My @party Talk on Computer-Generated Books

Saturday 10 June 2017, 3:46 pm   /////////  

I just gave a talk at the local demoparty, @party. While I haven’t written out notes and it wasn’t recorded, here are the slides. The talk was “Book Productions: The Latest in Computer-Generated Literary Art,” and included some discussion of how computer-generated literary books related to demoscene productions.

Salon 256 on May 1

SALON 256 is a forum for presentation and discussion of very small creative computer programs. Such programs have featured in digital art and poetry, electronic literature, computer music, and the demoscene.

YOU are invited to present a tiny program of yours:

Monday May 1 . 5pm-7pm . MIT’s 14E-304

Presenters already confirmed:

  • Mike “Dr.Claw” Piantedosi
  • Angela Chang
  • Sofian Audry
  • Nick Montfort
  • Chris Kerich
  • Willy Wu
  • Henry Lieberman
  • Doug Orleans

Programs in an interpreted language are fine, as long as the code is 256 bytes or less; compiled programs with an executable file of 256b or less are fine, too.

Building 14 also holds the Hayden Library and is not Building E14. If you’d like to present, leave a comment or sign up at the event.

A Purple Blurb / The Trope Tank production.

Tiny Trope Tank Productions

Recently, at the suggestion of our writer in residence, Milton Läufer, we in the Trope Tankt have been producing digital files for discussion at meetings. These productions, almost always computer programs but not constrained to be such, must be at most 256 bytes.

It’s been extremely productive in terms of thinking about digital media, platforms and programming languages, and how we approach creative projects — and even other projects — generally. Postdoctoral researcher Sofian Audry prompted us to discuss this some at the last meeting.

So far we have three sets of 256b files which have landed in this directory, organized by date and with file names that indicate who wrote what:

They include work by RA Chris Kerich, who has produced rather demoscene-like visual effects using Python running in a terminal, and by postdoctoral researcher Angela Chang, who has provided short example programs for use in teaching. Angela’s examples show that you don’t have to have hypercompressed, confused code when you write short, interesting programs. You can value clarity and pedagogical usefulness if you like, or you can pack in as much as possible, for instance, in order to produce a visual effect.

Sofian has explored creative computing history by writing a 256b Commodore 64 BASIC program that implements, or at least strongly refers to, the classic Lemonade Stand BASIC program. Milton has generated various compelling visual displays. His and Chris’s most recent programs are less clearly mathematical and regular, instead imitating the natural world.

It was very apropos that Christian Bök pointed me to Dwitter, a framework for making tiny programs that can be easily shared on the Web, just recently. I’m sure we’ll all dig into that soon.

My pieces include one bash script, one Python 3 program, and an executable of 256b written in assembly for the Commodore 64. The Python 3 program is actually a very tiny text adventure, Wastes, and is listed on the Interactive Fiction Database. In fact, I’m pleased to see that at this point, it has one four-star (our of five) review!

@Party 2015 Productions

Sunday 21 June 2015, 6:38 pm   ////////  

I had five productions (one of them a collaboration) this time around at @Party, the Boston-area demoparty.

Browser demo: “More Tongue.” This was, well, not really a standard demo, even for a browser demo, that generates nonsense poems with compact code. Like everything at demoparties, it’s been released, but I’m going to work on a post-party version, so I’m leaving the party version out of this list.

Wild: “Shortcat.”

Shortcat is a very simple encoding scheme to make bytes (thus computer programs) into pleasing Unicode tweets, IMs, etc. #demoscene

Encoder: cat x.prg | perl -pe 'binmode STDOUT,":utf8";tr/\x00-\xff/\x{2500}-\x{25ff}/;' > x.txt #demoscene

Decoder: cat x.txt | perl -pe 's/[\x00-\x7f]//g;s/\xe2(.)(.)[^\xe2]*/chr((ord($1)-148)*64+ord($2)-128)/eg;' > x.prg #demoscene

To decode, copy the Shortcat string to a new text file, save it, decode. ASCII (incl. spaces & newlines) will be ignored #demoscene

When decoding, don’t include other Unicode besides the Shortcat string in your selection #demoscene

Add a hashtag (e.g., #c64) and/or other info (e.g., SYS4096) to help people run the program. That’s it. Nanointros everywhere! #demoscene

Check this Tweet for an example.

Executable music: “Dial Up” by devourant & nom de nom.


Play it in an HTML5 player.

Intro: “Chronon,” a 32-byte Commodore 64 program.

PRG file. Source.

