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Changing Norms Through Art

art / undergraduate research

Carnegie Mellon University School of Art Professor Angela Washko's latest project puts you in a scenario familiar to many women waiting for a friend at a bar. In Washko's "The Game: The Game," a video game in the format of a dating simulator, six men approach aiming to seduce you.

"The Game: The Game" uses language drawn verbatim from the instructional books and videos of "seduction coaches," a.k.a. pick-up artists, who sell tips and techniques to manipulate women into sexual encounters quickly.

The seduction community is relatively niche, but the techniques they use, ranging from the merely corny and annoying to threatening and violent, are part of a larger social problem, Washko said.

"Although this community is normalizing it through teaching, what they're doing is taking something that already existed and making it concrete and instructional," Washko said.

Some of the techniques these men teach — seeking out inexperienced or vulnerable women, for example — are "things people in positions of power regularly do to young women," she said.

"The Game: The Game" is a choose-your-own-adventure that can be in turn humorous and harrowing. Using a first-person perspective, players navigate the crowded bar, choosing to spurn the advances of pick-up artists or to engage with them. The video game is made from Washko's handmade and digitally altered cyanotypes, combined with a pulsing soundtrack by experimental noise band Xiu Xiu that heightens the sense of anxiety and gives the project an intense, claustrophobic feel.

The project "brings you into a reality that is very much present and deep seated in our culture," said independent writer and curator Dorothy Santos.

Washko's work is integral to the larger cultural shift exemplified by the #MeToo movement. An element of the project, she said, is "designed to hold pick-up artists accountable for the impacts of what they've produced."

Washko said women often relate to the experiences in the game, while men are often surprised.

"There is something to putting men into the position of playing through these experiences typically only femme-presenting people have to experience," she said.

Male players have reported they had not understood how pervasive this type of behavior was until discussing the project with female players. Washko said she hopes her project causes men to critique their own behaviors, even if this behavior is not as obviously abject as that of the seduction coaches.

"It is an imperative game to play in relationship to the conversation of sexual harassment and gender-based violence," Santos said. "It's one of those pieces of artwork that really pushes and provokes people to talk about these issues."

Recently the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, "The Game: The Game" also has been shown at Squeaky Wheel Media Center in Buffalo, New York; FACT in Liverpool, UK; and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as part of the UCLA Game Festival; among other places. It has been written about in the New Yorker, BOMB Magazine and Vice: Broadly. The game will soon be available to play free online.