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Pippin Barr: Subverting gaming norms

Pippin Barr is spanning the divide between academics and gaming and bringing back the charm of 8-bit.

If ever there was proof of the democratisation of the web, Kiwi Pippin Barr is it.

Last year, he started designing 8-bit games and making them available to the public – and while only a few friends, family members and colleagues downloaded his first few, things heated up after Safety Instructions was featured on IndieGames.com.

Barr's next game, The Artist Is Present, got picked up by The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Kotaku, kottke.org, and Slate, and exhibited at Nikolaj Kunsthal, a top contemporary gallery in Copenhagen – and there were a couple of days when 10,000-plus people played it. But it was Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment that really went ballistic; in January more than 200,000 people tackled it. Slate has described The Artist as "subversively boring", while Neatorama praised Ancient Greek Punishment’s “sheer hilarity” and IndieGames.com called it a clever and educational experience.

Born and raised in New Zealand, Barr now lives in Denmark, where he and wife Rilla Khaled (a fellow video game academic) teach at the IT University of Copenhagen’s Center for Computer Game Research.

Unlike most industry types, he doesn’t have a deep history with gaming, in his own words, instead playing on and off starting on an Apple IIe from the age of three.

Since doing a thesis on the subject, however, games have been at the heart of his intellectual life – a self-induced obsession. 

His original topic revolved around how software persuades users to do things in a particular way, but a mentor who suggested that games were a prime example of this in action prompted a gear shift.

“It was a revolutionary idea, that you could do serious doctoral research on video games,” he says.

With a background in philosophy and computer science, Barr used his PhD to highlight the relationship between human and computer and the values espoused in games. For example, in a shooter, convention dictates the right thing is to fire at some people but not others.

Just over a year ago he built his first game and is now working on his ninth, with an eye to making an iOS game in the future.

“I teach game design to students. It seemed a bit reckless to teach something I wasn’t doing myself.”

They’re all free for download through his website, although Barr says he’d consider charging in the future as part of the ongoing gamemaking experiment.

Inspiration usually strikes in the form of a one-liner, he says, as a joke or a kind of elevator pitch.

“A game about how God’s job of judging humanity is a drag. A game about following the safety instructions on a plane.”

His concepts are usually pretty straightforward, but Barr says he’s not the strongest programmer, so writing the simple code needed – and producing content including visuals and audio – takes some time, anywhere from two to six weeks.

The upside of keeping things simple? Room to make tweaks.

“If I were more caught up in systems programming or doing clever things with code, I imagine I’d simply not have the energy to rewrite the title of the game for the umpteenth time, for instance. And then Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment would have been called The Greek Futility Games. And that’s not as good, is it?”

Trying to figure out why certain games took off has been a “fascinating and confusing” exercise. The Artist and Ancient Greek Punishment involve using two buttons to accomplish a futile task.

“I can kind of understand why people like them more generally; they let you be in on a joke.”

The Artist consists of queuing for long periods of time, while Zorba makes it impossible to win, subverting key tenets of gaming.

“You should never be made to wait. You are the boss of the world,” Barr explains.

“They’re all kind of philosophical in that sense … but meant to be amusing at the same time, which is often the best way to get philosophy across.”

Barr has also just published a book, How to Play a Video Game, as part of the Awa Press ‘how-to’ Ginger series, which the Otago Daily Times described as an attempt to demystify the world of video games for non-players – “a thought-provoking, sometimes philosophical read for players keen to know more about the cyber universe with which they are familiar”.

Barr says it’s conversational rather than academic, a friendly way of drawing readers into considering the “thought provoking side” of gaming.

“One thing I really wanted to do with it is present games as I see them. They’re potentially very deep experiences, not as the trivial pastime lots of people think they are.”

That said, he doesn’t have any illusions – he admits games are often repetitive and/or violent, especially in the mass market. But it’s the fringe of indie developers that see games as a form of expression who will spearhead the next frontier.

“There’s a lot of potential there. The obvious one is interacting physically with games,” he says  – whether it’s through the Wii, the Move, the Kinect, or the other consoles making games evermore accessible so that even Grandad can get in on the action. Next, Barr thinks we’ll start to see gamemakers pushing beyond the obvious (such as hitting a tennis ball) and experiment with other, wackier possibilities.

“We haven’t scratched the surface of what they can be and where they can go,” he says.