VRAL is a uniquely curated game video experience, offering screenings of machinima created by artists and filmmakers whose work lies at the intersection of video art, cinema, and gaming. 

The program features exceptional machinima selected on their cultural relevance, artistic achievement, and innovative style. Often presented only in the context of new media art festivals, film retrospectives, exhibitions, and surveys, these works best represent the variety, ingenuity, and creativity of game-based video practices.

Launched in April 2020, VRAL is an online space that provides access to diverse voices. An online supplement to the MILAN MACHINIMA FESTIVAL, VRAL celebrates a new generation of digital filmmakers and artists. The project comprises exclusive interviews, image galleries, and an archive. Over time VRAL will trace new contours and produce different understandings of machinima.

VRAL is curated by Matteo Bittanti and Gemma Fantacci.

The artistic practice of Croatian artist Mario Mu revolves around projects which are often constructed as extended gaming platforms. In addition to sound and drawing, his preferred media often include elements of game design, 3D animation, and performance. A student of Hito Steyerl, Mu received an MFA in Berlin from the University of the Arts (UdK) in Berlin in 2017, a BFA with a major in Painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, in 2015, and an MA from the Faculty of Graphic Arts in 2012 from the same institution. Between 2016 and 2017, Mu was an active member of the Research Center for the Proxy Politics in Berlin. He has been working on several LARP events as an author, collaborator and/or performer at Play Co London and Zagreb, Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam, Galerie gr_und, Acud, and UdK in Berlin. Mu is currently working on a new game project initiated by the Portuguese artist Odete and supported by Maat Museum and Boca Bienal.

Matteo Bittanti: I would love to begin our conversation by discussing your relationship to the Unity Game Engine as a tool to create non-interactive video art. When you first encountered Unity 3D? The reason why I am asking is because in your practice the active deconstruction of gaming ecosystems – platforms, technologies, aesthetics – is crucial and I find remarkable that, in a sense, you are subverting the system from within. 

Mario Mu: Well. I did a lot of animation when I was a teenager. Afterwards, I began studying painting in Croatia after which I enrolled in a Master program in Experimental Film and Video in Berlin. At that time, I was also working as a visual artist on various commercial video game projects. All these experiences were highly influential for the development of my personal practice.

For a few years I produced all of my personal projects with Blender, an open source 3D software which is really amazing, but I didn’t like the core process of frame-by-frame animation. I wanted to learn more about game engines because I felt that they are a largely unexplored area for filmmakers. Basically, the choice was between Unreal or Unity, and I chose Unity not only because it is an open source software but it has a great community and works well in combination with Blender. I already had a library of visual assets which I made for commercial projects, but instead I wanted to reuse them to explore my own narrative. At that time I felt really bad while working with publishers because within the industry the exploitation of labour is still the standard condition. In a sense, I was using the same software adopted by the industry and the same models, but I wanted to give them a completely different voice.

I always liked the idea that by using a game engine you can set up a world in motion and then record it with a camera. In a funny way, this process reminds me of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, running around the city while filming what’s happening. A game engine is a unique ecosystem with its own life cycle: it feels organic, even alive somehow. In the end, my goal is to document that reality with a standard camera tool available in the Unity game engine. Such an approach is quite basic. I am a visual artist first and foremost, so for me working with games is a lot about looking and learning how to look at video games. As a consequence, my project Architecture with Games in the Title lies in this liminal state, as if it is becoming something like a game,but not quite. What I like about game engines compared to traditional filmmaking is that you can set up many parameters and then let things go out of control and wait and see the unpredictable outcomes. To me, such a process feels more like gardening. 

Matteo Bittanti: Architecture with Games in the Title forms an ideal tetralogy with Whales (2017), which was also about the gamification of labour; Walkthrough (2018), focusing on the invisible work of communal characters, and Confessional Stage Diving (2019), which investigates doxing practices, self-presentation, and the practice of storytelling in the age of social media. In the accompanying texts to your previous works, you cite, as an inspiration, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Hannah Arendt. Was any specific text on gamification instrumental in shaping your thinking about the phenomenon in general and Architecture with Games in the Title specifically?

