Interview by Miguel Penabella
Initial edits by Justin Keever
Originally published October 24, 2012
New edits and introduction written November 2016
Mobile gaming has evolved significantly since 2012, and the media industries that sustain these technologies carry with it meaningful discourses concerning issues of labor, resources, infrastructures, globalization, surveillance, and agency. While once ubiquitous games such as Angry Birds, Temple Run, and Flappy Bird have since reached their respective peaks in popularity, mobile gaming continues to swell in growth and even financially outperform traditional videogame platforms on console and PC. The industry’s significant expansion thus begs numerous questions. What forms of labor underpin this development? What are the power relations that regulate working conditions and maintain these infrastructures? What kinds of difficulties or disruptions do we run into as the mobile gaming sector unfolds, and what problems are made invisible?
Addressing these questions remains crucial as mobile gaming expands globally. Professor, game developer, and new media artist Benjamin Poynter has investigated these issues for the past half decade. Before the commercial popularization of virtual reality with Samsung Gear VR and augmented reality with Pokémon Go, Poynter’s work has been involved in deeper institutional problems such as corporate censorship and human rights issues that have persistently afflicted mobile gaming. Acutely aware of the underlying ideologies at play in the manufacturing and consumption of smartphones and apps, Poynter reflects these themes in the backlit display of mobile devices so that we may come face to face with these tensions.
His mobile game In a Permanent Save State originally premiered on October 12, 2012, on the Apple App Store before its immediate removal less than an hour after its release, recalling a similar response following the release of Molleindustria’s politically charged game Phone Story a year prior. Poynter’s game imagines the afterlives of seven overworked employees of a commercial electronics company, allegorizing the string of real-world employee suicides at the FoxConn manufacturing headquarters in Longhua Science and Technology Park in Shenzhen, China. Apple is a key contractor of FoxConn, producing the very mobile platform that In a Permanent Save State was designed to be played on and critiqued. The game’s quick erasure raises questions on the efficacy of mobile games as sociopolitical commentaries when they are subject to such forms of suppression. Four years ago, on a chilly autumn week late in October, I discussed with Benjamin Poynter about his thoughts on the removal of In a Permanent Save State from the App Store and broader topics of simulation, censorship, authorship, and agency. Below is our republished interview (conducted October 20, 2012), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Let’s start with the controversies surrounding your recently released game, In a Permanent Save State. Has its removal from the Apple App Store changed your outlook on big media industries? What are your feelings towards the situation?
Fittingly enough, my binocular on the idea of big media remains unchanged. Of course I have a more intense idea of what it would constitute for the individual involved, but to be a little more Marxist than that, I would say it is the same to the public perception as it always has been, and thus my own. As someone who is passionate about working with videogames in both the commercial and fine art mode of production, I have gotten astutely used to the idea of catering to the needs of an audience before my own in opposition to creating any confusion. My feelings to the current situation are hard to put into proper words. In the censorship of the game, the message and information about the game itself is higher than it ever could have been without removal. If I were the game, it feels like dodging execution via fading away and getting another shot at “art life” on a bigger stage than it had before.
Do you view its removal as a simple act of protocol when guidelines are violated or as an act with darker implications, like censorship?
It would be naïve of me to think that there wasn’t an effort to put a veil on more deviant activity going on, which is what the work attempted to address while not exposing any direct names in particular. If I were the guy pushing the big red button on me, I would likely also have done so given the fact that it would be my job and a job at that place no less. It is, of course, censorship and I am not the first game to receive such treatment for similar subject matter (e.g. Phone Story by Molleindustria). Akin to the Sina Weibo in China and the great firewall, strangely enough, you see something similar in the way criticism is shot down as it shoots through a network. That is not to direct anyone away from the iOS platform if they have anything important to say. There are a plethora of games about the Obama-Romney election that are free to exist. Just use caution about discussing the hand that feeds.
What drove you then to create this game?
Very specifically: a report about a massive protest at the very beginning of this year concerning a mass suicide threat from hundreds of FoxConn workers concerning severance packages from departing workers. In the report was a specific update about contact to a Microsoft representative who revealed Xbox 360s were assembled in that particular FoxConn outlet. For me, that’s when a penny dropped. I was—and mostly still am—part of what Jean Baudrillard would call a “simulation,” believing wholeheartedly in virtual worlds that are available. Guy Debord might have something to say about it as well. Regardless, in my digital art practice, it is when I deciphered that objects which I constantly work with needs to be in console prior to being consoled in a way. I had a heavy background working as a blue-collar worker (mover) in my old home of Oklahoma City, making clear that this was the project for me to undergo. I needed to say thanks and give my point-of-view as an admirer of the beautiful language that is videogames. It needed to happen.
The trailer for In a Permanent Save State calls it “a serious mobile game.” Do you believe that mobile gaming can become something more than just leisure or distraction? Can it be considered serious art?
Absolutely. Look back at photography at the twilight of the 19th century. Critics did not take it seriously as there was current immersion in the fine arts of painting at the time. What became of that was impressionism, leaving photography as the operating force to represent the reality we visualize.
Our current realities in the 21st century and in your game involve issues of politics, globalization, and human rights. How did you translate these themes into interactive narrative and gameplay?
Each project will certainly have its own avenue for arriving at that conclusion! For In a Permanent Save State, I drew major comparisons to the very idea that this factory shipped the “being” of videogames, an Eastern heritage that attributes itself into thinking of modes of spiritual stages. A crucible would eventually be created between player and object when the player realizes that what they are interacting with causes the protagonists to perish by their own hand. For me, this situation with Apple and FoxConn represents a sort of neo-industrial revolution emerging with the annihilation of time and space. I wanted to research this admiration of electronics. The question is where exactly do these dreams of the world come from and how that revelation would make sense of the socially connected planet we walk on. Can the weavers of escapism escape from themselves? For numbers ranging into the seven figures, the answer is no.
