Copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum, the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs is an online collection featuring the artist's early CD-ROM point-and-click adventure games, all produced between 1995 and 1997, are now accessible and playable online in any browser: Chop Suey (Magnet Interactive, 1995, co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (Nicholson Associates, 1996), and Zero Zero (Nicholson Associates, 1997).
Don't miss the Artwork section of a rich, compelling website.
Chop Suey (Magnet Interactive, 1995, co-created with Monica Gesue).
Smarty (Nicholson Associates, 1996).
Zero Zero (Nicholson Associates, 1997).
Submitted by Matteo Bittanti via Rhizome
"A retrospective on the stories and aesthetics of 8bit music" is a killer essay by Anders Carlsson aka GOTO80 on Chipflip, originally written for inclusion in an art catalogue - the exhibition in case is Lu Yang’s ANTI-HUMANISM at the OK Corral gallery in Copenhagen. The essay is full of interesting considerations about the history, aesthetics, and evolution of chipmusic. Here's an excerpt:
I realised something. The technodeterminist story of “anything made with sound-chips is chipmusic” was ahistorical, anticultural, and ultimately: antihuman. Sure, there was something very emancipating about saying “I can do whatever I want and still fit into this scene that I’m part of”. That’s quite ideal in many ways, when you think about it. (GOTO80)
Submitted by Matteoi Bittanti
Kent Sheely, Ready for Action, grid #1, 2013.
WIRED magazine published a compelling profile of Game Artist Kent Sheely. Here's an excerpt:
"Today, in-game photography is a well-explored gaming off-shoot. The latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise actually encourages players to take selfies. But in 2007, when Sheely and a few other artists were just starting to explore the idea of treating the game world as a photographic subject, it was a more radical notion. “I liked the idea of reinterpreting the goals given to the player,” Sheely says, especially in the context of the notoriously violent GTA series.
Of course, creating a virtual world amenable to that artistic vision necessitated a fairly thorough rewrite of the game’s code. “I had to edit the character behavior files so they wouldn’t attack the player and edit the firing mechanics so you were always looking through the camera lens,” he says. “I also had to make the player invulnerable to harm, just in case people using the mod accidentally wandered onto the highway when they were trying to take a photo of the moon.” (Kyle Vanhemert, WIRED)
Submitted by Matteo Bittanti
Lowtoy Festival #1 25-27/09/2014
Festival Internacional de 8 Bit & DIY Electrònica de Barcelona
Location: Fundació AAVC Hangar - Emilia Coranty 16 Barcelona
Time: 15:00 - midnight
Price: 7€ puerta/door - 5€ anticipada/advance
Casper Electronics (USA)
Casper Electronics live in New York, 2008. Death by Audio Noisefest.
Peter Edwards aka Casper Electronics ‘The friendly ghost in the machine’, artist, musician, teacher, it’s the man behind the name, considered as the top of ‘Circuit Bending’ culture, the Wizard of Oz in custom glitch-tronics, the master in himself. Well, If you still don’t know what is ‘Circuit Bending’, we’ll describe it as a new form of DIY electronics where machine circuits are altered to produce bugs and glitch art. You better come and see! Hear for yourself!
Je deviens DJ en 3 Jours (France)
JDDJ3J live in New York, 2009. Photo by Marjorie Becker. Blip Festival.
Je deviens dj en 3 jours (stands for “I become a dj in 3 days” and is often shortened to JDDJ3J) is a french electronic artist who creates all of his music on a Nintendo Gameboy from 1989. Always trying to be creative with his live performances, Je deviens dj en 3 jours has played to crowds in Europe, America, Indonesia and Japan and continues to organise many events in his hometown of Nice, France.
Grosgoroth, cover artwork detail from ‘Orks!’, 2014.
Gros is the ‘Leprechaun’ of Chiptune music. The little genius living on burnt carbonized beef steaks and marijuana, never goes out his cave, just for gigs. He started showing synth-pop sensibilities through early compositions, nowadays moved out to ‘Gorgoroth’, north-east Mordor for grindcore metal incursions. How gratifying it is to attend one of his shows, independent of the independents, he’s a complex mixture of metal, grind, trash, pop, 8bit, circuit bending, both hilarious and profound lyrics, gameboy-guitar, DIY pedal effects, magic and charm... Here's a sample.
Church Of Whatever (España/Italia)
Church Of Whatever Live in Geneva, 2014. Mapping Festival.
‘Church Of Whatever’ it’s a conceptual project by VJ Entter and RNXRX on techno, religion, mysticism, esotericism, ecstasy... A theatrical and pixelated live-show by two TV-star-preachers hypnotizing a whole audience. After acclaimed european shows they’ll be back at Lowtoy, the event that gave birth to the Church... ¿Why go clubbing when you can go churching?
