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.
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
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”!
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: I am not partial to other stereotypes either
mary: unless they are spoofed in incredibly interesting ways
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?
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: 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: 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: 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.
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.
Talieh 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.
Molleindustria has recently released an excellent short game with the music of Jesse Stiles. In Every Day the Same Dream, you play a man who awakens (continually) to your alarm going off, your clothes waiting to be put on, your television that cannot be watched, your wife who cannot be kissed good morning, traffic, and a seemingly endless cubicle farm where you work. A crone figure in the elevator suggests that you can break away from this routine, somewow. The music hits just the right point between the humdrum repetition of the workday and the idea of an alternative to these. The almost entirely grayscale game doesn’t write a prescription for the player’s happiness, and some of the steps are much sillier than others. Nevertheless, the game hints at how people can explore the everyday and escape the oppression of the ordinary. That’s not bad for six days of game development work and for a few minutes of your time.
This year I read, years after their publication in English, two truly awesome novels.
The Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, by Jacques Roubaud (trans. Dominic Di Bernardi) is an incredible project. The interesting formal structure contributed less to the profound effect of the book than I had expected, perhaps because so much else is accomplished in so many other ways. Roubaud describes writing as destructive of memory, not in the sense that Plato’s Thales sees writing as leading to an atrophy of one’s capability to remember. Rather, writing about something we remember is an act that burns away our memory, leaving us only the text and the memory of writing. The project of the book was occasioned by a dream in which Roubaud realized that he had to write a novel called The Great Fire of London. He waited seventeen years, turning over the memory of this dream, before beginning to write this book, which, among other things, describes his inability to write that novel; states the author’s preferences for walking over running and his conception of himself as a walker and swimmer; describes some of his life with and his dealing with the death of his wife, Alix; and affirms that one can write in order to live. The book is transfixing, and unlike anything I have read up to the point. Roubaud, since he completed this book (it was published in 1989), has gone on to write five more volumes. The second of these is now available in English as The Loop.
The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (trans. Natasha Wimmer) is quite different: about literary dynamics on a country-wide scale and beyond, and more about social interactions than memory, individual loss, and identity. The book traces the lives of some poets associated with the fictional literary movement “visceral realism.” The fairly short first and last sections of the book are narrated (and purportedly written, as diary entries) by an often surprised, often pedantic, often very sexually occupied poet, García Madero. The middle section provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives on literary and ordinary moments in life throughout the world, in an amazing change ringing of voices. The breadth of the book is incredible, as are the different experiences and viewpoints it offers:
Luis Sebastián Rosado, Mexico City DF, July 1976: The question burst from me as if of its own accord: have you slept with María? His reply (my god, what a sad, beautiful profile Luscious Skin had) was devastating. He said: I’ve slept with every poet in Mexico.
Amadeo Salvatierra, Mexico City DF, January 1976: And then one of them opened the bottle and poured forth some of the nectar of the gods into our respective glasses, the same ones we’d been drinking before, which some consider a sign of slovenliness and others the ultimate refinement, since when the glass is, shall we say, glazed with mezcal, the tequila is more at ease, like a naked woman in a fur coat.
Barbara Patterson, San Diego, California, October 1982: Then we would be quiet with the TV on, each of us absorbed in our own scrambled eggs, our pieces of lettuce, our tomato slices, and I would think what life lessons are you talking about, you poor bastard, you poor jerk, what poor lessons did you ever learn, you pathetic leech, you pathetic loser, you fucking asshole, if it weren’t for me you’d be sleeping under a bridge. But I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him, and that was all.
The final part reveals what happened immediately after the first, in which some characters flee north into the desert of Sonora. It is even more horrible that I had imagined, and is a suitable finish for a book that, as its title declares, is about scrutinizing the worst that the world has to offer.
