UCLA Design Media Arts Professor Eddo Stern’s approach to his work as a game designer goes against the grain of an industry that he describes as tightly structured with a lot of rules and theories about how to create commercial video games.
Stern has been working on his video game “Vietnam Romance” for roughly two years and painted the entire game by hand.
“I feel like there is something to be said about a more organic, experience-based approach to making games,” he said.
A member of the executive committee for UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE) Humanities , Arts, Architecture, Social and Information Collaborative (HASIS), Stern founded the now-retired arts cooperative C-Level, a shared interdisciplinary space for a community of artists doing early game and media art to showcase their work, after completing his graduate degree in Art at California Institute of the Arts. It was his understanding of video games as an expressionistic and artistic medium that should be practiced in a studio-based model that led him to found C-Level.
Stern, who arrived at UCLA in 2008, said he wanted to create a space similar to C-Level at the university, one that did not operate as a traditional research lab where professor and pupils created work for publication. Thus came about the creation of the UCLA Game Lab, an experimental research and development lab that produces computer games and game-related research. Stern counts showcases of work from members of the lab and artists brought in from far and wide, doing traveling exhibitions, and collaborating with many art institutions as some of the unique features of the innovative lab. Stern is also the festival director for the UCLA Game Art Festival, which showcases cutting-edge video games and interactive art. The festival has run for four years, and this year was held at the Hammer Museum and showcased approximately 40 works.
“The kind of cultural place for games as a more diverse, creative space is something I’m not assuming is going to fall in place,” Stern said. “It’s our job to make that happen. I encourage my students to think that way.”
As a professor, as well as director of the UCLA Game Lab, Stern emphasizes subjectivity in his teaching. as he often finds it missing in games. He said he is critical of a pervasive theory or engineering-based approach to game making imbued with a sense that games have to be balanced or fair as opposed to opinion pieces that aim to impart a message or a personal experience such as someone’s relationship with their mother or a fight they had with a neighbor.
In his own work, Stern’s media has very much taken a personal approach. His film “Sheik Attack” takes footage from a variety of war games and maps it onto a real historical narrative, specifically Israel’s involvement in Lebanon in which sheiks were assassinated as retaliation against terrorist attacks. “Vietnam Romance” switches between the Vietnam War and the present day. Stern sees it as a game about the nostalgia for war, specifically the nostalgia that has been constructed by the entertainment industry. In contrast, he said in the past the commercial game industry has been reluctant to make war games with a basis in reality in order to sell the fantasy of war without any real repercussions.
Other games that Stern has made don’t have overt political messages, but still attempt to make the payer aware of the experience of gaming as a constructed one. In “Dark Game,” the player is made aware of their relationship to the avatar (or character) they play. They can choose to trade the strength of their avatar in the game and instead opt for heightened senses such as the ability to see more of the playing field or haptic feedback, which are harmless pulses given by a device worn on the player’s head to represent things that are near or far in a 3D environment. Higher stakes are involved in “Tekken Torture Tournament” where participants receive harsh electrical shocks corresponding to injuries sustained by their avatars in the game.
Stern said he yearns to create an experience that both immerses players in the game and ruptures this immersion by either making players aware of their relation to the game world, as in “Dark Game” or “Tekken Torture Tournament,” or by infusing it with real historical and political consequence as in “Sheik Attack” and “Vietnam Romance.”
On the other hand, another topic of research that interests him is the complete immersion in the gaming world some people take on during online gaming in which they bring their fears, worries, and desires to bear.
“People get deeply emotionally traumatized and people also have triumphant, life changing experiences,” he said. “They grow confident, they meet people. The sense that a real psychological engagement is happening parallel to a mundane narrative of slaying orcs… (games are) a facilitator for a very meaningful experience.”