Software is Art! (KhK Games class talk transcript)

This is the talk transcript of a talk I just gave as a guest speaker at the KhK Games class. Thank you for inviting me!
They also have a beautiful page here, where you can see equally as beautiful work.

This talk is about viewing software, the desktop, and all our virtual environments as art. Treating all these platforms as legitimate spaces that we can create stories in. The intersection between software, websites, and games is an inspiring area…

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Links in this slide…
(Edit: I got the unicornycopia url in this slide wrong, sorry!)

My name is Nathalie. I go by alienmelon online and in my work.
I’m a net-artist, experimental software developer, and game designer.

My work leans very much into the experimental direction. I’ve been doing this sort of thing since the late 90’s. I like to joke that I’ve been at it since before e-mail spam was a problem.
I’ve grown up, and also creatively evolved, with all these different computer eras, and that’s kind of a history that I like exploring in my work.

If you like, you can see more of my work in that slide. It’s very different, and kind of the type of thing I live for as an artist.

So I’m going to talk about how Software is art!

You know how we are constantly talking about “are games art?”… that discorse that we’re really tired of having.
Yes, ok, I’m here to also contend that software, in itself, can be art.
Software, the stuff we use on our computers to work on. The apps that are so plain, so normal, that they are invisible to us… that entire space is an amazing type of creative expression to explore too.

I’ll show some of the stuff that I’ve made while exploring this train of thought, and also how that type of software has always been part of computer culture.
Even though it’s largely unrecognized, we’ve always had something like that in some form or another.

Years ago I made this parody anti-virus software called Electric File Monitor.

Electric File Monitor presents itself as a prison industrial complex for your computer. It lets you “monitor” all your files, and what they are doing. It will then randomly accuse files of being viruses.

So basically you have this space in the UI where it shows files, that are on your actual drive (all the information is pulled from your disk and is representative of what actually exists on your computer)…
The program then will show what all your files are “doing”, like if they’re talking to eachother, making a joke, and then it will accuse them of random suspicious behavior.

For example, a file made a bad joke at another file. An alert will show telling you that and giving you the option of throwing them into file prison, placing them into file interrogation, or put them in the file lineup so you can choose the most suspicious file to send to prison.

The entire program is a joke about our inclination to believe an authority figure based just on their word alone. Files are suspicious only because the program said they are.
It doesn’t matter if they are innocent or not. Since they were accused by the system, then they must be criminalized.
Anti-virus software false flags stuff from indie devs all the time just because devs don’t have the financial ability to properly sign their stuff, or pay for expensive certificates. The idea of “safety”, even in computer culture, is already very biased towards those with more economic advantages.
There are a lot of layers to this, and you could interpret this in a lot of ways.

So… based on all the files that are accused by Electric File Monitor, and how many of them that you send to jail, you can accumulate a fictional currency. The fictional currency is just called “financials”.
If you interrogate a file before sending it to prison you get more financials.
If you put them in a lineup you get more financials too.
Once files are sent to prison, you then have to control the prison population.
If you have too many files then files riot and you lose money and guards.
You have to regularly clear out the file inmates, to get money, and control the population.
Depending on how many you have when you clear out the inmates, you get more money, so there’s some superficial number and time management that you have to do.

Electric File Monitor is something that you could technically run in the background while you work, but it throws so many alerts, and demands so much attention that it soon becomes more like a game.
What I think is funny about the financial system in it too is that if you get into too much debt (have a negative income) then the program will not let you close it until you pay off your debt.
So you see how it uses a lot of functionality native to programs and our OS to kind of tell a story, make a joke, or statement…

Based on how much money you get, you can unlock awards.
Awards are just these really superficial vanity trophies that award how great of a dungeon you have. You buy these to make inmates feel happy about being in a prestigious dungeon. The more awards you have, the less likely files are to riot.

To “win” (there is a win state) you have to buy retirement. There is one award that you can buy which is a “fancy home in a rich neighborhood”. If you buy that before you retire then you go broke because you can’t make rent in the end…
Each of these awards exports as an image file. One of them is a .pdf guide that’s a bunch of marketing junk about how to run a successful dungeon.
There are a lot of jokes in this.

So that’s a lot, but it’s a good overview of how you can take this seemingly innoculous type of software (anti-virus software) and actually build a story around it. These computer systems that are so invisible to us, like the desktop, can actually be a great space for communicating something.

