This is the full text of an essay I wrote to be featured in the Babycastles X Arcade Review exhibition, which is on now in their NYC gallery! Much like in kittyhorrorshow’s ANATOMY, the essay is presented in the space on a series of tapes visitors have to find and listen to. There’s also three other installations that creatively integrate a game with a critical essay written about it. I think the exhibition is a fabulous way of demonstrating the importance of the interplay between art and criticism, in a time where both run the risk of being increasingly devalued. Enjoy!
An interesting thing I’ve had to adjust to since moving to the UK to study games is the history of cassette-based computing and gaming that was almost totally absent from the North American scene of the 80s and 90s. The ZX Spectrum in particular had a huge influence on both commercial and homebrew game creators (and the line between the two was not always so clear!) and cast a shadow of influence I hadn’t even been aware of. Learning about these unfamiliar home computing systems and the colorful cultures and history around them has been exciting, but a few months into my studies I had yet to actually encounter or handle a ZX Spectrum.
My first experience pressing one of my fingers into those gummy rubber keys was at the Museum of London. I had heard of their new initiative to collect videogames that were developed in London or somehow featured the city as a prominent location, and knew that an initial selection of these games would be on display at the same time I’d be in the city for Now Play This, so of course, I decided to check it out.
The past week was probably my busiest yet this academic year. On top of my usual responsibilities as a graduate student, almost every day offered an amazing opportunity to see new work and meet the creators of a broad variety of new media artworks. This year, the North East of North festival had a special focus on bringing Asian creators to the city of Dundee, and for some of the artists it was even the first time their work was exhibited or performed in the UK. This brought an influx of new thought and practice, but also highlighted areas of commonality between local and international art.
In this month’s GROUP SHOW, I touch on the fact that educational games are perceived as “less pure” than games without an explicit use beyond entertainment, or even not games at all. This comes from a more general suspicion of utility throughout game theory and the construction of a history of videogames. The idea of games as necessarily or primarily “entertainment,” purely systems of engaging and rewarding mechanics, has played a role in deciding what games are included in the talks, books, and exhibitions that are quickly composing a supposedly authoritative history of gaming, but it also excludes a large portion of important work also worthy of study and preservation. As we’ve seen with film before it, in the early decades of a new mediums’ existence, the way that dominant ideologies define what is the paragon examples of a medium has a lot to do with what early work survives, often to the later chagrin of historians.
From Smarty by Theresa Duncan
Rhizome’s recent conservation efforts occur at the intersection of several elements of gaming history running the risk of oversight. Theresa Duncan’s games were released as CD-ROM in the mid-90s, when gaming history overwhelmingly focuses on arcade and console programs, with few exceptions of especially notable PC games, usually from later than the mid-90s. These games also fall into the category of “art games,” games often created by single artists who create work in other mediums as well. Theresa Duncan, who also worked in film, animation and writing, is one such creator, and The Intruder by Natalie Bookchin and various Doom mods by JoDi are also examples of this sort of work, which is more often associated with art historical movements like net.art than the history of gaming, where they equally belong. Finally, in addition to being created for a machine primarily associated with workstations rather than gaming, and made outside the typical routes of production and marketing associated with games, Duncan’s games take an explicit approach of being an imaginative, somewhat educations interactive storybook aimed at young girls.
I’ve posted before about common downfalls of major museum exhibitions of videogames, and pretty much my entire Master’s dissertation (and proposed PhD research) is focused on finding effective ways to curate and present games to the public through museums and art spaces. Alongside my writing on this blog, which is an attempt to talk about videogames from an arts perspective alongside the histories of net.art and new media practices, I’ve started a new monthly project that will hopefully offer a place to experiment with these alternative approaches:
The new year just about marks the first anniversary of me starting this blog. 2014 was really the first year I put my serious writing online as well as other sites and publications on a regular basis. I finished my MSc degree with a dissertation on videogames and art, pitched an essay to and became a regular writer for The Arcade Review, wrote articles for several other blogs and sites related to art and technology, and even made a few goofy Twine games. For myself and pretty much everyone else I know, 2014 was a year marked by a lot of tension and setbacks, but at the same time I’m proud of what I achieved and the interesting things happening in both the art and game worlds despite these issues.
I’ve written about how vital digital conservation is to keeping the visual culture and new media art of the past alive before, and as a practice it often demands creativity and improvisation, since the methods are far from as tried and tested as the ones used in physical or preventive conservation for more traditional art objects. Rhizome’s first Kickstarter is a bold experiment to see how these important projects could potentially be funded and presented to the public in the future, and I encourage everyone to check it out and consider backing! Here’s why it’s important to me:
“When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention!”
Alright, so maybe the recent announcement of the return of Twin Peaks in 2016 and the return of director Swery65, known for Deadly Premonition, with a new project wouldn’t quite meet Special Agent Dale Cooper’s standards for attention-grabbing synchronicity. But I figure it makes for a good context to discuss Swery’s infamous Deadly Premonition, a game which draws heavily on Twin Peaks and has developed a similar cult following of its own.
One of my favorite scenes in the first season of Twin Peaks is the conceptual heart of episode 3, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” In this scene, Cooper wows, or maybe unnerves, the local sheriff’s department by delivering a brief lecture on the political history of Tibet as background information for how he developed an intuition-based investigation method, throwing rocks at a glass bottle as the names of individuals related to the murder victim are read aloud. While the suspicion this exercise cast on Leo Johnson (spoilers) ends up being a complete red herring (/spoilers) Coop’s strategy is beneficial in that it dislodges the place of logic and reason within the investigation, and allows them to pursue unconventional routes.
So I may have slightly fallen off the face of the earth in terms of updating this blog regularly, but that’s only because for the months of August and September I was stuck in a smog of final dissertation revisions, job hunting, and anxiously waiting for my dissertation results. While the job hunt rolls on, I am proud to say I achieved PhD progression-worthy marks on my dissertation, and I also have some other cool things going on, which I’ll give a rundown on below!
- I wrote about Hatoful Boyfriend, dating sims, and the danger of spoilers for Storycade
- I was offered a spot as a regular review writer at super cool game/art magazine The Arcade Review (check out their Patreon to help them keep expanding!)
- I plan on releasing my MSc thesis “Videogames in Art Museums: Perspectives on Theory and Practice” (with a snappier title hopefully) as a more screen-friendly and accessible ebook on Gumroad for a donation of $3 (the intro will be free)
- I have begun storymapping and creating resources for my long-forthcoming hypertext novel Remote Viewing which I plan to write and release as part of NaNoWriMo
- And, as of about an hour prior to writing this post, I completed my first electronics project!
What I used here was the Technology Will Save Us DIY Synth Kit, which is a nice, no-solder, easily moddable kit to make a simple synth circuit on some breadboard. It’s a great way to get the “guts” of an analog synth right in front of you, and I had a great time making it. I love futzing around with the really intense and weird sounds you can get out of electronic circuits, and while this one only offers volume, pitch and frequency control it still didn’t disappoint.
Anyway, that’s all for now, but know more is on the way… sooner than two months away, at least.