Art Video Games Come of Age, As Bennett Foddy's Maddening Digital Experiments Get Their Due at Pulse

Art Video Games Come of Age, As Bennett Foddy's Maddening Digital Experiments Get Their Due at Pulse
Bennett Foddy's addicting but impossible game QWOP

It’s easy to want to curse Bennett Foddy’s name and throw your keyboard away in disgust when playing his video games, which go on display at Pulse Play, a video and technology lounge opening with the contemporary art fair that opens on May 3. You might get frustrated by the twitchy controls of “QWOP,” a running game named for the buttons used to play it, or wipe out at the very top of the cliff in the rock-climbing simulation “GIRP.” But don’t get too angry — Foddy is well versed in just how to manipulate his players’ emotions. In addition to being a viral star of the independent video game scene, Foddy is a doctor of philosophy at Oxford University, researching the intersection of philosophy and biomedical science.

Foddy’s Pulse showcase, curated by the Queens-based indie video game arcade Babycastles, is only his latest step into the art world. “I feel like games are just starting to break through in mainstream art venues,” he wrote to ARTINFO in an email, pointing out his inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s PopRally Arcade event and the current Smithsonian exhibition of historical video games.

Foddy is just one of a number of game designers whose work has been adopted into the art world, though “QWOP”’s over 40 million players might make him the most popular. Australian designer Pippin Barr took on MoMA and Marina Abramovic with his waiting game “The Artist is Present,” while artist Mark Essen’s lo-fi games present abstractions of the average arcade standard. Independent game development has come into the spotlight as of late, with the New York Times highlighting the work of developer Zach Gage and the Atlantic profiling Jonathan Blow, the designer of the smash hit “Braid.” 

For Foddy, it’s about time the world of art fairs and museums caught on. Not only are video games art, but they “have the potential to be the best, most important form of art,” he wrote. “The reason for this is that the best games use a grammar and a vocabulary that is unique to that individual game… you can learn a whole new language every time you play.”

The language that players have to learn to tackle Foddy’s games is one that intermingles the physical and the virtual, bringing a bodily sensation to a digital experience. The keyboard presses of “QWOP” control different muscles in the on-screen runner’s legs; it’s possible to move forward alternating between thighs and calves, but players will more often find themselves hilariously splayed out on the track, twitching uncontrollably. “GIRP” is a keyboard version of Twister in which players strain toward keys to make their climber reach the cliff handhold labeled with the corresponding letter. The two games, plus the two-player “Winner vs. Loser,” will be playable at Pulse.  

The intentionally awkwardness that has become Foddy’s signature is part of his aggressive relationship with his audience. “As a designer, I want to play with the player, and play always involves the frustration of at least one player's goals,” Foddy wrote. Instead of the subtlety and gentleness that guides gamers through easier titles, the indie designer makes his manipulations transparent: “I'm from Australia — we don't play to win, we play to make our opponents lose,” he added.