ART GAMES ABOUT ART
Critical Observations of the Art World in the Work of Pippin Barr
The art world is no stranger to meta-referentiality. From Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917 to the Appropriation Art of Sherrie Levine in the '80s, artists have consistently found ways to question the meaning, function, and role of Art, as well as the formal and conceptual qualities needed for a work to be considered “Artistic”. Pippin Barr, a game designer, philosopher, and artist from New Zealand, is expanding, if not reinventing, this meta-referential practice by using the medium of videogames in unexpected, creative ways.
Pippin Barr: An Introduction
Barr currently practices and teaches game design at the University of Malta. He taught previously at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Wellington, where he also got his Doctorate in Philosophy and Computer Science, with a dissertation on the ethics and values of gaming. Barr stated that he likes making what he calls “Curious Games,” that is, games which present every day, mundane situations in a new light and/or focus on subject matters like death, depression or, indeed, art.
In his games, Barr appropriates and subverts a medium constructed around rule sets and rigid expectations, and he disrupts the assumptions of what can and should happen in them. He also takes life as his subject, creating works that often ask the player to perform incredibly prosaic tasks, restricting play to operating in real time, or creating scenarios that, despite displaying a lo-fi, unrealistic, pixelated style, closely resemble, or at least evoke, common situations, creating a new kind or Realism. In other words, Barr creates work that not only invites, but requires a level of participation that is often only tacitly accepted or explicitly forbidden by art in a gallery space, which tends to operate under a logic of distancing, contemplation, and passivity.
By demanding participation, Barr delivers a sharper critique or deeper expression of the subjects his works are referencing because, through the interaction afforded by the game medium, he forces the player/performer to become an active part in the criticism or performance. This is apparent in all of his games, but is especially relevant in his critical games dealing with the art world: The Artist is Present (2011), Art Game (2013), and the Digital Marina Abramović Institute (2013).
Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, online game, 2011
The Artist is Present: Performing Non-performance
As a creator of works that require players to be performative in nature, Barr is a fitting partner to performance artist, Marina Abramović. In his game The Artist is Present, Barr recreates the Marina Abramović performance piece of the same name. In her piece, Abramović sat in a chair and, one by one, viewers would sit opposite her for as long as they liked, with both the artist and the viewer simply being present. In this way, Abramović turns non-performance into performance, and as pointed out by Devin A. Wilson, Barr does precisely the same thing in his piece.
In the game recreation of The Artist is Present, Barr reconstructs much of the actual experience of seeing Abramović’s work. Players start outside the MoMA, go inside, purchase a ticket, walk past famous works of art and then wait in line. The queue moves sporadically and slowly, and the player is made to wait through this in order to experience the piece itself. Eventually, the player sits across from Abramović and can select when to end the experience.
The realism in Barr’s reconstruction is paradoxical, with the pixelated aesthetic belying the sharp reality of the actions the player must take. Even a step as simple as getting into the museum can be hampered by reality, as Barr ties the actual opening and closing hours of the MoMA to the game, which implies that it can be possible to play only when the museum is open for business in the "real" world. This synchronicity between the real and the simulation creates interesting outcomes. The synergy is validated by other elements. For instance, once inside, the realistic action’s of purchasing a ticket and waiting patiently stand at odds to the frenetic or even exploratory actions of many mainstream game experiences.
By constructing his experience the way he has, Barr makes the player practice things like patience and inaction, which are contrary to the quick, active response so many games require. By asking the player to perform such realistically mundane actions at such realistic speed, Barr calls attention to the virtuality of the space he has created and which the player occupies. Barr does not attempt to distract the player with mini games to pass the time, nor does he present an unrealistically condensed time frame in which the game takes place. Instead, he forces the player to stand and wait, and in so doing, he asks the player to perform with him, because in a way, the player’s actions such as they are in the game (standing and waiting) are being performed both in the game and outside of it. The Artist is Present pulls the player into a state of quiet non-performance that cleverly, by creating a narrative around seeing Abramović’s eponymous piece, mirrors many of the same feelings that the original piece must have engendered.
In its strict adherence to the particulars of the real performance, Barr’s game raises comparisons to the Appropriation Art strategies of the 1980s, especially that of Sherrie Levine, who in her exhibit After Walker Evans exhibited photographs of Walker Evans’ famous photographs of migrant farmers in the Dust Bowl from the 1930s. Levine was asking powerful questions about the commodification of art and whether an artistic idea carries through untarnished when it’s repurposed, if its Platonic form as Art is kept intact or diminished by being mechanically reproduction. Barr, by recreating an artistic performance, is in a way asking similar questions.
Obviously there are differences between Levine’s work and Barr’s. For one, Levine used the same medium of photography to appropriate photography, whereas Barr is using computer games to appropriate a physical performance piece. Another crucial difference is that, whereas Levine focused solely on the photograph, Barr creates a narrative experience of the piece itself but also the time of anticipation leading up to the piece.
