Are Buddhist Sutras Best Experienced As Video Games? These Audacious Artists Are Gaming Alternative Realities

When the Diamond Sutra was published in the year 868 CE, bringing Mahāyāna Buddhism to Chinese readers, the printer anticipated modern open-source software by explicitly specifying that the book be available for “universal free distribution”. What the publisher could not have imagined was the license LuYang would take with the sutra 1151 years later, reconstituting it as a video game titled The Great Adventure of Material World.

Structured as a multi-level quest undertaken by a superhero in a cartoon space suit, the game is designed to be intuitive to any teenager, yet gameplay systematically undermines permanence and selfhood in keeping 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 opponent. The rival turns out to be the protagonist.

The Great Adventure of Material World exemplifies the potential of video games to immerse people in systems of thought manifestly unlike the dominant Western viewpoint. This remarkable capacity is the subject of Worldbuilding, a new exhibition at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf.

As the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist explains in the show’s brochure, worldbuilding entails “the agency to create new worlds, not just inherit and live within existing ones.…. Rules can be set up, surroundings, systems, and dynamics can be built and altered, new realms can emerge.” Although novels and plays also often involve worldbuilding – and the jargon has been in use since the early 19th century – games introduce a degree of interactivity that can be the difference between witnessing and experiencing an alternative reality.

Many of the works in the exhibition are not concerned with creating new worlds so much as exploring new ways in which to inhabit realms manufactured by the gaming industry. For instance, the avatar-cum-artist LaTurbo Avedon watches sunsets 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 movies filmed within games instead of on a sound stage – Avedon has created a work that questions the ways in which games are typically conceived by developers and perceived by players. Like Andy Warhol’s films of inaction (such as his eight-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building), Permanent Sunset reveals inaction to be very active indeed. Avedon awakens people to the fact that worlds need not be engaged as the builders intended, that they’re largely constructed by those who inhabit them.

Theo Triantafyllidis is also interested inaction, taking stasis as the premise for a game of his own creation. Presented in virtual reality, Pastoral sets the player in endless acres of countryside. This uneventful landscape can be explored by controlling an enormous Orc, a creature strong enough to defeat practically any rival but lacking opponents and threats. (The only other character is a lute-plating goat.) It’s theater of the absurd in a surrealist setting: a dreamworld built to question the hypercompetitive technosphere broadly accepted as reality.

Of course some artists take a more straightforward approach to worldbuilding. In Salaam, for instance, Lual Mayen puts the player in the position of a refugee fleeing a war zone. But even so-called “serious games” need not be solemn. With Party on the CAPS, Meriem Bennani has animated an all-too-commonplace refugee scenario with fantastical qualities based on a futuristic premise of travel by teleportation. The consequences of this permutation are anything but trivial. Detained on an island in their dematerialized state, the migrants are literally deprived of their humanity. Nonetheless, the CAPS is always lively. The vitality derives from the refugees’ improvised community.

As a video installation created in a game environment, Party on the CAPS can be viewed as a contemporary approach to the traditional worldbuilding found in novels and plays. The power is in the narrative, which highlights salient qualities of the purpose-built setting. Through this narrative, anyone can visit the island, but the artist is the only real occupant. It’s not so much a world as a context.

To build a world in the fullest sense of the word requires an almost Buddha-like commitment to self-negation and indeterminacy. The final act of building a world is to let go of it – as LuYang has done in her instantiation of the Diamond Sutra.

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