As another example of this…
I have this narrative experiment desktop based game-thing called A_DESKTOP_LOVE_STORY, where you download this zip file.
In this zip file are two folders, each inhabited by a file.
One file is called the “shy file”, the other is called the “cute file”.

Shy File is in love with Cute File but doesn’t know how to tell them.
Because of “system restrictions” (literally, files don’t have that much power) they need your help to cary messages back and forth. These messages are love letters in the form of text files, or images, that the files themselves generate.

When you place what they give you in the respective folder, the file that the message is for reacts, and that’s how the story progresses.

Eventually they need your help to meet. You drag them into the same folder, and then they live happily ever after.

This entire little story is based on files reading what is in their folder. It’s a really niche type of functionality that you can get out of software.
Usually stuff like this is used for normal software, but you can take these features and build a story with them too. The way files exist on a desktop can be the actual game.

There’s something innately special about taking these really dead, cold, indifferent, purely functional systems on our computers and giving them “life” as weird quirky software.

There’s so much yet to be explored in this space. I think it’s really exciting for how unique it is!

Links in this slide…
* About desktop pets & virtual companions: discussing the inhabitants that fill the void of our digital spaces
* Shimeji
* Prank Software
* desktop pets & virtual companions…

So that takes me to one of my favourite topics: Dekstop Pets!

To me, desktop pets are kind of like this surviving relic from a time when computers were viewed more as our own “personal spaces” and not so much as something we rent from corporation’s like Apple or Microsoft.

During their heyday, people would share, customize, and collect these strange little virtual characters that would live on your desktop and run while you engage in other tasks. Like it was popular to do your homework and have something like the Crash Bandicoot desktop character running around behind your windows.

I view desktop pets as part of people’s desire to customize these spaces.

Windows 2000 and Windows XP had thriving communities that specialized in creating themes for these OS’s. People would change everything from the default cursors, screensavers, wallpapers, and even the bootup screen for the OS. They would share all that. It was ridiculously popular, and kind of the era where desktop pets really came into their own.

Desktop pets went by many definitions such as screen crawlers, wanderers, or walkers, or virtual pets.
There were Geocities pages dedicated to curating and finding them. People often just shared .exe’s of various ones, hosted on their personal websites. There was a risk of downloading viruses but that didn’t stop anyone.
There were also communities dedicated to hacking and customizing some of them so you could change them into your favorite anime character, Pokemon, or whatever you were into. Shimeji is a really good example of that.

I think, as our digital spaces started getting more controlled, installing random stuff started getting more discouraged. It was harder to customize your digital space, the internet shifted from personal websites to social media… desktop pets started to see their decline.
There are a lot of theories and histories for desktop pets. This would be my take on them.

Today you can still find desktop pets on itch. There are a few developers that enjoye making them, myself included, but it’s nowhere near as popular as it once was.

I think, overall, this is a really interesting and important era in our computer culture to learn from. Not for its “nostalgia” but for the way people related to computers. For how our relationship to our virtual spaces once was.
We expected them to be “homes”. Some desktops still refer to that part of the drive as “Home”. A home is a place that you live in, that you customize to your liking, that gets filled with your stories.
That’s when software from smaller devs was so interesting too!
I mean, look at Prank Software, and you’ll see that most of it is still based on Windows XP. It’s so fascinating tho how people would search for these silly things, and how important it was to them.

People made and shared really wild and silly things specifically meant to differentiate our virtual spaces. You can also look at winamp skins to illustrate that too.
The way people would strive just to customize this one common object, and how important it was to them, illustrates our desire to transform software into something unique or personal.

So, observing all these mentalities, I think it’s a wonderful philosophy to bring into software development. Software can be creative. It can be different, “genre defying”, experimental, have a story, be immersive… There’s no reason that software needs to be this indifferent space meant only to maximize output.

For example, look at older tools like KidPix or Kai’s Power Goo as wonderful examples of how we can relate to UI as more than just UI.
I think it’s interesting how counter intuitive, and almost “unusable” these tools are (if you go by modern usability guidelines) but people would spend hours in them. People still look back at them fondly. I think that speaks to the power of uniqueness in software.

It’s about imbuing personality into these digital spaces… What we have on a comptuer, on the desktop, in our mobile interfaces… All this is also an environment. It’s a place that we live. I spend hours just staring at the same computer screen. The desktop that this talk was assembled in is just as important to me as my bedroom.
We spend a lot of time in these UI’s. I think it’s interesting how invisible they are to us, but we live in them so much.

