Play a Video Game with Live Cacti Controllers at UCLA’s Game Arts Festival

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If the word “gaming” conjures images of your little cousin’s digitized zombie-blasting benders, get ready to have your preconceptions pwned: The UCLA Game Arts Festival, going on November 18 at the Hammer Museum, elevates the hobby by bridging the gap between art and game making. According to UCLA Game Lab founder Eddo Stern, Los Angeles is the primo city to do just that. “There’s a lot going on here with fine arts, the game industry, and the indie game scene,” Stern says, “and the museums here are in general quite progressive in looking to expand beyond the narrow frame of fine arts.”

Curators from as far away as Germany and France will descend on the Game Arts Festival, now in its fifth year, to challenge the assumption that video games and their various spinoffs are little more than meaningless amusement. The spectacle, which has seen as many as 1,000 participants, is equal parts thought provoking and entertaining. Many of the games showcased this year will address true-to-life (and often true-to-L.A.) issues: Players must guide a gaggle of children through a disease-ridden theme park in the board game “Will I Get Measles at Disneyland,” while live succulents (!) are used as controllers in a racing challenge dubbed “Sneaky Cactus.” The offerings are undoubtedly nuanced, but the festival double-jumps out of the realm of the inaccessibly highbrow. “There are games that are purely about fun at a very visceral level,” Stern says, “and there are games that are trying to redefine what games are.”

With all manner of attractions—custom arcade machines, virtual reality, game-inspired music performances, and costumed fun for the stray LARPer (that’s Live Action Role Playing to you n00bs)the festival offers a little something for everyone, and it’s all free. Not a kidult living in a nest of PlayStation cables in your parents’ garage? Not a problem. “You don’t have to be a computer nerd to be a gamer,” Stern says. “You don’t have to be a teenage boy anymore.”