PET Code

Demo: “PET Code,” a 128-byte Commodore 64 program that is a demake of Jörg Piringer’s “Unicode.”

PRG file, demo version (runs once & ends). PRG file, looping version. Source.

Thanks to Metoikos, Dr. Claw, Luis, and other organizers and volunteers for putting this year’s party on – and to Boston Cyberarts and the sponsors of the event.

This Issue is Full of the Demoscene

Friday 27 February 2015, 4:22 pm   //  

It’s also in Polish, and should serve to inspire Anglophones! As my colleagues in Ubu’s homeland explain:

Ha!art 47 demoscene

Last November, the independent Polish publishing house Korporacja Ha!art devoted an issue of its quarterly to the demoscene, a hacker subculture dedicated to creating multimedia computer programs on retro platforms. What we attempt to chronicle is a half-forgotten, mostly European scene of hard-core coders and ephemeral groups, who dedicate hundreds of sleepless nights with their Amigas and Spectrums, trying to outdo one another, to write terser code, to come up with new visual effects, to wow the audience. In the pre-Internet era, they even came up with their own publication and distribution channels. Always eager to present what is little known and under-researched, we trace the roots of the movement in the 1980s and its growth in Piotr Czerski’s exhaustive article; we look more closely at various platforms that formed the core of demoscene (Amiga, ZX Spectrum, Commodore) and at Polish wizards of code (some of whom, interestingly, looked up to Russian hackers); our authors tackle all sorts of ideas from the interplay between demoscene and glitch to schizophrenia as a tool of interpretation in media analysis. They also ponder the problematic relations between flashy, seemingly puerile demoscene productions and digital literature in an attempt to find the missing link in the evolution of electronic art. Trips down the memory lane by Jakub Noniewicz and Yerzmyey let us see demoscene forays into the world of (often irreverent) short stories and generative poetry. In fact, this kind of textual approach to demoscene has not been attempted before. We show how coders, working collaboratively, used computationality and tried multiple genres to bring the lexical and the audiovisual together. Last but not least, the perspectives of guests from across the Atlantic, Val Grimm and Nick Montfort, show how demoscene is, at heart, about breaking free from societal constraints. The issue is part of Korporacja Ha!art’s effort to present seminal scholarship in digital media.

“Textual Demoscene” by Piotr Marecki

Friday 27 February 2015, 10:21 am   /////  

A Trope Tank Technical Report (“Trope Report”) on the “Texual Demoscene” has just been posted. Here’s the abstract:

The demoscene is a mainly European subculture of computer programmers, whose programs generate computer art in real time. The aim of this report is to attempt a description of the textual dimension of the demoscene. The report is the effect of efforts to perform an ethnographic exploration of the Polish computer scene; it quotes interviews with participants of demo parties, where text plays a significant role: in demos, real-time texts, IF, mags or digital adaptations. Media archeology focusing on the textual aspect of the demoscene is important to understanding the beginnings of digital literature and genres of digital-born texts.

Piotr Marecki really goes to the “ends of the earth” to investigate this, even reporting on a Polish demoscene production that is a text game and is called The Road to Assland. Here’s the full report.

New Report on Nanowatt & World Clock

Thursday 31 July 2014, 9:45 pm   //////  

The latest technical report (or “Trope Report”) to issue from the Trope Tank is TROPE-14-01, “New Novel Machines: Nanowatt and World Clock by Nick Montfort:

My Winchester’s Nightmare: A Novel Machine (1999) was developed to bring the interactor’s input and the system’s output together into a texture like that of novelistic prose. Almost fifteen years later, after an electronic literature practice mainly related to poetry, I have developed two new “novel machines.” Rather than being works of interactive fiction, one (Nanowatt, 2013) is a collaborative demoscene production (specifically, a single-loading VIC-20 demo) and the other (World Clock, 2013) is a novel generator with accompanying printed book. These two productions offer an opportunity to discuss how my own and other highly computational electronic literature relates to the novel. Nanowatt and World Clock are non-interactive but use computation to manipulate language at low levels. I discuss these aspects and other recent electronic literature that engages the novel, considering to what extent novel-like computational literature in general is becoming less interactive and more fine-grained in its involvement with language.

This was the topic of my talk at the recent ELO conference. Share and enjoy!

