Augmentology" a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]


Sidequest! Screenshot

Don Woods famously added the more “Tolkienised” aspects of the Colossal Cave Adventure game after rewriting it in 1977. Woods’ rewriting/recoding/versioning of the game is another [TGOTT] inspirational treasure: Woods and others who have remixed and rewritten Adventure have opened this game to a constant flow of imaginative reinterpretations.

When immersed in Sidequest!, players may sometimes find themselves following an Ancient Path to a city inside the Hollow earth called Agartha. We members of [TGOTT] found an entrance at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. As we crawled through the portal we passed through – and became – Will Crowther, crafting his computer-mediated memory of the present moment to share with his daughters. With Admiral Richard E. Byrd flying overhead (in a story told to us by Dr. Raymond Bernard in 1969) and 2,300 miles beyond the South Pole through a hole in Antarctica, we/he began watching the sky mirror reflect the sky below as he went inside the Hollow Earth. UFOs and Governmental Secrecy? December, 1929? February, 1947? November, 1955? January, 1956? February, 2009? Many unanswered player questions can be found frozen in the Arctic ice.

There are more Sidequest! entries buried underground than the Library of the Mystic Arts. Since 1969, the ARPANET has run on dedicated cables which were themselves buried underground. This internet backbone stretched across the United States and now has (obviously) expanded to an international and ubiquitous scale. ARPANET, that early military-industrial-academic-complex of only a few nodes, literally lay the underground network for us to crawl through. We (as William Crowther) were instrumental in the original ARPANET development team when we worked at Bolt Beranek and Newman building core technologies. In Sidequest! there is an option to begin at this starting point and crawl into lower levels of the military-industrial-academic-operating-system. This point resides closer to the kernel beside a datastream tumbling along a Classical Von Neumann machine.

Sometimes we drift out of this datastream, sailing upstream against assumptions to the The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab: another Sidequest! story starting place. We surface in the warm Californian sun at the end of Arastradero Road. This road sits before the D.C. Power Building in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Californian foothills roll across the view with scattered trees underneath. Graduate Computer Science students run through these trees in infinite loops while attempting to decode the possibilities of playing chess with a majikal machine. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully and you, William Crowther, can remember when it was made of pure data and flowing along underneath the cave floor at 56K.

Sidequest! is written in Python with entries authored by jonCates and programmed by Tamas Kemenczy and Jake Elliott: metaphors are mixed and transcendentally transposed over unstable timespaces. As we crawl closer to the center of the game, the connections are more random and fleeting, and flirt with more self-reflective recursions. This is what we mean when we say Sidequest! is “cyberpsychedelic” through combining the effects of mixing Cybernetics and Psychedelics as cultural influences, technologies and aesthetic principles.


The Guardians of the Tradition are an Art Games guild that recently created Sidequest!: A Classic Cyberpsychedelic Text Adventure. In Sidequest! you – as the game character William Crowther – crawl through a generative, cut-up and recombined twisty little maze of passages through timespace that criss-crosses multiple networks. Examples of these networks include: Mammoth Cave, ARPANET, The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) and The Hollow Earth. This Art Game is playable online as well as being Free & Open Source Software Art.

The Guardians of the Tradition (or simply [TGOTT]) formed in 2009 after an invitation to participate in the “Play Up!” exhibition at the Jack Olson Gallery, Northern Illinois University School of Art. “Play Up!”, curated by Mike Salmond, featured work by Eddo Stern, Ben Chang and The Guardians of the Tradition. The Games Guild is made up of jonCates, Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy.

In 2006, [TGOTT] member Tamas Kemenczy created a text adventure engine/editor called Forklore, a collaborative platform for writing forked narratives via telephones. For our text adventures in Sidequest! Tamas employed a more generative approach so as to keep the game narratives coherent while also creating a significantly randomized, responsive and psychotropic narrative environment. This environment can collapse and regenerate depending on the gameplay. We define parameters (in order to keep the actions/subjects coherent) by keeping track of the avatar, chosen actions and the subjects acted upon. We use that ‘game data’ to generate text adventures (having the generated text adventures self-reflexively/recursively reflect the underlying state of the machine).

Sidequest! finds you, William Crowther, crawling through a generative twisty maze of passages, all different. The maze of passages is sometimes:

  • the caves William Crowther explored with his daughters prior to his divorce
  • the physical network of computers that constituted ARPANET
  • the original location of The Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL)
  • the mythical/mystical Hollow Earth
  • a cyberpsychedelic cutup of all these places/networks.

