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Tiny Thumbs at CentralTrak: The Arcade as Art

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Yesterday Culture Editor Jamie Laughlin checked in with a dispatch from Tiny Thumbs, the pop-up arcade at UTD. Today, in her regular column, art critic Betsy Lewis chimes in.

Popping with delightful, brainy concepts and aberrant deviations from the gaming norm, CentralTrak's "Tiny Thumbs" pop-up video arcade, which popped up over the weekend, was a total party, even for the non-gamers in the room.

This isn't your grandmother's Angry Birds app. Five experimental games created by independent normal people and students were up and running for one-night-only. None of the games had seating for the players, which made the night social and even collaborative. The hosts for the evening -- curators Bobby Frye and Kyle Kondas, CentralTrak's director Heyd Fontenot, and managers Laura Sewell and Brian Scott -- welcomed every person who came through the door in a way that doesn't often happen at a traditional gallery opening.

The tastiest bait for game-shy attendees was Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia. Anthropy describes the game as "an autobiographical game about the period in my life when I started hormone therapy," and it slyly corners the player into the self-conscious, absurd reality of becoming transgendered. I've heard a lot of talk about interactive storytelling for years, and Dys4ia nails it. It's the simple moments of Anthropy's distress that break you heart while making you laugh, like the game-task of shaving chest hair from new curvy breasts. That's gotta be a WTF? moment for both gaming evolution and the history of empathy.

The other standout was Constellations, an installation by UTD students Travis Ballard, Steven Billingslea, Spencer Evans, Skylar Rudin, and Jainan Sankalia, that mimicked a camping tent on a dark night when thousands of stars can be seen by the naked eye. Located in a small living space down the residency's narrow corridor, the game screen was projected on the ceiling, the player sprawled on the floor beneath it, looking upward, and comfy seating lined the walls for spectators. Using r controller, the player drew lines from star to star-of-choice, creating unique constellations in the universe (and the authentic universe at that, on an image supplied by NASA). While I was camped out on a couch mesmerized by all this, a nerd child around ten years old came in and started analyzing the technology and the astronomy. Silly child betrayed the mellow atmosphere, and was too innocent to see this room would be best enjoyed by the stoners among us. Clearly.

Overheard at Tiny Thumbs:

"My nipples are incredibly sensitive." -- Player of Dys41a, reading the screen

"What are we trying to do?" "I don't know." -- Clueless non-gamers playing You Have to Win the Game

"This game is all about frustration." -- Bobby Frye, co-curator of TinyThumbs

"I am trying to redraw the Big Dipper how I want it." -- College student playing Constellations

"No... Noooo!... NOOOOOO!!!!!" -- Player of Pole-Riders

Frye and Kondas hope to make the pop-out arcade an ongoing delectation at CentralTrak, the artist residency of UTD, where both are on faculty in the Arts & Technology program.

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