Platform Studies at 10

The Platform Studies series from MIT Press is now about ten years old. The first book in the series, my & Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, was published in 2009. (We also edit this series.) Before our book on the Atari VCS/Atari 2600 came out, we launched the site and announced the series, back at the end of 2006, and Ian and I were presenting about it at conferences the next year. So, although the exact birthday is uncertain, let’s say a (probably belated) happy 10th.

Pong's circuit board on the left, BASIC code from Hunt the Wumpus on the right
Pong compared to Hunt the Wumpus: The platforms, not just game structures and interfaces, fundamentally differ.

Nine books have been published in the series:

It’s worth noting again that platform studies isn’t a subset of game studies. You can see this from the above list, which includes books about two home computers (the Amiga and BBC Micro), a software platform used for different purposes (Flash), a national telecommunications system (Mintiel), and a peripheral used to connect computing to motion picture film (the Stromberg-Carlson 4020). On the other hand, its intersection with game studies is quite significant; four books are about gaming platforms while games play an important role in most of the other five studies.

As Ian & I have written, we have put forth platform studies, as a concept and (in capital letters) as a book series, simply as a way to focus an investigation of computational media.

It isn’t a methodology or even a method. It doesn’t require or preclude any particular sort of scholarship or analysis. We do think that since computational platforms are the focus in platform studies, some serious engagement with their computational aspects is needed, but this engagement can come from many different directions, from people with training in many disciplines and interdisciplines.

The point of the series and concept is to invite a focus on platform, just as we already have studies that focus on particular national contexts, particular historical periods, particular game/creative genres, particular games and creative works, and work done by particular organizations, collectives, and individuals. We describe this in, for instance:

That said, we have put forth a five-layered model to explain what a computational platform is and how it interacts with other layers of digital media. (This was introduced in Montfort, Nick, “Combat in Context,” Game Studies vol. 6, no. 1, December 2006.) We do believe computational platforms can be defined and that they have significance. So platform studies is meant to be an inviting space, but it is not one that is completely unfurnished.

Several people have done critical writing about the platform studies concept in the academic literature:

Others have taken a platform focus in their studies outside of the series, often in articles. These are a few that have come to my attention:

Ian & I continue to welcome inquiries from potential Platform Studies authors. We are available, as we have been, to help prospective authors develop book proposals for the MIT Press.

While we welcome books on all sorts of platforms, we want to particularly encourage writers to think about some of the platforms of major historical importance that are not yet covered in the series:

  • The Apple II series, successful home computers for which many games and business applications first were developed; also the basis for the success of Apple Computer.

  • The Commodore 64, the best-selling single model of computer ever made; highly influential in early online systems, gaming, the demoscene, and music.

  • The IBM PC, whose open architecture led “PC compatible” machines to dominate in home and business computing by the end of the 1980s.

  • The Macintosh series, influential in bringing the GUI into popular use; used in education and desktop publishing; the basis for the continued success of Apple Computer/Apple Inc.

  • Microsoft Windows, the operating system/desktop platform that has dominated in business but also many creative contexts and propelled the success of Microsoft.

  • HyperCard, the first widely-used hypermedia system before to the Web, included for free with Macs when it was released in 1987.

Again, books focused on any platform — or on a series of computers or a closely-related family of platforms — are welcome in Platform Studies. If a case can be made for studying a platform, it doesn’t need to be a popular favorite throughout the world. And, even if a platform is very prominent, a proposal still needs to explain why a study of it will be valuable. I just don’t want authors to shy away from these six!

Updated July 26 to add an entry for Samuel Tobin’s book on the Nintendo DS.

Exquisite Corpses are Now on Display

"Some red pendulums will quickly consume the grim president ..."

In 1984, a type-in program appeared in the French Hebdogiciel—no surprise there, since this weekly publication was all about type-in BASIC programs! This one, however, was not entirely unlike the games and mathematical recreations that typically appeared; it did, however, have an explicit link to a French 20th Century avant-garde movement, Surrealism. The program, by Philippe Henri, was for the TRS-80 and called “Cadavres Exquis.”

Ariane Savoire and I have translated this program to English (as “Exquisite Corpses”) are very pleased that the Vassar Review has just published the edition we have prepared, which includes:

  • A working version of both French and English programs running in an in-browser TRS-80 emulator,
  • The BASIC code for both French and English programs, and
  • A high-quality scan of the program as it originally appeared in Hebdogiciel.

I spoke about our work on this program in my talk “Preserving Corpses with Emulation” at the Stanford Software Preservation Workshop, February 22, 2018.

Please visit the site and run this classic program for yourself. When you do, note that you must click on the black emulator area to give it focus and press a key each time you want a new sentence. That’s how the original program ran; we have not modified the way it functions. In some ways the program does seem a bit obsolete. It refers to Czechoslovakia, for instance. You can see from the included snapshots that almost 25 years later, however, “Exquisite Corpses” maintains some relevance!

Cadavre Exquis

“Bullet” and Poem without Suffering

A bullet
Discussed in this review: “Bullet,” David Byrne, American Utopia, Nonesuch, 2018; Poem without Suffering, Josef Kaplan, Wonder Books, 2015

David Byrne’s earworm takes a distant yet close perspective, describing a bullet’s fatal encounter with a human body. Did he know about Kaplan’s similar short, rapid, book-length poem? Byrne’s song sets its sights on an adult man, Kaplan’s poem on a child. The life of the child is hinted by describing what a warm maternal relationship is like, and by mentioning injuries from falling off a bunk bed and being hit by a baseball. We hear about the man’s life because of what the bullet cuts through: “Skin that women had touched,” “Many fine meals he tasted there,” “his heart with thoughts of you.” The general description is very effective. There are striking metaphors — positive associations — for the bullet itself, also. In Poem, it is a triumphant runner (such as Usain Bolt, who bears the name of a crossbow’s projectile) dragging gore from the body as if it were a trophy or banner. In “Bullet,” it is “Like an old grey dog / On a fox’s trail.” Perhaps America’s reliable old dog cannot be taught new tricks.

American Utopia · Poem without Suffering