I think that’s probably the most fascinating area to explore tho, in terms of using it to make art or tell a story.
Software, just as a concept, can be so much more.
It can be as meaningful to us as games are.

As an example from my own work, I’m exploring a lot of this with the Electric Zine Maker, and the fictional world that’s surrounding it.

The Electric Zine Maker is a zine making printshop, art tool, art toy… and generally a fun space to make cute literature in.

It’s more like a toy than a tool because it’s built to encourage playing around with all the strange and unusual art tools it has to offer.
It lets you easily make print-ready zines, without having to fiddle with templates or layouts.

When you open it, you select the type of zine that you want, you then fill out the “panels”, or pages. Once you’ve put your art into everything, all you have to do is print.
That’s the gist of it.

What I think makes it special to people is how unusual and playful it is. Many of the art tools in the drawing interface are more like toys. You have paint that expands like a balloon, brush strokes that you can glitch out and then paint with glitches, ASCII art tools, and lots of ways of combining various tools to make unusual and interesting looking things.
You can make cool art by not at all knowing what you are doing, just click random things and see what happens.

It’s very much about goofing around, and the tool encourages that with all the colorful playful interfaces.

Many of the sillier tools, like the Toast tool (part of the breakfast collection), or the Goldfish tool, have their own unique interfaces that look nothing like the main interface. The UI keeps switching up, and there are little hidden extras everywhere that you can find if you click around.
For example, if you go to the ASCII drawing tool, and you minimize one of the windows there, you find a cute cat that you can pet.
Some UI elements talk back, or there are little pieces of a story that you can find.

There are also references in a few places saying that the Electric Zine Maker was made with Mackerelmedia Fish. This is a fictional technology for the tool, and part of its surrounding fantasy world.
If you click on those links, it takes you to the website and you discover more about the story and technology.
All this builds a fictional space for you to explore. There’s a lot of story surrounding it.
The idea was to treat the software more as an object, or digital relic, that has this allure to it. Kind of like how you have “cursed objects” this would be a “cute object”.

So you have a tool, you make zines, but there’s also this fantasy world hovering behind it.
All this illustrates my premise that software is art too!

You are making art (your zines), in a tool that’s designed to be more like a game. It’s someone’s art that you’re making your art in.

It’s kind of exploring this interesting intersection between games and tools. It’s not completely gamelike enough for people to fully relate to as a game, but it’s very much built as one (with all the philosophies and design approaches).

Links in this slide…
* Art Sqool
* Kind Words by Popcannibal
* Library of Babble
* Creative Artist and Creative Writer
* Mario Paint

You kind of see examples like this happening in the game space. ART SQOOL is a drawing tool with a story built around it. There you’re given drawing assignments and you navigate this cute world and draw things that you find.
Kind Words by Popcannibal is a letter writing tool that’s surrounded by this beautiful world, story, space… and you write letters to people.
Library of Babble is a writing tool within this beautiful abstract digital space. The way the space is built encourages people to leave behind these poetic messages for others to find.
There are so many classic edutainment based examples too, like the Creative Artist and Creative Writer suites from Microsoft. Mario Paint is another that’s really good to examine too.
Mario Paint is a wonderful one to dissect for how playful the UI is and how it merges these game-like elements with it. It’s full of surprises, without distracting from the tools. It’s kind of like the playful aspect enhances the creative aspect. It’s encouraging to create in all of these things.
There are so many examples, and the further back in computer culture you go, the more you find…

Desktop pets serve as an extension to our digital spaces, livening them up…
Tools like the Electric Zine Maker further play into the fantasy that these digital spaces are more than just “a desktop”. They are more than just a productivity oriented environment that we have to work in. They are an actual space, part of a virtual world (in their own way), and we spend legitimate quality time in them.
Our digital environments (all the way from the desktop to mobile interfaces) are part of our lives in meaningful ways. As artists, and developers, we should take them over. There’s a lot of room for creative expression here.

A desktop is not just a place that you run a game on, as an isolated .exe, it can be used as an actual game too!
I think it’s a wonderful way of claiming a narrative for these digital spaces.