Despite these differences, The Artist is Present still raises similar questions, specifically regarding the quality of an idea in a reproduction. Interestingly, Eva and Franco Mattes, in their series Reenactments (2007-2010), address the same question, by recreating famous performance art pieces in the online game Second Life. Originally performed in an art gallery, before a "live" audience, Reenactments now exists only a set of videos and thus as a non-interactive, documentation-only piece. It borrows the same appropriation strategies encountered in After Walker Evans: by focusing solely on the piece itself. This, along with Second Life’s three-dimensional space, causes the viewer to pay closer attention to the actions being performed. The viewer becomes transported to a space where these performances are occurring and, depending on how willing he is to "play" with it, develops a feeling of empathy with the avatars.
In The Artist is Present, this projection simply does not happen. Firstly, the graphic abstraction of the space keeps the player from being able to fully enter it as readily as in Reenactments. What is emphasized, here, is the actions involved. Barr's game redirects the player’s attention to the emotions and feelings of the experience, of waiting in line for ten minutes without moving, of being forced to talk to yourself and listen to your mind wander. In a way, Barr may have, by more tangentially addressing his appropriation, created a more legitimate facsimile than if he had taken the Mattes’ approach. Ultimately, The Artist is Present pulls the player not into the virtual space of the performance, but rather into the mental space of one’s own head, forcing a mental awareness of the present moment that was a large part of what Abramović herself had hoped viewers would achieve from her piece.
Pippin Barr, The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute, online game, 2013
The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute: Digitizing Performance
Taking Barr’s endeavours with Abramović further, The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute (DMAI) works as an experiment in every sense of the word. Whereas The Artist is Present operates almost as a metaphorical narrative of performance art, the DMAI is an experiment in conceptual art and digital performance itself.
Created with the blessing and backing of Abramović, the DMAI is Barr’s recreation of a project that Abramović hopes to open in upstate New York as a space for people to experience long-duration performance artwork. The actual Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) has been funded and exists in "meatspace", that is, physically, but it is also "augmented" by an online component, created by Barr.
To start, the player enters the DMAI and has the option of watching a performance or participating in a series of performance exercises. Regardless of which choice she makes, the person behind the controls is quickly moved from the act of play to that of performance, as the required inputs quickly become either limited or disappear completely.
Throughout the exercises, the performer is required to continuously hold down the SHIFT key as a way of showing diligence; a failure leads to her digital self falling asleep for an hour, displayed visually with a black screen for an actual hour. The first few exercises ask the performer to move her body as slowly as possible, to be aware of all of the tiny individual movements that need to be made in order to take a single step or swallow the smallest amount of water. Ironically, this is achieved by the smallest of actions: tapping a single button. Those who try to rush through each exercise are forced to wait until a virtual gong sounds, after which they can proceed to the next area. At a certain point, even the miniscule input of tapping a button is removed, as the performer is asked to press her body against a wall of crystals. Though she can choose to ignore the instructions and walk around the room, the performer can also accomplish this by walking to the wall and not pressing anything at all.
This seeming lack of agency caused critics in the video game sphere to respond with varying levels of exasperation. Kotaku's Owen Good described it as “colossally boring performance art [piece] that leaves you with a vague sense of being trolled,” referring to the act of being deliberately provoked, incited or harassed on a message board. Other critics were content to admit that is a decidedly unique digital experience with Barr himself even cryptically acknowledging that “It may not be to your taste. But it also… may. Be.” Even Good does admit that there might be an “enriching experience awaiting those who subdue their urges for instant gratification in interactive entertainment.”
Good may have grasped the essence of what Barr and Abramović were trying to accomplish with the DMAI, that is, asking the performer to subdue their need for instant gratification. Certainly, Barr does this in The Artist is Present, but by wrapping it in a narrative wherein there is a more clearly defined win-state (i.e., sitting with Abramović) he causes the player to experience it more tangentially, more passively. With the DMAI, the win-state (enduring the exercises) makes this suspension of instant gratification much more apparent.
Also, by paradoxically asking the performer to concentrate on her movements or the physicality of her environment, while requiring only the simplest action to do this, Barr exarcebates the gap between the digital and the actual. This gap not only reinforces the role of the player as performer, but also calls into question the power of the mind to fill in the gaps left by digital representations of physical objects.
Interestingly, this was a key component of Conceptual Art in the ‘60s. Conceptual artists were interested in asking how much the artist was required to activate, to enact, to do. They questioned whether art had to be tied to material artifacts or if it could be as intangible as an idea. Often, their work would take the form of language, evoking images or emotions within the viewer.
With the DMAI, Barr and Abramović use similar tactics. Indeed, although the DMAI is largely about remaining present and focusing on one’s body, all of the sensations upon which the player is asked to focus are delivered through text. Even the “audio” instructions are delivered through a scrolling text band across the top of the screen. This creates a vacuum of sensation that asks the player to focus on her senses while giving her no sensory input, inviting the player to use only the text to create a mental rendering of all the other senses her avatar is experiencing in digital space. Therefore, Barr and Abramović created what may be the first conceptual performance piece, asking how little the artist needs to provide in order to create an artistic experience within a player.
