In the mid-’90s, when video game production was saturated with simple shoot-em-up games for boys and vapid dress-em-up games for girls, artist Theresa Duncan was making strange interactive digital artworks that were pioneering the young field of indie games on a now-defunct format known as CD-ROM. Since her tragic death in 2007, these works have largely fallen into obscurity, victims to software upgrades and trapped in time.
Now, thanks to the Internet-based art nonprofit Rhizome and their unique restoration software, Duncan’s CD-ROMs Chop Suey (1995, co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1998) will be restored, archived, and made playable online for free in April 2015. Rhizome has launched their first ever Kickstarter campaign to support the effort and is working with the New Museum on an online exhibition that will show Duncan’s work in the context of feminist gaming history. To present the dreamlike, trippy, expressive search and discover video games for girls aged 7 to 12, Rhizome is developing the “Emulation as Service” system with the University of Freiburg in Germany.
“This approach involves the use of server-side software that duplicates the functions of outdated operating systems, giving users the experience of running, say, Windows98 in their normal web browser, with no additional software or plugins required on their end,” the organization explains in an announcement. The system has already actualized artist Cory Arcangel‘s Bomb Iraq, reproducing it in its “full mid-90s Macintosh TV environment.”
“These works have to be presented in that way because you don’t want to read about software, you want to use it and experience it,” says Rhizome’s digital conservator, Dragan Espenschied, in the Kickstarter video. “This emulation will make it possible to play these games in their natural environment.”
“A key factor for a responsive emulation experience on the web is that the CPU that runs the emulator be as physically near as possible to its users, with the least possible number of network hops in between,” Rhizome explains, concerned that as an Internet-based resource, its users are all over the world. “Optimizing the emulation experience means establishing our own on-demand emulation infrastructure using cloud computing providers offering international locations.”
Through its technical challenges, the effort is quite experimental, but also valiant, and so is the cause to place these fringe works into the contest of institutionally recognized contemporary art.
“The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs are aesthetically sophisticated, lyrical, richly detailed, and very human,” editor and curator of Rhizome, Michael Connor, tells Fast Company. “Even though they’re designed for children, they’re still an excellent rebuttal to Roger Ebert’s famous provocation that ‘video games can never be art‘.” (A provocation that he did, in time, partially retract.)
Though Chop Suey got some shine when Entertainment Weekly named it “1995 CD-ROM of the Year,” its presence highlighted a lack of projects of its kind at the time.
“There wasn’t anything that had the sort of strong story or character development or the kind of luminous, beautiful art you find in truly good children’s books,” Duncan and Chop Suey co-creator Monica Gesue had said. “And most of the interactivity is very predictable. And we wanted to do something that would encourage girls to look at software. Most of the CD-ROM market has been boy-oriented–all that blow-’em-up, blood-and-guts, linear stuff. But hey, men make all the software.”
Today, when brands like GoldieBlox are marketing subversion of gender “norms” in children’s products, it’s exciting to look back at truly inspired art works and their creators and collaborators like the artist and Duncan’s late partner, Jeremy Blake. (Duncan and Blake both committed suicide a week apart in 2007.)
According to the Entertainment Software Association, as quoted recently by the New York Times Magazine, nearly half of all gamers are female, though the majority of employed developers are male. With more experimental, powerful, and intimate game projects like Porpentine‘s , and open-source game-creating platforms like Twine becoming more known, it’s a good time to be reminded of Duncan’s pioneering work from a decade ago is as relevant as ever.