“Les deux” / “The Two”

[English follows…]

Mon générateur d’histoires “The Two” est désormais en ligne avec une traduction française, “Les deux” , de Serge Bouchardon. La version anglaise était auparavant disponible en Python. C’était le second de trois générateurs de 1k que j’avais réalisés à la fin de 2008. “Les deux” génère des histoires toutes simples de trois lignes, mais dont l’effet de sens n’est peut-être pas si simple. Les versions anglaise et française sont à présent disponibles en JavaScript et sont ainsi facilement accessibles sur le Web.

My story generator, “The Two,” is now online along with a French translation, “Les deux,” by Serge Bouchardon. The English version of the story was previously available in Python. It was the second of three 1k story generators that I wrote near the end of 2008. “The Two” generates three-line stories in a straightforward way, although the effect may not be straightforward. Both French and English versions are now available in JavaScript, so they can be run from the Web easily.


Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010
Gatz, Elevator Repair Service, directed by John Collins, at American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, MA, Jan 7-Feb 7 2010

This play answers the question “what’s six and a half hours long, uses every word of The Great Gatsby as its text, and cannot be staged in New York?” Gatz is an admirable, extreme adaptation. Most of the words are spoken by Scott Shepherd, who reads Nick’s dialogue and his narration. A large cast voices other parts and also puts on effective dumbshows. On the empty space of the stage, a low-rent, aging office makes a second space which then is wittily made into a third, one which includes West Egg and Gatsby’s mansion. The set initially harbors a (broken) computer but is made to connect to the 1920s via windows, a swivel chair, and other elements. Actions are carried out before they are verbally narrated, so that the words sometimes become a sort of comical rimshot, anticipated by the actors; both actions and words get space of their own this way, too. The result, odd as it may seem, is both playful and faithful, capable of satisfying avant-garde theatergoers as well as great books enthusiasts.

A Note on the Word “Zork”

Yes, It’s a Nonsense Word

The lowdown on Zork‘s name, inasmuch as a lowdown has been provided in print, was given by authors Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, and Tim Anderson in 1979 in the article “Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game,” Computer 12:4, 51-59 (April 1979):

The first version of Zork appeared in June 1977. Interestingly enough, it was never “announced” or “installed” for use, and the name was chosen because it was a widely used nonsense word, like “foobar.”

This is a clear explanation, but it raises the question of how this particular nonsense word came into wide use at MIT. It seems reasonable to pursue this question, and reasonable that there would be some discernable answer. After all, there’s a whole official document, RFC 3092, explaining the etymology of “foobar.” It could be interesting to know what sort of nonsense word “zork” is, since it’s quite a different thing, with very different resonances, to borrow a “nonsense” term from Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll as opposed to Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara. “Zork,” of course, doesn’t seem to derive from either humorous English nonsense poetry or Dada; the possibilities for its origins are more complex.

Slouching from “Zorch”?

In the first part of “The History of Zork,” The New Zork Times 4:1 (Winter 1985), Tim Anderson adds to the earlier discussion and suggests a possible derivation for the word:

Zork, by the way, was never really named. “Zork” was a nonsense word floating around; it was usually a verb, as in “zork the fweep,” and may have been derived from “zorch.” (“Zorch” is another nonsense word implying total destruction.) We tended to name our programs with the word “zork” until they were ready to be installed on the system.

“Zorch” is listed in Peter R. Samson’s 1959 “TMRC Dictionary” – the dictionary of the Tech Model Railroad Club, an organization that was important in helping to begin and foster recreational computing. The term meant, at that time, “to attack with an inverse heat sink” – that is, to attack with a heat source – and is explained as “Another of David Sawyer’s sound effects, which I reinterpreted as a colorful variant of ‘scorch.'” It could also be imagined as a variant of “torch” – either way, the application of heat is suggested. This definition is consistent with the sense of “zorch” that Anderson gives, although a bit more specific. It is quite possible that “zork” does derive from “zorch,” as Anderson and others guess, but it is not clear why a word so derived would then be used as a placeholder program name. It’s also at least arguable that “zork” sounds less destructive than “zorch,” as the unintimidating back-formations “scork” and “tork” suggest. If that’s the case, why would a less intense term come to be used when the original term is more intense and very comical? While the “zorch” etymology might be right, it at least seems worthwhile to look to other possibilities.