Mario Mu: When I began my research on the gamification of labour I couldn’t really find any comprehensive texts or books. This was 2016 and people were mostly discussing the impact of social media on labour activities. I found Updating to Remain the Same, Habitual New Media by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun very interesting but the author didn’t examine video games. There were only fragments available online in various essays on the broader topic the convergence between gaming and social media practices. Andrea Komlosy’s Work, The Last 1,000 Years shed some light on this matter. I especially appreciated her investigation of shadow work and unpaid domestic feminized labour. We could also argue that gender roles are highly gamified. Use instead: For anyone who is interested in relations of architecture and games I would recommend the book Architectonics of Game Spaces edited by Andri Gerber and Ulrich Götz.

Matteo Bittanti: Unlike previous works of yours which feature elements of improvisational theater and performance – for example, the possibility of inhabiting and controlling the body of a video game avatar in Walkthrough or the melting and converging of bodies of addicted players, which become part of a landscape constructed with models appropriated from commercial video games in Whales Architecture with Games in the Title features a minimalist video game environment designed with the Unity engine and recorded in-game. Why did you choose this specific format, thus abandoning the interactive, participatory elements of previous works? Are video games an inherently solipsistic affair masquerading as a social activity? 

Mario Mu: A decade ago, massively online multiplayer games had a strong social component that evolved with the emergence of Battle Royale-like games. When we talk about the neoliberal agenda, the concept of the battle royale is a prime example of the current situation: a group of people is brought together in an arena to fight against each other to death until only one survives. The last man standing mechanic is quintessentially neoliberal. If not participating in, people have at least always enjoyed watching extremely competitive social activities. It is not a surprise that movies like Hunger Games are so popular among young people. The spectacle of competition today plays a big role in their lives. Somehow less popular, but still broadly available are those video games where people watch other people playing games about performing mundane routines and daily practices. Now, if we talk about games where people are doing things together in a constructive manner, the selection shrinks even more and the few games that tackle this topic are mostly boring.

I have always been interested in including a participatory element in my work in order to provide some sorts of solutions which are possible only through social activities. A couple of years ago I encountered the work of Augusto Boal. For example, what if the group of people share the same issues? Or what if a group of people share the same game character? What can we do together? How can we get involved in the act of togetherness when we are manipulated by different expressions of oppressive power?

The joy of doing things together, which requires the involvement and engagement of other people, it is always a problem of organizing, managing and finding a sustainable platform which makes such projects possible. On the other hand, making a video game for other people to play only by yourself is also an extremely complex process: it takes so much time to get the results you want. Plus, you are lonely most of the time, and that sucks.

For this project I wanted to reach a situation where action was as direct as possible, which meant that I will have to do it all by myself. I want to do it by myself, because this project felt very personal to me. My working conditions at that time were all but terrible and I found myself being exploited by others. As I was tired of self victimization, I decided to set myself on fire, which for me meant to react, to act, to take things into my hands, and, as an artist, I had to deal with those feelings of shame and humiliation I was experiencing instead of hiding or suppressing them.

Dealing with these emotions was cathartic and expressive. Obviously, I am not the only one to experience such an oppressive working environment, but I noticed that most people could not or would not want to talk about it. Many of them have good intentions and really great ideas about justice, but they are stuck in a toxic environment because there are bills to pay, a comfortable life to live and so on, so they bite the bullet and accept the exploitation. It is so hard to have an open talk about our working conditions. So, rather than discussing the process of gamification from a somehow detached, objective position, I wanted to get to the very subjective feeling of being lost in the gamified map of the contemporary working conditions. These conditions are particularly bad for the lower classes. 

As a child of working class parents I have a special relation to the contemporary art institutions and organizations. You can see clearly the level of general misunderstanding especially when curators are exoticising imagery of the working class. I don’t like these tropes. They are misleading. The culture and language of the working class are mostly despised and ridiculed by the same middle class that produce and control the spaces and discourses of contemporary art. I find it interesting that all of a sudden, rhetoric about the so-called essential worker became briefly dominant in our conversations, as if the essential worker was a sort of alien who is embedded in our culture but mostly remained invisible until an unexpected twist thickened the plot. To me, the main question that this project was trying to address is: How does it feel to be treated poorly in a working environment and how does it feel to be confused and scared of losing a job? How does it feel when you see that others are too scared to help you in such a situation? How can you talk about it? Is it even possible? I wanted to talk about a common issue that so many of us face today using my own experience and my own language. No apologies. 

