“HEY! What’s the Rumpus??” – The Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs

The Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs website is a thing of beauty.

When users open the page they are greeted with the phrase “Hey! What’s the rumpus?” in a young, friendly voice. It took me a couple of times opening the page to realize that it was the page talking to me, not the music I was listening to…

My approach to this practicum was to read through the entire website and click on the links in the text, which helped me understand the service which ran these 20+ year old games.

This website is a part of First Look: New Art Online – a “Series of innovative online projects and new commissions”. The New Museum, physically located in New York City, hosts a series of online only exhibitions on their platform – Rhizome. Their other exhibits seem similar to Theresa Duncan’s CD ROMs in format and language.

Rhizome is a great example of a collection of online exhibits and interpretation of digital objects. I really appreciate that their online exhibits are free, too!

As we all know, hardly anyone is capable of running a CD-ROM on their laptop. This is because our operating systems have changed drastically in the last 20+ years, and even in the last five years. In order to run Theresa Duncan’s games, the website uses a program called Emulation.

Emulation’s goal is to “provide a digital object’s native environment and thus maintain its original characteristics, look and feel, and utility.” Such a program is key in digital media preservation efforts now and in the future. It shows an understanding of forensic and formal materiality, and how a game (for example) is fundamentally different when run on a different operating system.

Emulation further clarifies that users can “Use Emulation as a Service to…”

The exhibit of the games goes through ten sections: Intro, The Games, Origins, A Trilogy, Story, Artwork, Music, New Ventures, Conservation, Thank You/Credits. The visitor could imagine these sections as labels or panels of a traditional exhibit. They are short and informative, something Beverly Serrell might approve of. (Sorry for bringing up such a treasured memory, PH MA people…)

My biggest “take-aways” from the exhibit is that the games were ahead of their time as a moving storybook geared towards girls and their interests. The folk-inspired aesthetic and narrative focus were quite different from the ‘fast-moving’ gameplay coming out in the ‘90s. Apparently the technology was actually quite advanced.

To play the games the player click arounds the city scapes in each game. This allows the player to ‘choose their own adventure’ and click on what interests them, but still come away with an understanding of the story. (Just like a visitor would to a good exhibit!!)

This is the “Home Page” of ‘Smarty’! I clicked on the house with the purple roof – Aunt Olive’s home
When the player arrives at this page, the narrator explains that this is Aunt Olive’s house, and that she lives with her “roommate” Rose. We can read into the history of female roommates another time…
When you click on the house, the player has the choice to enter the home or the cellar! There’s a fun underground poker game going on between some root vegetables…
There is a lot to do inside the home! Click on the TV and learn more about Smarty’s relationship with her aunt, or click on “Don’t Look – Top Secret” to type in your VERY OWN notebook! – I’ll show you mine later.

I’d like to point out that the exhibit has clips from within the game, which are saved on sound cloud! I feel like we barely scratched the surface when it came to the preservation qualities that sound cloud holds. Not only does this preserve the game, but also the work of the musicians, etc. who worked on the game content.

The exhibit concludes with a mention of conservation and changing media. In ’97, when the three games were successful, the author attempted a fourth CD. This one was a struggle because of the increasing popularity of online games and content. Overall, “these CD-ROMs offer a particularly compelling case for the cultural importance of digital art, with the potential to inspire a new generation of artists, scholars, game enthusiast, and of course, kids.”

Once I spent my time with the exhibit, I moved on to playing one of the games. I chose to focus on “Smarty” because it’s definitely a game I would have played in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s. I wonder how playing the game first would have affected my perception of it and how I experienced the game.

I highly suggest taking a 20-minute break from our current reality and throwing it back to the mid-90s by enjoying one of these fun games. Here are some of the cool things I found during my interaction with the game!

Here’s that notebook I mentioned earlier…
Password secure! Pretty cool for the targeted demographic… My inner 9-year old was SO excited for some real privacy.
Like I’d actually let you read my diary?? AS IF!

The leaving the game, you have the option of quitting or “saying goodbye”. I chose the say goodbye option, which finishes the narrative of the game. I really appreciate how the game combines fun game components along with a story. The activity can be mindless, or the user can be more invested in following the story. – Yet another reason to preserve this material!

Thanks for reading my post! Sending you all lots of good energy and positivity the next few weeks of COVID-19 quarantine boloney. Goodbye for now!

2 Replies to ““HEY! What’s the Rumpus??” – The Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs”

  1. Ani, thanks so much for this post–I LOVED checking out Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMS. Not only do these games feel very “of their moment” meaning, very 90s stylistically, but also convey narratives about girls, in particular, that transcend and develop over time and space. The fact that Emulation as a Service not only provides the opportunity to capture the artwork and music of these games as their own digital historic objects, but allow individuals 20 years later to play the game and make their own meanings? Amazing. This holds so much potential for the preservation and continual utilization of digital artifacts and really demonstrates the potential that gets at the questions Ippolito and Rinehart pose in their discussion of social memory and digital media.

  2. Great walk through the online exhibition and discussion of the function of emulation in the experience. It’s such a fun journey to a different place and time in these objects. CD-Roms really had a cultural moment as a form and format for publishing and this is such a great exemplar of that. It’s also worth underscoring that the work on creating and producing this online exhibition of these works played out as a real time reaction to surface and draw attention to the major contributions of women in videogames during the middle of the gamergate controversy, (more on that here https://www.theverge.com/2015/4/17/8436439/theresa-duncan-chop-suey-cd-rom-preservation ) which is a powerful story about how this kind of online exhibition can serve as an interjection in ongoing cultural dialogs.

    Carmen, great that you are drawing in Ippolito and Rinehart’s points about emulation as a preservation method. The potential to directly provide the interactive experience of a work in a lightly interpretive space like this is really powerful.

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