A Companion Disk for 10 PRINT

Monday 30 June 2014, 10:43 pm   ////  

A C64 Running the 10 PRINT DiskMartin Schemitsch (a.k.a. Martinland) has compiled and released a disk to accompany our book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10, one that’s full of BASIC and assembly programs. These include the programs in the book and the later, more compact versions of our demo thread. The disk was just released at Commodore-Treffen Graz $14, and of course the disk image is available for download. It’s a nice companion to the 10 PRINT book and a Commodore 64 emulator, although, as you can see, it also works perfectly well on a vintage Commodore 64.

Waves 3 Ways at @Party

Sunday 15 June 2014, 2:23 am   /////////  

codewiz and I (nom de nom) showed a wild demo at @party yesterday (June 14) at MIT.

It was “Waves 3 Ways (Topsy’s Revenge).” Indeed, there’s video.

Tesla coilThe concept is based on one-line C programs to generate music, the earliest of which were by viznut. I (nom de nom) wrote a C expression in this style to generate a waveform that could be output as sound but also consisted of all printable ASCII characters. The source is about 1kb, without much effort at compression. And the sound, in addition to driving speakers, can be (and was) connected to a Tesla coil.

To connect the oneTesla coil he built, codewiz modified the firmware and the control box to allow the audio output to be read by the potentiometer input. He also wrote dsptee.c to improve the way the text scrolls.

Topsy was the elephant electrocuted by Thomas Edison in 1903 to help prove that AC electricity (advocated by Tesla) was unsafe.

My main disappointment was that the projector, which I thought would be HD and thus the same as my display, showed only the left-hand side of the video. I should have checked it more thoroughly before we got started.

We were very pleased to get second place behind a nice oscilloscope demo.

Title sequence from 'Waves 3 Ways'

We signed the production, too, although it's not very visible when it's running.

The final section of the demo is based on the bpNichol poem “Island,” part of his Apple IIe collection First Screening. This poem, in turn, refers to a concrete poem by Ian Hamilton Finlay. I’ve put a video/screencast of the end of the production online.

Bitcoin for your Warhol!

Thursday 24 April 2014, 12:59 pm   ////////  

Thanks to Golan Levin’s “atypical, anti-disciplinary and inter-institutional” FRSCI lab, the CMU Computer Club, and ROM hacking bit-boy Cory Archangel, several instances of previously unknown visual artwork, done by Andy Warhol on the Amiga 1000 in 1985, have been recovered.

CA$H for your WARHOL sign

Warhol’s use of this classic multimedia system is but one of the many surprising, rich aspects of Amiga history that are carefully detailed by Jimmy Maher in The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga. An early topic is the launch of the first Amiga computer at the Lincoln Center, with Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry in attendance and with Warhol producing a portrait of her on the machine during the festivities. Maher also writes about how Warhol’s attitude toward the computer was actually a bit retrograde in some ways: Rather than thinking of the screen as a first-class medium for visual art, he wanted better printers that could produce work in a more conventional medium. The discussion of Warhol’s involvement is but one chapter (actually, less than one chapter) in a book that covers the Amiga’s hardware development, technical advances, relationship to image editing and video processing work, and lively demos — from the early, famous “Boing Ball” demo to the productions of the demoscene. The Future Was Here is the latest book in the Platform Studies series, which I edit with Ian Bogost.

The Future Was Here cover

With these images surfacing now, after almost 30 years, the age-old question “soup or art?” is awakened in us once again. Do we need to print these out to enjoy them? To sell them for cash? Did Warhol invent what is now thought of as the “MS Paint” style, back on the Amiga 1000 in 1985?

Amiga soup can

Note, finally, that there is a detailed report on the recovery project provided in PDF form.

10 PRINT in 64 bytes of JavaScript

Sunday 29 December 2013, 5:05 pm   ////  

From p01 comes a 64 byte JavaScript program to produce a random-seeming maze, as long as the person at the computer is willing to wiggle the mouse a bit. It’s on, with comments, too.

p01's 64-byte THREAD.JS

No Code: Null Programs

Sunday 15 December 2013, 4:15 pm   //////  

Just posted: TROPE-13-03 – No Code: Null Programs by Nick Montfort, in the Trope Report series (technical reports from my lab the Trope Tank at MIT).

To continue the productive discussion of uninscribed artworks in Craig Dworkin’s No Medium, this report discusses, in detail, those computer programs that have no code, and are thus empty or null. Several specific examples that have been offered in different contexts (the demoscene, obfuscated coding, a programming challenge, etc.) are analyzed. The concept of a null program is discussed with reference to null strings and files. This limit case of computing shows that both technical and cultural means of analysis are important to a complete understanding of programs – even in the unusual case that they lack code.