Late yesterday, I wrapped up my long (and very fun) day at Digital Arts and Culture 2009 in Irvine by presenting my paper “The ppg256 Series of Minimal Poetry Generators” in the late afternoon cognition and creativity panel and then by being a part of the extraordinary DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza, quickly presenting selections that I called “Five Uneasy Pieces:”
- “The Purpling,” a prose poem in hypertext
- The Marble Index (a work in progress in the interactive fiction system Curveship)
- “Taroko Gorge,” a poetry generator originally written in 1k of Python
- “The Two,” a 1k Python story generator (on the screen, I premiered the French translation by Serge Bouchardon – links to both coming soon)
- “ppg256-2,” one of my 256-character Perl poety generators which my paper discusses
Alex Mitchell just did a great job of presenting the work he and I did on the influence of interactive fiction platforms: “Shaping stories and building worlds on interactive fiction platforms.” We looked at how TADS 2 and Inform 6, which are really extremely similar development systems created to do almost exactly the same things, nevertheless may offer different affordances to IF authors and may influence the way story words (and other aspects of IF) are developed. Check out the full paper if this interests you.
In this panel, which was intriguing overall, I’ll also mention Stephanie Boluk’s fine presentation. She investigated seriality (in a broad sense), melancholy, and the relationship between narrative and database, bringing narratology (among other approaches) to bear on her object of study: Homestar Runner. “Homestar Runner’s far more surreal characters are impossible to locate along any realistic age spectrum. They perform innocence and experience in various degrees, functioning as polysemic signifiers that embrace these contradictory positions – a hybrid condition made possible by their status as cartoons.” Also, a discussion of how Strong Bad’s past computers coming back from the dead resists the dehistoricization of digital media.
Ian Bogost and I just gave our talk “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers” here at Digital Arts and Culture in Irvine, California. There were three other talks – fascinating ones – in this day’s opening plenary session. Garnet Hertz took us into circuit bending, tactical media, and the artistic recycling and reuse of electronic waste. Jason Farman spoke on locative media with a focus on geocaching as technologically-enabled, embodied, proprioceptive play. Conor McGarrigle explored, in detail and with reference to several specific projects, the relationship between the practices of the Situationist International and contemporary locative media work.
Ian and I addressed six misconceptions about platform studies (the concept, the focus) which we’ve already heard a few times. Our talk was an attempt to better invite people to participate in the project and in the book series. In brief, the six misconceptions, and our responses, are:
#1 Platform studies entails technological determinism.
Platform studies is opposed to “hard” determinism and invites us to continue to open the black box of technology in productive ways.
#2 Platform studies is all about hardware.
Platform studies includes software platforms as well.
#3 Platform studies is all about video games.
Platform studies extends to all computing platforms on which interesting creative work has been done.
#4 Everything these days [in the Web 2.0 era] is a platform.
We invite a focus on computational platforms, the basis for digital media work.
#5 Platform studies is about technical details, not culture.
Platform studies connects technical details to culture.
#6 Platform studies means that everyone in digital media will have to get computer science training or leave the field.
Platform studies shows how technical understanding can lead to new sorts of insights, but will not evict the many other important sorts of scholars from digital media.
The full paper is online, too. Since the beginning of the project, we’ve insisted on the embedding of the platform level in culture and other non-technical contexts, and we’re tried to draw connections between the way computing systems work and culture, history, and society. Others, we’re sure, will have new ways to do that; please, join us in taking up the platform as an focus for digital media studies.
I have one other collaborative paper today, which will be presented by Alex Mitchell: “”Shaping Stories and Building Worlds on Interactive Fiction Platforms.” Then I’ll present “The ppg256 Series of Minimal Poetry Generators.” Finally, I’ll be part of the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza with a reading called “Five Uneasy Pieces.” I’m looking forward to it all, but I’m sure I’ll be glad to be looking back on it when the day’s done.
You can search Tweetland for #DAC2009 to see what the cool kids are saying about the conference.
