Everest Pipkin’s Soft Corruptor is a poem that uses a basic html tag “details” (and its corresponding summary tag) to fold text in threads of recursive containership. The poem, released in 2021, recounts the poet’s childhood experience with a contraband copy of Pokémon Blue for the Nintendo Gameboy game system. The owner told Pipkin to play the game without saving, since doing so would overwrite the owner’s saved game. This became the origin of what would become a reoccurring part of Pipkin’s later practice¬– reconfiguring an existing game by adding play constraints (see their “Traveling Swordsman Probem” playthroughs of Breath of the Wild for an example). Pipkin remapped the game by attempting to beat it in a single night without saving, exploring glitches, incorporating the erratic behavior of those glitches into a larger mythology of the game. This story folds into a larger narrative about overlaid topologies and traversal.
Once, a friend told me ghosts walk through walls because they remember the house different / like, after a remodel or renovation / they run a logic of memories and can't see that the door got moved / and this is why they respect the rules of floors but not of walls."(Pipkin)
When I read the poem, I had been thinking about ways to appraise and contextualize digital games differently than dominant histories that favor ideas of commercial value and technological progress. Like Pipkin and Rachel Weil, digital games were something I experienced mostly secondhand as a child. They were unobtainable, mythologized. When I did get to play them, I played the “wrong” (unpopular, already aging or discarded) games, and often played them the “wrong” way– without supporting manuals, or disobeying the usual clues that usher a player through the narrative flow of the game, instead testing the walls of the game, trying to break it, looking for secrets. My current project, “Mud Room,” began as a folded-poem response to Soft Corruptor, one that talks about two games’ significance to me as a child– about disappearing through cracks in those imagined worlds, and about play as a form of ritualistic “child’s work”.
JODI is an art collective generally grouped with the Net.art movement of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. While their early works used modded commercial games as a medium, they are best known for their sprawling and cryptic glitch-aesthetic websites (Heemskerk and Paesmans). Like many people who interacted with these websites when they were originally launched, it never occurred to me that they were art projects. Instead, they felt like the web’s equivalent to shortwave radio number stations- something with some hidden purpose, something breaking and exposing its entrails, some mad architect pushing a process in a way that flipped its skin, confusing a presentation layer for the backstage, hidden code that supported it. What was most striking about my experience of JODI’s sites was how spatialized they felt to me, like exploring a game dungeon. That idea of a spatialized web with its commercial motives hacked and deactivated is part of my recent experiments, especially Grotto and Mud Room, which both use simple web pages to represent explorable, game like rooms. JODI’s sites are an enduring landmark of the early, experimental web, before corporate social networks consolidated our attention and the rest of the web was left to rot, more bot-constructed necroweb than information commons.
Loren Schmidt’s 2015 Strawberry Cubes is a game I find myself returning to periodically. Again, the aesthetics of the game mix the crafted with the deconstructed, as registers overflow into graphics and the game-world regularly reconfigures itself, cellular automata building and rebuilding walls pixel-by-pixel. Memory is a preoccupation of games in general, and here the fluid, crumbling and reconstituting action of memory is turned into a maze to be explored. Each key on the keyboard has some unannounced function with unknown effects on the game world. My work’s connection to Loren’s is mostly aspirational. My work with game engines is still early and experimental, but I had Strawberry Cubes in mind when I made my game Obelisk. There’s a certain player-unfriendliness in both games that isn’t meant as a punishment but rather an aloofness that softens to time and attention. This works as a sort of built-in defense-mechanism in a conversation where neither party truly knows who they are talking to.