Please share and enjoy. And do feel free to leave a comment here if anything to add on this topic, or if you have a question about this report. I’d be glad to continue the discussion of these unusual programs.

Video of Nanowatt Online

Tuesday 3 December 2013, 2:55 pm   ///////  

A single-loading VIC-20 demo (3583 bytes) presented on November 30, 2013 at Récursion in Montréal. By Nick Montfort, Michael C. Martin, and Patsy Baudoin (nom de nom, mcmartin, baud 1). This video is of the demo running in the Trope Tank at MIT on December 3, 2013.

Tagged on YouTube as Commodore VIC-20, Samuel Beckett, Electronic Literature, Computer (Musical Instrument), and Demoscene. See also the fuller story about Nanowatt with links to executable code.


Saturday 30 November 2013, 10:18 pm   ////////  

At Récursion (the Montréal demoparty), we (Nick Montfort, Michael C. Martin, and Patsy Baudoin) released Nanowatt, a single-loading VIC-20 demo.

You can download it and run it using a VIC-20 emulator (or, of course, an actual VIC-20). I run it in VICE on my Ubuntu system by typing “xvic nw” from the directory that contains the “nw” file. If it’s more convenient, you can also download a d64 disk image with Nanowatt on it and load “nw” from there.

It produces 8 KB of English text quoted exactly from Samuel Beckett’s second novel, Watt.

And it produces 8 KB of French text quoted exactly from the French translation of Samuel Beckett’s second novel, Watt.

And the entire demo (including two songs, sound system, code for decompression and display of text, and explanations and greetings at the end) is 3.5 KB: 3583 bytes.

When possible, I will upload a video of the demo running.

This rather esoteric demo was awarded 2nd place (out of 3 entries).

I also got 4th place (out of 5) for my one-line BASIC program that was done as a fast demo, based on today’s theme: “weaving.”


UPDATE: You can run Nanowatt without leaving the comfort of your browser. First, copy this URL into your copy-and-paste buffer: << >>. Then, go to the page for JS VIC-20. Select the “Storage” menu from the top and choose the option at the bottom of the list, “Carts/Programs,” and choose the top option, “Load Cart from URL.” Finally, paste in the URL that you copied and watch the demo run.

‘NOTHER UPDATE: Video of the demo running on a VIC-20 has been posted.

I’m Packed for Récursion

Thursday 28 November 2013, 10:13 pm   ///  

(The demoparty this Saturday in Montréal.)


And my VIC-20 and C64.

Let’s roll.

Head Over to Overhead

Saturday 16 June 2012, 11:02 pm   ////  

I just saw an overhead projector demo, at a demo party, that simulated the Amiga boing ball demo using only transpaencies. And then another that, using pinwheels, simulated fire.

I regret that the overhead projector did not, in either case, produce the music.

Gamer vs. Scener, or, Scener Theory

I delivered this as the opening keynote at DiGRA Nordic 2012, today, June 7.

1. The World of the Scene

Welcome to the world of the scene, to the summer of 2012, to that Earth where the demoscene is pervasive. Computers are mainly part of our culture because of their brilliant ability to produce spectacles, computationally generated spectacles that are accompanied by music, all of which is produced from tiny pieces of code, mostly in assembly language, always in real time. The coin of the realm is the demoscene production, which includes graphics and chiptunes but is principally represented by demos and their smaller cousins, intros. The coin of the realm – although these are not exchanged commercially, but freely shared with all lovers of computation and art, worldwide.

The ability of these programs to connect the affordances of the computer with people’s capabilities for aesthetic appreciation, and the ability of programmers to continually uncover more potential in machines of whatever vintage, is the leading light in our world’s cultural activity and in the development of new technology as well. And it burns so brightly.

Computers, originally imagined as instruments of war, as business machines, as scientific apparatus, now are seen as platforms for beauty, as systems that can be rhythmical and narrative and can present architectural and urban possibilities as well as landscapes. One plays with the computer not by picking up a controller that is ready to receive one’s twitches but by thinking and typing at great length, by loading and storing, by writing programs.

People congregate in immense gatherings to program together and to appreciate intros, demos, and other productions running on the appropriate hardware. Of course they attend the classic parties such as Assembly in Helsinki, where they fill the Hartwall Areena. They come as well to the edgy and artsy Alternative Party in Finland. They also travel every summer to this world’s largest American demoparty, Segfault, which takes place at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Few of the sceners are even aware that a small but dedicated group of gamers is meeting at the same time in the same city, in a hotel, for their so-called “E3” gathering.

