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Event Wrap Up - Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code
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Event Wrap Up - Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code

April 7, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next

An exhibition held at the InterAccess Media Arts Centre in Toronto, Ontario between February 25th and March 25th 2006, Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code displayed the works of artists working in the field of video game modification. While some installations exploited inherent flaws of games to create artistic glitches, such as the Radical Software Group's Prepared Playstation, or Tasman Richardson's Atari videos, others had taken a more hands-on approach, from Myfawny Ashmore's Mario NES hacks, to Prize Budget for Boys' arcade machine recreations.

With the current trend for exploring video games and their culture through art, as seen in recent exhibitions such as I Am 8-Bit, Controller: Artists Crack the Game Code was timely. By using video games as their very medium, there was a more immediate connection to the work in context, but did, naturally, require the viewer accept that art can exist within an interactive medium.

Placed on the edge of Toronto's most fashionable Queen West artist's district, the opening night reception was abuzz with people, all exploring and examining the pieces on show. Over the following days, in a quieter setting, Gamasutra was able to explore the pieces and interview each artist.

Myfawny Ashmore's Mario Trilogy

Myfawny Ashmore exhibited an interactive art piece using three hacked copies of the NES title Super Mario Bros. Plainly displayed on LCD monitors attached to a load bearing pole in the center of the exhibition, and controlled using Gravis PC gamepads, the work spanned 2000's Mario_battle_no.1, and 2004's Mario_is_drowing and Mario_doing_time. Each one a level of Mario with all architecture removed, they force the player to contemplate an instance of Mario in which he lacks all goals, and has no predetermined path to follow. The counter continually clicks down to Mario's unavoidable death; with the only section of level to note being one single question mark block, inaccessibly trapped in the floor.

The Mario Trilogy.

Videos of Myfawny Ashmore's Mario Trilogy were also intended to be played across the month of March in Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square but were censored by Clear
Channel for fear of violating Nintendos copyright. The story can be read at Myfawny's website. The work can, however, still be seen here, and a ROM image can be found here.

What was the inspiration behind the “Mario Trilogy”?

There were quite a few things that led me to make Mario_battle_no.1, the first of the Mario mods. Mario_is_drowning and Mario_doing_time came a few years later.

First, I spent an entire summer in the '80s when I was completely unemployed, with my back on the floor, controller in hands, from early morning until night playing Super Mario Bros. (1 through 3). Unfortunately, I am completely employed now, and will likely never experience that kind of aimless leisure ever again. This led to thinking about what is going on in games, what are the goals and kinds of labor required, and what do *I* want out of my own life before my game is over.

When I first distributed the work, I didn't have anywhere to show it, other than at parties on floppies and over the Internet. At some point, it was shown in Amsterdam at a squat called Smart Project Space. They had a huge theatre with stacked seats and a projector. It was the first time I had watched anyone play it. It was pretty interesting - the way players decided to spend their time. One person spent the entire time trying to get at the only question mark block I left, that was inaccessible, and then they died. Another person ran the entire length of the game, and then died, others danced, jumped, were silly and one guy shoved a floppy into the controller to wedge it so that he wouldn't actually have to play, and he walked away. I figured he was probably upper management somewhere.

So, I guess by removing the extraneous articles, it kind of forces an examination of the player's activities, choices they make without the distractions and glitz of the usual gameplay. Mario_doing_time was actually made for a proposal for the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is a historic ruin that has exhibiting artists. I wanted to have an illegal activity within the prison walls, and having people participate in something "illegal" without the immediate realization that they were in some way party to something that 200 years ago was likely not even conceivable as a crime. I didn't get the gig though.

Are you aware, or interested in, conventional Mario hacks?

A few of my friends also mod games so I am somewhat aware of other mods, but I was more connected to that whole scene in the '90s on IRC.

Is there any particular reason you chose to use Mario? Do you particularly like or respect the series?

