Making new worlds with gaming collective Babycastles

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At Babycastles's Jean-Claude Van Jam. (Jillian Steinhauer)
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On Friday night, August 17, some 45 people gathered at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center around folding tables. Many had brought backpacks, inside of which were mostly computers and headphones, with the occasional wire board thrown in. One person had walked the dark block of West 21st Street with a laundry bag slung over his shoulder; inside it, among other things, was a pillow.

These people had assembled at Eyebeam to undertake a challenge: they would, over the next two days, conceptualize and build electronic games inspired by action-movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme. And not imitation Street Fighter games, but weird, original games based on his movies. They could be analog, digital, board, whatever, as long as they were creative. This was the Jean-Claude Van Jam.

“From nothing to game in 48 hours,” was how the event’s M.C. and one of its organizers, Matt Parker, put it. After Parker had explained the rules, people began milling about tentatively, forming teams with people they knew and others they didn’t. Once a group formed, a member reached into a fishbowl and pulled out a USB flash drive. On that drive was a copy of the team’s assigned movie.

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Hard Target!!” someone yelled out excitedly.

Across the room, Antonius Wiriadjaja and Fareed Khattak met for the first time and decided to work together. They took their USB drive and inserted it into one of their computers: Blood Sport. “I haven’t seen Blood Sport in English,” said Wiriadjaja, who embroiders computer circuits for a living. “I watched it as a little kid in Indonesia.”

“I once spent three days in a room thinking up an ad for KY Jelly,” Khattak offered, by way of implying that he had what it takes to create a game from scratch in 48 hours. A graphic designer, Khattak explained why he had come.

“I spend a lot of time with my two roommates who are guys sitting around drinking and smoking, and I felt like I needed to get out and do something productive.”

If “productive” strikes you as not quite the right word for spending a weekend making a game based on a decades-old action movie, you’re probably not alone. But other participants had a similar take.

“You just get to make something,” said Josh Raab. “There’s no time to screw around. You come out with something you wouldn’t have otherwise in two months.”

Raab belonged to a five-person team, which was actually made up of two pairs of guys who had met at previous game jams, plus a loner.

“I’ve done the indie games meetup,” said Chris Hernandez, a member of Raab’s team, “but it’s not the same as going through 48 hours of hell together.”

Organized by the Eyebeam Game Research Group and indie video game collective Babycastles, the Jean-Claude Van Jam was one of a handful of game jams that happen every few months around New York.* The jams are a way for members of the city’s fast-growing indie game—especially video-game—community to come together, meet like-minded people, and work and play at the same time.

That community largely centers around Eyebeam (profiled by Capital New York here) and Babycastles, as well as academic programs like the Polytechnic Institute of New York University’s masters in Integrated Digital Media and its related Game Innovation Lab. There’s a lot of overlap between the different organizations, regardless of whether they’re underground or institutional, and anyway, that distinction is increasingly hard to make.

Take Syed Salahuddin. Salahuddin cofounded Babycastles with Kunal Gupta in 2009 in the basement of The Silent Barn, a D.I.Y. performance space in Brooklyn. Babycastles was “the first permanent independent arcade,” Salahuddin told me last week when we met at N.Y.U.-Poly. “What happened was we basically started this thing where the entire indie game scene from New York would come and converge and talk and hang out. We didn’t even know that existed. We were really shocked. And so we became a place where people just hung out and met other people like them.” (At left: Salahuddin and Gupta in an uncharacteristically low-tech setting.)

In the three years since, Babycastles’ profile has grown exponentially: they have organized shows and events at the Museum of Natural History, in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, and at Pulse art fair; were invited to La Gaîté Lyrique in Paris, where they built a cat-themed installation and arcade; and are planning a summit this weekend at the Museum of Arts and Design that includes three days of workshops, live bands, and a huge, interactive art installation. Salahuddin now teaches at NYU-Poly and Pratt.

Rather than undermine its indie roots, though, Babycastles’s expansion into the mainstream—at least, the mainstream art world—fits with its core goals: to create social spaces for game playing, and to encourage more and more people to take part in that playing, as well as in game making.

The upcoming summit was inspired in part by Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, which Salahuddin said “is basically about how everyone should make games. The more people that make games, the better the game industry—the better it will be in general, cause that dialogue will open up between people who wouldn’t usually make games. It’ll go away from just nerds, who are usually white males, to women to queers to all these other people." (See the Capital New York profile of Anna Anthropy here.)

“And when you open up that conversation,” Salahuddin said, “you’ll have really amazing games. At least that’s the hope.”

Given the time restraint, none of the games made at the Jean-Claude Van Jam quite attained the status of “amazing.” But they were across-the-board clever; a few even ingenious. The participants, haggard and largely food- and sleep-deprived, reconvened at Eyebeam on Sunday night to show off their handiwork to the audience and a panel of game-expert judges.

Wiriadjaja and Khattak had turned Blood Sport into Master Tanaka’s Flexibility Challenge, for which they won a runner-up spot. The game pits two players using rope-sensor controls head-to-head, as they try to gain and maintain Van Damme’s flexibility and strength on his left and right sides. The hero makes priceless contorted faces as the players pull.

The other runner-up team had faced the difficult task of making a game from Street Fighter that wasn’t Street Fighter. They created the hilarious My Thailand, a dating simulation between Jean-Claude and co-star Kylie Minogue, in which the player must select real-life Van Damme quotes to flirt his way to winning Minogue’s heart.

And the winner, Wrong Bet, inspired by the movie Lion Heart and created by the demure pair of Brian S. Chung and G.J. Lee, was an elaborate installation game for ten players involving computers, a betting circle, real money, and real heckling. Out of the mainstream action of Jean-Claude Van Damme, intelligent and bizarre fun was born.

All of the games are available for playing at jeanclaudevanjam.com. The Babycastles Summit at the Museum of Arts and Design, including an appearance by game designer Keita Takahashi and performances by the Suzan, Sun Airway, and more, takes place August 24–26; more information is available here and here.

*The Babycastles and Eyebeam members who organized the Jean-Claude Van Jam were Kaho Abe, Ida Benedetto, Ben Johnson, Matt Parker, and Ramsey Nasser.