Textbook Examples

“Zork” occurs occasionally, although rarely, as a proper name in various print sources in the decades leading up to 1977. Google Book Search reveals that some more nonsensical uses occur in some textbook examples in the 1970s. In Introduction to Experimental Psychology by Douglas W. Matheson, Richard Loren Bruce, and Kenneth L. Beauchamp (1970, 2nd. ed 1974) the meaningless “zork” model is introduced as a contrast to a medical model. “Zork” is also used as a fictional place name in Henry F. DeFrancesco’s 1975 Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts. There is some chance that the term was picked up from such a source. Zork explicitly pokes fun at the material nature of textbooks by including a “this space intentionally left blank” joke, which refers to a message sometimes printed on textbook’s blank pages to let readers know that they have not been left blank due to a printing error. Given this, it would be hard to rule out to possibility of the term “zork” coming from a textbook. Of course, the term could have appeared at MIT indirectly, in an example given in a lecture, on a problem set, or on a test, even if a book with the example in it was not assigned as a text. But there is nothing to strongly recommend this etymology, either. And while the former textbook example is clearly the more vivid, it is also much less likely to have been encountered by the Zork authors, [updated January 10] since they were involved with a computer science research group, Dynamic Modeling. MIT does not now have a department named psychology, but Course 9 (now Brain and Cognitive Sciences) was called Psychology from 1960-1985.

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, cover

There has been some speculation – specifically, in this mailing-list thread – that the term “zork” may come to MIT via John Brunner, whose poetry chapbook A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork was published in 1974. Although the sense of the word as it appears in the title is completely consistent with the MIT meaning of the term, it is not clear that this 24-page pamphlet, published by Square House Books in an edition of 200 (50 numbered and signed), had made it to MIT by the time Zork coalesced, beginning in 1977. Nevertheless, the idea of a science-fictional vector for the term is appealing.

How Brunner Happened upon “Zork”

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, page 2

On the unnumbered second page of A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, Brunner notes that “the title resulted from Simon Joukes’s first encounter with a typewriter that didn’t speak Flemish.” According to this history of Dutch and Flemish fandom, Simon Joukes was active in Flemish fandom and was a part of the club Sfan, helping to publish Info-Sfan, which became SF Magazine.

A Belgian typewriter

Here is a Belgian typewriter, manufactured by Olivetti. (This blog post is the source for the image.) The letters are laid out just as they are on a French typewriter, in the AZERTY scheme. As you can see, if you’ve learned to type the word “WORK” on a typewriter like this, and someone then substitutes a British (or US) typewriter without your noticing, and you then try to type that word without looking at the keys, you’ll type “ZORK.” (Since the “W” and “Z” are switched in this layout, the same thing would happen to a British typist who uses to a Belgian typewriter without noticing how the keys are labeled.)

It’s particularly appealing that this etymology makes zork an altered form of, or an alternative to … work.

Another Science-Fiction “Zork”

Brunner’s use of “zork” in the title of his book was not the first appearance of the word in science fiction. The word made an appearance earlier in Lin Carter’s novel The Purloined Planet, published in 1969. It was used in the name of an important character … “Zork Arrgh.”

The Purloined Planet, page 109

It’s likely that Brunner at least glanced at the name of this key character. Lin Carter’s novel was published in a Belmont Double edition with “two complete science fiction novels.” The other was Brunner’s The Evil That Men Do.

The Purloined Planet, cover

While Simon Joukes may have typed out the word “Zork” and directly inspired Brunner’s 1974 title, the word may have rang out to Brunner as interesting and particulaly amusing because of Carter’s earlier use of it.

“Zork” and How She Is Spoke

There is some chance that people at MIT saw Brunner’s slim book of poems, but it seems far from certain. As of this writing, WorldCat lists only four university libraries in the United States that have this limited-edition book. MITSFS, the MIT Science Fiction Society, boasts the world’s largest open-stack library of science fiction and has 83 titles by Brunner in its catalog – but A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork is not among these. The Evil That Men Do / The Purloined Planet is in the collection, however.

