Games are a Faith-Based Pursuit: A conversation with Jenn Frank

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Still image from Chop Suey (1995).

On Friday, Rhizome published a restoration of three CD-ROM games from the 1990s by Theresa Duncan, which you can play here. Duncan's work has been largely and unjustly forgotten since the 1990s, and this restoration project was inspired, in no small part, by a 2012 article on Duncan's work by Jenn Frank.

To mark the restoration of the games, Jenn Frank spoke at a panel discussion at the New Museum in New York on Thursday (video here). Here, Nora N. Khan interviews her about her life in gaming. —Ed.

Acclaimed writer and games critic Jenn Frank is widely known for her excruciatingly intimate memoir essays, in which she often probes her family history and girlhood nostalgia to illuminate why games have been vital for her personally  and, by extension, for many others. Her work also explores how players engage with, and imagine themselves, in relation to systems, to the sets of rules established by a game world.

Frank uniquely renders games as profoundly human, explicit articulations of longing, curiosity, awe, fear, and love. Her work is very important to me, and to many other writers and game developers, and when she stepped away from games journalism for a time last year because of harassment, it was a real blow. Now she is publishing again, cautiously, and in an effort to better understand her importance, I spoke with Frank over email about her personal history, her lifelong relationship to games, and her part in shaping games criticism as a form.

 


 

Nora N. Khan: Let's start from the beginning. Could you tell us a bit about where and how you grew up?

Jenn Frank: I primarily grew up in a small town in coastal Texas, which is a place very unlike what most people visualize when they think "Texas." This part of Texas is mostly little run-down beach communities: houses on stilts, palm trees, antique stores, fresh shrimp. It's humid; it looks and feels like Florida. Geographically, it's nearer to Mexico than it is to Dallas. It's also sort of remote, locked by land on all sides except the side that is the Gulf of Mexico.

And—I think this is important also to note—I moved here, no kidding, by myself when I was 7 years old, from Seattle, to live with my great-aunt and great-uncle, these much older relatives who eventually adopted me. Until then, I'd been bouncing around the Pacific Northwest to live with all these different people. By the time I was 7, I'd decided I should have myself sent to Texas, so my grandfather packed me up and put me on a plane. So I was still really young when I got here, but I experienced an extreme sort of culture shock anyway.

Meanwhile, my great-aunt and great-uncle, Midwesterners who'd never had children of their own, were really very conservative, even for Texas—not only because they were evangelical Christians, but also because of their age. So they held some very dated ideas about parenting. These people sent me to school each day in a party dress, patent leather mary-janes, and those little socks with lace eyelet at the ankles—every day until third grade. I looked like the main character from The Bad Seed! So my peers were right to be terrified of me. Elementary school was a very rough time.

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The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs are now playable online

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In the 1990s, Theresa Duncan and collaborators made three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.

Two decades later, her works (like most CD-ROMs) have fallen into obscurity, but they remain as luminous and compelling as ever. This online exhibition—copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online—brings them back, making them playable online, in your browser.

Click here to play.

The Games

 

 

Chop Suey (Magnet Interactive, 1995, co-created with Monica Gesue). Lily and June Bugg embark on a strange, hallucinatory adventure through the small town of Cortland, Ohio.

Smarty (Nicholson Associates, 1996). Smarty is off to visit her Aunt Olive for the summer, where she'll host a spelling radio show, eat at the Pancake House, and visit a mysterious dime store.

Zero Zero (Nicholson Associates, 1997). It's New Year's Eve, 1899, in Paris. A little girl named Pinkée makes the rounds of the city, asking bakers, gardeners, and can-can dancers about what the future will hold.

For this First Look online exhibition, Rhizome's Digital Conservator Dragan Espenschied and the University of Frieburg have partnered tomake the full CD-ROMs available through the web browser–based “Emulation as Service” system. To play the games and explore further, click here.

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Grappling with complexity, women in tech, and Leonard Nimoy: Perry Chen's Y2K

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Screenshot of Leonard Nimoy in Y2K Family Survival Guide (1999). 

In December, Perry Chen organized a panel discussion at the New Museum (copresented with Rhizome and Creative Time Reports) exploring the phenomenon and legacy of the Y2K bug, as part of his ongoing project Computers in Crisis. Along with a presentation of books and video clips from the time, he assembled three Y2K experts to share their own experiences of preparing for 1/1/00, at which point many computer systems were expected to interpret the two-digit date as "1900" rather than "2000," with harrowing results. 

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