Date: 6.29.2001
From: Mark Tribe (mark@rhizome.org) and Alex Galloway (alex@rhizome.org)
Subject: Net Games Now
Keywords: game, exhibit
Types: statement
Names: etoy, Lonnie Flickinger, Warren Spector, Anne Marie Schleiner, Mongrel, Eric Zimmerman, mark tribe, alex galloway, Eryk Salvaggio, M.River & T.Whid Art Associates
Places: USA, north adams, MASS MoCA
Titles: Trigger Happy, toywar, net_condition, cracking the maze, sissyfight, BlackLash, intruder, SOD, pencil whipped, Jackpot, 7-11, rhizomeRaw, asco-o
Categories: exhibition, historical

[This essay was written for "Game Show," an exhibition at MASS MoCA in 
North Adams, Massachusetts (USA). Mark Tribe and Alex Galloway curated 
the online portion of the show, selecting the five works listed below. 
Game Show is on display through Spring 2002.]

+ + +

Did you know that at any given moment in the year 2001, all around the
world, close to thirty thousand people will be playing the same computer
game? EverQuest is an on-line role-playing adventure game, "a real 3-D
massively multiplayer fantasy role-playing game," according to its
creators. An on-line world filled with monsters and humans, complex
economies and social politics, EverQuest was developed by Sony and is
one of the most popular games in the history of computing, on par with
other megagames such as Ultima Online and Sim City. Players often band
together in groups to increase their chances of survival. Many are
already referring to the game as "EverCrack" because of its addictive
qualities, with some players devoting most of their waking hours to the
game. EverQuest Enchanters and other sought-after characters routinely
sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Game culture is big business. First-person shooter video games such as
Quake, Deus Ex (created by game guru Warren Spector), and the wildly
popular Half-Life have established the long-term legitimacy of gaming,
maturing from its roots in the run-and-jump "side-scroller" console
games of the 1980s. In 2000 the gaming industry surpassed Hollywood in
gross annual revenues to become the second largest entertainment
industry after music in the United States.

Net artists have their own statistics to brag about. In December 1999,
etoy, a European art group, staged a two-month global art game called
Toywar (http://www.toywar.com), which is described by the artists as
"the single most expensive performance in art history: $4.5 billion in
damage!" In 1999 etoy was sued by Internet toy retailer eToys, which
claimed that Internet toy buyers might be confused and potentially
offended by the artists' web site (a work of art itself) if they typed
"etoy" rather than "etoys" into their Internet browsers. Because the
artists had been using the name well prior to the toy retailer, many in
the art world were angered by the lawsuit. In response to the lawsuit,
etoy created Toywar, an on-line gaming platform playable simultaneously
by multiple users around the world. The goal of the game was to wage an
"art war" against eToys, Inc., and drive down the value of the company's
stock. As the etoy press agent wrote in December 1999: "We will release
an action entertainment game. People are part of a huge battlefield,
where they can fight against eToys, Inc." The Toywar battlefield was a
complex, self-contained system, with its own internal e-mail, monetary
system, social actors, geography, hazards, heroes, and martyrs. In the
first two weeks of the game, eToys's stock price fell more than 50
percent. The corporate efficiency and energy of etoy--who would rather
disband than part with its dot-com domain name, the core of its artistic
identity--was directed at another commercial entity, creating what
indeed may have been the most financially damaging performance piece in
the history of art. Money aside, Toywar was certainly the first epic Net
art project. It was big and exciting. Players in Toywar felt like real
soldiers with a cause, participating in an effort that was meaningful,
new, and fun.

Role-playing, spoofing, and general chicanery are par for the course on
Net art e-mail lists like 7-11, asco-o, and Rhizome Raw. Often, artists
invite others to play along with their participatory art games. In 1997,
M.River & T.Whid Art Associates (MTAA) started a participatory game
called Direct to Your Home Art Projects. Each month, MTAA would e-mail
to participants a set of instructions for activities that could be done
at home, often involving a computer. The "players" were to follow the
instructions, document their actions, and e-mail their documentation
back to MTAA. MTAA, in turn, acknowledged each piece of documentation as
an "edition" of the overall artwork by sending participants certificates
of authenticity for their contributions.

In a similar piece, Eryk Salvaggio posted seven installments of his Free
Art Games on e-mail lists, inviting his readers to perform a series of
free, fun activities. Free Art Game #4 offered instructions on how to
"Start your career as a Net artist." The sixth game, The Slowest Modem,
gave specifications on a 0.00243809523809 kb/s modem created by snail-
mailing data on diskettes rather than via the Internet.

The general buzz around artist-made games solidified in 1999 with Anne-
Marie Schleiner's on-line exhibition Cracking the Maze
(http://switch.sjsu.edu/CrackingtheMaze/). Schleiner was particularly
interested in "mods," "patches," and other game hacks. Mods and patches
are custom versions of video games that feature graphics, scenarios, and
other modifications created by players of the original games. As
Schleiner wrote, "Game-patching in the 1990s has evolved into a kind of
popular hacker art form, with numerous shareware editors available on
the Internet for modifying most games." Her exhibition chronicled many
of the original artist hacks, such as RTMark's now legendary
modification of the game SimCopter.

Like many other artist-created games, BlackLash, from the British group
Mongrel, adds a layer of political critique to a familiar game
structure. In BlackLash, the player must fight back against swastika-
bearing spiders and hooded Ku Klux Klan members. Part video game, part
social commentary, BlackLash illustrates the drama of political activism
in a fun, computer game format. SiSSYFiGHT 2000 by Eric Zimmerman (with
the staff of Word.com) is a slick on-line game that lets users don the
identities of bratty schoolgirls, each trying "to physically attack and
majorly dis [their] enemies until they are totally mortified beyond
belief." Though hilariously funny, the game takes a hard look at the
real peer pressure faced by adolescent girls. The game has more than one
hundred "girls" playing on the site at any given moment.

During the "net_condition" exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany,
a group called "esc to begin" created Font Asteroids, a game based on
the arcade classic Asteroids. First the user selects a web site. Then
the text from the web site provides interplanetary debris that must be
destroyed. Also riffing on old-school video game aesthetics, a duo from
Beige Records has released a vinyl 12-inch called "8-bit Construction
Set." Among the many squiggles, beeps, and other audio samples taken
from old Atari and Commodore computers, the record preserves the actual
source code from old games in audio format, just as the original
hardware did using a tape drive. Though the analog hiss may make for bad
listening, it does make for good art--like a computerized ready-made.

Is there a difference between games and art? We might be wise to take
the advice of leading game designer Warren Spector when he tells us to
"run in terror from any game developer who says 'I'm an Artist!'" When
an artist says "I'm a game developer," however, run, don't walk, to the
nearest computer.

+ + +

The following games are included in the online portion of Game Show:

The Intruder
Natalie Bookchin
http://calarts.edu/~bookchin/intruder

Jackpot
Maciej Wisniewski
http://adaweb.walkerart.org/context/jackpot

Pencil Whipped
Lonnie Flickinger
http://www.maxminn.com/chiselhead/pw.html

SOD
Jodi
http://sod.jodi.org

Trigger Happy
Thomson & Craighead
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/slide/th/title.html

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http://www.massmoca.org/
http://www.toywar.com
http://switch.sjsu.edu/CrackingtheMaze/
http://calarts.edu/~bookchin/intruder
http://adaweb.walkerart.org/context/jackpot
http://www.maxminn.com/chiselhead/pw.html
http://sod.jodi.org
http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/slide/th/title.html