Literary Generation at DAC

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:”

  1. “The Purpling,” a prose poem in hypertext
  2. The Marble Index (a work in progress in the interactive fiction system Curveship)
  3. “Taroko Gorge,” a poetry generator originally written in 1k of Python
  4. “The Two,” a 1k Python story generator (on the screen, I premiered the French translation by Serge Bouchardon – links to both coming soon)
  5. “ppg256-2,” one of my 256-character Perl poety generators which my paper discusses

Interactive Fiction Platforms, Strong Bad’s Upgrades

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.

Big Day at DAC 2009

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.

IF, Visuality, and Other Bits of DAC

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.

Before & After Media (DAC at UCI)

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.

I Don’t Make This Up

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’

Racing the Beam a Front Line Awards Finalist

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 Deena Larsen Collection Opens

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 mith@umd.edu.

A Site for Peace

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.

Digital Labor, NYC, Nov 12-14

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.

Marina Bers Speaks in Purple Blurb, Monday 11/30

On Monday (November 30) at 6pm in MIT’s room 14E-310,

The Purple Blurb series of readings and presentations on digital writing will present a talk by

Marina Bers.

Marina Bers

associate professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development and adjunct associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University.

Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote positive youth development. At Tufts, Bers heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Bers received the 2005 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor given by the U.S. government to outstanding investigators at the early stages of their careers. She also received a five year National Science Foundation (NSF) Young Investigator’s Career Award and the American Educational Research Associations (AERA) Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies. Over the past fourteen years, Bers has conceived and designed diverse technological tools ranging from robotics to virtual worlds, from tangible programming languages to storytelling environments. She conducted studies after school programs, museums and hospitals, as well as schools in the US, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Costa Rica and Thailand. She teaches seminars on learning technologies for educators and does consulting on ways to use technology to promote positive youth development. Her book “Blocks to Robots: Learning with Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom” has been published by Teacher’s College Press in 2008. Bers is from Argentina and did her undergraduate studies in Social Communication at Buenos Aires University. In 1994 she came to the US where she received a Master’s degree in Educational Media and Technology from Boston University and a Master of Science and PhD from the MIT Media Laboratory, where she worked with Seymour Papert.

IF Author, Novelist Alan DeNiro

That’s an interview with Alan DeNiro now up at Grinding to Valhalla. DeNiro is author of the just-published Total Oblivion, More or Less, in which Minnesota, and then the rest of the US, is invaded by ancient European tribes. DeNiro also wrote and programmed one of the most unusual interactive fiction pieces of recent vintage, Deadline Enchanter. Or perhaps the word is “bizarre.” The game seems to not completely work, in a few different senses of “work,” but I was intrigued with it and found it to be oddly compelling, a refreshing experiment. Hopefully novel-readers will receive a similar wake-up slap from Total Oblivion, and, hopefully DeNiro won’t abandon interactive fiction now that he’s made it to print.

Nickm on His IF and E-Lit

Rachel Miller of Virginia Commonwealth University just interviewed me about my electronic literature work – my digital writing, focusing on my interactive fiction. She asked some very good questions. In return, I asked if she’d let me post the interview here, to which she kindly agreed.

1. Do you have a specific audience you are trying to appeal to with your work? (It may be different audiences depending on the genre.)

Yes, certainly. I even think of specific people who I would like to enjoy particular pieces of work, and that offers very good guidance. I also think of groups of people such as the interactive fiction community, digital poets, and electronic literature authors and scholars.

2. How do you feel about cellphones? Is it me or did I notice a reoccurring theme of cell phones? (Another Hole+Ten Mobile Texts.)

Cell phones are now completely ordinary and ubiquitous, but they’re pretty amazing in terms of being a very recent technology and one that changes the way we speak and experience space. I could say more, but the pieces you mention (along with Book and Volume, which has an anachronistic pager instead of a cell phone but is trying to deal with that technology obliquely) are my more extended attempts to marvel at this communications technology.

3. What advice do you have for people who are new to interactive fiction?

Play it with someone else, whether your IF partner is experienced or not. I don’t think I know anyone who learned the conventions of IF alone – I certainly didn’t. And, solving puzzles together and exploring a world together is great fun.

4. Why do you support IF? What are the benefits of further development and it being considered a genre in literature?

I see IF as a fascinating point of intersection between literary writing, computer gaming, and the power of the computer to simulate. I’ve always loved what language can do and what computing can do, and I see that this comes together in a powerful way in IF. Of course, it’s specific pieces of IF that give me this feeling. While I see great successes in the form, I also see untapped potential, which encourages me as I work on particular games and as I develop my IF system, Curveship.

