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Event Wrap Up - Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code

The recent Toronto-based exhibition 'Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code' displayed the works of artists working in video game modification, and Gamasutra talks to some of the artists to learn the thoughts and motivations behind their fascinating work.

Mathew Kumar, Blogger

April 7, 2006

21 Min Read

An exhibition held at the InterAccess Media Arts Centre in Toronto, Ontario between February 25th and March 25th 2006, Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code displayed the works of artists working in the field of video game modification. While some installations exploited inherent flaws of games to create artistic glitches, such as the Radical Software Group's Prepared Playstation, or Tasman Richardson's Atari videos, others had taken a more hands-on approach, from Myfawny Ashmore's Mario NES hacks, to Prize Budget for Boys' arcade machine recreations.

With the current trend for exploring video games and their culture through art, as seen in recent exhibitions such as I Am 8-Bit, Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code was timely. By using video games as their very medium, there was a more immediate connection to the work in context, but did, naturally, require the viewer accept that art can exist within an interactive medium.

Placed on the edge of Toronto's most fashionable Queen West artist's district, the opening night reception was abuzz with people, all exploring and examining the pieces on show. Over the following days, in a quieter setting, Gamasutra was able to explore the pieces and interview each artist.

Myfawny Ashmore's Mario Trilogy

Myfawny Ashmore exhibited an interactive art piece using three hacked copies of the NES title Super Mario Bros. Plainly displayed on LCD monitors attached to a load bearing pole in the center of the exhibition, and controlled using Gravis PC gamepads, the work spanned 2000's Mario_battle_no.1, and 2004's Mario_is_drowing and Mario_doing_time. Each one a level of Mario with all architecture removed, they force the player to contemplate an instance of Mario in which he lacks all goals, and has no predetermined path to follow. The counter continually clicks down to Mario's unavoidable death; with the only section of level to note being one single question mark block, inaccessibly trapped in the floor.

Videos of Myfawny Ashmore's Mario Trilogy were also intended to be played across the month of March in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square but were censored by Clear
Channel for fear of violating Nintendos copyright. The story can be read at Myfawny's website. The work can, however, still be seen here, and a ROM image can be found here.

What was the inspiration behind the “Mario Trilogy”?

There were quite a few things that led me to make Mario_battle_no.1, the first of the Mario mods. Mario_is_drowning and Mario_doing_time came a few years later.

First, I spent an entire summer in the '80s when I was completely unemployed, with my back on the floor, controller in hands, from early morning until night playing Super Mario Bros. (1 through 3). Unfortunately, I am completely employed now, and will likely never experience that kind of aimless leisure ever again. This led to thinking about what is going on in games, what are the goals and kinds of labor required, and what do *I* want out of my own life before my game is over.

When I first distributed the work, I didn't have anywhere to show it, other than at parties on floppies and over the Internet. At some point, it was shown in Amsterdam at a squat called Smart Project Space. They had a huge theatre with stacked seats and a projector. It was the first time I had watched anyone play it. It was pretty interesting - the way players decided to spend their time. One person spent the entire time trying to get at the only question mark block I left, that was inaccessible, and then they died. Another person ran the entire length of the game, and then died, others danced, jumped, were silly and one guy shoved a floppy into the controller to wedge it so that he wouldn't actually have to play, and he walked away. I figured he was probably upper management somewhere.

So, I guess by removing the extraneous articles, it kind of forces an examination of the player's activities, choices they make without the distractions and glitz of the usual gameplay. Mario_doing_time was actually made for a proposal for the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is a historic ruin that has exhibiting artists. I wanted to have an illegal activity within the prison walls, and having people participate in something "illegal" without the immediate realization that they were in some way party to something that 200 years ago was likely not even conceivable as a crime. I didn't get the gig though.

Are you aware, or interested in, conventional Mario hacks?

A few of my friends also mod games so I am somewhat aware of other mods, but I was more connected to that whole scene in the '90s on IRC.

Is there any particular reason you chose to use Mario? Do you particularly like or respect the series?

