Art to Save the Internet

Owen Keefer ‘20

Arts Correspondent

Professors Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy’s Bamboo Forest, on exhibition in the Van Every/Smith Galleries.  Photo by David Ramsey. 

Once a year, the Van Every/Smith galleries exhibit the studio work of one Davidson professor to showcase the talent that we have hidden in the faculty.  This year, the exhibition includes the digital works of Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy–a pair who have worked together since meeting in 2006 at the University of California in San Diego.  This exhibition focuses on global trade and explores how digital technology influences consumer culture.

The center of the exhibition displays The Speed of Thinking, a mobile game that examines the relationship between transnational trade and global warming through a building block simulation.  The player controls the movement of a large cargo ship while shipping containers fall from the sky in hopes of catching all the containers to build a massive structure reaching into the sky.  The gameplay is most like a playful blend of Tetris and Jenga, and can be incredibly addicting. As you stack the blocks higher and higher, the blocks shift in hue to create an intricate framework that looks like a futuristic rainbow.  All the while, a stream of complicated jargon scrolls down the right hand side of the screen, detailing the costs of the traded products in each shipping container. The interplay between the casual fun of stacking blocks atop one another and the complex information about transnational business culminates in an intriguing mode of thinking about global issues.  The relatively easy gameplay allows the player to stack the blocks for as long as they desire, but this naive fantasy is ruined once the game overloads and crashes, a reminder of the overwhelming scale that comes with analyzing complex global systems.

If The Speed of Thinking fully immerses its audience within the uncontrollable details of global systems, the Bamboo Forest offers a much needed respite from the mechanization and automatic systems plaguing modern society.  As you walk into the cozy room filled with cushy bean backs, a three monitor display shows a woodland of bamboo softly swaying in the breeze, with speakers echoing the soothing sounds of nature.  The small room is consumed by the green light radiating from the bamboo leaves, creating a unique experience that is entirely contained within this one space.

The final room of the exhibition displays a browser extension game, Tally, that the pair have been working on for the past few years.  Much like The Speed of Thinking, Tally aims at providing its audience with a fun, casual experience while also communicating ideals about modern digital technology.  In an age of online trackers and targeted advertisements, the internet is littered with corporations trying to influence your behavior.  Tally is a game that helps block these sinister motives and make the internet a safer, more private place for you.  As you browse the internet, Tally, the titular, pink blob, will help you find “product monsters” when she detects that the web page is tracking your preferences.  The monsters transform everyday products into scary beasts, a reminder that you are constantly being watched underneath the smooth interface of the internet. Say you are browsing a site about movies and the website is trying to track you.  Tally will recognize the data trackers, and a scary movie projector, complete with teeth and flickering lights, representing the category of the website will appear on screen. You can then click on the product monster, and Tally will launch a quick battle segment with gameplay similar to Pokemon in which you can defeat the monster and block the data tracker.  Tally gives internet surfers the opportunity to play with the data that advertisers try to use against you and reclaim the right of online privacy.

I was lucky enough to work with Dietrick and Mundy over this past summer to help develop Tally.  With my background in digital art, my job was mainly to brainstorm and illustrate the product monsters that you would encounter throughout the game.  I had to transform everyday products into frightening cartoons, complete with a short wiggle animation. One of the main challenges that came with designing the monsters in such a minimalistic style was making sure each monster remained an emblem of its categorization.  With 698 different product monsters to create, finding a way for each monster to be individually unique was tricky, especially when some of the categories overlap so closely. How do I represent the difference between local news and national news through simple vector art? While not full-proof, I chose to make the distinction between these two closely related categories come from the media in which they are typically digested by the general public.  Newspapers feel more intimate and small scale, making it suitable for local news, while television broadcasts reach across the entire country, a more apt representation for national news.  The once innocent newspaper now bears gnashing teeth and the ordinary news anchor transforms into a raging beast.

Perhaps the most loaded, and difficult, product monsters ended up being the politics monster.  In a game that is already heavily critical of advertising companies and corporate powerhouses, the very act of creating a depiction of politics could be a political statement in of itself, so finding the right balance to keep the intent of the game focused on privacy rather than partisan politics was crucial.  My first sketch was a two headed beast in a suit, with one head a donkey and the other an elephant, but I quickly realized that this sort of iconography was problematic. Aside from only focusing on American politics, and the two party system, and the issue of conflating the two parties together, there was just too many opportunities for misinterpretation.  Instead, I returned to the core philosophy behind Tally–advertisements.  Continuing the media approach from the previously mentioned product monsters, I replaced the two headed beast with a mobile phone screen.  The screen displays the newly introduced “Political Ad” icon, a regulation passed last year by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA). The new guidelines stipulate that any advertisement online that expressly advocates for a specific candidate or platform must include the political ad icon to indicate to the target audience that the ad is attempting to persuade the viewer.  I felt that the political ad icon served almost as a microcosm for the entire game–a reminder that nearly all the advertisements you see online are tailored towards you through data trackers and algorithms.  

In addition to illustration the product monsters, I was able to tinker around with the sound design and compose the music the player would hear during the battle phase of the game.  I turned to iconic video game themes from the 8 bit era, like Mortal Kombat and Pokemon, for inspiration to continue the retro aesthetic into the sound design. Rather than trying to replicate the sound of these games in a modern program without limitations, I tried to imitate the conditions composers working with 8bit processing experienced.  In old chiptune music, there are only five channels that a composer can use. The first two channels produce a square wave, which creates a sound typically used for the melody. The third channel makes a triangle wave reserved for low tones and bass notes. The fourth channel creates noise, which has a variety of applications but is most often responsible for creating percussion beats.  The fifth and final channel is for pre-recorded sounds and offers the most flexibility out of the channels, though many composers did not utilize this channel due to memory issues.

The battle music for Tally, then, is constructed in an identical fashion.  There are only five tracks, with each one corresponding to the respective wave produced by 8bit sound boards (though the fifth channel may go unheard, as it is just used for additional percussion noises that the fourth channel was unable to make).  The thing about the battle music is that I had to create something that was unique and memorable, but would also loop seamlessly, and wouldn’t get annoying after listening to it time after time. Once you start a battle, you’ll be greeted by an energetic intro trill to kick off the combat.  Depending on whether you win or lose, you’ll hear a similar trill that either goes up in pitch to praise your success, or descends downwards to lament your defeat.
All the work I was able to do on Tally would not have been possible without Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy for granting me this opportunity, and I am excited to see the game launch in the upcoming year.  I’d also like to give a shoutout to Rebecca Cobo, who was my fellow intern this summer and produced some amazing work. Tally pursues the noble goal of keeping everyone’s data private and spreading awareness of the dangers of advertising corporations, all the while providing a fun and entertaining experience for its players.

Comments are closed.