Will Crowther wrote Colossal Cave Adventure in 1975/1976. Colossal Cave Adventure is recognized as the classic/original text adventure that established this genre of gaming/Interactive Fiction. Patricia and Will Crowther:

  • traversed a tight passage between two networks of caves previously thought to have been unconnected in 1972
  • helped map Mammoth Caves in Kentucky
  • contributed to the field of spelunking
  • were in love
  • married
  • had two daughters (Sandy, born in 1967, and Laura, born in 1970)
  • by the mid-1970′s were divorced when Will Crowther wrote “Colossal Cave Adventure”.

Apparently Will wrote Colossal Cave Adventure to recreate his shared experience of crawling through/exploring cave systems (based on Mammoth Caves). His construction of the game was to allow himself and his girls a asynchronous existence in a virtual-memory-space after his divorce from Patricia. [TGOTT] are excited/inspired by the conceptual/emotional basis of this kind of game development and gameplay.

Shok Antwerp Transforms


The web was built on openness and designed from the ground up to enable sharing of code – view the source from early web pages for examples. Yet it seems that already Second Life content creators want strict restrictions on copying, even going so far as to support the DMCA. So, while the DMCA is decried in so many cases (such as the RIAA suing elderly women and children who don’t even own computers), Second Life content creators want to call upon it for protection. There are currently multitudes of useful business models built around open source and free sharing. Why do users of Second Life, who have the ability to create a new world and rethink the negatives associated with our geophysical one, want to rely on an obsolete notion of copy restriction? This acts to simulate the production of physically-templated objects instead of assisting in the understanding of new models which are based on (and flourish from) copying, sharing and building commons.

Ultimately, this is my argument: much like the alter-globalization movement wants to create a new world, an “other globalization” not based on corporate profit at the expense of the millions who are exploited, synthetic worlds present us with an opportunity to imagine and craft the kind of worlds in which we want to exist. While many argue that Second Life duplicates the problems of sexism, racism and homophobia that we see in the geophysical world, I would argue that we can’t ignore the way that corporations are shaping our synthetic environs.

Linden Labs are currently the ones responsible for offering new avatars birthed into a synthetic world that is bursting with potentialites. At present, these avatars have the choice of manifesting as Male or Female, City Chic or Clubber. Why aren’t Second Life standard avatars such as these included instead: Steamclock builder, Vampire Neko, Futanari and Transformer? Clearly, Linden Labs choose to please their conservative corporate customers by ensuring sexual standards conform along a traditional axis. If most of Second Life looks like a mall, perhaps that’s because the current system structure is constructed to maintain profitability from every Linden exchange in-world. Another crucial element of interoperability, it would seem, is an open money system. Where are the developers imagining new currency systems who were so active a few years ago? Where are all the offshore havens? It is the responsibility of the creators of, and those passionate about, synthetic worlds to act ethically in the construction of said worlds. Each user is responsible for the emergent system. In light of this, let’s start setting up those realXtend and OpenSim servers, working on the code for interoperable worlds, begin populating them and seeing what new creations and relations arise.
Mitch Kapor’s keynote speech presents current users of virtual worlds as marginal people in a “frontier world” that should expect the strong hand of the law to intervene, where the 3D sheriff strides into town on his new mount. Kapor said: “in the earliest wave of pioneers in any new disruptive platform, the marginal and the dispossessed are over represented, not the sole constituents by any means but people who feel they don’t fit, who have nothing left to lose or who were impelled by some kind of dream, who may be outsiders to whatever mainstream they are coming from, all come and arrive early in disproportionate numbers…that sort of arduous frontier conditions really give these environments their charm and their character…that is going to make things challenging for people who feel that as the frontier is being settled and there is less novelty and in some senses less freedom, it is always an uneasy transition for the pioneers.” Kapor goes on to say: “It was the way the west in the U.S. was settled. It is the way Second Life has been settled” and that he endeavours to make virtual worlds operate “in a more decentralized kind of way, one that Thomas Jefferson, if he were around, would be proud of…”. I, for one, want to abandon the whole wild west metaphor in relation to synthetic worlds. I would also hope that the settling of Second Life doesn’t involve the killing of millions of indigenous people and would not make slave owners proud. I prefer instead to think of synthetic worlds as birthed arenas based on the gestation of code. These arenas will then develop through nourishment provided by hardware and user creativity. The kind of decentralization that synthetic environments need to ensure freedom and growth would scare the hell out of Thomas Jefferson.

If the example of the web shows us anything, it is that users and developers can ensure some degree of freedom for the next few decades. While net neutrality threatens the future of that openness – as phone companies demand laws that guarantee the prevention of copyrighted films from being downloaded – new technologies like wireless mesh networks offer the possibility for hope. One of the most important and wonderful properties of the net is that problems are identified and routed around. It seems that synthetic worlds are at a point where some routing is necessary.