Big Reality: Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe

Role-playing games are commonly thought of—and disparaged as—forms of “escape,” ways of separating the self from reality. Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe is an RPG that challenges stereotypes of the genre while explicitly making escape a game-world objective: The player characters are slaves in the antebellum United States, and their goal is to be free. As in other RPGs, the characters are defined by a collection of traits coded in numerical values; the primary statistic in Steal Away Jordan is the character’s value on the slave market, measured in number of dice. “A young, attractive female in a Southern city or town, add two dice,” the rulebook says. “If you were from the Rice Coast in West Africa and were purchased by a rice planter in the Carolinas, your knowledge of rice cultivation would be particularly valuable.” Players are discouraged, however, from inventing highly valuable super-slaves, and the rulebook suggests a lengthy list of handicaps and demerits. “If you have a history of escape, you have been branded or whipped at some point,” it says. “These wounds carry the risk of infection, and mark you as a problem slave.” With its excerpts from slave narratives and reproductions of archival photographs and etchings, the rulebook reinforces the game’s historical origins. But Steal Away Jordan is not about reenactment, a feature underscored by the character of the Conjurer, an oracular figure who can be paid to cast voodoo spells (the strength and effectiveness of her magic can be adjusted to suit the players’ tastes for realism). Steal Away Jordan draws inspiration from works of fiction, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and transforms the spirit of those classics in the genre of rule-guided collective storytelling. It makes fantasy and play into means for remembering and reflecting on real desires of escape.

Text by Brian Droitcour

Steal Away Jordan (2007) by Julia Ellingboe is on display at 319 Scholes as part of Big Reality curated by Brian Droitcour until March 29th.

Big Reality: Save Point (2012) by Daniel Leyva

In a time when most gamers’ experience with video games was the action-packed, quarter-eating world of the arcade, early role-playing games for home consoles, like The Legend of Zelda, offered a slower, longer, gameplay experience that could unfold over weeks and months. An important element in such games was the save point: a place where the character had to return before quitting so the player could pick up where he left off. In games from the popular RPG series Final Fantasy, the save point was often represented as a bed—a fitting choice, since beds are a space of comfort and daily return in everyday life. When the player brings his character to the bed and saves, the character ostensibly goes to sleep, entering the world of dreams: an invisible fantasy within fiction that blurs the potentials of the game world and the player’s world.

Daniel Leyva—an avid player of the Final Fantasy series and other Japanese role-playing games—has materialized this ambiguity in his installation Save Point (2012). A child’s bed with gaming scenes projected on it stands as a post marking the viewer’s progress. It inverts the game’s modeling logic by bringing an element of a game into the space of the gallery: a real bed becomes a save point, an image that viewers can hold in their memory to save their movement in the world. Leyva is fascinated by the seamless intersection of online communities and everyday life. “Perhaps by providing physical manifestations of (virtual) objects we could address the relatedness of our virtual and real selves, to begin exploring the future of creating an even more symbiotic world and what this inevitable future may look like once everything has a connection to the web,” he says. “The bed save point is a perfect way for to me to express this link between fantasy and reality.”

Video link: Save Point (2012) by Daniel Leyva
Text by Gene McHugh

Save Point (2012) by Daniel Leyva is on display at 319 Scholes as part of Big Reality curated by Brian Droitcour until March 29th.

Big Reality: The Backstory

Map used in the author’s D&D campaign, 2009

It began at “In Real Life.” Curator Laurel Ptak brought several internet-based collectives to a Brooklyn gallery over the course of March 2009, and the exhibition ended with a reception where, while talking to a new acquaintance, I self-deprecatingly mentioned having played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. My words made her eyes light up. “I have a proposition for you,” she said. Once she was certain that our mutual friends were out of earshot, she told me that she and a friend had been talking about playing D&D for almost a year, ever since news of the death of Gary Gygax, the game’s inventor, put the idea in their heads. They needed at least one more person to start a game. Would I be that person?

I hadn’t rolled a twenty-sided die since 1994, and it had been nearly as long since I’d felt a desire to. But I immediately said yes. And once our campaign began, I immersed myself in the minutiae of D&D rules and lore, reading online forums on strategy and homebrew modifications to the game. It was nice to have a hobby. When writing about art is a freelance job, it sponges up your time. Days off from more lucrative professional pursuits are spent going to galleries, reading criticism, flipping through catalogues. D&D felt refreshing because it was unrelated to anything else I was doing.

Alas, that feeling didn’t last long. I discovered a book put out by MIT Press on role-playing games, which led to further academic reading on the subject. Furthermore, I had been involved with Rhizome, the organization at the New Museum supporting contemporary art that engages technology, since the fall of 2008. Through my work there I found that what united a diverse group of artists working online was a rejection of the idea of “virtual reality”—that what happened online was just as “real” as events that took place away from the keyboard, that the internet was not a hole in reality but an expansion of it. By a similar logic, I realized, one can reject the commonly held notion that fantasy is an “escape” from life and assert the contrary: Fantasy is a real part of life that affects it in profound and pervasive ways. I began to notice how such ideas about technology and imagination, about RPGs and life lived online, overlapped and intermingled in the work of a number of artists. The line that had separated art and RPGs for me faded.

My D&D campaign fizzled out. Our sessions became increasingly infrequent, then stopped altogether. The dungeonmaster got married and promoted. We players had to handle new commitments as well, and the challenge of finding three or four hours every few weeks when several busy adults were all free to play got to be too much. For six months I took up World of Warcraft as a substitute RPG but that, too, stopped when I started graduate school. Nevertheless, RPGs continued to occupy my thoughts as a key to understanding contemporary culture. Now this line of thinking has reached a culmination with “Big Reality.”

This is the preface to the “Big Reality” exhibition catalogue which includes texts by Brian Droitcour, Tavis Allison, Joanne McNeill and Kristin Lucas (in conversation), Gene McHugh, as well as artists’ texts by The Center of Tactical Magic, Nick Montfort, John Bruneau, and Andrej Ujhazy. It will be available for sale on starting March 12 and at 319 Scholes during the run of the exhibition.