Boldly original gamemaker Theresa Duncan defied industry norms by creating lyrical CD-ROM adventures based on young girls' everyday experiences. Today, these seminal games are inaccessible to the next generation of players, researchers, and artists. Help us bring them back!
This project, by the NYC-based digital art nonprofit Rhizome, will fund the process of putting three games directed by Duncan—Chop Suey (1995, co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1997)—online, for the first time ever. With your help, they will be playable in any modern browser via emulation and available for free, for a minimum of one year.
Additionally, Rhizome work with our partners, the New Museum in NYC, to organize a public event and online exhibition celebrating Duncan's work and contextualizing it within feminist gaming history. Alongside this, we'll be commissioning articles and educational materials to further deepen public awareness of these CD-ROMs and the broader history of women gamemakers.
Singular Works that Challenged Gaming
Confronting a videogame culture lacking diversity of digital experience (shoot-em-ups and fantasy adventures for boys, prom role-play and dress-up for girls), Theresa Duncan's CD-ROM work was something markedly different: uniquely personal, passionately invested in the creative possibilities of her medium, and daring (in the words of critic Jenn Frank) to "represent the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12."
Duncan drew on her childhood in the Midwest and a deep interest in children's stories for her work on Chop Suey, an offbeat, interactive daydream set in Cortland, Ohio, Smarty, an educational archaeology, and Zero Zero, an adventure set in Paris at the turn of 1900. All of these titles were intensely collaborative, involving a whole community of creators: Monica Gesue, who co-created Chop Suey, Ian Svenonious and Jeremy Blake, who contributed illustrations and more, Brendan Canty, who contributed a great deal of the music, and voice-over artists including David Sedaris. Full credits are below.
Duncan's titles are notable for dreamlike, expressive illustration, vivid, hallucinatory colors and textured soundtracks. Their stories unfurl in sinuous, lilting vignettes, building out a world through language and atmosphere in which players are encouraged to explore freely, building connections among complex, drawn-from-life casts of characters. Her work was not about celebrities or superheroes, but the richness of a child's imagination as they react to their everyday lives in the world around them. And these games encouraged their users—particularly the young girls who would have identified with her protagonists—to be disruptive, adventurous, and whip-smart.
Videogame culture is at its best when it supports the narration and elaboration through play of a diversity of experiences. Unfortunately, as it was when Duncan made these games, this truth continues to be contested. So it remains essential that these games be widely known and played—not for the sake of the history of gaming, but for its future.
Who is Rhizome?
Rhizome is a contemporary arts organization based on the internet and an affiliate in residence at the New Museum in NYC. We're four full-time employees, and a few part-timers, commissioning and presenting artworks and criticism, developing panels and events, and preserving important digital artifacts.
How will Rhizome make Duncan's CD-ROMs available?
Rhizome will make the full CD-ROMs available to anyone with a modern browser using "Emulation as Service."
Digital preservation, making sure that digital artworks remain accessible to new audiences as technology changes, is part of Rhizome’s core mission. Led by artist and archivist Dragan Espenschied, our program emphasizes preserving the interaction with a digital artifact, as much as the artifact itself.
Despite our small size, we’re one of the few art organizations in the world that has dedicated significant, ongoing time and resources to saving important works of digital art and culture—hands-on. By doing this work, and sharing our methods, we’re starting to make a real impact on knowledge, standards, and practices to be taken up by institutions of all sizes. We feel passionately about Theresa Duncan’s works, as part of our overall commitment to digital art and preservation.
Earlier this year, we used in-browser emulation to preserve Bomb Iraq, an artwork by Cory Arcangel, as a proof of concept for the approach to be taken going forward. Arcangel's was a hypercard game he found on a used computer; in-browser emulation made it possible to experience the game within its full mid-90s Macintosh TV environment. In collaboration with the University of Freiburg in Germany, Rhizome is developing sophisticated emulation software that will allow individuals to view crucial works of art wherever they are, using only the browser. The work will be experienced as if within the legacy operating system it was originally intended to be accessed.
Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero will all be made available via these techniques in a contemporaneous, fully-functional default Windows 98 system.
What are you supporting?
Our Kickstarter goal represents the minimum that we would need to cover the technical costs involved in making these games available online. Of our $20,000 budget, $13,500 is allocated for developer costs and $3,500 for server infrastructure. The rest of the budget will go to Kickstarter fees, campaign costs, and expenses already incurred for research and preparation.
We are deeply committed to this project, and we are prepared to cover event costs (speakers' fees and travel, livestreaming), writers' fees, and other expenses related to outreach from our core program budget. However, any additional support we receive above $20,000 would allow us to reach a wider audience in a more meaningful way and ensure robust backend capacity to meet larger demand for the work.
Risks and challenges
We are very lucky to have the support of collaborators, past supporters, fans, friends, and family of Theresa Duncan, especially her mother, Mary Duncan. Given the number of people who are passionate about bringing these games to a new audience, we feel that our biggest risks and challenges will be on the technical front.
Moving forward, the largest challenge will be making all three games run online as fluidly as if played from a CD-ROM in the user's possession. A key factor for a responsive emulation experience on the web is that the CPU that runs the emulator be as physically near as possible to its users, with the least possible number of network hops in between. Fully conceived as based on the internet, Rhizome understands its users to be everywhere. As such, optimizing the emulation experience means establishing our own on-demand emulation infrastructure using cloud computing providers offering international locations.
Each of these virtual computers will need access to the equally virtualized CD-ROMs, with start-up and log-off registered as quickly as possible. Systems and media will need to be stored in a clever way to require the least storage and network resources to operate.
This is a quite demanding and complex task. However, once this works, we will be able to re-enact many more artworks on a wide array of legacy systems.
Special thanks to Tom Nicholson for his support of the presentation of "Smarty" and "Zero Zero." The rightsholders for these games have agreed to make them available for a minimum of one year from launch, with probable extension.
(If you worked on these games and are not listed, or if you are listed and would like to discuss your contributions to the works, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Product/Writer, Product Designer:
Art Director/Illustrator, Product Designer:
Gregory R. Johnson
Additional Music by:
The Pale Horses
The Savant-Garde Quartet
Destroy All Monsters
Raymond "The Scup" Doherty
Rick + Carolyn Gesue
David + Yoni Koenig
Jim "Jumbo" Berrettini
Blake "Bonjour Darlings" Robin
Edward D. Wood Jr.
Nicholson New York
Writer/Mise en Scene
Art Director & Illustrator
Programmer & Animator
Nicholson New York
Writer, Designer, & Producer
Illustrator & Art Director
Mary Louise Wilson
- (30 days)