Jason Rohrer


View of “Jason Rohrer: The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer,” 2016. Photo: Thomas Willis.

The programmer and designer Jason Rohrer—whose video game Passage, 2007, was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2012—recently became the subject of the first-ever museum retrospective for a video game creator. The exhibition is on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College through June 26, 2016. Here, he talks about the challenges of exhibiting video games in a gallery space, and the metaphorical possibilities of his medium.

WHEN MICHAEL MAIZELS, the curator at Wellesley, first contacted me, I initially thought he was yet another person who just wants to show Passage in a museum. But over time it became clear that this was much more involved than anything I had done in the past. As it dawned on me that this would be the first career retrospective for any kind of video game maker, and I thought more about what that means in terms of my history and the history of video games, it became stranger and stranger. A lot of institutions think about putting games into exhibitions, but they tend to engineer a very shallow, surface level of interaction and interfacing with the game for the public—you walk up and fiddle with a controller for a minute, and then walk away. The challenge of this show was trying to figure out how to show such work in a gallery context. Mike and I talked a lot during the two-year planning process about how to give people the feeling that it’s OK to stand for a long time with each of these pieces. Part of our solution was to have laptops in the side galleries with headphones and seats, so that there’s lots of opportunity for people to stop and play.

We made the conscious decision early on to not feature Passage; people expect to walk into a show of my work and see that piece on the wall, and it is playable in the show, but just as one of the many games on little laptops. We chose instead to feature several other games in the main room such as Inside a Star-filled Sky, 2011, which is about what it might be like to get lost inside infinity and recursion. That’s a game where you’re in a level and you’re a little guy running around in a maze and dealing with monsters and collecting power-ups or shooting bullets—standard top-down shooter game elements. But then every enemy and every power-up you encounter, and even yourself—each of these expands into another level you can enter. Another game included is Primrose, 2009, which is like Tetris meets the game of Go. And there’s also Diamond Trust of London, 2012, a two-player strategy game that takes place in Angola in 2000 right around the time the UN was passing this Kimberly Certification Process for rough diamonds to prevent what we now call blood diamonds from coming out of Angola.

Around the time I made Passage, I made another game called Gravitation, in 2008. It’s an autobiographical game that focuses on a relationship and family dynamics. What I made during this time used game mechanics that have metaphorical meaning, almost structuring them as if writing a poem. A lot of people know me for those games, but what I did after that is totally different. Mechanics as metaphor seems to have exhausted its potential. It was a baby step that games needed to take, because designers weren’t even doing that before. But now, how do we deal with more subtle meanings and more complex things that you can’t summarize in words?

With many of the games shown in this exhibition, I tried to put visual aesthetics in the backseat, because what we see now among new mainstream releases are these amazing visual displays, but I feel like that is misguided. It’s a great way to sell games to people, but very often what’s underneath that glitzy presentation has nothing new to offer. The visual delight is not going to last. We haven't even discussed the limitations of 3-D games yet. Even though they’re visually impressive, you’re simulating reality, and for consistency’s sake things are made to behave like they would in a three-dimensional physical world. Which means that you don’t even have a spooky action at a distance—objects can’t just appear and disappear without causality, you have to show the shards exploding or falling on the ground. What that does is cut off an entire spectrum of possible game design by climbing onto this one narrow branch. Everything I’ve been doing in two-dimensional games is about exploring an entirely different part of the tree—all the symbolic, iconic, and metaphorical uses of the picture plane.

— As told to Dawn Chan