Pippin Barr, Art Game, online game, 2013
Art Game: Playing the Art World
While The Artist is Present and Digital Marina Abramovic Institute look at the nature of watching and participating in performance art, Art Game takes a different approach to art commentary. Billed as an art game about playing games to make art, Art Game is an analysis and commentary on the creators, consumers, and decision makers that operate in a given art world.
In Art Game, the player (or players) assumes the identity of a famous artist who has been contacted by the MoMA to submit works for a new exhibit. The curator of the show stops by and then leaves her to do her work. Depending on which medium the player’s artist specializes, the creation of work is represented by playing one of three classic games: Snake if he’s a painter, Tetris if she’s a sculptor or Spacewar! if she’s playing with a partner. Once the player’s playthrough of the minigame ends, the screen is frozen and results in a new work of art, which she can choose to keep and name, or throw away.
Art Game offers an excellent subversion of the methods of making art. As such, it provides an example of what Mary Flanagan has called "Critical Play" (2009).
Critical play demands a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversitities, a refocusing on the relational and performative as opposed to the object, and a continued and sustained appreciation of the subversive. Critical play is also a new discipline of theory and practice that embodies a set of methods and actions. The critical play method is intended as a tool for future game makers, play designers, and scholars. The desired results are new games that innovate due to their critical approach, games that instill the ability to think critically during and after play. (Flanagan, 2009, p. 261)
The key question is: Is Barr offering a critical assessment of how art is created or is he just building a mechanic familiar enough to most players that they can really begin to express themselves through it? It certainly seems that the latter is what begins to happen. As Rock, Paper, Shotgun's writer Alec Meer puts it,
To begin with, it all seems silly, or arch, or both, but then something happens. Eventually, you become proud of the strange, abstract, simple shapes you’re submitting to the gallery. For instance, failing at Snake in such a way that you create a perfect square. It looks good. You feel proud. 
Barr’s art-making-through-games mechanic allows players to exhibit a level of creativity and control that is beautifully simple and leads to creation and visual expression within a medium that tends to favor reaction and logical solution. In this way, Barr brings the player into the performance space by giving them accessible tools in an easily understandable system.
The critique of the art world becomes more pronounced once the player submits her works to the critical eye of the curator and then the public. As the player soon finds out, the curator will quickly disregard a work upon which the player may have spent a great deal of effort, and praise something that happened quickly or accidently or which the player almost threw away. Barr admits that he made the curator’s approval randomly generated, because he worried about having to quantify and distinguish good art from bad, but in doing so he’s arguably more successful at critically commenting on the way art is consumed.
As Howard Becker (1982) argues in Art Worlds, the creation, consumption and valuation of art is dependent on a number of (often unseen) connections amongst several groups of people. Becker also emphasizes that the creation of art, which the art-viewing public tends to view as the ultimate point of artistry and creativity, is just a single phase in a complex connection of jobs and systems necessary to produce a work of art. Art Game seems to understand and agree with Becker on this, and through its gameplay it critically demystifies the production of art. Once the player creates a work that she holds as valuable, she quickly realizes, through the random aesthetic judgments of the curator, that it’s simply a single piece in a larger whole. The value a player ascribes to a piece she has made will not be the same as the value a curator places on it, and the curator’s decisions and evaluations further affect the response the greater public will have towards it. What one slaves away to produce might be worth nothing to the curator and will therefore be largely unseen or ignored by the public, even though it’s loved by the creator.
This illustrates a peculiar aspect of the art worlds described by Becker, in which creation and evaluation does not consistute the "value" of the artwork. By creating such an apt metaphor for the art world, Barr brings the player into a role not of simply a creator, but of almost an artist in full. One who has to not just create, but must also submit his creations to the whims of a system that both glorifies and sharply criticizes his work.
Contrary to the explicit goals of most mainstream games, Barr’s work does not invite the player tofully immerse and lose herself in a world of his construction. Instead, it asks her to recognize that she is playing a game and to question its artificiality. He mentioned more than once that his goal is to design games that “controvert the standard rules,” and by being so critical of games and their standards, he creates a space where their subjects can be examined.
By combining this subversion, or better, controversion, with the subject matter of performance art and art criticism, Barr adds himself to the growing number of artists raising critical questions of the world in which they and their works are encased, questions about appropriation and repurposing, questions about conceptualization and the power of idea, questions about commodification and artistic creation, questions which have rebounded around the realms of modern art for over a century, and which place Barr in the realm of critical art and play.
Barr, Pippin. Art Game. 2013. [LINK]
Barr, Pippin. The Artist is Present. 2011. [LINK]
Barr, Pippin. The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute. 2013. [LINK]
Barr, Pippin. “Digital Marina Abramovic Institute: Institutionalized”, Pippin Barr Blog, October 23, 2013 [LINK]
Becker, Howard. “Art Worlds and Collective Activity.” Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Conditt, Jessica. “Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games.” Joystiq, April 11, 2013. [LINK]
Danto, Arthur C. “Sitting with Marina.” New York Times, May 23, 2010. [LINK].
