Review: States of Play: Roleplay Reality at FACT

Down and Out in Los Santos, 2015-ongoing, States of Play: Roleplay Reality at FACT 2018.

Review: States of Play: Roleplay Reality
at FACT, until 17th June

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

States of Play: Roleplay Reality is, hands down, the most emotionally effecting exhibition I’ve seen. From start to finish it is immersive, uncomfortable, upsetting, relatable, relaxing and terrifying. It’s a brilliant exhibition, exploring a scenario where virtual reality is forced to understand the positions of power within itself.

There is one piece of VR, Real Violence, by Jordan Wolfson, where you are subjected to watching what is, by appearance, an animated execution. It’s probably the most vividly upsetting thing I’ve ever watched, and I don’t want to see it again, but it presents an inescapable question about where the line is in video game production. The cityscape is a fairly clumsy animation compared to others, and all the work has been put into animating the horrifying scene in front of the viewer. It contrasts so extremely with the animations in the adjoining booth.

Next to Real Violence is Open Heart Warrior by Jon Rafman, a work that spends three minutes presenting some of the most spectacularly conceived landscapes, and then ruins them with violence. It’s the thing you often wonder about with gaming; why do the makers go to such lengths to create exquisite alternate worlds, just for them to play a small part in a constantly repeated story that stems from desires that would be of psychiatric concern in the real world?

Physical, mental and sexual violence are a core part of the exhibition’s central story, but weirdly they’re not what made me feel the most uncomfortable. The most important piece of the puzzle is a large projection by Rindon Johnson, focussed on understanding the representation of black men and women in video games. From misrepresentations of faces, hair, colour and voices, to the stereotyping of roles made accessible to black characters in the gaming world.

It resonates so closely with issues elsewhere in the creative industries. Look at Hollywood, look at the arts, both spaces where diversity is constantly tackled but rarely achieved, yet somehow the gaming industry gets away without really even tackling it. The exhibition by FACT is a brave one, and a steep learning curve for anyone not familiar with modern gaming or the possibilities virtual reality gaming presents.

One word of caution though is that it does have a sincere emotional impact, and the immersive nature of the work does leave little of that to choice, but as long as you leave the education space full of bean bags and animated cats until last, you’ll have a space to recover.

States of Play: Roleplay Reality is open at FACT until 17th June 2018.