Are Buddhist sutras better experienced as video games? These Bold Artists Are Game Alternate Realities
When the Diamond Sutra was published in 868 CE, bringing Mahāyāna Buddhism to Chinese readers, the printer anticipated modern open source software by explicitly specifying that the book was to be available for “free universal distribution”. . What the publisher could not have imagined was the license that LuYang would take with the sutra 1151 years later, reconstituting it in the form of a video game titled The great adventure of the material world.
Structured as a multi-level quest undertaken by a superhero in a cartoon spacesuit, the game is designed to be intuitive for any teenager, but the gameplay consistently undermines permanence and individuality in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings. At the climax, after discovering that the game is an illusion, the protagonist faces a rival more formidable than any ordinary adversary. The rival turns out to be the protagonist.
The great adventure of the material world illustrates the potential of video games to immerse people in systems of thought that are demonstrably different from the mainstream Western perspective. This remarkable ability is the subject of world buildinga new exhibition at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf.
As curator Hans Ulrich Obrist explains in the exhibition brochure, world-building involves “agency to create new worlds, not just inherit and live in existing ones…. Rules can be put in place, environments, systems and dynamics can be built and modified, new domains can emerge. Although novels and plays often involve world-building – and the lingo has been around since the early 19e century – games introduce a degree of interactivity that can mean the difference between witnessing and experiencing an alternate reality.
Many of the works in the exhibition are not so much about creating new worlds as exploring new ways of inhabiting realms fabricated by the gaming industry. For example, avatar-artist LaTurbo Avedon looks at sunsets sun in games such as Counter-Strike and star citizen, documenting the views for others to experience. Working in the tradition of machinima – the technical term for films filmed in games rather than on a sound stage – Avedon has created work that challenges the way games are typically made by developers and viewed by gamers. Like Andy Warhol’s idle movies (like his eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building), permanent sunset reveals that inaction is indeed very active. Avedon awakens people to the fact that worlds do not need to be engaged as the builders intended, that they are largely built by those who inhabit them.
Theo Triantafyllidis is also into action, taking stasis as the premise for a game of his own making. Presented in virtual reality, Pastoral places the player in endless acres of countryside. This uneventful landscape can be explored by controlling a massive Orc, a creature strong enough to defeat virtually any rival yet devoid of opponents and threats. (The only other character is a goat playing a lute.) It’s theater of the absurd in a surreal setting: a dreamlike world built to challenge the hypercompetitive technosphere widely accepted as reality.
Of course, some artists take a more direct approach to world-building. In Hello, for example, Lual Mayen places the player in the position of a refugee fleeing a war zone. But even the so-called “serious games” do not need to be solemn. With Party on the CAPS, Meriem Bennani animated an all-too-banal refugee storyline with fantastical qualities based on a futuristic premise of teleportation travel. The consequences of this permutation are anything but trivial. Detained on an island in their dematerialized state, migrants are literally deprived of their humanity. Nevertheless, the CAPS is always lively. The vitality comes from the improvised refugee community.
As a video installation created in a game environment, Party on the CAPS can be seen as a contemporary take on the traditional world-building found in novels and plays. The power is in the narrative, which highlights the salient qualities of the purpose-built setting. Through this story, anyone can visit the island, but the artist is the only real occupant. It’s not so much a world as a context.
Building a world in the fullest sense requires an almost Buddha-like commitment to self-negation and indeterminacy. The final act of building a world is to abandon it – as LuYang did in his instantiation of the Diamond Sutra.