Modifying Art


Andrew Y Ames


"Rules," as the popular saying has it, "are made to be broken."(1 ) They establish standards, guide behavior, and organize play, but in doing so, they expose the nature of the game. They prompt the player to think about the game and its rules and to ask, "Why is the game played this way?" The question is important to children and also to artists, and to others who may long to change the rules of the game. Children may change the rules of games to make their games easier to play, to gain some advantage, or perhaps to include or exclude certain individuals; they may change the rules to make a game more interesting or challenging or even more fair. The rules reveal and create a world, and players may want to imagine and experience an alternative. They see the game for what it is, and they want to change it. Artists do this when they modify games, and those who create art by modifying games do believe that the rules are made to be broken. The modification of analog and video games by artists reminds us that there is an art to modification and art in the modification.

Game modification by artists is not a recent phenomenon. Artist-players have customized and adapted the rules of game play since there have been games to play, but game modification is a significant part of certain art movements. Surrealist created their games of chance, Duchamp had role-games and fascinations with chess, and the 1970's happened upon Fluxus games. Games themselves became Fluxus essentials and served as modes of exploration and means of dissemination of Fluxus ideas about art. Fluxus artists pursued the game as a path of experience and experimentation that involved humor and participation—often physical participation—and used the game as a way to question and to undermine the seriousness of art.(2)

Fluxus games were often simple creations such as boxes containing rules and items for playing games. The boxes, for example, would contain altered decks of cards and manipulated chess and backgammon boards. During Fluxfests, artists would play modified multiplayer games, including soccer on stilts, ping-pong with holes in the paddles, and bike races to determine who could be the last person to cross the finish line. Fluxus artist modified a range of games from simple table games to more elaborate physical tournaments, yet they had this in common: they changed the rules of the game.

Today, patrons can visit museums to see exhibits of Fluxus games from the 60's and 70's, but, unfortunately, they generally only see the games displayed; they do not play the games, and Fluxus games were designed to be played. An aspect of the life of the art is lost. Celia Pearce writes,
There is deep and tragic irony in going to an exhibition of Fluxus artifacts…. Objects whose entire purpose was to elicit play exist now only as the corpses of their former selves, trapped in a "Mausoleum" within the object-centric commodity-based world of Art with a capital A.(3)

Fluxus games are to be played, and mere display deadens the art. As Pearce points out, those who play the game are "co-creators" of the art,(4) so without play the art is incomplete. Moreover, Fluxus games, which in a museum display are contextualized as objects of art are subverted by the context, for Fluxus games challenged the role and value of art as object. Video game modifications of recent times pose the same kind of challenge as Fluxus games: they are designed for play, not display. However, they have a feature that may well keep them from becoming "object-centric" and "commodity-based " art; they are not objects to begin with; games live in an electronic environment. To be observed, they must be active. Only the medium in which they are displayed—a computer—becomes the object. Most people already have the object on which video games are played, and they do need not visit a gallery space to experience a video game modification. It is possible for many to download and to play an artist's game modification from the Internet. Video game modifications today, in contrast to early Fluxus games, have the advantage of greater playability and availability.

Through the Looking Glass, the first video game created for the Apple Macintosh computer, is a video game modification.(5) It earns a certain place in the history of Apple and did require skillful coding, but its basic design is little more than a game of chess modified to include Alice from Lewis Carroll's book, "Alice in Wonderland." Simply changing the pieces or characters in a game is not unique in the gaming world; many board-game manufactures have changed the pieces to put a new face on an old game and sell more boards. However, this was also the first game that allowed players, not programmers, to design and create their own distinctive game pieces. Granted this was done to show off the computer's graphic ability, but it opened a new door of interest and imaginative possibilities in video game modification. It set a precedent in gaming that has continued with games such as SimCity,DOOM,Unreal Tournament,Halo, and many other games that have included game editors. Video games that ship with game editors allow artists to apply Fluxus ideals, and they may actually create new artists who are drawn into explorations and experiments a new form of gaming. Those who experiment with game editors and modify games, knowingly or unknowingly, continue the work of Fluxus, because their changes at times hinder play, subvert rules, and introduce the ridiculous. The games editors, at least in some ways, make it possible to change the rules of the game.

Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, "the Dadaists of Internet art" who collaborate as Jodi,(6) also modify games. One of their works, SOD, shown in the exhibit GAMESHOW, June 2001 to May 2002 at Mass MoCA, is a modification built using the Castle Wolfenstein gaming engine.7 In the modification, the artists have removed all of the recognizable elements of the game and have replaced them with black and white geometric shapes that create a new architecture and a new gaming environment that challenge the player's orientation as well as hinder navigation.

The dysfunctional elements of Jodi's game effectively expose and undermine Wolfenstein's paradigms of navigation and construction of space. SOD also exposes and demolishes the balance between the user's and the system's control which is an essential element of any action game.(8)

By making the game more difficult to play, the members of Jody have exposed the elemental structure of the game's environment and have also created abstract art.

Feng Membo has focused on modifying the video game DOOM, these mods include Taking Mt Doom by Strategy, Q4U and AH_Q. The modifications reflect a variety of approaches: transforming the look of the characters in the game, changing how players interact with the game, and finally taking a studio approach by making large paintings that have been inspired by screenshots of the modified game. In Ah_Q, a modification of the first person shooter game DOOM, shown in the 2004 Ars Electronica exhibition in Linz, Austria, Membo has put his very own likeness into the game.(9) Users play the game as a shirtless Feng Membo holding a big gun in one hand and a mini DV camera in the other. To add to the confusion of play, all of the typical monsters in DOOM have also been replaced with Membo's likeness. The gore and shock of the game has also modified and increased by adding mirrors to the environment so that players will be able to watch themselves, or rather to watch the many likeness of Feng Membo, die. Membo has also replaced the keyboard and mouse with a Dance Dance Revolution controller: to kill, the player must "dance" so to speak. With these mods and through the use of "digital" clones, Membo is able to explore and question the concepts of online identity within the context of role-playing in a commercial environment amongst the violence of the game.(10)

By changing the controller, Membo transformed player into a performer. Video games themselves can be made into performance. More recently, video games have been coming out of the computer and out of the consol and have been moved into movies; some games are becoming contemporary performance art works. Roomba Frogger preformed by Make Magazine's Phillip Torrone and Eyebeam's Limor Fried was a live action game based on the 1981 video arcade game Frogger. During the performance, Torrone and Fried took a Roomba, an autonomous robot vacuum cleaner, which they had dressed in a green t-shirt to make it look like a frog, and reprogrammed the vacuum cleaner so that it could be controlled using a Bluetooth enabled laptop. They then let the Roomba loose on a busy street. The object of the game was for players to get the Roomba robot across the street safely, just as players would do in the original Frogger.(11) The game becomes a performance.

Another example of game as performance is found in the project series GAMEOVER. In the performance, the 1972 Atari game, Pong, and the 1978 game, Space Invaders, designed by Toshihiro Nishikado, are reenacted by a group of performers (see photographs in APPENDIX). In the seats of an auditorium, the performers act as or represent a single pixel of the game's graphics. They act as pixels and act out the game. In the 2005 performance of Pong in Turn-of-Peliz (Switzerland), six people, three for each side, acted as the paddles, and a seventh person served as the ball. Performers moved from seat to seat in the auditorium, which became a theatrical pixel grid, and played out or acted out a game. The performance took two hours and was documented in photographs that were later assembled to create a two-minute video. By transforming the Pong game into a performance, there is a return to an element of Fluxus practice, for people are playing the game; but the element is lost when the game is reduced to photographs and video, which serve to preserve the moment of the art. The art flows from action to observation to object.

The rules of the game can be changed. There is an art to modification and art in the modification. Fluxus emphasized art as act, and the modification of a video game that plays and will be played expresses this perspective. Art, in the Fluxus tradition, "is found in the action rather than the object, for if the action does not occur (the game is not played), what and where is the art?"(12) Game mods seem to answer the question. The modification is the art, which begs to be played, and in being played, the game is reaffirmed as art.