So that’s the idea in all of this: Software itself can be art, convey a message, be part of a narrative, even tell a story through its UI…
UI is more than “just UI”. There’s nothing meaningless about a two dimensional space. It’s just as legitimate of a space, with a story behind it.

It’s not just about what you ask people to run, as a packaged standalone app, it can be the packaging too!

Like I mentioned how the Electric Zine Maker has this story world it lets you discover, on… I like this example because I think it’s amazing how you can carry all these philosophies into websites too… then have them come back into the game or software that you’re making.
The entire combination of platforms, technologies, packaging… is the game (or experience). Not just a single part of it.

The entire thing, the program you give to people, the surrounding packaging, the website… all of it can be part of a fictional world.

As game designers I think we often stop at just giving people “a game”, that’s a packaged application, and that’s how people play the game… when I think just the fact that a game must live on a digital space (like the desktop) lends it to so much more.
What if the player must discover the game first? They find it by playing digital archeologist on a website and then accidentally find this thing.
What if just in the way that you deliver it to them is part of a larger fiction?
There’s so much more that we can do, just by virtue of these things already existing in a virtual environment.

Nothing on the computer is real. The desktop isn’t really real. It’s all virtual. Some abstract conceptualized simulation… I think it’s funny how we still end up accepting certain ways of interacting with them as “normal” and not really explore beyond that.
Why not really “own” our spaces, by finding ways of incorporating that into the game we make?

It’s such an intriguing thing to give to people.

For example, if you go play you find this website that has supposedly been long abandoned, advertising this fictional technology.

You assume the role of a digital archeologist and eventually find out that you’re looking for The Fish. The website just kind of assigns you that, so why not…

As you dig around you find a locked open directory. You eventually find the password for that, and the directory itself then is a series of environments.
Eventually, as you reach the end, you find a locked file.

The locked file is hosted on a fictional account. Itch is treated as part of the game too.
If you played through the website then you’ll have the name and password to unlock that file.
When you do get that information, you find “The Fish”. Fictionally, it’s a degraded version of the bigger thing that once existed.
It’s a really cute adorable desktop pet that swims around and interacts with you.

Overall each of these pieces isn’t much. If you find the locked Fish file on itch, without context of what it’s part of you can still discover what it is by digging into the links it gives you.

Surprisingly, people do really dig into this (even though the purpose is not clear at first) because each of these pieces is intriguing. It kind of plays into how we used to browse websites, or interact with the internet… Discover strange things, and dig into them.

As a final example…

I recently rebuilt and relaunched this older project, so it runs on the Modern Web. It’s… This was a website that once hosted Flash games.

With the death of the Flash Player, I relaunched it so that you can download the games. The website doesn’t just outright give you most of the games.
First you have to find the games, and then you have to find the password for them so you can access the secret itch pages.
You find the password by digging around, exploring all the odd nooks and crannies of this space.

Tetrageddon is inhabited by a lot of weird little digital characters. It’s portrayed as this heavily degraded, broken, and abandoned space.
I think an interesting thing about assigning “story” to UI is the way you intentionally degrade it. Errosion is a way of making something look like it has a history. When we design 3D environments, you notice that nothing is really perfect. There are little flaws, cracks, details… All that makes the space meaningful. The same holds true when approaching UI design as an environment.
Things have a story because they look lived in. It’s kind of a mindset that you can see illustrated in my work like Tetrageddon or “Everything is going to be OK“. The intentional brokenness.

So Tetrageddon is not just about downloading these Flash games, it’s also about learning about the world surrounding them.

I mean, it might seem counterintuitive to lock your games and task people with finding a password first, but I think that makes them all the more interesting.

We’re kind of “told” how to use our computers, what our relationship to “a game” on a computer is (an exe that you run, and it is its own packaged thing)… We all kind of agreed on these as the default ways of viewing this stuff.
But I think amazing things happen when you allow the game to “spill out” of that container. To invade other spaces, and live in these spaces. It’s an entirely different way for people to interact with something.

I think it’s really amazing when devs try to find their own language in all this. Find ways of doing it their own way.

After all, things like the desktop are already an abstract virtual space. There’s no reason why we need to use it just that one way, the same way that anyone else uses it. We can invent different ways of looking at the same thing.

This is why looking back at the older computer eras is so inspiring to me. Kind of looking at other ways that people had a relationship to things like a desktop.
This is such a wonderful space to explore as an artist.

Software can be a game too. Software is art too!