Now Play This at Somerset House
All you need is love, the Beatles famously told us in 1967. Although those of a romantic leaning would be inclined to agree with such a sentiment, love is not traditionally a theme embraced by the board or video games industries. And, yet, Somerset House’s entertaining contribution to the annual London Games Festival, Now Play This, focuses on a series of games – many of them experimental video – all around various forms of love. Held at the gallery’s New Wing, the exhibition takes as inspiration the American academic and feminist activist bell hook’s influential book, All About Love (1999), which proposes a new, redemptive path to its attainment.
The festival’s director, Sebastian Quack, charmingly dragged attending members of the press (including this writer) out of their comfort zones at the start of his guided tour, challenging all present to take part in a mobile phone-activated game that prompted physical interaction. That kind of playfulness with a touch of awkwardness characterises many of the showcased games that await inside the galleries. One comes across a compliment battle game, Flatter Me by Ami Baio, consisting of a pack of 250 unique compliment cards. Those of a more family-friendly nature such as Point of Mew, by Kate Killick and David Rodríguez Madriñán, where a player takes on the role of a pet cat attempting to keep their human owner happy, will entertain younger visitors.
However, elsewhere adult themes are explored with organisers providing warnings. Angela Washko’s The Game: The Game presents the public with an anti-dating simulator examining the psychologically manipulative tactics deployed by pick-up artists. The same artist also introduces another experimental video, Mother, Player featuring her hand-animated pregnancy and early parenthood experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One encounters hard times being encroached upon at various junctures. Abort Game, a board game, explores access to abortion in the current political climate. Jisoo Lim’s game invites playing visitors to engage with a gay romance between two Christian women in South Korea, a culture where homophobia is asserted by the artist as rife within church communities. Tomo Kihara and Playfool’s Deviation Game makes a plea for us not to neglect communication with our fellow human beings in a world where technology is becoming ever more pervasive. For the installation, one player is required to create a drawing for another to identify before an artificial intelligence system recognises what is being expressed first.
One particular highlight at Somerset House is Timo Wright’s Everyday Vrealities, an open-world documentary which gives the VR headset-wearing public the opportunity to wander through different family homes and view compatriots of the Finnish artist engaging with loved ones, captured through 3D scanning.
Over the eight days of the festival, the interactive installation Cushion Commons is set to become a popular gathering point. The brainchild of the artist and professor Valentina Karga, in collaboration with a group of her students from the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, it consists of cushions made from recycled materials for visitors to relax and play on, whilst also providing a relatively tranquil space for games and workshops. Beyond the confines of the New Wing, on the impressive river terrace can be enjoyed a huge rainbow maze, where the public faces challenges and mini-games, the work of Australian artists Helen Kwok and Chad Toprak.
In keeping with the “experimental” nature of Now Play This, one finds games not only crafted by game designers but also artists and poets. There can be said to be something for everyone with this playful contemplation of love taking on board romance, family, friendship, self-care, consent and grief. Challenging the boundaries of gaming on the one hand, whilst highlighting how we behave towards each other on the other, this festival promises to delight, educate, entertain and maybe change the way some visitors treat themselves and those they love.
Now Play This is at Somerset House from 1st April until 9th April 2023. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.