How could I approach such a controversial situation? My solution was to bring two fictional characters together and to internalize their conversation which is obviously coming from very confusing and contradictory positions that I have found myself in. I felt like I was missing somebody, and suddenly this imaginary person came in my daydreaming one afternoon and started to talk to me with empathy, even love. After that, the story began to unfold organically from the inside.

Matteo Bittanti: Architectural elements play a much bigger role in games than in traditional forms of narrative, and I am not referring simply to the notion of environmental storytelling, but the fact that level design is inherently architectural. Perhaps we could distinguish between architectural games, games about architecture, and the architecture of games themselves (level design etc.). Where is art located in this – admittedly incomplete – taxonomy, and what function does it perform within this relationship? 

Architecture with Games in the Title features two characters wandering through constructed space where different points in time collide. Here, the spatial layout effectively shapes the story. One of them is feeling trapped in the toxic working environment, and the other comes back every so often because of the unresolved emotions. There is love, but also resentment and grief. One character is trying hard to forget, whereas the other wants to remember everything. They are both very confused: their conversation jumps from one topic to another, but the only thing they don’t speak about is their shared anxieties.

While researching the topic of gamified environments, I became interested in the complex interaction between memory and space, and especially how certain places can trigger past narratives. Something akin to checkpoints, those spots where you save your game progress and where you can return at any time. A dramatic situation occurs when we don’t want to return. In this case the external storage can also haunt us and keep us attached to a certain state of being. It’s almost like the repetitive thoughts on the traumatic event, when we are unable to move forward. There is this dominant idea that memory needs a container, like a brain, a box, or any other storage. The main question then becomes: Who controls the storage? What happens when we can’t get rid of our history anymore, because it is permanently stored in a cloud and kept there by some opaque authority? I was thinking about the Architectures of Control and how the very idea of Failure can bring a resolution. From this point we can then discuss how the Architectures of Failure could provide an anti-authoritarian solution. But then I concluded, based on my personal experience, that failure is not enough in the long term. I think, in order to move forward we have to go through a process of metamorphosis. We must change the current shape in order to continue. This becomes more obvious in the story when two characters in the end start to talk about sparrows, and by the very end their blabbing turns into an incessant bird sound. Throughout the whole film we actually can’t see the characters. Their bodies are absent, in order for people watching it to be more aware of the environment itself. As a result of working on this project, I am now very interested in the idea of the spatial avatars, or a game character that is the space itself. How to feel. How to become a space. I want to develop these ideas more in my next projects. 

Matteo Bittanti: Gamification is the playful face of neoliberalism, a kind of virtual vaseline used to reduce the friction of an exploitation that, more often than not, is willingly undertaken by the worker, either because of the lack of realistic alternatives or for purely sadomasochistic pleasures, as Adorno and Horkheimer famously argued in The Dialectic of the Enlightenment. How does gamification further the neoliberal agenda in the age of automation?

Mario Mu: Gamification strategies are implemented everywhere: in governments, economy, science, and education just to mention a few examples, but they are not inherently driven by neoliberal agenda. We can notice gamification tools in various social activities in communist countries as well. On a quite simple level, many parents often gamify the environment for their children from a very early age, and they do it spontaneously, like this is good for you and this is dangerous for you. As I have mentioned before, we can even consider gender roles as gamified structures. Education and professional development are based on the gamified notion of meritocracy. It is only recently that gamification was turned into a marketing strategy and a social media tool. This evolution is based in the research made in the field of behavioral psychology, psychology of judgment and decision-making, as well as behavioral economics. 

Matteo Bittanti: The Californian ideology/Silicon Valley ethos promotes and celebrates the notion of failure. To fail, for those who can afford it because they have the backing of powerful venture capitalists with endless cash, is displayed as a “badge of honor”, which is just another gamification tool. Obviously, trial and error are not available to all: for many, failure is permadeath. What are the dangers of applying video game-like mechanics to the tangible world?

