Let’s all save these historic works of feminist game making from obscurity

In the midst of the “pink games” boom of the mid 90’s, a female-targeted CD-ROM emerged that appeared to treat its audience with a little more respect than usual. Chop-Suey, co-created by Theresa Duncan and Monica Gesue (with narration by then unknown author David Sedaris), explored the quirky everyday life of a midwestern girl. The vibrantly colored personal narrative even snagged Entertainment Weekly‘s 1995 CD-ROM of the Year award, contrasting the usually male-dominated list with a representation of (as critic Jenn Frank says) “the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12.”

Before her untimely passing in 2007, Duncan went on to create two other acclaimed and distinctly female CD-ROM adventures: Smarty in 1996, and Zero Zero in 1997. After less than two decades worth of time, these strong early examples of female-oriented game spaces and game making are already slipping into obscurity, disappearing from minds as effectively as CD-ROM drives are disappearing from the newest laptop models.

That’s why Rhizome, a NYC-based nonprofit digital arts organization, has taken to Kickstarter to raise the funds they need to preserve these important artifacts. As Rhizome curator Michael Connor explains, their interest and investment in preserving Theresa’s work is doublefold, because “they are an excellent example of the lyrical possibilities of the CD-ROM, and important, overlooked works by women—and I also want people, especially girls, to be able to explore and enjoy them again.”

“Connor and the Rhizome team have been working closely with Duncan’s family members, friends, and fans in order to deepen their already evident reverence for the work. “I love the sounds and smells that weave through the writing,” Connor praises, “the wacko humor, and the bulletproof cultural sophistication—the sense of a rich community of collaborators, and an absolutely unique central vision.” After recently re-playing Chop Suey with someone who was very close to Duncan, Connor found himself discovering even more wonderfully unconventional interactions. In a scene where the two main girls are at a picnic, for example, he learned that “if you pick up the X-ray glasses from the picnic table, you can see [the adults’] underwear under their clothes. It’s really funny, and it feels like an imaginative take on a very real and normal scene from a little girl’s life. There’s a lot of joy in that scene. If you click on the pickle, it will sing you a song about how it’s OK if you don’t like it, while Aunt Vera and Ned dance to tunes on the AM radio.”

“The general inaccessibility of legacy works of digital art is impoverishing our culture and holding us all back.” 

One of Rhizome’s core principals is the digital preservation of these kind of seminal but out-of-date computer-based art, a pursuit too often overlooked. As curator, Connor is adamant in his belief that “the general inaccessibility of legacy works of digital art is impoverishing our culture and holding us all back,” and that Duncan’s “project is one small effort to address this.” For him, the most urgent questions we face as a society in terms of the future of digital preservation, “will be less technical and more philosophical. What do we want to preserve, and why? What are the consequences of preserving something that was only ever intended to be used/circulated in a specific context? What might we want to forget?” 

For sofware-based work like Duncan’s Rhizome is using “Emulation as Service,” in the hopes that a modern browser-based system will make her as accessible as possible to a new audience. However, their digital conservator Dragan Espenschied is also working on developing a program called Colloq, a data recording system which can preserve interactions with cloud-based services like social media.

Possibly the most disheartening aspect of Rhizome’s campaign is just how needed and unconventional Duncan’s work proves to be, even now, after all the time we had to improve the industry’s attitude toward young female players. As a young game-enthusiast in the mid 00’s, I remember having zero options other than to play the games that either alienated me by ignoring my demographic or just flat out patronized it. When you’re little, you don’t have the words to describe your sense of dissatisfaction, but the hole remains there just the same. With a decade more of distance, the rise of smaller-scale games (like Nina Freeman’s work) have begun to fill that hole for me. But the problem remains the same: a new generation of young girls who must still feel as equally starved for relevant game worlds as the generation from two decades ago.

As Rhizome’s Kickstarter campaign most aptly puts it, “Videogame culture is at its best when it supports the narration and elaboration through play of a diversity of experiences. Unfortunately, as it was when Duncan made these games, this truth continues to be contested. So it remains essential that these games be widely known and played—not for the sake of the history of gaming, but for its future.”