Flanagan, Mary, Critical Play. Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.
Good, Owen. “Absurd Performance Art Flash Game Gets Highly Unanticipated Sequel,” Kotaku, October 27, 2013. [LINK]
Marina Abramovic Institute. 2013. [LINK]
Mattes, Eva and Franco. Reenactments. 2007-2010.[LINK]
Meer, Alec. “Art Game, A Game About Art About Games.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, February 5, 2013. [LINK]
Wilson, Devin A. “‘Duchamping in Game Making’: An Analysis of Pippin Barr's Parodic Computer Games.” [LINK]
 Arthur C. Danto, “Sitting with Marina,” New York Times, May 23, 2010, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/sitting-with-marina/.
 Pippin Barr, The Digital Marina Abramovic Institute, http://www.pippinbarr.com/games/dmai/.
 Marina Abramovic Institute, http://www.mai-hudson.org/about/.
 Owen Good, “Absurd Performance Art Flash Game Gets Highly Unanticipated Sequel,” http://kotaku.com/absurd-performance-art-flash-game-gets-highly-unanticip-1453024969.
 Pippin Barr, “Digital Marina Abramovic Institute: Institutionalized,” October 23, 2013, http://www.pippinbarr.com/blog/?p=3508.
 Pippin Barr, Art Game, http://www.pippinbarr.com/games/artgame/ArtGame.html.
 Alec Meer, “Art Game, A Game About Art About Games,” Rock, Paper, Shotgun, February 5, 2013, http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/02/05/art-game-a-game-about-art-about-games/.
 Howard Becker, “Art Worlds and Collective Activity” in Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982), 2–5.
 Jessica Conditt, “Pippin Barr’s philosophy,” April 11, 2013.
 Jessica Conditt, “Pippin Barr's philosophy of developing 'curious' games,” Joystiq, April 11, 2013, http://www.joystiq.com/2013/04/11/pippin-barrs-philosophy-of-developing-curious-games/
 Pippin Barr, The Artist is Present, 2011 http://www.pippinbarr.com/games/theartistispresent/TheArtistIsPresent.html.
 Devin A. Wilson, “‘Duchamping in Game Making’: An Analysis of Pippin Barr's Parodic Computer Games,” http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/mllgradconference/2013Conference/MLL2013/3.
FANFICTION AS CRITICAL PLAY
Writing a piece of fiction based on another piece of fiction is not a new tradition. Anne Jamison calls it “writing from sources” in Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, stating that as far back as Aristotle, we have recognised that art is imitation, and that most of the great writers since then have openly written from sources, have pulled from other fiction and other writers. What we see today in fan culture when fans write from sources—that is, take a preexisting universe from film, television, a book, a videogame, etc.—is just another iteration of this tradition. Often, we talk about fanfiction in terms of fan culture, participatory culture, and appropriation, but rarely do we talk about it in terms of play. The act of writing fanfiction is, in fact, a form of critical play, and the completed fanfiction, the artifact left for others in the fandom to access and interact with, furthers this critical play. I will spend the first part of this paper going over the concepts of both fanfiction and critical play before moving into a specific example that illustrates these ideas, a fanfiction based upon Bioshock Infinite by Archive of Our Own user dynamicsymmetry, entitled “All the Worlds Aflame”.
Fanfiction is appropriation at its most honest. The goal of the fanfiction writer is not to create art or make money. Fanfiction often comes, instead, out of an intense love for a source universe, in this case a videogame, and it comes from an active and productive re-imagining of that universe through criticism. In his book Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses this phenomenon in depth. He says, “Organized fandom is, perhaps first and foremost, an institution of theory and criticism”. Due to this culture of criticism, fans are allowed to be openly displeased with something in the universe; a character whose development is stunted by the writers, or a plot twist that drives the show in an undesired direction. The fanfiction writer wants to explore ways that the disagreeable element could have been used better or avoided entirely. James Newman, in Playing With Videogames, defines fanfiction as follows: “narratives and characters are played with, further developed, and made denser and richer through gamers’ own written production”. Similarly, in Textual Poachers, Jenkins quotes a Star Trek fan who described writing fanfiction as “treat[ing] the program like silly putty,” and he expands on this, saying fanfiction is “stretching [the program’s] boundaries to incorporate [the fan’s] concerns, remolding its characters to better suit their desires.” These descriptions of fanfiction allow the fanfiction writer a social and cultural awareness they are not often afforded. These definitions of fanfiction situate it squarely in the field of critical play.