Mario is iconic. I do respect the series a lot. However, as a girl gamer, in the '80s, I was irked by the purpose of the game - the hero rescuing the princess. In some ways, I liberated both Mario and the princess from having to exist in that paradigm. I am annoyed with representation in games for the most part so I tend to gravitate towards the games that have less realism, more puzzles and logic than things like Bloodrayne, where I would end up orgasmically sucking blood out of zombies.

Are you aware of the Super Mario Bros.' 'minus world', an infinite level reachable as a glitch? Did this act as inspiration in any way?

No! But now I'm going to try to find it.

[It is] endless swimming! Swimming as Mario was always my favorite thing to be doing - the bubbly music was hilarious and the way Mario would bob up and down, and sink felt like I was dancing. I think that Mario_is_drowning is kind of sinister, the idea of endless swimming. I recently modded a Mario level so that the game takes over, you lose control of the game pad and you get stuck against a block, and it goes on forever with Mario running against the block, a kind of terrible existence really.

What do you think Nintendo, or Shigeru Miyamoto, would think of your work?

I don't think Nintendo has paid much attention to it, or maybe they just don't know about it. I imagine Shigeru Miyamoto views the game modding scene as a testimony to his work, although I have no idea. He probably never imagined that Mario and he would end up being such icons. I feel for the guy, that kind of attention is hard to live up to and sustain.

What do you expect people to take from your work?

Some people get mad at what I've done, like it's video game blasphemy or something. One guy came up to me and yelled at me and said "Why did you do that? You ruined it!" as thought I had permanently altered his relationship to the game, which if I had, was impressive to me. Some really get into the existential aspect of it. Some just think it's funny, which it also is. I'm happy with any of those reactions, as long as no blocks come flying through my window.

Are games art?

I think so. Yes, I'd call it that - because it is definitely a significant part of our entertainment and pop culture(s) and reflects participation with new technologies and ideologies. But also, for the most part, they are commercially produced, with lots of funding, and use a different working model than the way a lot of other art is produced. Ultimately the authorship is that of the companies that produce them. It is definitely its own genre of culture. There is not always a social consciousness that goes into it (or that gets heard) and so I'd add that I feel it's my job as a creative person, as a female, as a cultural worker to engage with my culture(s), and its necessary critiques. Sometimes this leads to trademark and copyright infringements. What is being provided in the mass-marketed video games is experiential in nature... so I think that challenging the video game industry's legal hold on our thoughts and experiences is important as well as critiquing the representation within the imagery.

The Radical Software Group's Prepared Playstation

A live installation featuring four TV sets and PS2s running copies of Tony Hawk's Underground 2, each screen showed a continuously running glitch accessible through ordinary gameplay. The title, a reference to John Cage's prepared piano (pianos with weights placed on the strings, or other modifications made before playing) is perhaps unintentional, as the game here plays itself.

Prepared Playstation

You can view clips the installation on the Radical Software Group's homepage, though the layout of the installation, a tangled mess of wires and milk crates, is lost. Gamasutra had the opportunity to talk with the Radical Software Group's Alexander Galloway.

How did you create Prepared Playstation?

I played the game way too much, and in playing it I discovered bugs and glitches by accident. These bugs and glitches can be accentuated.

Why Tony Hawks Pro Skater? Are you a particular fan of the series?

Yes, I'm a fan. But beyond that there are two things about the game that make it very good for art-making. The first is that the default position for the game is movement. If you put the controller down, Tony skates away. This movement is key; most games are still when not played. The second reason is that the game has a lot of bugs and visual artifacting in it that can be exploited.

The glitching loop seems to be the focal point of the piece, but is the physical layout of the piece important?

Yes, it's meant to be a very simple installation using televisions and small props. It's important for me that it runs live on the Playstations, however, and that the consoles and game cases are visible.

What do you expect people to take from your work?

It's just something to look at.

Are games art?

Of course!

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