Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Meditations on Mandalas for the Lunar New Year


Some years ago, there was an interactive exhibit at one of the museums in San Francisco whereby visitors could assist in the creation of a sand Mandala with a group of Tibetan Buddhist Monks. Alas, I did not take notes or review the exhibit but having spent some of my childhood in Nepal, the experience took me back to that culture for a very brief moment in time.

There is a rather extraordinary game on Facebook called Fantasy Kingdoms. It could be defined in general terms as a 'farming simulation game' but in fact is far more. It embodies all the magic of childhood fairytales and the elaborate illustrations of 19th century artists with Crops and Items redolent with Symbolist power. It is enchanting, amusing and witty. Beyond that, however, it allows players to participate in an ongoing project of interactive art as well as entering into a magical, ever-changing place 'outside of time and space'.

There is no doubt that the developers of the game are aware of the potency of the images in Fantasy Kingdoms. Elemental energies are utilised to allow players to mix fire with water, air and earth or to concentrate the powers of a single Element in a Kingdom.

Do I exaggerate the power of this game? I do not believe so. I am not the only player who is aware of the magic inherent in the game. It is not a sinister power. Fundamentally, it is the power of Beauty and Creativity but where Fantasy Kingdoms differs from works of art that one can visit in museums is in its interactive nature.

Although I always was aware of the way some players used Crops and objects in Fantasy Kingdoms more as shapes and 'building blocks' than individual Items with unique properties, it is only recently that I began to utilise Items in this manner in my own Kingdoms. I loved the way each Tree cast its own shadow on the ground too much to 'stack' them as some players did to create a pattern.

In terms of the arts, any talent I have always has been in the realm of words and literature rather than the visual arts. Although I come from a family of visual artists, I always felt that my visions so far surpassed any reality I could create with my poor skills that it was not worth pursuing any serious attempt to translate my visual concepts into art. It is only in my dreams that my artistic skills were limitless and I always loved to go to sleep at night, knowing that the intricate and gorgeous landscapes that I experienced were the flowering of visual concepts I could not execute in real life.

When I finally began to experiment with the Crops and Objects as shapes in a colour scheme or pattern, I realised that, when used in this fashion, they become pieces in an ever-changing puzzle or building blocks in an ongoing work of interactive art. Perhaps some woud be horrified by the comparison with a Buddhist sand mandala but for me, an activity such as this can be as superficial or as profound as the spirit, intellect and emotions of the user would like it to be.

In creating landscapes in Fantasy Kingdoms, I felt that I was able to enter into a partnership with artists who actually had the ability and talent to bring my own fantasty visions to the light of day. Working with these exquisite 'building blocks' is a very fulfilling experience for me even though I never could claim to be able to create exceptional landscapes and have encountered many other players whose skills far exceed mine.

One of the things that makes this game unique, I believe is the way one can manipulate Crops by freezing them at various stages of growth and moving them individually. It is this option that made me think of the objects in the game as building blocks or puzzle pieces.

The Chinese Lantern Crops, for example, when first planted resemble tiny gold gems. After freezing them at various stages of growth to landscape the Kingdom, I began to set newly planted Chinese Lanterns on the border of the Kingdom, freezing them at zero percent growth to create a frame of gems. It was then that I was reminded of Nepalese and Tibetan art.

While I worked on this Kingdom to honour the Chinese New Year, I felt that I had created my own version of a Mandala. To my own spirit, the rich tapestry of colour was quietly potent and I experienced a feeling of balance in the landscape I had made. Perhaps it would leave another viewer quite cold, but that is irrelevant to some extent. Although part of the delight of Fantasy Kingdoms is the ability to visit the landscapes (Kingdoms) created by other players, ultimately the most satisfying aspect of the game is creating a Kingdom for oneself.

N.B. The objects in Fantasy Kingdoms when viewed from a distance create one sort of vision but are incredibly detailed and when a player enlarges his/her view, one can see the amazing wealth of creative detail that is to be found in every Crop and every Tree and every other object. This game really is worth an exploration by any one who loves art and/or the great illustrators of fairytales and folktales, whether or not he/she is a gamer!

Screenshot descriptions: The screenshots are intended to show some of the Limited Edition Crops in three different stages of growth. In particular, in the 'Mandala' Kingdom, you can see the Chinese Lanterns when first planted (0% growth), when in the middle of their growth cycle (60% or so) and when fully mature. Chocolate Hearts and Heart Candy for St. Valentine's Day is shown when it is halfway between 50% and 100%). The artwork showing the fully mature Crops is official FK artwork so is far superior!

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