//   "Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art"
//    version 1.0 July 16, 1999

#include <curators_note.h> // curators note by Anne-Marie Schleiner #include <game_patches.h> // the game patches #include <article_huhtamo.h> // Game Patch - the Son of Scratch? by Erkki Huhtamo #include <article_trippi.h> // Deep Patch by Laura Trippi #include <switch.h> // the 'Art & Games' issue of Switch #include <credits.h> // credits and contact information
// Game Patch - the Son of Scratch? // by Erkki Huhtamo // // When I first became aware of the game patch phenomenon, not such a long // time ago, it felt almost preordained - it just had to happen. Not // because of the will of some transcendental "dungeon master", presiding // over the gaming arena that is the contemporary world, but rather // because of the logic of media. In the 90's, electronic games have grown // Big. From a slightly suspicious intruder and a challenger to mainstream // media, like the cinema and broadcast television, the game industry has // developed into a full-blown sector of today's commercial media // landscape, constantly conquering new territory. // // Not only have electronic games gained popularity among new age groups - // their breakthrough in the old people's home seems only a matter of time // - they have also become an internalized model for an interactive // relationship with the media, influencing other forms of computerized // and computer-mediated communication. Although they will not (at least // in the foreseeable future) have enough power to render traditional // one-way media totally obsolete, their very ubiquity is having a // powerful effect on the cultural imaginaries of the late 20th century. // // On the other hand, drawing a sharp distinction between the kind of new // media relationship represented by computer gaming and the "passive" // experiences provided by cinema and television would mean overstating // the issue. After all, electronic gaming may have been invented by // computer hackers, technical whiz-kids and hippie entrepreneurs, but // especially in the 90's it has been absorbed by the worlds of big // business and venture capitalism. Integration, consolidation, expansion // - these are the magic formulas today's game producers and distributors // invoke. // // Although the game industry tries hard to maintain the impression that // computer gaming constitutes "a people's technology which encourages and // enables participation by all who wish to participate" (to quote Gillian // Skirrow's words from her pioneering study "Hellivision: an analysis of // video games", 1986), it is becoming more and more evident that such a // position constitutes a fabrication and, above all, an ideology. Playing // a computer game may involve the player differently than watching a // movie or a television program, but seeing it automatically as more // empowering, liberating - or addictive - could hardly be accepted // without qualifications. // // Perhaps some forms of networked multiuser role-playing games // notwithstanding, the game-playing experience is irrevocably linked to // an "apparatus", a pre-fabricated system regulating the relationship(s) // between the player(s) and the system (including both the game software // and the hardware) and, above all, defining the limits of the // interaction. The game playing experience may allow for considerable // liberties to explore virtual worlds, adopt different personalities, // make decisions and discover secrets, but in the end these are just // carefully tested and calculated parameters, the main criteria of which // are economical. // // If a game is too simple, it may not create a sufficiently strong bond // with the player, risking to fail on the marketplace. If it is extremely // difficult, it may fail as well, although it probably sells longer as // the buzz around it spreads and also provides possibilities for the // secondary marketplace of gaming guides, fan magazines and other kinds // of paraphernalia. It is essential that the player is made to feel part // of a network which is both internal (the ties with the world of the // game) and external (the ties with other players, newsgroups, helplines, // fan-clubs, secondary texts). // // The game patch phenomenon might be easily interpreted as a highly // heterogeneous body of reactions against the growing uniformity and // calculation that have come to dominate the industrial game culture in // recent years. Although most players are and will be satisfied if the // supply of commercially available software and hardware meet their needs // for fast diversion, action, romance and fantasy, and even occasional // intellectual challenges, there are those who seem to be harking back to // the days when gaming with some justification could be labelled a // "people's technology". This goes hand in hand with the growing // awareness of gaming history, as evidenced by the popularity of // emulators of many forgotten games, future classics, perhaps. // // Yet, at best, this is only a partial explanation. The reality is much // more complex. The game patch phenomenon cannot simply be dispensed with // as being a nostalgic and, in the end, a Quixotian attempt to revive a // mythical "golden age" when gaming was spontaneous and social and the // games were designed and modified by the gamers themselves, rather than // faceless corporations. Although some game patch artists show signs of // such a consciousness, incorporating references to cherished early // classics, such as Space Invaders or Pac-Man, into their creations, // there are others for whom history hardly matters, at least on a // conscious level. // // Another way of assessing the game patch is too see it as the latest // manifestation of "tactical media", a new way of "talking back to the // media", of engaging in a creative/destructive conversation with the // activities and the products of industrial media culture. Tactical media // has a long history going back to John Heartfield's political // photomontages of the 1920's and 30's, to the actions and the // "detournement" cultivated by the Situationists in the 1960's and the // 70's, to the various forms of "public art" and "appropriation art" in // the 1970's and 80's, to Web "hacktivism" in the 90's. // // In spite of obvious differences in approach, all these movements have // sought out ways of penetrating the dominant forms of media culture, // appropriating its tools and its products, modifying its output and // hurling the mut(il)ated creations back onto the public arena of // mainstream media. The seams are left visible - instead of beating an // illusion with another illusion, the aim is to make the cracks in the // facade visible, to focus attention on the manifold processes looking // for an outlet behind the ideologies of uniformity. // // The tidal wave of "scratch video", particularly in the UK in the early // 80's, provides a useful case study. Inspired by access to new tools, as // well as by a strained cultural atmosphere, the early years of the // Thatcher-Reagan era, young videomakers began to "scratch" the surface // of broadcast television, trying to reveal those discourses which had // been hidden behind the media coverage, but were, nevertheless, an // essential part of the overall picture. Groups like Gorilla Tapes and // Duvet Brothers grabbed the recently introduced possibility of taping TV // programs with a VCR, and manipulated them in the editing studio // (usually a public access video workshop). // // The scratch video makers used the "repeat-edit" and other video tricks // to turn Reagan's and Thatcher's media images into stuttering // marionettes that acted like aliens or lunatics and said things which // were the opposite of the official protocol, but close, so one // suspected, to the thoughts that really crossed their minds. Scratch // video was simultaneously a reaction to the ubiquitous television // environment, a tactical attack against its role as the mouthpiece of // conservative politics, and a new way of personal expression, of // asserting one presence in the egotistic world of media. // // Of course, it all ended up in a failure. The main problem was access. // Broadcast television ignored scratch video until it had been cleaned // off its political content and turned into a new "refreshing" stylistic // formula for music videos, comedy programs and hamburger commercials. // After this had happened, which did not take long, scratch video makers // began to receive commissions and their style was adopted (as one style // among many) by TV professionals. Scratch video was co-opted by the very // institution it had attempted to undermine. Scratch features also // survived in video art, but neutralized and "sublimated" by museum and // gallery walls. // // Does this "instructive" example increase our understanding of the game // patch phenomenon? There are both similarities and differences. Both // scratch and patch have to do with access to new tools (video recording // and editing; computer programming) by outsiders (TV spectators; game // players) with the aim of subverting the existing relationship between // subjects and media. Where scratch video attacked the false transparency // of broadcast television, its pretented but not actual openness, the // imbalance between the spectators and the world of TV, the motives of // the game patch artists are more subtle and varied; there is no game // patch movement, only individuals. The situation is less clearly // polarized. After all, electronic games may be ubiquitous, but they // never purported to be a broadcast (mass) medium. // // A game patch artist may be motivated by ideological concerns, an urge // to re-assert the role of the player as a (co)creator, or to subvert the // prevailing gender relations, particularly the depiction of women as // game characters. Yet the political determination should not be // overemphasized. Humour and parody are important motives; the game patch // artists don't seem to believe in the politically correct position of // suppressing pleasure (neither did the scratch video makers!). // Demonstrating a sense of mastery by being able to dabble creatively // with the source code is an important aspect of the game patch // experience as well, providing a link with the hacker mentality which // has, in one form or another, been a part and a companion of the history // of electronic gaming from the outset. // // This observation points out another difference between the cultural // roles of broadcast television and electronic gaming in relation to // their subjects. Television has been a distant medium from the // beginning; its familiarity and spontaneity were simulated even during // its early "live" years. The home audience was always watching something // from a distance; you could not really have a conversation with your // favourite TV star. Games have never been distant in the same sense; // they became known as a form of pastime, essentially as technological // toys. The contact with games has been tactile, familiar, informal. // Instead of attacking a frightening monstrous alien, the game patch // artist is really playing a(nother) game with a partner s/he knows, // loves and, perhaps, hates. // // The position of game patch art is not without its contradictions. // Unlike scratch video, it has a promising channel of distribution at its // disposal, the Internet (already used by game companies to distribute // "patches" to their officially released games). Yet, as any form of // appropriation art, game patch art will have to deal with issues of // copyright and intellectual property on its way to wider attention. How // will it react? Will it develop into a kind of media guerrilla activity, // operating on the terrain between the legal and the illegal, or will it // become a "civilized", law-abiding genre, perhaps sponsored by major // game companies, and contributing to future game development? Will it // change our notion of art? // // It is too early to tell. Yet having said this much, the game patch // phenomenon still feels almost preordained to me - somehow it just had // to happen. // // Erkki Huhtamo 1999