In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Mary Flanagan states that “Critical play is characterized by a careful examination of social, cultural, political and even personal themes that function as alternatives to popular play spaces.” Expanding on this definition, to play critically is to interact with a game in a way that explores and points to important social and cultural issues, and to find ways outside of the established outlets to discuss them. Fanfiction adheres to this definition, exploring, as Jenkins and Newman state, characters and narratives in a way that better serve their own desires for the fictional universe. As presented earlier, these desires are not solely placed in enjoyment, but also largely in criticism. When creating fanfiction, a fan is expanding on their chosen source fiction to begin to correct an element that they view as problematic. These elements are more often than not based in “social, cultural, political,” or “personal themes”. For example, many fanfictions depict a romantic relationship between a same-sex couple, although one or, more frequently, both of the characters involved are canonically heterosexual. The most well-known example of this would be Star Trek fans who chose to explore a romantic relationship between Kirk and Spock. (This kind of same-sex pairing is called a “slash ship”—“slash” as in the forward-slash in “Kirk/Spock” and “ship” as in “relationship”.) By rewriting the characters’ sexualities, the fanfiction writer is examining a combination of most, if not all, of the types of themes Flanagan attributes to the practice of critical play. They purposefully highlight the much-discussed issue of societal and cultural responses to homosexuality, and draw attention to the lack of representation, or misrepresentation, of homosexuality in the media by creating their own representations in their fanfiction.
In Critical Play, Mary Flanagan defines “subversion” as “an action, plan, or activity intended to undermine an institution, even or object.” Fanfiction is inherently subversive. Not only does any given fanfiction undermine the canonical events depicted in the source text by elaborating on or changing them entirely, but it undermines the institution of the law by violating copyright. Fanfiction is also often subversive in terms of the same content and themes that makes it a form of critical play. By writing about a homosexual relationship between two canonically heterosexual characters, for example, the fanfiction writer subverts the characters’ expected roles. To give another example, many fanfictions are often sexually explicit (occasionally outrageously so, the characters finding themselves in physical positions that may or may not be possible, and the prose drawing on strange and, at times, disturbing metaphors—if the content of sites like WTF Fanfiction is to be considered). These kinds of intercourse would never be depicted in the mainstream media, so by taking a source text from there and inserting this element into it, the fanfiction writer subverts what the source’s viewers expect. Interestingly, fans who write fanfiction about videogames are somewhat separate from fanfiction writers of other media.
Rather than choose to play the game itself critically, they explore it through writing in order to examine critical themes. Unlike fans who write fanfiction based on a TV show, for example, who have no ability to interact with the viewed universe—the program creators intend passive spectatorship rather than to active participation, and therefore the viewer has to contribute in ways that are separate from the show—gamers have to actively participate with the game world. The games themselves allow for critical play, and artists have often exploited these. Examples of these are the dead-in-iraq intervention by Joseph DeLappe and Marque Cornblatt’s GTA IV Crime Free Law-Abider. Gamers who write fanfiction, however, choose to recreate the game in another form so that they can play it through an entirely different medium. These fans feel that it’s necessary to rewrite the game in order to critically play with the aspects with which they take issue. This is a form of subversion that perhaps transcends both the inherent subversion of fanfiction as a genre and the specific subversive elements and content of any specific fanfiction.
Certain concepts of subversive/critical play that are applicable to fanfiction are also applicable to doll play—that is, the concepts of “unplaying”, “reskinning”, and “rewriting”. While these concepts are present in all fanfiction, they are more overtly present in fanfiction when the writer is aware that they are interacting critically. We can be sure that dynamicsymmetry, the writer of the fanfiction “All the Worlds Aflame” is one of these writers not only from the piece itself, but from her End Notes: “I love these characters, and it was wonderful to have a chance to write something that was both an expansion of and a challenge to some of the themes in the game.” The fan is purposefully examining themes and proposing alternatives functions for the game’s characters. (This statement also perfectly demonstrates how the desire to write fanfiction comes from both a love of the universe and a critical stance when viewing it.) Specifically, dynamicsymmetry accomplishes her attempts to “expand” and “challenge” the games themes through Flanagan’s concepts of unplaying, reskinning, and rewriting.
When unplaying with dolls, the player “reverses traditional expectations regarding care-giving behaviors and allows players to rethink the conventions involved with these social roles.” Players do not interact with the game world as intended by the game creator. In doll play, they “kill” the doll rather than use it to play the expected role within the “’care-giving’ framework”. In fanfiction, the writer modifies story conventions like character development and plotline to reverse the themes or expectations presented in the game. In “All the Worlds Aflame”, dynamicsymmetry does this by giving her narrator, Daisy Fitzroy, doubts about her cause. These doubts are explored throughout the entire fanfiction, but they are stated quite clearly here, for example: “They’ve been invisible their whole lives. This is a war of invisible people, a fight for a future only they can see. But in Daisy’s mind that future is becoming indistinct, fuzzy, questionable.” In Bioshock Infinite, Daisy Fitzroy is the leader of the Vox Populi, a revolutionary group who oppose the white supremacist society that runs the floating city of Columbia, where the game is set.
The player interacts with Fitzroy and the Vox throughout the game, but she is not a playable character. Her fate during the gameplay is self-sacrifice for her cause. Needless to say, in the universe put forth by the game creators, Fitzroy is a character who is sure of the necessity of her actions. If she were not, the ludonarrative—that is, the interactive elements of the plot—would not work so smoothly. Therefore, for dynamicsymmetry to make Fitzroy doubtful of the future she has so long been fighting for, for it to become “indistinct, fuzzy, questionable”, is to unplay her intended role. She is intended to be the unquestioning martyr, and dynamicsymmetry breaks her out of that role.