To exchange creative computer programs with one another, to annotate them and discuss them, a number of widely-used social media platforms have sprung up in our scener world. Some people used the video sharing service YouTube, but it is far less popular than YouCode, which allows the full power of the computer to be tapped and facilitates the exchange of assembly language programs.

In our scener world, a vibrant group of game developers and game players remains, of course, although they are not much talked about in the popular press, in the art world, or in academic discourse. California is something of a backwater in this relatively small pond of game development. Some development of games is still done there – first-person shooters, moderately multiplayer online role-playing games, and so on – but the games that have gained some purchase with the public come from elsewhere.

The two most prominent game developers are from Japan and Wales: Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Jeff Minter. Mizuguchi’s Rez, as with with his many other excellent games, connects music and actions in a way that mainstream computer users – sceners – find particularly compelling. Minter’s graphical prowess, seen in GridRunner and many other games, appeals to the popular crowd of sceners, too, as does his whimsical inclusion of ungulates in his games. The games by these two consistently have earned the highest level of praise from the world at large: “that could almost be a production.”

2. Scener vs. Gamer

Now, as enjoyable as this vision is, let’s put this scener world on hold for a moment – not, of course, by pressing select on our XBox 360 controller, but by pressing the freeze button on our Commodore 64’s The Final Cartridge III – or, if we must resort to emulation, by selecting File > Pause from the VICE menus.

How does the scener world that can be glimpsed in the real Summer Assembly in Helsinki relate to this other universe we have surely heard about, the gamer world of Winter Assembly and this summer’s DiGRA Nordic in Tampere? How do the origins of computer and videogaming relate to the origins of the scene?

To relate gaming and the scene, something of course must be said about the nature of the demoscene. I am not here to provide a history of the scene, which is, of course, almost entirely a Northern European phenomenon and which is particularly strong in Finland. It would be absurd for me to come here and pretend to be an authority on the scene, ready to tell you the special things that I know and that you should know about it. It would be as absurd as my coming to tell you about how to properly use a sauna or about the strategic virtues of land mines. I come not to bury the scene in a dense, pedantic explanation – I come to praise it and to offer it my imagination, to embrace and extend it in the most non-proprietary way. My interest is in making the scene mine – and everyone’s. To do so, I will describe a bit about how the scene originated.

The idea of creating an impressive demo that will do something pleasing, playful, and impressive, and that will make use of computing technology, is probably a good bit older than the general-purpose computer. In the early days, it made no sense to divide the category “demo” from that of “game.” Consider the amazing computational project by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres y Quevedo. This individual, who as part of his day job devised a type of semi-rigid airship that still excites steampunks, created a special-purpose automatic electronic chess player. This system was like the famous mechanical Turk, but with no dwarf inside. Torres y Quevedo’s incredible demo could play a chess endgame perfectly and even had a voice synthesis system – a phonograph – that enabled it to annouce check and checkmate. Since there were no demo parties at the time, his system was permiered at the World’s Fair, in 1914. Possibly the first demo (not on a general-purpose computer, to be sure, but an incredible and impressive demo nonetheless) was executed almost one hundred years ago, and was also possibly the first computer game. If World War I had not ensued the demoscene might have begun in full force the early years of the twentieth century, anticipating and perhaps inspiring general-purpose computers.

There were other demos and other game-demos in the days before the demoscene proper. In the former category were “recreational computing” programs developed at MIT to convert numbers from Arabic numerals to Roman numerals and back and the remarkable joke called “Expensive Typewriter,” which is possibly the first word processor; in the latter were Tennis for Two, perhaps the playful TX-0 demo Mouse in the Maze, and certainly the PDP-1 program Spacewar. The scene would have certainly applauded projects like these, along with the work of those who made the line printer produce music and who made pleasing sounds with radio interference on their Altair 8800.

While demos – usually what would be called “wild” demos and would do not fit into any standard demoscene category – abound throughout the twentieth century, the modern-day demoscene has a specific origin. This community, this constellation of creative practice, exists thanks to commercial game software and to the copy protection techniques used on it. The demoscene begins in the confluence of a computer game industry and the impulse to enforce legal restrictions on copying with technical ones. First, certain microcomputer disk drives working in certain modes can be used to read data slightly better than they can write data. Producers of video games – to be honest, not massive horrifying hegemonic corporations, in the early days, but often literaly mom and pop operations such as Sierra On-Line (Ken and Roberta Williams), Scott Adams games, Jordan Mechner, and so on – joined with early videogame publishers to implement so-called copy protection for games delivered on floppy disc.

