Giacomo Ciminello is wearing a look of nervous excitement on his face — along with a T-shirt that bears the pixelated Space Invaders alien, now accepted as a retro emblem of nerdy coolness.
The sky has just grown dark, and a loose circle of mostly young professionals are waiting behind the Brew House in Walnut Hills for the first public demo of Spaced Invaders, Ciminello’s social design project to “activate” abandoned spaces once occupied by buildings in Cincinnati. What that means is that, briefly, a neglected area will transform into a large-scale, interactive arcade game, namely 1978’s classic Space Invaders. But for now, we’re waiting on the software guy to debug the system.
Ciminello looks around at the crowd and says everything should be up in 10 minutes. A video game arcade cabinet with “#fighttheblight” scrawled onto it is set up toward the front of the lot, onto which a 180-pound projector is fixed; it will project Space Invaders onto the building’s brick façade. A laptop and a sound system are also connected. In front of this is a row of chairs that will correspond to the “walls” you can use as shields in the game — protection from the volley of green lasers firing from enemy aliens.
Part art installation, part video game, the project provides players the opportunity to engage with a space through the game. They wear an electronic arm-piece with sensors to shoot at alien rivals, using infrared motion tracking and bluetooth technology; an accompanying glowing helmet is just for show. The physical aspect makes playing Spaced Invaders a recreational activity, a workout and a challenge all at once. It fuses the gargantuan glee of projected light shows like Lumenocity with the simple pleasures of a vintage arcade.
Playing video games has always been a constant in Ciminello’s life — “I was kind of raised in an arcade,” he says — but social design wasn’t. He spent years in advertising, until he felt a moral obligation to find a new purpose with his design skills. “I literally woke up one day and quit my job,” he says. “I didn’t see what impact I was making.”
He jokes that social design is using your “powers” for good, and it’s not hard to see him as a kind of superhero, spending his days as a mixologist at Over-the-Rhine newcomers 16-Bit Bar+Arcade and Sundry & Vice, and his nights fighting space aliens in the blighted reaches of Cincinnati.
Thirty minutes later, when everything is up and running, it becomes obvious that Ciminello is the best at the game. He deftly evades the neon beams and shoots thin cavities through the fortresses so he can zap his enemies while simultaneously taking refuge from their fire. The game’s four-note musical loop quickens as the aliens descend the brick screen, but Ciminello has good instincts. When he wins, the small audience breaks into rapturous applause, and other worries feel, briefly, yielded to the demands of play.
Ciminello says the project’s impetus lies in his goal to reintroduce the instincts of play into adult life. “It’s one of the first things we stop doing as we grow older,” he says. “We lose those moments when we’re playing.” These moments are what Ciminello thinks unleash the most capricious possibilities for our imaginations, possibilities too often surrendered to the grind of nine-to-five tedium.
Ciminello explored and implemented play theory through a series of imaginative projects when he lived in Philadelphia before he moved to Cincinnati in 2011 — one of which included 4-foot, 20-pound crayons for adults to use in a concrete public square. Locally, he continues that interest with CincyPlay, a social design project and artist collective whose goal is “to spark innovative thinking through playful action,” according to its website.
When Ciminello first moved here, he was astounded by the blocks of unused, boarded-up houses. After spending 17 years in New Jersey and 17 more in Philadelphia, his idea of a neglected space changed. “I was just blown away,” he says. “In Philly, a depressed space is the area in between sky scrapers that nobody walks through. So when I came out here and took some of the theories I was practicing out there, it (had) a much more tremendous effect.”
The effect has already been recognized by People’s Liberty, the philanthropic lab geared toward funding individuals with projects that help positively transform Greater Cincinnati. People’s Liberty awarded Ciminello a $10,000 grant for Spaced Invaders in spring, and he says it’s helped immensely in realizing his goals.
Spaced Invaders aims to turn negative spaces into positive ones by generating discussion around blight in the community. Rather than focus only on one part of the city, Ciminello wants to bring his project to often-overlooked areas, like Price Hill or Mount Auburn.
Ciminello talks about Cincinnati like it’s his playground, hinting that he wants to add a multiplayer function and more games to be played on the city landscape. “I’ve always joked that the Fifth-Third building on Fountain Square would make an awesome Tetris board,” he says.
For more information on SPACED INVADERS and upcoming events, visit fighttheblight.org.