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A Mind-Bending Video Game Designer Walks into a Museum

Jason Rohrer’s exhibition at the Davis Museum is full of games that make you think.
Credit Thomas Willis, Exhibition Design Credit IKD

The Jason Rohrer exhibition at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum offered a new challenge to curator Mike Maizels and his team: how to present work that doesn’t necessarily have a meaningful, specific, physical existence? Rohrer designs video games that occupy a digital space without the defined dimensions of painting or sculpture. How could they enter game playing, a solitary and private activity, into a public arena? Adding to the challenge, says Maizels, was the fact that he wasn’t a “native person to the gaming world.” As the first art museum retrospective for a video game designer, The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer would set a new precedent for how this type of work should be shown.

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With help from the Boston-based design firm, [IKD](http:// i-k-design.com/), Maizels and his team discovered a solution that would complement Rohrer’s work. The result is an immersive exhibition that integrates Rohrer’s themes with its architecture and allows for interactions that game players wouldn’t experience on their own.

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Credit Bejamin Kou, Exhibition Design Credit IKD

To enter the show, a viewer must walk downstairs into a large, open, high-ceilinged room lit by a pastel glow. Plywood benches, cubbies, and enclosures accommodate Rohrer’s games. Gentle music plays from one of them, Inside a Star-Filled Sky. Viewers may feel as though they’ve entered another dimension, and in many ways, that’s what a Jason Rohrer game is: a separate world where different rules apply that nevertheless reflects truths about our own.

Inside a Star-filled Sky explores the idea of infinity. When the game begins, you’re an avatar in a maze. To ascend to the next level, you must shoot enemies and gather weapons that will help you in your quest. Yet, it turns out that the maze of the next level is actually the larger being that housed the maze where the player just was. The levels are like a neverending set of matryoshka dolls that contain each other—Rohrer says that the game would take over two millennia of continuous gameplay to complete. The player begins to rethink his or her perception of time and scale, considering what a small part of the universe we actually are.

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Credit Benjamin Kou, Exhibition Design Credit IKD

Rohrer also engages with contemporary topics. In Diamond Trust of London, two business firms in London and Antwerp compete to acquire diamonds while United Nations inspectors loom. In Police Brutality, players must strategize to limit violence after a public event unfolds.

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Patrick Jagoda, a professor at the University Chicago and a contributor to the catalog for The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, describes the games as “media for thought.” “I can think through an idea like idealism or perfectionism or communication or interdependence in this very unique way,” he says. “Games offer a way of thinking outside of language through action. His games are amazing at bringing that action to the forefront.”

At the opening, Rohrer demonstrated his games and helped new players. As this writer struggled to advance levels in Inside A Star-Filled Sky, the blonde, easygoing Rohrer laughed and offered encouragement. “If our universe is infinite, and I am finite, then that would mean that I’m infinitely smaller than something. What does that really mean?” Rohrer says he thinks he’s reached level 40, and he’s heard of another player making it to level 400. Regardless of how high you advance, you’ll wind up with the same result: mind blown.

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Credit Thomas Willis, Exhibition Design Credit IKD

The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer runs through Jun 26, 2016 at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum.

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