Mario Mu: Indeed. Silicon Valley companies were the first to fully develop the logic of gamification. Sometimes it feels tempting to fall into the dystopian vision of the future where automation has taken full control, replacing us, and our brains are just hallucinating different virtual realities. That is the wet dream of the Silicon Valley tech bros, an ultimate implementation of augmented realities where the whole world is mediated through a marketed interface. Ever since the first industrial revolution many socialists have seen automation as a possible tool that will free the workers from oppression. Right now automation is often seen as a threat towards workers, just like Artificial Intelligence is seen as a threat to the dominance of human agency on this planet. I believe more important is not to forget that the workers’ right in the 20th century actually have improved dramatically then they were in 19th century, and not just because of the advancement of technology, but in first place thanks to the resistance and struggle of anti-colonial and international socialist movements.

Matteo Bittanti: In Architecture with Games in the Title, the fantasmatic, nameless, and invisible characters discuss topics such as architecture, memory, bots, and archives while their environment slowly implodes. The erasure of the “human” element from the work seems to indicate that workers are interchangeable and disposable. Is the Architecture with Games in the Title a prelude to their ultimate displacement by algorithms and robots? If that’s the case, is this an eulogy?  

Mariu Mu: Instead of apocalyptic scenarios, we should start by making transnational companies like Amazon pay higher taxes in each country where their service is available, and not just in their registered home country and to make them provide a decent wage for their workers. In addition, full self realization is an idea that has to move away from the widespread new age nonsense that imbues the marketing discourse. After the failure of progressive politics, a need for the individual introspection is starting to spread among people. I wonder what kind of new ideas people are nurturing during the 2020 lockdown. The imposed slowdown has given us so much time for introspection. I am very interested to see what kind of new characters will get out of their boxes once this is over. I believe not all of them will spend their time with conspiracy theories. The struggle is ongoing and the resistance is getting strong again. I really admire the queer movement and the idea that we have to change the binary gender system first. I am fascinated by the idea of a political movement based on an intersectional framework, but I really need to understand more. Again, this unexpected pause is giving me more time to learn.  

Matteo Bittanti: In your work, the conversation between the aforementioned characters takes place as their office is slowly going up in flames. Perhaps, the image that best describes our predicament is the 2016 “This is Fine” meme, which shows a two-pane image of an anthropomorphic dog trying to assure himself that everything is fine, despite sitting in a room that is engulfed in flames. As you probably know, the meme was created by appropriating an image from K.C. Green’s webcomic Gunshow published in early 2013. Greta Thunberg also describes the world as a “house on fire” to describe the sense of self-denial of governmental and corporate actors in the face of climate change. The images of the (North American) West Coast, Australia, and the Amazon on fire have become so common in the last few years that people now seem to be completely desensitized, if not overtly indifferent. The catastrophe is the new normal and the nouveau riches and wannabes alike keep buying SUVs. Traditionally, fire had a purifying meaning, but today visual culture celebrates only its destructive powers. What do flames represent in your work?

Mario Mu: First it is important to say that the development of my project started at the moment when I downloaded the free package of fire particles that Unity has released last year. It was the whole box full of fire, so many different version of explosions, smoke and flames. It was like a ready made apocalypse for the game developers. Of course that it is tempting to make a war like game when you have such a great package full of weaponized content. I really think we must abandon our tendency to uncritically embrace apocalyptic scenarios. This was something important for me when I was working on the Architecture with Games in the Title. The fire that surrounds the characters is actually not threatening at all. There is no sense of destructive energy. On the contrary, It feels more like a fireplace, it’s very contemplative, with the slow repetition of frames. Similar to the minimal music, you really have to give yourself time to get through the whole three pieces as they require different type of attention. I can’t compete with Netflix show or a mobile games you play on the bus station and nobody expects me to do so. My work is all about mood and atmosphere. Not as in “background”, but as in a delivery system for meaning. This approach comes from Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who was particularly interested in the ways buildings can influence our instinctive feelings and how they affect our emotions, bringing us to a different state of being. When working on the soundtrack, I was obsessively listening to ASMR sounds of the fireplace on YouTube because I wanted to have this cracking and soothing sounds of fire, birds and of a sensory space. I started the whole project in the Fall of 2019, and reached completion exactly one year later. In the middle of the process the entire world was ravaged by the new coronavirus and then the Black Lives Matter protest erupted in the United States. Fiction was becoming reality and I have realised that fire in this context would inevitably acquire a different meaning, but that is something I cannot control. The world was happening too fast for my filmmaking. I concluded the first part in February just before the Coronavirus first manifested in China and then in Europe. Afterward, I paused for a while and began working again on the project during the summer. The fire was now less important and my characters started being more attentive to their environment, and more precisely, to the sparrows. This signifies the transition from a state of confusion to the state of being attentive. I like the sparrows because they are a metaphor for the different ways of experiencing architecture. The sparrows are closely associated with built environments, human habitation, and cultivation. But they can also be a symbol of lust, banality and vulgarity. They provide an incessant soundtrack for our everyday life on a global scale although few seem to notice. There is something gentle but also powerful about them. Maybe we could actually learn something from the sparrows, their relations to human built environments and the architecture.