Mario is iconic. I do respect the series a lot. However, as a girl gamer, in the '80s, I was irked by the purpose of the game - the hero rescuing the princess. In some ways, I liberated both Mario and the princess from having to exist in that paradigm. I am annoyed with representation in games for the most part so I tend to gravitate towards the games that have less realism, more puzzles and logic than things like Bloodrayne, where I would end up orgasmically sucking blood out of zombies.

Are you aware of the Super Mario Bros.' 'minus world', an infinite level reachable as a glitch? Did this act as inspiration in any way?

No! But now I'm going to try to find it.

[It is] endless swimming! Swimming as Mario was always my favorite thing to be doing - the bubbly music was hilarious and the way Mario would bob up and down, and sink felt like I was dancing. I think that Mario_is_drowning is kind of sinister, the idea of endless swimming. I recently modded a Mario level so that the game takes over, you lose control of the game pad and you get stuck against a block, and it goes on forever with Mario running against the block, a kind of terrible existence really.

What do you think Nintendo, or Shigeru Miyamoto, would think of your work?

I don't think Nintendo has paid much attention to it, or maybe they just don't know about it. I imagine Shigeru Miyamoto views the game modding scene as a testimony to his work, although I have no idea. He probably never imagined that Mario and he would end up being such icons. I feel for the guy, that kind of attention is hard to live up to and sustain.

What do you expect people to take from your work?

Some people get mad at what I've done, like it's video game blasphemy or something. One guy came up to me and yelled at me and said "Why did you do that? You ruined it!" as thought I had permanently altered his relationship to the game, which if I had, was impressive to me. Some really get into the existential aspect of it. Some just think it's funny, which it also is. I'm happy with any of those reactions, as long as no blocks come flying through my window.

Are games art?

I think so. Yes, I'd call it that - because it is definitely a significant part of our entertainment and pop culture(s) and reflects participation with new technologies and ideologies. But also, for the most part, they are commercially produced, with lots of funding, and use a different working model than the way a lot of other art is produced. Ultimately the authorship is that of the companies that produce them. It is definitely its own genre of culture. There is not always a social consciousness that goes into it (or that gets heard) and so I'd add that I feel it's my job as a creative person, as a female, as a cultural worker to engage with my culture(s), and its necessary critiques. Sometimes this leads to trademark and copyright infringements. What is being provided in the mass-marketed video games is experiential in nature... so I think that challenging the video game industry's legal hold on our thoughts and experiences is important as well as critiquing the representation within the imagery.

The Radical Software Group's Prepared Playstation

A live installation featuring four TV sets and PS2s running copies of Tony Hawk's Underground 2, each screen showed a continuously running glitch accessible through ordinary gameplay. The title, a reference to John Cage's prepared piano (pianos with weights placed on the strings, or other modifications made before playing) is perhaps unintentional, as the game here plays itself.

You can view clips the installation on the Radical Software Group's homepage, though the layout of the installation, a tangled mess of wires and milk crates, is lost. Gamasutra had the opportunity to talk with the Radical Software Group's Alexander Galloway.

How did you create Prepared Playstation?

I played the game way too much, and in playing it I discovered bugs and glitches by accident. These bugs and glitches can be accentuated.

Why Tony Hawks Pro Skater? Are you a particular fan of the series?

Yes, I'm a fan. But beyond that there are two things about the game that make it very good for art-making. The first is that the default position for the game is movement. If you put the controller down, Tony skates away. This movement is key; most games are still when not played. The second reason is that the game has a lot of bugs and visual artifacting in it that can be exploited.

The glitching loop seems to be the focal point of the piece, but is the physical layout of the piece important?

Yes, it's meant to be a very simple installation using televisions and small props. It's important for me that it runs live on the Playstations, however, and that the consoles and game cases are visible.

What do you expect people to take from your work?

It's just something to look at.

Are games art?

Of course!

Yumi-co's CuteXdoom

Yumi-co's CuteXdoom, an Unreal Tournament mod, was displayed on a wall-mounted LCD monitor and controllable through a generic game pad. Exploring modern culture's addiction to cuteness, the game is a simple quest to collect cute items using a wildly-colored anime-inspired avatar. Set in a lush green environment, the architecture is polluted with monitors and screens demanding adherence to the cult of cuteness. The quest ends with a disturbing, randomly-generated sequence of images as payment for delivering the collection to the cult temple.

