In the late nineties and early noughties, no video game forum was complete without a ‘post your desktop’ thread, and no desktop screenshot was complete without a snazzy Winamp skin displaying your personality and illicit MP3 collection. What a treat it is to scroll through the tens of thousands of skins on the Winamp Skin Museum and see the exciting, strange, colourful, and horny range of old Winamp skins. It’s a simple website showing off a whopping 65,681 skins as you scroll down, down, ever down through ancient digital artefacts. But which will you admit to using?
So much green Matrix text! So many video games! So many futuristic alien devices! So many anime babes! So many mock-Macs! So much rusty metal! I wish I could remember the names of skins I used, there was a beautiful teal one I’d love to see again. The only one I could find again is the System Shock 2 skin (below, in the middle).
Made by Jordan Eldredge, the Museum draws skins from the Internet Archive’s Winamp Skins Collection. Eldredge has also created a Twitter bot which tweets a skin every few hours, if you fancy having a bit of Zelda, Trigun, or mock-Mac popping up regularly in your feed.
As well as seeing the skins in action in the browser-based Webamp (listening to DJ Llama Mike’s Llama Whippin’ Intro), you can download them for keepsies – and still use them in ye olde Winamp or an updated version like Wacup.
Winamp skins always remind me of an era of weird and colourful website designs and Half-Life skins following the same few Photoshop tutorials, all trying to fake lighting and material properties in low-tech ways. Skins like FrameAmp which pretend to be futuristic devices, with LCD screens, brushed metal, and drop shadows – when the future would soon turn out to be just a slab of dark glass. Grungy, rusty metal with loose wiring like in The Rusty One. An era of fake wood and curves like retro-futuristic hi-fis. Airbrushed techno-organic horror like Doomed. So many skins emulating Apple’s Aqua style with gel buttons and brushed steel, like Tiger Brushed. And so many people slapped a picture over the skin and were perfectly happy with that, because it was a picture they liked.
As much as designers turned against skeuomorphism and especially against people blasting colours and pictures all over, I did quite like when software was more colourful and weird in this way. Made computers feel more playful, magical, and personal, even if it was perhaps less practical. I like that Nathalie Lawhead’s games and software keep that weirdness, wonder, and surprise of 90s internet and computers alive.
I did struggle to understand how a lot of these Winamp skins even work (did we really just memorise all the button locations?) and would go spare if my dayjob involved twiddling digital chrome dials on fake wooden panels. But I will confess I have put a big, distracting photo of a forest on a critical piece of RPS collaboration software, because I like the picture.