Chicken Scratch

Couch potatoes, take note: There's a new video game that'll force you to exercise. To play Cockfight, you must don a high-tech cock costume, complete with feathers and beak, and use your body as a joystick -- that is, act like a deranged bird. The catch: Your only chance to play will be this Friday at Mixture Contemporary Art -- and you'll become an impromptu performance artist in the process.

If you don't think jumping around in a chicken suit in front of a horde of strangers is your bag, don't be so sure. "When you're playing," says Mark Allen, one of Cockfight's creators, "you focus on the game itself, not on yourself anymore, even though you're moving physically. It allows people to participate…without feeling self-conscious. You're focused on winning the game. We end up getting these amazing performances."

Here's how it works: The cock suits are rigged up to a screen so that when they move, the birds on-screen move. You must flap your wings to stay afloat. To move forward and backward, move your head. And to damage your enemy, claw him from above by hitting a pedal with your foot.

The concept is fairly simple, but a lot of really smart people, all of whom are members of the Los Angeles collective C-level, put a lot of effort into Cockfight.

Eddo Stern came up with the idea for C-level a couple of years ago. At the California Institute for the Arts, he'd studied integrative media, a program that mixes the arts with technology. After college, he started teaching new media and film at the University of Southern California. But Stern wanted to play around with technology outside the workplace, and he dreamed of creating what he calls a "communal computer and engineering lab, where we could share equipment and knowledge and wean ourselves off other institutions."

About a dozen people pitched in to form C-level in 2000, and it quickly became as much a performance space as a lab. One of the collective's earliest projects was a variation on the fighting video game Tekken. Players strapped on electrodes, and if they started losing the game, painful electric shocks would shoot through their arms, forcing their muscles to contract.

Who would want to play such a game? Lots of people, apparently. "It's totally fun," says Allen, who teaches new media and robotics at UC-San Diego. "There's something about it that creates a weird hysteria. You're playing this game that's both funny and painful, and it makes it more exciting, kind of raises the stakes."

The success of Tekken inspired Stern and Allen to create Cockfight. They enlisted friends Jessica Hutchins and Karen Lofgren to create the costumes. Allen built the hardware inside the wings and head of the cock suits, and Stern created the game's software. When they held a Cockfight session in L.A., "people became outgoing and extroverted and outrageous," says Stern. "Almost 100 people that didn't know each other beforehand started rooting for each other and yelling."

It didn't hurt that the audience was betting on the fights. For one round, Allen and Stern suited up and went head-to-head. "A lot of money was on the line when we were playing," says Stern, "but he kicked my ass. Hopefully, we'll have a rematch."

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Cathy Matusow
Contact: Cathy Matusow