In reskinning their dolls, “Players make alternative arrangements and disguise their dolls for subversive roles, altering the appearance or the presentation of dolls in a way that allows dolls to enter forbidden scenes.” Players do this by changing the doll’s outfit, cutting off the doll’s hair, or “literally effac[ing] the surface of the [doll’s] body.” Since fanfiction is textual rather than visual, this definition can be expanded so that it includes not only a character’s physical presentation, but their identity. Once again, changing a character’s canonical sexuality is a prime example here. This is how dynamicsymmetry chooses to reskin the characters of Bioshock Infinite in her fanfiction. She takes Daisy Fitzroy and another major, but unplayable character in the game, Elizabeth, and reskins their sexualities so that they can be in a romantic relationship: “The Vox are a red flood and they fill the streets, but Elizabeth is somehow above it all, high and apart, and Daisy goes to her, frames her waist with her hands. Her dirty little secret is that this is the only victory she really wants anymore.” This reskinning is explored throughout the fanfiction.
Perhaps the most obviously applicable concept of critical play the three discussed here is rewriting. Fictions created by doll players about the dolls “was a way for girls to explore deeper social and personal meanings in play.” The ability to write and revise stories about the lives and experiences of these dolls gave “agency” to the player by allowing for “participant narratives” Similarly, fanfiction writers take agency by creating their own fictions around a preexisting universe. The act of writing fanfiction is in itself rewriting, but some fanfiction takes it further. For example, there are pieces of fanfiction that are entirely canonical, simply a prose version of a videogame cut-scene, for example, like a film novelization. Some fanfictions depict “deleted scenes”, events that happened canonically and that we are told about or are implied after the fact, but that the audience did not see. There is also, however, fanfiction that is entirely invention but still take place in the universe of the game.  A fanfiction that explores a possible romance, for example like “All the Worlds Aflame”. (There are also alternate universe fanfictions, called “AUs”, in which the characters are removed from the original universe and placed into a new one.)
In this particular case study, the fanfiction rewrites the universe of the source game by setting it in a timeline that we never witness in game-play. However, it is not an AU fanfiction because during game-play, alternate timelines to the one the player begins in are explored, because Elizabeth has the power to tear open rifts in reality. Therefore the timeline depicted in this fanfiction could conceivably exist in the universe of the game. In the timelines players witness, Booker rescues Elizabeth from the tower in which she was being held captive. As a first person shooter game experienced through Booker’s eyes, he is crucial to the game and how the player experiences it. In “All the Worlds Aflame”, however, Booker does not exist: “Maybe there was a man, but there wasn’t.… Maybe there was a lighthouse and a man, but that was a lie. That was wrong. There is not always a man. There doesn’t need to be. Sometimes there is no man at all.” In this version of the game’s universe, Daisy Fitzroy plays Booker’s role, she rescued Elizabeth from the tower. This not only gives dynamicsymmetry agency as a writer participating in a narrative she didn’t create, subverting it for her own enjoyment and critical exploration, but it gives Daisy Fitzroy the agency as a character she wasn’t afforded in the original game universe.
This exploration of Daisy as a character was not only a desirable form of critical play for dynamicsymmetry, but for her readers. The comments left by members of the Bioshock Infinite fan community on the fanfiction demonstrate that the awareness of the critical approach this fanfiction has taken extends to the larger community. One fellow fan said in their comments:
I mean i love your ambition and the way you really made the universe you're own. I really wanted to read someone just really take that infinite possibility-scape for a ride and you totally did it. Thumbs up. You also connected the characters in like exactly the way my mind wanted ... Obviously Elizabeth and Fitzroy are strong female characters.... the character development was amazing. The way the killer starts to question themselves ... It was done so well. [sic]
Another said: “Wow, I love this reality and I love your interpretation of Daisy; ‘an expansion of and a challenge to some of the themes in the game’ is an excellent way to put it, as someone who liked Daisy and the Vox but was really frustrated with how the storyline was handled ultimately. Writing's lovely too; very well done.” These two fans point out several of the things that have been discussed in this paper, acknowledging the critical play that is present, only without using the terminology employed here. Even without knowledge of the types of critical play discussed by Flanagan, these fans are participating in an intellectual discussion about developments in the game plot that disappointed them—opposing the fandom’s sense of “potential” for the character or plot, as Jenkins says—and appreciating dynamicsymmetry’s challenging of these elements. They therefore validate the critical play undergone by the fanfiction writer, allowing it to return to the game through the gamers who view it.
By allowing the larger fan community to access and interact with the fanfiction, the piece contributes to the larger agency of the fans over the source universe. This allows for more fans to participate in the remolding of a fiction that they did not create, examining societal, cultural, political, and personal themes through both the inherently subversive act of writing fanfiction, and through the content and themes contained within the individual fanfiction. The fanfiction writer employs concepts such as unplaying, reskinning, and rewriting in order to acknowledge and further explore the subversive elements of their version of the source. This makes fanfiction a form of critical play.