Petscop is a YouTube video series that spanned three years, starting in 2017. The series presents itself convincingly as a “let’s play” demonstration of an unreleased Sony PlayStation game, but quickly passes through the boundaries of candy-colored, intended play into a haunting and player-hostile space beyond. The game (as seen in the videos) is vast, unstable, and, like the websites of JODI, gave rise to active micro-communities of devotees who gathered to try to understand it. Presenting Petscop as playthrough videos accomplishes a few different goals. It conjures a vast game world without producing a playable product. It puts its audience at a distance, making all of their interaction conceptual, or with artifacts one-step removed from the game itself– like a cryptic website that only displayed an input field that responds, “I don’t know.” to almost everything typed in it. This method also allows the creator to overlay a meta-narrative through the exposition of the player in the video, who seems to be making the videos for a specific person. As the themes of the videos develop, they make an association only hinted at by many of the game works I’ve studied and mentioned here– the specter of childhood trauma. The core of the power of this aesthetic is, perhaps, generationally specific. It is both diligently investigated by artist and audience alike and, in some ways, completely avoided and overlooked. For me the act building a mental model of a broken and inconsistent game world is a powerful metaphor for the investigation of childhood trauma. Creating alternate historical artifacts in the form of digital games or the documentation of supposed digital games is a way of situating a piece of art in time, in a class position, and in an embodied action (the act of play, which is a socially situated way of learning). It can also be a way of creating a new language of possibility to challenge a world that traumatizes children. Several of my experiments have positioned themselves as alternate-history artifacts, but it’s usually a form of theater that I spoil in the course documenting the projects (revealing that these are new creations positioned as historical artifacts). I’d like to continue to investigate the impulse to tamper with history, building in a space of memory and embodied learning.
Electronic Sweet n’ Fun Fortune Teller
Rachel Simone Weil is an artist, coder and designer who creates new games for 8-bit hardware that feature cute, femme aesthetics and rigorously create an alternate history of games that critique both digital games as gendered product and a history of games that is hostile to young girls. Her 2013 game Electronic Sweet-N-Fun Fortune Teller, was what I call a “situated game,” meaning that rather than being a modern unmoored, discrete software product, it was tied to physical media– a produced Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game cartridge, the history of the game console that it runs on (the NES), fabricated marketing materials, and even (in its original exhibition) an entire constructed 90’s teenage girl’s bedroom from an alternate past (Alexander). In her essay “The Nostalgia Question,” Weil critiques the popular impulse to separate 8-bit aesthetics from their histories in new works (Weil). She also questions the equally problematic inverse, unexamined nostalgia, in her MagFest talk (MAGFest) on the techniques and politics of modding, hacking and homebrewing games (terms she defines and situates in the talk). She quotes media artist and playwrite Svetlana Boym on the topic of nostalgia, “The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home with an imaginary one. In extreme cases, it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill,” (Nostalgia \Textbar Svetlana Boym). In digital games, unexamined nostalgia has meant the policing of a rigid, dominant history of digital games. As a form of low-brow para-culture, digital games were neglected by mainstream critical inquiry for a large part of their history, just as they were aggressively marketed into a signifier of a gendered identity, making them an incredibly efficient, quiet far-right recruitment tool for funneling angry young men into fascism. The link between games nostalgia, the nostalgia for a “pure”, “apolitical,” gendered power fantasy linked to childhood embodied learning, and the history-destroying nostalgia at scale that Boym describes is not hyperbolic. Weil is an artist I have been lucky enough to have worked with, and her engagement with game history as a space for creating a language of possibility has been a hopeful influence on what I make. I try to give space to the possibility of change and healing in my work, while “Some things can’t be re-written,”(Petscop) growth, community-building, and some form of understanding the past seem possible.
Additional, less developed references-
Organe et Fonction d’Alice aux Pays des Merveilles
Intertextual telematic collaborative work on the French minitel system– This sounds really close to what I hope(ed) to achieve with my project Grotto:
It took the form of an electronic exquisite corpse, in which fourteen different people from around the world added to a shared history, using the IP Sharp computer network and logging in from each of their consoles. Each was ascribed a fairy-tale character. Ascott played the part of the magician and would begin the story with "Once upon a time"; other nodes would contribute to the narrative that evolved online (Ascott 2003, 261). Two years later, Ascott used the Minitel, the French proto-World Wide Web public network of computers, to create a more open-ended version, drawing on the French translation of *Alice in Wonderland* and the scientific treatise *Organe et fonction* for Lyotard's "Immaterieux" exhibition. The work, Organe et Fonction d'Alice aux Pays des Merveilles "existed not in the building as such, but throughout the data space of the Minitel network" (Ascott 2003, 262).(missing reference)