GIF from Theresa Duncan's "Smarty" (1996) game (via Rhizome)

GIF from Theresa Duncan’s ‘Smarty’ (1996) game (via Rhizome)

Theresa Duncan made a series of CD-ROM games in the 1990s aimed at young girls, encouraging imagination and adventure through playfully drawn, dreamlike narratives. But operating systems evolved, gaming moved to different platforms, and her work is now unplayable and overlooked. A new project from Rhizome is reviving this piece of digital history by making three of her games freely accessible online.

Currently crowdfunding an ambitious $20,000 on Kickstarter, the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs: Visionary Videogames for Girls campaign is part of Rhizome’s greater initiative to preserve digital work in a way that lets it be experienced in its original “environment,” in this case the Windows 98 operating system. Three games by Duncan — Chop Suey (1995, which she co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1997) — will be playable in any modern browser through the use of “emulation software” that simulates the original, intended system.

Duncan’s games offered wonder through a digital world that combined daydreams and the everyday, and they were majorly influential on digital art and gaming history. Sometimes collaborating with her boyfriend, digital artist Jeremy Blake (they both tragically died in apparent suicides in 2007), Duncan fostered a unique aesthetic that invited girls to explore. As Rhizome explains on Kickstarter:

Confronting a videogame culture lacking diversity of digital experience (shoot-em-ups and fantasy adventures for boys, prom role-play and dress-up for girls), Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROM work was something markedly different: uniquely personal, passionately invested in the creative possibilities of her medium, and daring (in the words of critic Jenn Frank) to “represent the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12.”

Rhizome adds that part of the goal is “contextualizing [Duncan’s work] within feminist gaming history.” There are still major voids in gaming for girls (see this week’s Barbie fiasco), and in particular how women are represented in video games, beyond just static objects or incentives for male protagonists. Adding Duncan’s voice back into the narrative in a way that lets people experience it firsthand is a valuable initiative as much for the current gaming landscape as its history. Rhizome plans to collaborate with the New Museum, where the nonprofit is in residence, to make Duncan’s work part of the First Look online series and hold an event in the spring of 2015.

Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs: Visionary Videogames for Girls is fundraising on Kickstarter through December 18. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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