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Notre Dame community creates space for play in ‘Money Worries’

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Finding the Scholz Family Gallery in the Snite Museum of Art can be a bit tricky the first time around. Enclosed by glass and nestled next to the coat room, this smaller, more intimate gallery feels a bit unanchored from the rest of the museum. Inside the gallery, the lights are dimmed, and the echoes and bright activity of the Snite’s atrium are replaced with a humming quiet.

This unique space hosts one part of “Money Worries,” the current exhibit at the University of Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art. The room functions as its own satellite exhibit, which highlights two unusual works related to the overarching theme of the exhibit: a board game, “The Landlord Game,” created by Randal Harrison, and a video installation piece, “Money Worries: A $upercut” created by Matthew Payne. Payne is an assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre and Harrison is the emerging technologies librarian at Hesburgh Libraries.

“Money Worries” stands out for its high levels of engagement with Notre Dame community. Professor Julia Douthwaite in the Romance Languages department, one of the primary organizers of the project, recruited Payne, Harrison and many other Notre Dame faculty and staff members to contribute to the project. Many Notre Dame students were also involved in researching and preparing the materials for the exhibit. This offset gallery of “Money Worries,” in particular because of its close confines, provides an exciting instance of experimental work created by members of the Notre Dame community placed in conversation with one another.

Immediately when walking into the space, Randal Harrison’s piece, “The Landlord Game,” grabs one’s attention. At first glance, it looks like a version of Monopoly, but the instructions, printed on the wall, warn otherwise: “This is not Monopoly.” The game derives inspiration from Monopoly’s ancestor, “The Landlord’s Game,” created in the 1930s by progressive activist Elizabeth Magie to critique capitalism.

At the beginning of each game, the four players are each randomly designated a role — either “Owner,” “Manager,” “Employee” or “Unemployed.” Each role comes stacked with its own set of advantages or disadvantages, ranging from the most — “Owner” — to the least privileged — “Unemployed.” As the game progresses, players draw “Change” cards that affect different players disproportionately. The instructions clarify the intentionality of this design: “Change cards do not bother to abstract away the consequences of real-world inequality. Some of the cards yield negative results, some positive. Some apply to everyone, some only to certain roles.”

In an interview, Harrison said that, although he had a background in teaching and creating instructional materials, he had never forayed into game-making prior to creating “The Landlord Game.” Over the course of six months, he collaborated with Dr. Arian Farshbaf, an assistant professor of economics at Saint Mary’s College; Dr. Sianne Vijay, also an assistant professor of economics at Saint Mary’s; and Dr. Connie Mick, an associate director at the Center for Social Concerns. Harrison designed the brightly-colored pieces and the layout of the game, and also made the game available for free download on its online website.

According to Harrison, gameplay is meant to disrupt and disturb its players. Often, he said, players will go into the game expecting something more traditional, only to be thrown off by the structural inequities embedded into the rules. “It’s supposed to look enough like Monopoly that students have this threshold moment where they’re like, ‘OK, I got this. I totally know how to play Monopoly.’” As gameplay continues, players begin to understand just how seriously financial inequality affects their player’s outcome. The game foregrounds structural inequity and makes students question “things like bootstrap theory” — the idea that poor people can become rich just by trying harder — says Harrison.

In contrast to Harrison’s thesis-driven board game which requires significant involvement from its players, Professor Matthew Payne’s “Money Worries: A $upercut” (43 minutes) explores themes of finance through a more abstracted lens. The video installation, which plays consistently on a loop in the same gallery, pieces together clips from video games, TV series, educational films and Hollywood movies to create a 43 minute–long montage that explores representations of money as filtered through pop culture.

Payne, who has an MFA in film production, says that the impetus for the piece was to create something that explored the theme of financial anxiety running throughout the larger gallery of “Money Worries.” In an interview, Payne explained, “The idea, initially, was, what are those films where we see people wrestling with class issues or with making ends meet? Or simply descriptions of cash or money on the screen?… Let’s throw it all into the pot and see what happens.”

He structured the clips loosely in “thematic blocks,” drawing on subject material as diverse as “Breaking Bad,” “The Simpsons” and “Mary Poppins.” Said Payne, “[The video] makes its argument through the bulk of evidence that it has. It’s not forwarding a central thesis … but rather, I would hope, presents various ways that Hollywood has thought about financial anxiety.”

Payne says he expects that viewers might interact with this piece in a variety of ways, but doesn’t expect the same kind of sustained engagement necessary to play “The Landlord Game,” for example. “In the way that finding most of the clips was a kind of serendipitous discovery, my expectation was that, if people engage with [the piece], it would be in a passing, fleeting way. Maybe they would say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that film!’ or, it being decontextualized, ‘Oh I didn’t realize, that is from Mary Poppins?’ Simply by juxtaposing these things by themselves, people are able to glean new meaning from it. I’m very happy with the idea of [people] floating in and out of the room.”

Taken together, the works of both Harrison and Payne — as different as they are — cohabitate exceptionally well. As I sat flipping through cards and pieces on the table of “The Landlord Game,” bits and pieces of audio would pique my attention and draw me into the video. The consistent back and forth between the physical game and the video content in front of me presented a rich multimedia experience.

Harrison and Payne, in their work, both express intent interest in ludology — that is, says Harrison, the study of “how people play.” Harrison argues that, through “The Landlord Game,” his ultimate goal is that students might learn through gameplay. “A student asked me yesterday, ‘How do you win?’ And I don’t think you do win. It’s a meta game — a game about a game. It’s about learning. And if you learn stuff — about yourself, about other people, about economy, about social justice — if you learn any of that, I think you win. I think that’s the point.”

Likewise, Payne, who studies and writes about video games, noted the importance of play in education. “I study games because they allow us to play, and I think that play is one of the most amazing things we can do as humans. Anything that encourages you to do that — where it’s about boundary exploration and identity exploration — is something to be cherished and pursued.”

As a whole exhibit, “Money Worries” can tend to feel overwhelming due to its sheer diversity in artifacts and the enormity of subject material. Yet in this pared-down gallery, viewers have a chance to engage meaningfully with two thoughtful and interrelated works that probe our personal and societal connections to money in innovative ways — first and foremost by becoming players.

“Money Worries” runs until March 25. Admission to the Snite Museum of Art is free.

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