The mod can be downloaded at Yumi-co's homepage with a Quicktime video also available for those without a copy of Unreal Tournament 2003. Gamasutra was able to speak with Yumi-co's Anita Fontaine.

What was the inspiration behind CuteXdoom?

CuteXdoom was inspired by society's obsession with popular culture, in particular the obsession with cuteness and fabricated entities. In modern culture, material objects have reached cult status, and some icons are worshipped as idols. In the game; play revolves around a religious cult that believes the possession and worship of cute material objects will ultimately lead to happiness

In action, the game is appears quite a conventional 3D collect-em-up. How have you subverted this genre?

Well first of all, CuteXdoom is an Unreal 2003 modification, which is traditionally a pretty violent shoot-em-up. I wanted to critique this genre of game by replacing violence with cuteness so to speak. As for subverting the collect-em-up genre, the motivation for play is quite dense and unusual for most collect-em-ups. Instead of saving a princess you receive a randomly-generated mantra and the 1st stage of enlightenment. Also, the aesthetics of CuteXdoom are cute but deliberately over-saturated to look hyper and surreal.

Are interested in, or particularly aware of, other Unreal mods? Do any particularly interest you?

There is a lot going on but haven't been keeping track since making CuteXdoom. I have moved along a bit from making game mods in the last year into things like locative gaming/cinema, net art, and film.

What do you expect people to take from your work?

They take away a randomly-generated mantra, and a cute overload! I am also aware that many people come away from the experience with insight into the obsessiveness of consumerism and how it corresponds to religion and spirituality.

Are games art?

Some games are. But I see most games are commercial monsters with very little thought into creativity apart from maybe what the gun in the game should look like. Luckily there are games like Okami as well as a lot of cool game mods that breakup this idea.

Prize Budget for Boys' Ms. PacMondrian and Calderoids

Prize Budget for Boys chose to show two separate installations, both fully working arcade cabinets. Ms. PacMondrian was a functionally indistinguishable revision of their earlier title PacMondrian, featuring a Ms. Pacman level inspired by the art of Piet Mondrian to navigate, and Calderoids was a surprisingly playable fusion of the art of Alexander Calder and Asteroids, with the role of the asteroids played by the hanging pieces of Calder's abstract mobiles.

The original title PacMondrain is available to play online here, and Calderoids is available here. I had a chance to talk to Prize Budget for Boys' Neil Hennessey.

What was the inspiration behind the pieces?

Pac-Mondrian was inspired by a black and white reproduction of Mondrian's 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' from a 1950s MoMA catalogue. With the colors flattened, it looked like a maze with dots: "Wow! That looks like Pac-Man!" That was the first art/video game mash-up we did.

With Calderoids we were searching for an artist whose work we could mix with Asteroids, Atari's best-selling arcade game of all time; Ian Hooper suggested Calder, since his mobiles are already in motion and he called some of his early sculptures 'Constellations', so it was the perfect formal fit. Mike Horgan then did all the programming to get the Asteroids ship to fly around and blast the mobiles, and Calderoids was born.

What do you expect people to take from your work?

Our motto is 'Let's Play Art', so we want people to look at art as something they play with.

Are games art?

Absolutely! If you rearrange the words in ATARI you get "ART AI", which is what games have always been: art + artificial intelligence. All the activities that go into the creation of video games have traditionally been considered art, but the end product was originally associated with children so people don't take them seriously. Video games are as rich a medium to explore artistically as painting, sculpture, film, and writing, all of which appear in different forms in video games.

Tasman Richardson: Apollo Shrapnel Part 1 and Restless > Wrath

Tasman Richardson, a celebrated Canadian multimedia artist, put on show two videos from his series of videos created using glitching Atari video games. Apollo Shrapnel Part 1 is a combination of a graphical glitch and discordant noise that brings to mind a lightning storm, and Restless < Wrath is a display of rotating rings thick with texture and accompanied by a warm fuzz of electronic noise.

Clips of Tasman Richardson's Apollo Shrapnel Part 1 can be found here and Restless < Wrath here.

What was the inspiration behind Apollo Shrapnel Part 1 and Restless > Wrath?

