a class at MoMA teens on how to curate arcade installations.
Babycastles, which began in 2009, is trying to create spaces and community which are accessible to people who want to "do something awesome in games." They are intentional about the ways they celebrate diversity, aiming to create "a safer-space where people of all backgrounds can be free to feel themselves." In 2008, if you were trying to make games in New York, people would tell you to go to San Francisco, unless you wanted to work in PR. Nevertheless, lots of people wanted to make games. There were some bright signs: In 2009, the New Museum put Mark Essen into their "Younger than Jesus" exhibition. Academic programs based on games were also starting up at the time, so 2009 seemed like a great moment.
Babycastles was inspired by the Canadian group Kokoromi Collective. People would make games around a common set of constraints, and then come together to show and play games and party. Jason Rohrer's game Passage was developed for one of Kokoromi's calls. Babycastles itself started as a project within the "Silent Barn" an all-ages DIY venue in New York (now defunct).
At this point, Syed talks about social justice and DIY venues. He tells us about ABC No Rio, a New York social center founded in 1980s. ABC, Silent Barn, and and Babycastles work really hard to include people of all ages, only including groups that aren't major corporate groups and which don't promote sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. To illustrate those values, Syed shows us a video of Fugazi frontman Ian Mackaye arguing against banning minors from Washington D.C. music events involving alcohol.
Syed tells us about New York's dancing laws, which kept people from different races from dancing with each other in Harlem. In the 1980s, Rudy Juliani instituted a licensing scheme: if you have more than 2 people dancing in a venue, you're actually breaking the law in New York City. More recently, he tells us about New York's recent crackdown on DIY spaces.
What forms of opposition do Babycastles face? Online, people will call Babycastles "art fags," and a "third world arcade." Kotaku comments often don't get what they're doing. In response, Babycastles posted a satirical video apologising for what they do and promising to shut down.
What's next for Babycastles? Sayd says they're trying to organise into a nonprofit, get more volunteers, and support other similar organisations in other parts of the world. Overall, they see their mission as opposition to oppression and getting everyone to make games. He shares an article from the Verge about one of their recent exhibitions with Anna Anthropy: "Don't start a band: why everyone should be making video games."
Misha Sra asks, "how do you pick games for venues?" Babycastles used to pick complete unplayable nonsense because it would be funny. More recently, they see themselves as facilitators, helping other people curate their own exhibitions.
Syed also talked about Babycastles' Alt-Sexuality exhibition.
Erhardt asks how Syed's work plays out in his teaching. Syed shares a game design exercise he recently held with students: take $5, go into a dollar store, and make a game entirely from the objects you buy in the store: "you can do amazing things with two toy soldiers and a balloon."
Does Babycastles do work with physical games? They mostly do digital games, but they have done projects with JS Joust
What's the source of friction with the police? Due to the cabaret laws, you need to invest tens of thousands of dollars in meeting these regulations. A lot of DIY venues haven't invested in them. But that's not why they get busted. Weird, alternative community spaces tend to be disliked, in his impression. In some cases, DIY spaces like Monster Island was bulldozed to make space for a condo. On the other hand, spaces like ABC No Rio have been successful at moving from a squat to a more well established venue.
Jennifer Jacobs asks if girls are interested in these spaces. Babycastles classes are application-based. A third of applicants are girls, and they're able to work towards balanced classes. The events? The weird, interesting exhibits get more women. The indie-game focused events do tend to get more of a white straight male crowd. As a DIY venue with music and shows, the crowd does tend to be mixed. And New York has people like Katie Salen, so there are some great role models.
What tech does Babycastles use? It varies widely, but they're especially interested in people who subvert technology, pushing it in weird ways to create fun games. People will hack consoles or use GameMaker. For example, in "Duck Duck Poison" Anna Anthropy convereted bras to game controllers.
Arlene Ducao asks, was the sex-themed show all ages? It was. When they know there will be lots of kids, they're careful about how they curate games, but they're open to everyone all the time. "Ageism is where it starts. Once you start with aegism, if you're going to discriminate, it's going to lead to other discrimination."