(1) The saying is relatively recent and has been traced to Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 Expedition to Earth (Wolfgang Mieder, ed., A Dictionary of American Proverbs, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992], 518).
(2)"Fluxus Games Exhibition Mixes Hijinks and High Art," Indepth Arts News; available from http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2001/06/16/28719.html; accessed December 1, 2006.
(3)Celia Pearce, "Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Play," Visible Language 40, no. 1 (2006): 70.
(4) Ibid.
(5) The game was originally created by Steve Capps for the Lisa computer, but was ported to the Macintosh when brought to the attention of Steve Jobs (Andy Hertzfeld, "Alice," Folklore [June 1982]; available from http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=Alice.txt; accessed December 3, 2006).
(6) Margaret Sundell, "Jodi - New York - Internet Art of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans," ArtForum (September 2003); available from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_1_42/ai_108691821; accessed December 5, 2006.
(7) "Gameshow: Past Exhibition, Building 4 & 5, June 2001-May 2002," Visual Arts; available from http://www.massmoca.org/visual_arts/past_exhibitions/visual_arts_past_2001.html; accessed December 6, 2006.
(8) Christiane Paul, Digital Art, World of Art (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
(9) Maia Engeli, "Ars Electronica 2004--The Exhibitions: Linz, Austria, September 2-7, 2004," Leonard on-line; available from http://timesup.org/reviewed/ldr.pdf; accessed December 5, 2006.
(10)Christiane Paul, Digital Art, World of Art (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
(11) Daniel Terdiman, "Roomba Takes Frogger," C/Net News.com (March 15, 2006); available from http://news.com.com/Roomba+takes+Frogger+to+the+asphalt+jungle/2100-1043_3-6049922.html; accessed November 30, 2006.
(12) "Gameshow: Past Exhibition, Building 4 & 5, June 2001-May 2002," Visual Arts available from http://www.massmoca.org/visual_arts/past_exhibitions/visual_arts_past_2001.html; accessed December 6, 2006.


Engeli, Maia. "Ars Electronica 2004--the Exhibitions: Linz, Austria, September 2-7, 2004." Leonard on-line. Available from http://timesup.org/reviewed/ldr.pdf. Accessed December 5, 2006.
"Fluxus Games Exhibition Mixes Hijinks and High Art." Indepth Arts News. Available from http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2001/06/16/28719.html. Accessed December 1, 2006.
"Gameshow: Past Exhibition, Building 4 & 5, June 2001-May 2002." Visual Arts. Available from http://www.massmoca.org/visual_arts/past_exhibitions/visual_arts_past_2001.html. Accessed December 6, 2006.
Hertzfeld, Andy. "Alice." Folklore (1982). Available from http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story=Alice.txt. Accessed December 3, 2006.
Wolfgang Mieder, ed. A Dictionary of American Proverbs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Paul, Christiane. Digital Art. World of Art, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
Pearce, Celia. "Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Play." Visible Language 40, no. 1 (2006): 66-89.
Margaret Sundell, "Jodi - New York - Internet Art of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans," ArtForum (September 2003). Available from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_1_42/ai_108691821. Accessed December 5, 2006.
Terdiman, Daniel. "Roomba Takes Frogger." C/Net News.com (2006). Available from http://news.com.com/Roomba+takes+Frogger+to+the+asphalt+jungle/2100-1043_3-6049922.html. Accessed November 30, 2006.


GAMEOVER 2005 performance of Pong
GAMEOVER 2006 performance of Space Invaders

Andrew Y Ames is a new media artist and designer. A graduate of the University of Denver's BFA program in Electronic Media Art and Design, he is currently pursuing the MFA in Digital+Media at the Rhode Island School of Design. His designs, prints, and game modifications invite critical reflection on consumerism, politics, and media. Examples appear in the 2007 Web Biennial International Contemporary Art Exhibition of the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum and are available at arbitrarynature.com.











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