Copy protected discs could not be copied using the typical methods that one might employ to back up one’s own data. But they could be copied, sometimes using bit copiers with particular parameters and sometimes thanks to the efforts of early digital preservationists who performed an operation upon them known as cracking. By reverse-engineering these games and their protection schemes, and by twiddling a few bytes, crackers were able to liberate copy-protected games and allow ordinary users to make the legitimate backup copies to which they were entitled. While I was content to sector-edit my Apple II discs and change my Bard’s Tale characters to have abilities of all 99s, and satisfied myself with placing my Apple //e and my duodrive and monitor in the trunk of my car and heading off to a copying party where warez could flow “the last mile” to end users, others, fortunately, did the difficult and elite work of liberating games in the first place.

This was another time, you understand – 1983-84 – and we had not recieved Bill Gates’s open letter to hobbyists that, had we read it, would have explained to us that we were stealing software. People would have ceased to crack and copy software if they knew that they were killing the game industry. And all the home computer software that is available and runnable today only in cracked versions – now that the companies that were responsible for such software are gone completely or are nothing but a few confused lines on legal documents – all that software would be gone, immolated, left on the ash heap of history, like tears in rain.

But I am not discussing guilt, innocence, or disappearance; I am mentioning how the demoscene came to be. This activity of cracking software led those who were removing copy protection to enhance the software they were dealing with in certain ways. It was possible to tidy programs up and compress them a bit for easier copying. (This tradition is alive and well in many circles, including even electronic literature. Jim Andrews told the story at the Modern Language Association electronic literature reading of how, when one of his works was being translated into Finnish, Marko Niemi returned not only the translation but also a version of his program that was bug-fixed and tidied up.) If there was a little space on the disc, either to begin with or as a result of this compression, one could add a sort of splash screen that credited those who did the cracking and that pilloried the crackers’ enemies.

This sort of crack screen or “intro” to the game has to fit in a small amount of space; it was sometimes a static image, sometimes animated. Most importantly, it was the mustard seed that grew into the various elaborate productions of the demoscene, almost always non-interactive and no longer introducing any commercial game. Rather, the intros and longer demos that are shown nowadays, like the graphics and chiptunes that are also featured at demo parties, are there for their own sake. They do not introduce games, they do not introduce and flog new technologies, they simply demonstrate, or show, purely. Initially, they demonstrated one trick or a series of tricks tied together by very little – perhaps music, perhaps a certain graphical style. Now, in the era of design, demos tend to offer unity rather than units and often treat a theme, portray subjects, evoke a situation or narrative.

Certainly, the productions I am talking about demonstrate what they demonstrate to a technically adept, pseudonymous audience, groups that assemble or gather at events such as Assembly or the Gathering, mostly in Northern Europe. There are demo parties and parties featuring demos elsewhere, however, such as Block Party in the United States. In Boston, the recently-minted @party even has support from a local arts organization that runs a new media gallery and the Boston Cyberarts Festival.

But enough background; time to figure. The method I have used is not anthropological; I have not gone to ask sceners what they have already clearly said in one book, several articles, and a pair of documentaries. I am instead going to use a method where one talks not to people but to objects, where one reads and interprets specific computational texts. I am going to describe what these demos demonstrate, not technically, or not only technically, but culturally. Mackenzie Wark in his book Gamer Theory argues that games offer us only an atopia, a blank placelessness; the productions of the demoscene, on the other hand, I argue, project utopias – not flawless ones, not ideals beyond critique, but utopias nonetheless. Instead of reading these visions as examples simplistic technofuturism devised by Pollyannas, I look at them as imagining new possibilities.

[I showed three demos running on a borrwed Windows computer – thanks to the conference organizers – and then showed them again without sound, discussing each of them.]

3. Computer Candy Overload

Gamers and sceners have often come to the same events — for instance, to Finland’s famous Assembly, up until 2007, when the event split into a gamer-oriented winter gathering here in Tampere and a scener-oriented summer one in Helsinki.

Let’s wait for this to explode …

This demo offers a great deal of junk food, of candy canes. Christmas in July, or, more precisely, in August. We progress, if it’s right to call it progress, backwards – in a retro-grade motion, powering into the past with today’s technology.

