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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Rhizome's Spring 2015 Program

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Ben Schumacher, Rebirth of the Bath House, 2014 Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal. Installation view

This spring, we're looking ahead to next year's 20th anniversary, and renewing our consideration of what it means to be a born-digital arts organization.

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In a Field of '90s Barbieland Wreckage, Chop Suey Got Gaming for Girls Totally Right

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Originally published on MotherboardReprinted with permission from the author. Please support Rhizome's Kickstarter to make Chop Suey and the other Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs available online.

From Chop Suey.

Developed in 1994 and published the following year, Chop Suey was a cunning piece of multimedia edutainment, suited just as well to grown-ups—smirking hipsters and punk rockers, probably—as it was to the prescribed "girls 7 to 12" crowd.

But it wasn't a computer game. It was something else: a loosely-strung system of vignettes; a psychedelic exercise in "let's-pretend"; a daydream in which the mundanity of smalltown Ohio collides with the interior lives of its two young protagonists.

As the game opens, the Bugg sisters are idling on a grassy knoll, counting clouds and recalling the day's events. Lily and June Bugg, we are informed, have spent the afternoon with Aunt Vera. The narrator—a yet-unknown David Sedaris—sets the scene in nasally twee, occasionally grating reeds.

When Sedaris concludes his opening narration, our player immediately regains control of her cursor. From here, she can survey Cortland's landmarks in any order she chooses, repeating anything she likes. She might revisit lunch at the Ping Ping Palace, where the food is so exotic, it's often tinted cyan or hot pink. She might play dress-up with Aunt Vera—whom, we suspect, is something of a lush and a man-eater.

The player might go to the carnival to have her fortune read; she might play Bingo. Perhaps she might visit Aunt Vera's second husband, Bob, or else she could visit Vera's third husband, also Bob. (Tragically, it is impossible to visit Bob #1, except through occasional flashbacks.) 

Most in-game stories are delivered secondhand from a reminiscing grown-up, while Lily and June's own imaginations illustrate those stories in happier, more magical idioms. The game never oversteps, never makes "regret" its central concern; after all, this is a children's game. But an adult player might be surprised at how wistful the game actually is.

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Rhizome to Restore and Present Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs

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Chop Suey (1995) in its original packaging.

Rhizome is pleased to announce that, beginning in April 2015, it will preserve and present three CD-ROM works created by artist and writer Theresa Duncan (1966-2007): Chop Suey (1995, co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1998). These colorful, expressive adventures address young girls in a way few games did, or still do—and they've fallen into obscurity. Through its digital conservation program, Rhizome will make the original, unaltered games playable via web browser, for everyone, for free. In order to make this possible, we have launched a Kickstarter campaign.

A scene from Chop Suey (1995)

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