Matteo Bittanti: The new subaltern class, the disenfranchised, and the lumpenproletariat, have been migrating to virtual worlds for the past two decades. These spaces are actively sold to the masses by transnational corporations as a context for performing freedom and achieving some kind of “self-realization”. As societal and environmental collapse intensify, the escapism provided by the virtual has become more prominent in the cultural sphere, mostly because it offers that semblance of autonomy and agency that the tangible world has been unable to provide due to increasing inequality and the implosion of the labor market in so-called advanced society. You compare the worker in the 2c to a player doomed to fail systematically. The notion of failure has become a fundamental concern in contemporary sociology – think about Arjun Appadurai and Neta Alexander’s research. What happens to a society in which existence has become a game that very few can win? And if the game is rigged, the best option is to use a cheat mode or to simply refuse to play?

Mario Mu: I have been exploring these topics in my project Walkthrough, which was presented in the GMK Gallery in Zagreb in 2018. My idea was to find a different modes of playing by changing the form of group character. Another example is development of Bleed techniques by Nordic LARP communities, which means different forms of influence a game can have on the emotional state that we bring to the regular social activities. And yes, there are many examples of refusing not to play just as there is a long socialist tradition of the refusal to work. Everything works as long we are not marginalized and can have no solidarity in our struggle. There is no best option, the point is to further develop forms of resistance that can be combined depending on the context.

Matteo Bittanti: In Architecture with Games in the Title, the viewer is confronted with the interior design of the typical 21c working environment: desks, monitors, keyboards, and chairs. Increasingly, however, we live in the age of the office without walls: for the zoomers sheltering in space – a privileged class unlike the disposable #essentialworkers – work is perpetual, unrelentless, “24/7” (in the sense discussed by Jonathan Crary). The pandemic has all but accelerated the trend of the dispersed yet ubiquitous working environment. In a sense, today’s game is less like a MMORPG and more like an ARG: there’s no separation between “real life” and the so-called “magic circle”. What happens to “play” when it becomes phenomenologically inseparable/indistinguishable from “work”?

Mario Mu: There are many social rituals which might sound weird to us, but people actually deeply enjoy the practice and accept the fact that they are personally contributing to the one sided profit maximization. Julian Kücklich uses the term playbour to describe a hybrid form of play and labour in the digital games industry that provides a lot of profit for the industry. Some people actually enjoy this while being aware of the consequences and some find it very annoying. It really depends on the context. There are games available to solve science problems, which people do online thus providing an enormous work that is unpaid, and players are doing it with a full consent and the conviction that they are contributing to a greater social cause.

Matteo Bittanti: Is there anything that you’d like to add? What does remain unrealized in your series on the gamification of labour?

Mario Mu: I would like to mention some interesting projects about the topics of games, labour and architecture I have seen recently. For example, Oikospiel (2017) a video game created with Unity from David Kanaga.Cao Fei’s Asia One (2018) and 11.11 (2018) are two fantastic video works. Lately, I have enjoyed visiting the exhibition There is no such thing as solid ground (2020) from Otobong Nkanga in Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin that really affected me with the compassionate approach towards her communities, very sensible to the natural environment and also warm, gentle and pulsating rhythms of performative work. In the end, there is the original Katamari Damacy which doesn’t address any of the issues discussed here, but is still one of the best games ever.

LINK> https://milanmachinimafestival.org/vral-about