Among the many great presentations here at DAC 2009 at UC Irvine, the paper by Aaron Kashtan, “Because It’s Not There: Verbal Visuality and the Threat of Graphics in Interactive Fiction,” was particularly nice to hear. Aaron discussed my 2000 interactive fiction Ad Verbum, related it to Emily Short’s City of Secrets, and presented a nice argument about how these two engage (differently) with text’s ability to represent the visual. Here’s the abstract:
In this paper I analyze two contemporary works of interactive fiction (IF), Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s City of Secrets, as examples of two contrasting ways in which IF reacts to the perceived threat of computer graphics. In the post-commercial era of IF, graphics represent a factor that, without being acknowledged, has profoundly shaped the development of the medium. Post-graphical works of IF may be distinguished according to how they respond to the threat or promise of graphics. Ad Verbum’s response to graphics is to emphasize the purely textual, and thus anti-graphical and anti-visual, aspects of the medium. The implication is that IF’s closest affinities are not with visual prose but with printed works of procedural textuality, and that IF is a visual medium. By contrast, City of Secrets activates a mode of visuality that depends less on immediate presence than on emotional affect and imaginative participation. Short suggests that IF is a visual medium, but that it differs from graphical video games in that its visuality depends on absence rather than presence.
I was also really impressed by Brett Camper’s discussion of the MSX-inspired “fake 8-bit” game La-Mulana and, on a very different level, the wide-ranging first talk of the conference, by Kate Hayles, which engaged cognition, tools, attention, and evolution.
DAC 2009 has proceedings which were handed out to attendees on CD-ROM and which will be (to some extent?) available. So, while I hope to mention a few more DAC highlights, I won’t aim to summarize talks.
Ian Bogost and I just gave a talk on platform studies at UC Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. We talked about our book on the Atari VCS, Racing the Beam, and about the platform studies concept more generally. A nice crowd came out on the rainy Friday afternoon and engaged us in some good discussion afterwards. Although we’ve both talked about the book and platform studies in several different places, this was the first talk we’ve given together. I think it worked well, but I guess writing a book together is good preparation.
We’re giving another join talk at Digital Arts and Culture (“After Media”), which starts this evening and then runs for three days of panels (which include scholarly and artists’ talks) and more unlikely presentations in the evenings. Besides my paper with Ian on platform studies misconceptions, I have another co-authored paper with Alex Mitchell on interactive fiction development systems, a “solo” paper on minimal poetry generators (the ppg256 series), and a reading at the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza. I’m looking forward to seeing a slew of digital media folks and to enjoying the program, the company, and the Southern California environment – even if it keeps raining.
Scott Rettberg’s very verbosely named workshop The Network as a Space and Medium for Collaborative Interdisciplinary Art Practice Conference, which took place in Bergen, Norway this November 8-10, was recorded, and the recordings of the panels are now up as a series of podcasts. It was a great gathering, and I’m glad this documentation of the event is available.
From an email about a conference – the sender and the conference will remain nameless:
Please advise me if your mate will be attending the conference & whether she/he is an ‘adult’ or a ‘student’
An interesting development: The magazine Game Developer recently announced the finalists for the 2009 Front Line Awards, gathering “the year’s best game-making tools in the categories of programming, art, audio, game engine, middleware, and books.”
In the book category, the finalists are:
- Game Coding Complete 3rd Edition by Mike McShaffry (Charles River Media)
- Game Engine Architecture by Jason Gregory (AK Peters)
- Mastering Unreal Technology Vol. 1 by Jason Busby, Zak Parrish, and Jeff Wilson (Sams Publishing)
- Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (The MIT Press)
- Real Time Cameras: A Guide for Game Designers and Developers by Mark Haigh-Hutchinson (Morgan Kaufmann)
In 2007, Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s collection Second Persion was a finalist, so we’re not breaking any ground here for digital media studies or MIT Press. But it’s nice to be selected by the folks at Game Developer.
The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has just announced a site showcasing the Deena Larsen Collection, which Deena gave to MITH in 2007. Early on, Deena wrote two Eastgate-published pieces, Marble Springs and Samplers, but these are only two of dozens of pieces she has developed individually and in collaboration over the years. In addition to creating e-lit for decades, she has amassed published and unpublished material from a wide range of e-lit authors along with many computers and print materials. MITH has also announced that they are now
opening the collection to scholars on a limited basis. Researchers interested in visiting Maryland to work with the Larsen materials on site should write to us at email@example.com.
