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The Leonardo Gallery

Flaming Simon

by Eric Singer

© Eric Singer. Photo © Amy Whitehouse.
Email: amy at amywhitehouse dot com

"It's just like Simon . . . but with flamethrowers!" This is the line I use to draw people in. It provokes instant recognition on most people's faces, albeit instant confusion on others'. For those in the confused category, Simon is an early handheld electronic game, released by Hasbro in 1978. The concept behind Simon is simple: Repeat a random pattern played using four different electric lights and accompanying tones. The pattern length starts at one and increases by one with each successful repetition by the user.

In Flaming Simon, which appeared at Burning Man 2000 and 2005, the lights and sounds are replaced by flamethrowers. The player stands inside a square ring of pipes, 64 inches on a side and about 3 ft high. In each corner is an electrically triggered propane flamethrower. Inset from each corner is a video-game-style button. Hitting the start button mounted on the side of the ring begins the pattern. A single blast is emitted from one of the corners, which the player must repeat by hitting the associated button. The blast is then repeated, followed by a second one, and the player must repeat these two in order. The pattern length then increases to three, then four, etc., with each successful repetition. The blasts are close and intense enough to feel as though one is getting a suntan. (The motto of the Madagascar Institute, the arts collective where I created Flaming Simon, is, "Fear is never boring.") If the game-winning length of 20 is reached, the player is rewarded with an extended flame show. This has been achieved exactly once in the history of Flaming Simon, by an unassuming-looking "raver chick" at Burning Man.

The electronics for the first version included a hacked Pocket Simon, a modern, miniature version of the original electronic game. To this I added the electronics needed to drive the solenoids. For the 2005 version, I replaced this setup with a microprocessor programmed to emulate the original game but giving me more control over timing and game play. I also added a radio data transmitter that communicates with my Simon SynchroSuit, a jumpsuit with LEDs synchronized to the game play.

The reader may have a few questions at this point, such as, "Why create such a thing?" and, "Is it art?" I tend to leave such philosophical questions to others in the interest of simply making "cool stuff." My background is in interactive art---I like art that people can play with---and I consider electronic games to be one of the ultimate expressions of interactive art. I am also interested in the art of creating experiences. Finally, I have been a pyromaniac since I was a kid, having for example set the woods on fire "for fun" when I was 10. Combining these interests led to the idea of creating a game with fire, with the player in the middle of the experience. Thus, Flaming Simon was born.

Special thanks go to the capable helper monkeys of the Madagascar Institute (Brooklyn, New York), who helped build the original version, and to the BORG2 project, for funding the improvements to the current version of Flaming Simon.

Eric Singer, erok at flamingsimon dot com

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Updated 16 April 2007.

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