Apollo Shrapnel Part 1 is part of a series that attempts to collect video signifiers symbolizing the god Apollo. It's a lot of solar, nuclear, lighting and vigor. This first step was the most abstract, the most primary use of aesthetics as language.

Restless > Wrath was a progression based on an older video called "Collapse". The idea is that if I take each layer of video noise and peel the screen edges back, I'll reveal the layers underneath. As each layer recedes into the center you get more and more rings. Each ring has its own content and therefore its own sound but it's nice to hear and see the progression, it's like listening to a cross section of a tree and hearing how old it is. The rings are moving and adding up and in the end the sound is so dense and over driven that the waveform pushes itself out of range so that the speaker cone can't vibrate anymore.

How did you create them? Are they recorded live, or edited and arranged? Are the sounds from the glitches?

I took an Atari 2600 console I'd been holding onto forever, since my childhood, and tried to find a glitch that I remembered from way back then. I yanked the cartridge out before switching the console off and this simple jarring razor tone came blaring out of the TV. The best part was, the tone had an image with it! It's dead simple to get a mistake like this with an Atari. Just turn it on with or without a cartridge and see what happens. Mind you, when you finally decide you want to use certain colors, tones, textures, etc. it's a pain because you're fishing for specifics in a sea of noise.

I don't think you can even capture this kind of glitch anymore, I mean, not exactly the same way. New capture devices and camcorders reject the glitch and mistakenly think it's a copyright inhibitor! I found myself having to research piracy techniques just to finish working on Restless. After I found an analog-to-digital converter that accepted the signal (somewhat) I could only record 10 second fragments at a time because my PC at the time was too weak to handle more.

I sorted all the glitches by what I thought would have universal appeal and meaning in the most general primitive sort of way. Then I started editing. I would cut and paste in DDClip to build rhythms and then when I was sure it was working, I'd flatten all my work and take it into Premier to layer. Then I'd just peel a little here or crop a little there, just enough so the viewer could see I wasn't cheating, that what they were seeing was what they were hearing, and vice versa.

Which games are used?

Outlaw worked well for the bright vertical scrolling noise in Apollo Shrapnel Part 1, and Ghost Manor had a very stark black and white vertical hold glitch that resembled a lightning bolt. For Restless, I opted to use the console with no games at all. I just flicked the power on and off to different degrees. Just short brown outs to confuse the console or tiny delicate flicks to make minute adjustments to glitches I had generated and wanted altered but didn't want to 'reset' altogether. I've used all the cartridges in my collection to make a more extensive video series called "The Atari 2600 Remixes" which covers 42 games in total.

Is there any particular reason for the choice of Atari games? Do you particularly like or respect the machine?

It's an extremely hardy console and I like the fact that it can take so much abuse. I have a lot of old consoles, NES, Turbo Grafix 16, etc. but the Atari 2600 can really take a beating. There's something about the cartridges themselves that are so resilient and long lasting, it really puts contemporary gaming to shame in terms of construction. There's something very disposable and fragile about current gaming formats that seems to me, to be de-evolved, in spite of superior graphics and gameplay. Naturally I have a soft spot for the 2600 since it was my first introduction to video games.

What do you think Atari staff of its heyday, or Nolan Bushnell, would think of your work?

I imagine they'd be pretty into it. They all seemed pretty experimental for the time. Anytime you see photos or vintage ads of them, they strike me as these crazy, risk-taking hippies so I think they'd be up for just about anything.

What do you expect people totake from your work?

I'd like it if they could experience something more than just a formalist surface reaction. It's more than eye candy or gloss. There are actual decisions and intentions here and I'd like them to spend enough time with it to actually be able to interpret my choices, my pruned noise and signal. That can be hard though. I don't expect that, I've moved on since these experiments so it's not as important to me as it was at the time I made them.

Are games art?

Everything is art. Sleeping, eating, pissing... why not games? There's so much art everywhere and a lot of it's crap art, but it's art regardless, without question.




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About the Author(s)

Mathew Kumar


Mathew Kumar is a graduate of Computer Games Technology at the University of Paisley, Scotland, and is now a freelance journalist in Toronto, Canada.

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