The demo we are now experiencing, “Computer Candy Overload” by United, is a special type of production that serves to invite people to an upcoming demo party. It advertises Summer Assembly 2010, of course, but is also an interesting starting point for discussion because it has many typical elements of modern-day demos, showcasing certain technical feats while being brought together by a contemporary concept of design. It took first place at @party the first year of that event, in 2010.

In this part of the demo, the flying clusters of objects that were seen earlier are still hurlting backwards through the air, but now, a generated city – an immense city, like a planar version of Issac Asimov’s planet-wide Trantor – is not only scrolling by as we fly backwards above it. The city is also rocking out, pulsing with the beat of the music, as much character as setting. The city, and then the planet.

Now, the direct address to @party, where this demo was released …

Now, the shout-outs, the naming of the most famous demoscene groups that will show themselves, and show their productions, at Assembly …

The shapes of the city again, first radial, then rotating on cubes …

This demo also offers us a flatted female image, a silhouette of the stereotypical hot chick licking a 9 volt battery – bringing together adolescent erotocism with, perhaps a titilating adolescent memory of a a literally electric encouter. To some, it could suggest that a woman can contribute approximately one bit, or one tongue, to the activities of the demoscene – that women can be at best mascots.

That would be an antagonistic reading, but consider that the cyborg-like woman is turning the industrial product of the battery from its intended use in consumer goods to the purpose of sensory stimulation. She is entering into an aesthetic relationship with this compact power source. And, as her image appears on row after row of homogenous computer monitors, she turns the banal laboratory and the corporate workplace into the creative frenzy of the demo party.

4. fr-025: the.popular.demo

[An anti-virus warning came up at this point – the demo had been identified as a dangerous program. With the help of Finnish-speakers, I indicated that the computer should run the program.]

As game companies outsource the production of full motion video to pad their products with pre-rendered cutscenes, the demoscene, interested in “the art of real-time,” insists on rendering during execution and limits precalculation. This real-time quality is present in all demos, including the one shown earlier and the one other demo I will show. This one, “The Popular Demo” by farbrausch, was the 1st place PC demo from Breakpoint 2003. Yes, everything you see was produced by almost ten-year-old code, code that is practically classic.

Again, a reading that takes note of gender is interesting. Here we have an exuberant, highly reflective dancing figure. This dancing figure becomes first a trio of dancers and then a crowd. And this crowd, even if the original figure is slightly androgynous, is a crowd of dancing guys, relfecting not only the light but the typical almost entirely male demo party. Actually, the figure seems to me to be male because of the silvery Jockey shorts he is wearing.

We could chastise the demoscene for its lack of inclusiveness and for its occasional sexualization of women, but compare these demos to the recently released trailer for the videogame Hitman Absolution, in which a group of women dressed as nuns casts off their habits, is seen to be wearing sluttly attire and sporting weapons, and then, after attacking the extremely bad-ass hitman, go on to be slaughtered one by one in gruesome detail. This trailer is not really that innovative in the area of violence against women — it simply conflates numerous action-movie clichés. But it still makes a much worse impression than demoscene productions do, because these productions are not, ultimately, about dominance and sadism. Demoscene productions are about exuberance, about abundance, about harmony. If they overlook or slight women now and then, this is a failing that should be remedied. It is one that can be remedies without altering the core dynamic of the scene and of productions.

Demoscene productions can be dark at times, but even when they are more industrial or grim, they are about elements working together and in sync. There is no player being thwarted by the stutter-step of the attacking computer, no need to break the pattern – only a pleasing spectacle, a dance of color and computation, a dance that results from the connection between coder and computation.

5. Elevated

[As I was starting this one, a conference organizer said “please! The lowest resolution! This one is very demanding!”]

As games become more and more extensive in terms of assets and total program and data size, the demoscene flies into smaller and smaller pockets of inner space, creating self-contained 64K demos and 4K intros that run on standard operating systems – one scener, Viznut, even described in late 2011 how “256 bytes is becoming the new 4K.” Viznut, by the way, is from a country that starts with F, where people still smoke a reasonable number of cigarettes, that is not France. Viznut’s recent work has been to creating a 16-byte VIC-20 demo and to develop numerous very short C programs that generate music when their text output is redirected to /dev/audio.

The demo, or more precisely, intro that we are watching now is considerably larger, although all the code for it will comfortably and legibly fit on the screen. This is “elevated” by Rgba & TBC, the 1st place 4k Windows intro from Breakpoint 2009.