Even when all of these additional leads are considered, it seems there is no strong conclusion to be drawn about the deeper etymology of the name of MIT’s, and Infocom’s, most famous text adventure. “Zork” might have been a corruption or further development of “zorch.” It may have entered the argot because of its use in an amusing curricular example, perhaps thanks to Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts or another textbook that hasn’t yet been ingested into Google Books. Or, science fiction may have been the vector for the word. If it was, though, it seems likely that it made its way into MIT speech not because of Brunner’s book of poems, but thanks to Zork Arrgh, a key character in 1969 novel by Lin Carter, one that was sitting on the shelves at MITSFS.

Perhaps more evidence will come to light, and the origins of the word “zork” as it was used at MIT in the late 1970s will become clear. Or, it may be that the origins of the word are lost forever – obliterated in a nook of a subculture’s linguistic history that has been irreversibly zorched.

A Casual Revolution

A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010
A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010

Juul’s latest, like his Half-Real, offers many insights, particular and general, while being succinct and clear stylistically. The book is not just about matching tile games, although there’s a good chapter on them and their genealogy. It’s about the moment in the history of videogaming where games overflow their “hardcore” niche and begin to appeal to everyone. Juul describes the stereotypes of casual and hardcore games and players; then he demonstrates, using data from many interviews, exactly how they’re wrong. An important, high-level innovation involves figuring out how to study both games and players – in this case, to understand what exactly is meant by “casual games” and how much of what we associate with that has to do with “causal” modes of play. There’s also an excellent analysis of the social space of play in front of the screen, in Guitar Hero and Wii games. A Casual Revolution will be valuable for academics and those in industry, and will help keep the sun shining on games.

Micro Art Machines

Here are some tiny bits of code to generate some amusement and aesthetic value.

The album sc140 features 22 tracks, each one generated by no more than 140 characters of SuperCollider code. You can download 80 MB of MP3 (for the weak!) or grab the source code (less than 4 KB, with all the formatting) and, if necessary, install SuperCollider, which is free in every sense. Here’s a November New Scientist blog post about the album.

On the visual and literary side, check out Pall Thayer’s Microcodes, tiny art pieces in Perl. Thayer also offers a PDF guide to the appreciation of tiny programs. Some of Thayer’s program incorporate play with the human-legible dimension of code; “WAR has NO value,” now on the front page, is a simple and nice example of this.

IGF Finalists Announced

The 2010 Independent Games Festival finalists have been announced. Especially interesting to me are the finalists and honorable mentions for the IGF Nuovo Award, an award intended to “honor abstract, shortform, and unconventional game development which advances the medium and the way we think about games.” My collaborator, Ian Bogost, has a game in the finals: A Slow Year, a suite of four 1k games for one of his, and my, favorite platforms … which means that he’ll be brining an Atari 2600 to GDC this year to display his wares.

Every Day the Same Dude

From a 4 January 2010 conversation between Mary Flanagan and Nick Montfort:

nick: so, I just have this question about the way you (and someone else) reacted to gender stereotyping in a nightmarish/dystopian/stereotypical game environments

nick: you wrote While there are some glaring stereotypes that take away from its freshness and originality (especially in regard to gender; the character’s wife is in the kitchen with a frying pan in the morning and tells the character he is late for work; the office execs are all male, etc.) about Every Day the Same Dream [previously on Post Position]

nick: it struck me because I was describing a student project to a poet

mary: y

nick: one which was completed before that game launched

nick: but had a similar stereotyped/nightmare world made of words in 3D space

nick: one of which was “wife”

nick: and my poet friend said “spouse”!

mary: ok….

nick: but I don’t understand why these negative-valence spaces that embody stereotypes in all these other ways

nick: are supposed to be equitable when it comes to gender

mary: well…

mary: I am not partial to other stereotypes either

mary: unless they are spoofed in incredibly interesting ways

mary: but

nick: I read Every Day the Same Dream as having entirely white people, too

mary: for example if I brought them all up all the time, I’m a horrible harpy broken record, and that isn’t my point in life. But not bringing things up = acceptance

mary: yes exactly

mary: I agree and I had that in there and then cut it out.

mary: for reason above.

nick: well, I guess I would point those things out as being consonant with the project rather than as taking away from it

nick: the game (and my student’s project) seems to be saying “here is an even more exaggerated version of the stereotypical world”

mary: well that could be. But everdayness, monotony, boredom could be happening to two people following that routine, two men, women, or one of each if we’d like. Or three for that matter. It just the frying pan and housewife just needs to go.