Bio: A.B. Young is a fiction writer based (sometimes) out of Perth, Western Australia, (most recently) out of Oakland, California, and (soon) out of Melbourne, Victoria. She just finished a BA in Writing in Literature at California College of the Arts, graduating with half of a young adult novel written, and a very long critical essay entitled "Veronica Mars Is Stronger Than You", about Veronica Mars and the Strong Female Character archetype. You can find links to her writing at alorayoung.com.
Cornblatt, Marque. GTA IV Crime Free Law-Abider. 2008.
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 Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992), 86
 Jenkins, Textual Poachers, 103
 James Newman, Playing With Videogames (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 51
 Jenkins, Textual Poachers, 156
 Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 6
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 Joseph DeLappe, dead-in-iraq, 2008
 Marque Cornblatt, GTA IV Crime Free Law-Abider, 2008
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 dynamicsymmetry, “All the Worlds Aflame”
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 33
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 33
 dynamicsymmetry, “All the Worlds Aflame”
 Irrational Games, Bioshock Infinite
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 33
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 33
 dynamicsymmetry, “All The Worlds Aflame”
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 33
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 35
 Flanagan, Critical Play, 34
 Newman, Playing With Videogames, 52, 53
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 Irrational Games, Bioshock Infinite
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 TheDoodyPoo, December 26, 2013 (3:44 a.m.), comment on dynamicsymmetry, “All the Worlds Aflame”
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DOUBLE SOLO SHOW: MARCO MENDENI & MARK VINCENT KALINKA
OFF CONTEMPORARY ART FAIR BRUXELLES
Avenue du Port 86C
April 24-28, 2014
Curated by Matteo Bittanti
THECA Gallery, Lugano, Switzerland
ON MARCO MENDENI'S CONCRETE WORKS
"Many play videogames. Few play with videogames. Marco Mendeni belongs to the latter category of “professional gamers”. For the artist born in Brescia, Italy in 1979 at the beginning of the so-called Belle Époque of the arcades (no, not those loved by Walter Benjamin), digital games are not inert found objects or duchampian ready-mades. On the contrary, they are raw material that he uses to create something else. His works are not banal exercises in appropriation. His practice is far from a trivial pursuit.
An image-maker who traverses different visual regimes, Mendeni forces the viewer to rethink the (admittedly tired) dichotomy between the real and the virtual, as he confers materiality to the otherwise fluid and transient screenshots of videogames. One in particular: SimCity, a simulation created by Will Wright that puts the user in the role of an architect, urban planner, and major of an entire metropolis. Mendeni extrapolates a fleeting urban scene from the screen and transfers it to another framing device, i.e. a canvas made of stone and wax, "hard-ware" and "soft-ware".
What was once immaterial becomes material. The intangible becomes tangible. Which is to say, all that is fluid solidifies into concrete. Mendeni was only ten when SimCity made in debut on the game scenes, conquering a multiplicity of screens. Its subsequent, more elaborate iterations released during the Nineties and Zeroes left a strong impression on a multidisciplinary artist with an uncommon familiarity with both visual and aural media, image and sound, the aesthetics of performance and the dynamics of play.
Question: Is this an exercise of retrofuturism, of tired nostalgia? Answer: No. The artist mostly cares about the hic and nunc. Mendeni rejects the naïve view that the so-called “real” and its digital replica lie at the opposite poles of the ontological spectrum. He does not believe that the latter has been replaced the former in a kind of baudrillardian coup d'état in which simulacra, or copies without referents, the body snatchers of the concrete have, God forbid!, taken over. Instead, the artist-demiurge creates environments marked by continuity, a space where different layers and levels of reality coexist.
Rather than reproducing the world, he develops novel ways to understanding it. Instead of reducing its complexity, Mendeni allows the viewers to orient themselves in a space awash not with possibilities, but with (im)possible realities. Ultimately, Mendeni is a 21 century cartographer, mapping a brand new territory. Mechanical reproduction of the work of art in different formats? No, this is a true reinvention.
After all, Mendeni is (n0t) playing."
Matteo Bittanti, April 19, 2014
LINK: Marco Mendeni
Is Modding a Dying Art? by David Shimomura, published on KillScreen on February 28, 2014.
GoTo80 on the Full Screen Exhibition curated by Aram Bartholl:
WORD/PLAY: a fantastic series of articles on the convergence between text and gaming. Curated by excellent Video Game Tourism website.
Luis Wong writes about Gonzalo Frasca for KillScreen (March 3, 2014)
Submitted by Matteo Bittanti
In case you did not know, Douglas Coupland invented Minecraft, or so he tells edgy Italian contemporary art magazine Mousse (issue 42, February–March 2014):
LINK: Douglas Coupland
Submitted by Matteo Bittanti