The art and game worlds, virtual as they both are, share a great deal in common. They have fanatical devotees and yet tend to scare off as many as they attract. Both are fascinated and driven by new technologies of display but haunted by their past lives. Their connection is increasingly complex, as the lines between gamer and artist increasingly blurs. Some hook up PlayStations to electrodes to shock bad play in fighting games (Tekken Torture Tournament, Mark Allen and Eddo Stern, 2001), or perform art-style interventions in online games, like speaking the names of dead U.S. marines in America's Army (dead-in-iraq, Joseph DeLappe, 2006-present).
Game art and mods also have their own dedicated curators and academics, working to link institutions together to make public showings possible, promoting the best works and getting into arguments with the art world where necessary. The Australian Centre for the Moving Image is just one of a growing number of art institutions that have permanent game art spaces, showing mods alongside themed exhibits of famous independent and commercial games.
Rebecca Cannon and Julian Oliver run Selectparks.net, a website that acts as a gallery of game art and art mods. They have written on and spoken about game art for years and produced some of the most interesting game art in the meantime; Cannon's The Buff and the Brutal of 2002 is a machinima soap opera between the often gay and always emotionally conflicted characters of Quake III: Arena. Which doesn't seem odd for a single second if you have played first- or third-person action games and wondered why the costuming, dialogue and acting is straight out of hardcore pornography.
The line between tradition and modification really begins in classical history, as the Latin word modificare, meaning to measure or limit in a contract, suggests a mod is not always just an add-on. The measure of a game is just as important; modders change rules rather than add them, or even delete game data to offer players a new experience. The reason this is such an important distinction is clear when we enter the very surprising and fascinating world of art mods.
Art has a long tradition of its own in modification, going back hundreds of years, as artists were commissioned to articulate classic themes in new works. A rich patron often wanted a portrait in the same pose as a Roman emperor, or a portrait of a mistress using the same pose his wife chose in an earlier painting. With the advent of mass production, however, artists had to switch things up to stay relevant under the onslaught of cheap images.
Enter the grand modder himself, French artist Marcel Duchamp. Already reputed as someone who would exhibit monocle-popping nonsense, Duchamp unveiled his L.H.O.O.Q. in 1919. It was a small, poorly-printed image of a sitting woman with a pencil mustache and goatee, which would have been fairly unremarkable if it weren't the woman from The Mona Lisa sporting the facial hair. He had modded the most famous painting in history, and you could hear the dropped champagne glasses around the world.
Duchamp had taken meticulous care to produce a poor version of the image, and then drawn the facial hair on, ostensibly as a mere joke. Even in 1919, however, questions about Leonardo's sexuality and the identity of the sitting woman were broad public controversies which Duchamp was able to tap. Most of all, Duchamp was sending up how art assigns worth; why was his version any less valuable? All of these issues had come to a head in a simple child-like act of vandalism, the classic mod.