I got word from Nitin Sawney, founder of Voices Beyond Walls (which conducts storytelling and video production workshops with youth in the West Bank) and the Boston Palestine Film Festival, of a new site that MIT has launched: Jerusalem 2050: Visions for a Place of Peace. On the site, you can register and engage with other community members about projects and prospects, and can read the project Nitin and two others have undertaken, “Media Barrios: Envisioning Jerusalem through Media Barrios and Performance Spaces.”
One nice thing that this site highlights is that conversation and resources on the Web don’t have to sit apart from particular geographical and urban places; websites can help us work toward a better understanding of and better future for other sorts of sites. Of course, we should be aware of this, almost 20 years after the invention of the Web, but I think it bears repeating.
Belatedly, I want to mention a least a bit about the great conference that I participated in two weekends ago in New York: The Internet as Playground and Factory: A Conference on Digital Labor. The gathering was organized by Trebor Scholz and took place at the Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts at the New School.
At conferences on digital media, there are too few critical perspectives about large-scale hegemonic systems that are increasingly coming to define the computer and Internet experience. At some events, people exhibit general awareness of the complexities and problems that such systems pose, but they still turn and say oooh, shiny! when presented with Google Wave. At other events, people are glad to plow down open systems that would broadly enable communication and discourse, just for the sake of setting up the latest MyFace workalike. Many academics never even notice the irony of doing something like trying to remedy the digital divide within for-profit, rent-based Second Life. Generally, attitudes about the 2.0 range from blissful ignorance to a bit of skepticism – but not enough skepticism to temper the way we welcome our corporate shackles.
The Internet as Playground and Factory offered a beginning to the important conversation that we (in digital media) have been avoiding. Speakers addressed the lack of explicit political engagement among open source software developers, the different types of labor/work/action seen online, the complexities of labor (why are these Chinese gold farmers spending some of their free time playing the game that they toil at all day?), and other important and often-overlooked issues. While the conference was well-documented in video and the site features connections to Twitter and Flickr, the main online conversation behind the gathering has taken place on a mailing list, and social media technologies were generally used to extend communications rather than to exclude.
The award for best stunt goes to Hector Postigo, who began his talk on AOL volunteers by explaining that Facebook wasn’t paying him enough to keep updating his status and friending people: He then permanently deleted his Facebook account as happy photos of his friends and his children stared out at him and the crowd.
There were many good talks, but one standout that I’ll mention was McKenzie Wark‘s, in which he related the gamer and the hacker via a semiotic square to two other digital culture figures: the worker and the hustler. This allows various sites to be situated in relation to these four: eBay nearest the hustler, LinkedIn nearest the worker, and so on.
I was certainly an outlier in the main cluster of this conference; although I was there at the New School, the only reference to Marx in my talk was to Groucho Marx. But I was very pleased to read from various laborious productions, many of which dealt with issues of information technology work, in a session with poet, editor, and typewriter scholar Darren Wershler that was chaired by Kare Eichhorn. I read from Implementation (with Scott Rettberg, 2004),Mystery House Taken Over (with Dan Shiovitz, Emily Short, and the Mystery House Occupation Team, 2005), Book and Volume (2005) and ppg256 (2007-). Darren gave an actual paper, but also read some of the output of two systems developed with Bill Kennedy: The Apostrophe Engine and Status Update.
The conference concluded with a large group discussion. Scholz was asked why Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and others weren’t represented as speakers at the conference. He said that they were invited and declined to give presentations – but that representatives from all of these companies did end up registering and picking up badges, so they attended.
There was no manifesto or major, striking conclusion that resulted from this final discussion. This is just the beginning, though: Scholz will run two more conferences on related topics. This conference on digital labor was a great start, advancing the discussion of how we work and play online and of how we can thoughtfully approach technologies that have been made to generate profits in a certain way, even if we want to use these technologies for political, aesthetic, or other purposes. I hope that this conference’s critical approach to digital systems and online communication will be carried over into other digital media contexts, which desperately need this perspective.