nick: well, they do, eventually &smiley;

mary: Since there are more women than men, why could not the character be a woman going to a drudge job?

nick: but you’re trying to make the game an image of reality instead of nightmare hegemony

mary: you could make the office workers men and women of different races

mary: it annoys me — I have not collected the numbers, but it annoys me that existentialist moments appear to happen more with male characters. 1984. etc.

nick: then, I’d argue, the game would not become more realistic or effective; it would have this sort of parody of workplace diversity in it

mary: well I did add diversity to the LAYOFF game. Everyone started white, the artist (who was Asian) defaulted to white)

mary: well then perhaps that would speak to me as a player as an effective parody

mary: mock diversity says something else, and is interesting. especially in college ads.

nick: yes, but I see that (LAYOFF) as trying to poke a hole through the abstract, we-don’t-expect-this-to-represent-reality type of game to show something about the real world

nick: which is admirable, but it isn’t the same project as these other games

mary: I guess I am rejecting the repeated aesthetic of abstract commentaries that use a represention of all white men.

nick: I’m asking because I’ve heard the same comment twice about the same type of game, from two people whose perspectives I very much respect, but I don’t understand the problem with this particular context – with a dystopian game exhibiting sexism among other stereotypical ills

mary: ah ok

nick: so it’s not that the sexist portrayal is wrong for the context, but that you could have made a different game which made the same point without it?

nick: maybe?

mary: yep

mary: and possibly a more interesting game, through reworking or challenging these stereotypes

mary: but that remains to be seen in implementation

nick: Jason Rohrer gets complaints about Passage having only a guy avatar as an option

mary: i can see that.

nick: of course, he also has described Passage as autobiographical (although I argue with his use of that term)

mary: it’s not automagically horrific to include men in a game!

nick: sure, and it’s not automatically good in every way to include a hot chick avatar

mary: right.

mary: it is about intentionality

mary: and I don’t think molleindustria was intentionally critiquing white heterosexuality.

mary: in fact…

nick: do you think if the sexism in Every Day the Same Dream were somehow called out as such (I don’t have any ideas about how), and critiqued, it would be better?

nick: perhaps even better than making a gender-neutral version?

mary: possibly!

mary: but that isn’t the point right now.

mary: of that game.

nick: I’d say it was being critiqued about as much as the automobile was

mary: and granted, 6 days, its a miracle.

nick: yep

nick: well, it’s worthwhile to think about how to improve on a 6-day project like that, though

mary: Hm. It feels different. The automobile isn’t on the receiving end of dates who have sexist attitudes, or jobs with racial bias. Possibly certain critiques are touchier than others.

nick: I guess my feeling is that a sexist world (treated critically) would be more in keeping with the project, or with a project like that, than a gender-neutral one

nick: maybe it’s easier to critique the automobile

mary: that could be true. Then husband and wife could both go to work, but he brings home twice the salary and she still has to cook

mary: that makes it more interesting to me.

nick: ha

mary: it pays attention to a lived condition.

mary: a detail. see what i mean. could be the same for race and such. but details are hard to put into ‘dreams’ and broad strokes, unless we think about it cleverly

mary: I appreciate your inquisitveness here nick.

nick: I guess the game includes a lot of stereotypes, and from my standpoint I don’t see it buying into any of them. but some do call for more critique and treatment

nick: I appreciate the convo

mary: Bringing this stuff is actually harder than ignoring it and moving on.

mary: but I think we need to tease out these implications

mary: not all stereotypes are created equally

nick: I think we should do a blog post, actually

mary: ok i’m game.

Short Video & Interview on Interactive Fiction

Exploring Interactive FictionTalieh Rohani made a video of about six minutes in which I discuss the basics of interactive fiction and show a few artifacts related to the material history of this form of computer game and digital literature. This video, “Exploring Interactive Fiction,” was made for the recent Jornada de Literatura in Passo Fundo, Brazil, and a subtitled version was screened there. I’m a few months late in putting it on the Tube for anyone else who is interested, but it’s online now.

Also, a short interview with me about interactive fiction and computer games is online at RPG Examiner. Thanks to Michael Tresca for his interest, his questions, and for posting the interview.