5. What do you want your “interactors” to walk away with?

More to think about, so that solving puzzles and completing the game has opened up new questions and possibilities instead of wrapping everything up.

6. What potential problems (if any) do you see with IF?

It’s sometimes dismissed for the wrong reasons – I’m not sure that’s a problem with IF, really. I guess if people are expecting it to become mainstream again, they may be disappointed. I think IF is very interesting in its niche and on its margin, so this doesn’t bother me. Beyond that, IF has the same problems many literary and gaming forms do, such as: Most of it is not very good, and some of it in good in some ways but really problematic in others. But, as is the case with other types of literature and gaming, there are also some pieces of IF which are awesome.

7. Implementation is a fascinating idea. I have not read the entire sticker novel but enjoy the process of viewing pictures online or being a *web reader*. Are you simply exposing narratives/dialogues/scenarios in public areas all over the world so that it may inspire all walks of life? What is your goal or hope here? Is there is an overall theme to the sticker novel? If so, doesn’t this affect the interpretation of the place readers? Or,is it more of an experiment to see how publicized you can make the project?

One goal of the project is to extend the idea of sticker art – a really nice concept, I think – into literary practice. We wanted to offer these literary texts, ones that aren’t advertising anything, in public spaces for people to read and enjoy. That by itself, apart from the themes and plot of Implementation (and, yes, there is are themes and a plot), was meant to challenge what we see and read in public. Implementation isn’t mainly an attempt to publicize itself – most of the people on the street who read some of it won’t know that they’re reading a novel called Implementation and there’s nothing to advertise that Scott Rettberg and I wrote the text. Instead, it’s an attempt to introduce literary reading into a different set of spaces.

8. What started your passion/interest for the digital and literary world?

I can’t trace my interest in computing and the literary back to anything in particular, but as I was becoming an avid reader, I was also learning to program, and soon thereafter was playing and (clumsily) writing interactive fiction. So I see these two interests as very kindred with one another.

9. Just curious…how many hours a week do you spend on a computer? If a lot, does it have any negative effects physically or mentally?

I’m not sure I can estimate, but I spend a lot of time in different contexts (home, office, classrooms, coffeehouses, trains, planes) and can’t say that I do feel any strong negative effects. If I sat at the same desk for the same eight hours a day using a computer, I might, but I think I benefit from having a lot of choice in where, when, and how I work. I wish more people had this choice.

Lots Has Happened and Is Happening

Andrew Stern’s company Stumptown Game Machine released their Touch Pets Dogs, published by ngmoco for the iPhone. On this social network, everyone knows that you’re a virtual dog. Versions of it are in the top 10 free apps on the iPhone App Store now, and in the top 100 of pay apps.

Rover’s Day Out is the winner of the IF Comp. (Dogs everywhere!) The game is by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman. Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati took second, Snowquest by Eric Eve third. Congratulations to all authors! If you haven’t played the games yet, they’re still there waiting for you.

CYOA visualizations are the talk of the town: Mainly this extensive site that considers many books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, but also this PDF mapping Journey under the Sea.

People on the Interweb donated $25,000 to Jason Scott, the textfiles.com, BBS Documentary, and Get Lamp guy. Man, it’s so easy to get money on the Web. Maybe you could do it too, if you first spend years, in your spare time and without pay, saving BBS files, saving Geocities, documenting computer history, and generally amassing a larger archive of digital media history than almost every university in the world put together.

Truly “indie” artgames made the New York Times Magazine. Jason Roherer leads the charge, but many of the usual suspects are quoted in this look at how non-industrial gaming is augmenting and challenging games of the commercial sphere.

A new issue of Game Studies is out, with these articles: “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games,” “Moral Decision Making in Fallout,” “Cheesers, Pullers, and Glitchers: The Rhetoric of Sportsmanship and the Discourse of Online Sports Gamers,” and “World of Warcraft: Service or Space?” Game Studies is free to everyone! No page fees for authors! Peer reviewed! The future of academic publishing, already here, and about games!

JayIsGames hosts an IF contest and calls for interactive fiction authors to create escape-the-room games. The deadline for this Casual Gameplay Design Competition #7 is January 31. Z-code only, unfortunately for those of us wedded to Curveship, but that lets you use Inform 6 or 7.