Notice the highly mannered, highly artificial way that the so-called camera (completely a second-order construction of the code, of course), calling attention to itself constantly, moves over this model of the natual world, this landscape. The landscape itself approaches the sublime, but the musical score and the movement and cutting work against that sublimity at least as much as they work to evoke it. And what could cut against the sublime more strongly that these beams of light, emanating as if from a club, or several clubs, calling the viewer to think of the music as diegetic, to imagine it happening on this alternate Earth.

Just as the city pulsed to the beat in “Computer Candy Overload,” just as the planet itself did, here the landscape remains static but emits these club-like clarions of light. The terrain itself is part of the party, nature blended with man without being violated. The elevated landscape is augmented without being touched so it can also kick out the jams.

6. Platform Studies & 10 PRINT

A notable distinction between the demoscene and gaming is seen in their relationship to platform. Demoscene productions celebrate and explore the different capabilities of specific platforms, old and new, while the pressures of the market compel cross-platform game development, the smoothing over of platform differences, and the abandonment of older platforms. I don’t mean to say that game developers themselves aren’t aware of the differences between a mobile phone and a desktop, or even between an XBox 360 and a PC, which have very similar hardware but are distinct, for many reasons, as platforms. I simply mean that the impulse in game development is to try to smooth over the differences between platforms as much as possible, while those in the demoscene seek to explore and exploit particular platforms, showcasing their differences.

Ian Bogost and I have developed an approach to digital media that follows the demoscene in its concern for particular platforms, what they can and cannot do, and what their construction and use has to say about computing and culture. The approach is called platform studies, and book-length scholarly works using this approach are now being published in the Platform Studies series of the MIT Press.

Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost is the first book in this series. … The second book is Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform by Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal … The third book in the Platform Studies series is The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga by Jimmy Maher …

In November, the MIT Press will print my next collaboratively-written book, which will be part of a different but related series – the Software Studies series. This book is 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 by Nick Montfort, Patsy Baudoin, John Bell, Ian Bogost, Jeremy Douglass, Mark C. Marino, Michael Mateas, Casey Reas, Mark Sample, and Noah Vawter. You may have noticed that the title is practically unpronounceable and impossible to remember, and that the list of authors – there are ten of us – is also impossible to remember. We call the book 10 PRINT, and if you remember that you should be able to find out about it.

The book is an intensive and extensive reading, in a single voice, of the one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program that gives it its title. It is a transverse study of how this program functions, signifies, and connotes at the levels of reception, interface, form and function, code, and platform, considering both the BASIC language and the Commodore 64 as platforms. We discuss the relationship of randomness to regularity in this program and in computing, with one chapter devoted to randomness and one to various types of regularity, including the grid and iteration. We trace the academic origins and entrepreneurial implementation of BASIC for the Commodore 64, a programming language that was customized for the Commodore 64 by Ric Weiland and originally written for the 6502 processor by none other than Bill Gates himself. And we explain how the Commodore 64 shared features with other microcomputers of its time and was also distinct from them.

10 PRINT is not a book about games, nor a game studies book, but it is a book that discusses computer games and relates them to another area of creative computing, hobbyist programming. The 10 PRINT program itself is neither a game nor a demo, but the book discusses the demoscene about as much as it does gaming, situating the practice of programming and sharing one-liners among these other practices.

The Library of Congress has assigned a call number for this book that places it among manuals for the BASIC programming language, so perhaps the book will be not only hard to recall by title and author but also hard to locate in libraries. It should be easy to read in another way, however, because like the demos I have been showing and discussing, like the 10 PRINT program, the 10 PRINT book will be made available online for free. The elite will want to purchase the beautiful physical object, a two-color book with custom endpapers designed by Casey Reas, the co-creator of Processing – but we make scholarship for the masses, not the classes.

But enough about books. Welcome back to the world of the scener, a world of parties, a world of exploring computation and the surprising abilities of specific platforms, a society of the spectacle that everyone can make. Here in the world of the scener, we are all equal and we are all totally elite. Think about a few questions this raises: Should your scholarship be distributed under the gamer model or the scener model? Are games all that can be done with computers, the only productions worth study, commentary, theorizing, and intellectual effort? I’m not inviting you to the next Assembly. I’m inviting us to see creative computing for what it is, something that includes videogames alongside hobbyist computing alongside digital art alongside electronic literature alongside the demoscene. Some of you know that it can be done, some believe that it can be done – so, a shout-out to you. And thanks to everyone for listening.

The three demos I discussed are all available in executable form at, which I have linked to and from which I have appropriated the three images. There is video documentation of them linked there, too.

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