Limit and Measure

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, 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.

Early Players
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.

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By the time the Pop Art movement had come along in the 1960s, such modification had its own tradition, and the wry irony of the age meant riffing on popular topics could always win an audience. Andy Warhol took industrial designs like Campbell’s soup cans from the world of advertising, repeated them on a silkscreen and sold them as his own. Roy Lichtenstein took the Benday Dots technique from mass-produced comics, traced images to begin his most famous works and ended up with giant canvas explosions straight out of 1960s boys’ own adventures.

It didn’t take long for artists to see the opportunities computers gave them for exploring the changing media world. In fact, computer art and games have always been intricately bound together. Before Spacewar turned heads at science shows, visual screen hacks of varying degrees of use(lessness) had been taking over the million-dollar machines, much to the amusement of the scientists sitting at the consoles. Experimentation with hacking visuals often led to letting people control them. In these early, weird arty hacks, computer games had their primordial soup.

In the 8-bit days of the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, pirates and hackers often distributed copies of games with non-interactive demos and intros, displaying their mastery over the technology.

Meanwhile, the “proper” (or professional, if you like) art world began to show projections of digital art, and some art shows in Europe had arcade machines between the works to contrast the collapse of high and low culture.

But as mods began to impact computer game culture in earnest, artists took up the reins as quickly as those looking to sneak their way into the game industry. This is mostly because the art world is an industry, too, and works using modern technology have always been great for business.

Where mods add costumes, levels and alternate scenarios, art mods often strip things away to bare essentials or even less, or reassemble the game engine around an artistic statement or idea. The varieties of art mods are as varied as the games that influence them. Art mods are sometimes hacked, sometimes simple plug-in extensions and sometimes real-world add-ons to a computer game that permanently change the way you look at them.

Selecting the Players
Brody Condon‘s use of games in many of his artworks fulfills all the requirements to be called both modding and art, and usually questions the nature of both in the process.

650 Polygon John Carmack of 2004 is precisely what it claims to be; a model of John Carmack as modeled by the Quake III engine, but produced to scale in the physical world with polyurethane. Technically not a mod, it still extends the logic of the game in important ways and works with the same logic; build your own model, use the system of the game, make it playable.

deRez_FXkill < Elvis; of 2004 is a plug-in that uses the Karma physics engine, originally used to generate grisly death sequences in real-time, to make multiple versions of the king of rock ‘n’ roll twitch and shiver in a very weird floating pink afterlife.

White/Picnic/Glitch of 2001 is a series of 12 highly modified situations within The Sims with heavily distorted character models, acting out bizarre parodies of the suburban dream. Kids twitch in glossolalia in a park, while the father-character flips burgers with his massive, oversized arm.

Condon’s mods, like those of many game modders and game artists, aren’t usually downloadable but playable only in a gallery setting or viewable on video. While this can seem to be antithetical to the whole point of mods, keeping the work confined to a gallery is as much a statement as anything else. Perhaps one of the famous art mods, Waco Resurrection of 2003 (by Condon and an art collective known as C-Level) used the Torque engine and some C++ coding to let players resist the destruction of their cult’s compound with special powers and a range of weapons. The game was presented to players and gallery-goers with a David Koresh mask, made in polygon-derived form. To really play Waco Resurrection, you had to don the mask before you took to the keyboard.

Cory Arcangel has been taking another route with art modding, delving into the hardware to end up with almost existential results. For example, Super Mario Clouds of 2002 deleted all the game information from the original NES cartridge, but kept the passing clouds and sky. His Space Invader of 2004 narrowed down the hordes of attackers to only one alien. Lonely business, that invasion racket.

What seems to bind all these works together is they strip away some of the games’ basic elements and ideas, rather than adding on or multiplying the things you can do. In that sense, art mods pull back the technology a little to reveal the little human decisions we take for granted. Violence is slowed down, exaggerated and poked fun at. Sexual politics in games are examined, mocked and re-organized. The ingrained mania for control and power over the game universe we think is so normal and basic is pulled like a loose thread.

So, if anything, art mods limit and measure games, drawing the players and viewers to the little questions – “Hey, don’t you think it’s odd to have a ‘sexy’ voice option in UT2004?” “Don’t you feel weird when you curb-stomp someone in Gears of War?” – questions gamers are all too familiar with, and may otherwise have no place to be answered.

What surprises so many is these works are radically popular with gamers on first contact. It could be because it is intensely satisfying to see our much-maligned medium getting complicated and legitimizing itself. What’s more likely, however, is game art speaks directly to the gamer psyche.

By the same token, we constantly daydream alternative plots and scenarios for games that go far beyond fandom or idle mental drift; they are the continuation of the mind playing on without us. So it is that game art affects us immediately on an instinctual level. In the case of art game mods, the thirst for chaos and anarchy the game industry sublimates is quenched by weird deviations and weirder possibilities.

Christian McCrea is a game writer, academic and curator based in Melbourne, Australia.

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