“I needed to say thanks and give my point-of-view as an admirer of the beautiful language that is videogames. It needed to happen.”
What other works did you think of as influences in creating In a Permanent Save State?
There are three primary games that are a large influence, plus a medley of existing game mechanics too flurried for me to even list [insert laugh here]. I want to cite The Cosmology of Kyoto, which is one game that Roger Ebert himself admitted was art. A game which showed no remorse in revealing violence and encyclopedias worth of information on the mythical afterlife of feudal Japan. A more familiar title is Okami. Lastly, Molleindustria’s Phone Story was a Westernized look at the spectacle influx in wake of this situation. I respectfully wanted to look at the matter from an Eastern view all the same. Whereas the matter makes humans “less human” per se in the East, I wanted to see it from a perspective where being human was all you had.
Do you view it as a responsibility for videogames to address the larger political problems that beset society, even the problems that beset its own medium?
Just as it is not a responsibility for any fine art medium to reference real-life matters, I don’t believe it should be videogames’ responsibility to address these matters as well. I enjoy work that exists solely on the plane of aesthetic value and nothing more. The aesthetic value for videogames to summarize in one equation is “fun.” Who would be against that? I know when I boot-up multiplayer online of Red Dead Redemption as PercivalStalls, I’m not looking for bullet points of which states are swing votes for the 2012 election. I want to be a cowboy and immerse myself in the Wild West. I think art should enjoy the multitudes of perspectives available to it from its millions of creators and not feel apprehensive about making one artist talk about A or B.
“The question is where exactly do these dreams of the world come from and how that revelation would make sense of the socially connected planet we walk on. Can the weavers of escapism escape from themselves? For numbers ranging into the seven figures, the answer is no.”
And what about the role of the player? Since your game is critical of mass-produced electronics yet is played on a mass-produced device, what are the ethics of players in addition to those designing videogames?
I cannot define what would be the ethics for a player, just as the old saying goes: “The customer is always right.” It seems like a passive thing to say when confronted by the comments section of the gaming blogosphere around the information highway, but ultimately it is true and sort of a blessing to receive timely feedback on one’s own work. As for the ethics of being a game designer, the main thing I always tell myself everyday is, “cater to their needs.” I screened Indie Game: The Movie recently and all the developers in the film were fascinating. However, one line irked me when it was mentioned, “I made this [art] for myself and no one else.” While I understand the trajectory behind that statement, how can one have a game without the audience? Work in this field especially is a process that ends in the retinas and synapses of the player. Those in other fields of art, such as Allan Kaprow and his performative happenings, can get away with such a bold display of identity and being a tree which falls in the woods. At this juncture of time, I would say that videogames have a more difficult time in doing so.
In thinking about reception, did you feel any pressure to align your work with Apple’s guidelines or did you not want your game feeling compromised?
It is very convenient you mention this. I already made strong note to remove the names of the people from the equation as a means of focusing on human aspects but not the humans, but anticipated that the game would be pulled regardless due to deliberate mentions of FoxConn and Apple. In fact, myself and a lot of musicians on the Reno Video Game Symphony had a real “no shit” moment when we were gearing up a live orchestral performance at a downtown art gallery to accompany a projection of the game alongside a large-scale Apple store I built out of cardboard. An initial plan upon re-release was to make a statement by censoring out any and all mentions of either company and likewise. Then a voice beamed in my head whispering, “You should be doing this anyway.” So the original result some have seen and through the IndieGogo video is preemptive censoring knowing full well what was to engulf the project and a slim hope that Apple would go easy with the iron fist.
What are the struggles that small game developers face in such a cutthroat industry?
The biggest struggle of all is confidence to go through hell and hell again. I would suggest Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland as essential reading for any professional or academic game maker. Naturally, a crew of two or three takes more than a year to create a game. With a medium augmenting its own uncertain place in reality day by day, it may prove disheartening to continue knowing the vernacular of time. The important thing is to study what is happening around in the tech world and adapt. The spirit of the entrepreneur often overlooks the fundamental necessities in achieving goals. Once again, also strive to talk about subjects that are accessible to the largest crowd possible. There is strength in being universal and admitting in this world subsumed by graphic fantasy that one is still human.
“There is strength in being universal and admitting in this world subsumed by graphic fantasy that one is still human.”
What artists in the gaming industry working today impress you?
I will actually list some artists from the “serious game” classification and then also from the mainstream as they have had equal and tremendous influence. Artists such as Wafaa Bilal, Eddo Stern, Brody Condon, Aram Bartholl, Natalie Bookchin, and Joseph DeLappe have impressed me with their alternative take on the idea of videogames as a whole. In fact, DeLappe is my sensei you could say, as he is my chair professor for my Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Nevada, Reno advising directly my progress in the medium. He is an accomplished artist worldwide and a pioneer of the gaming-performance genre. For names that everyone knows, I champion the likes of David Jaffe, Hideo Kojima, Ed Boon, Suda 51, and Mr. Miyamoto himself. I know my masters and will forever be a student of the game.
Can you tell us about any future projects that you may have?
Look out for In a Permanent Save State for Android release on November 12, 2012, which is a month from the initial Apple removal. There will be additions that will enhance the experience including a full soundtrack by the Reno Video Game Symphony and more play mechanic detailing from myself with some new art. As far as brand-new projects go, I want to try two. The first of which will attack the medium of augmented reality to create a graphic novel through that format, as I am strongly attracted to the idea of simulated existence and experimental narrative. In addition, I want to make another game that takes the form of a meta-art experiment. I want to do a biopic game of a colleague of mine that gets deeply into his own mind where you need to “escape” out of it somehow. Still blueprinting that one!