Emulation as Game Facsimile (or Computer Edition?)

Saturday 14 May 2011, 4:24 pm   ///////  

I’ve noted here at MiT7 (Media in Transition 7) that we’re now achieved some very reasoned discussion and understanding of the virtues of different approaches to preserving and accessing computer programs. Not that we’ve solved the underlying problem, of course, but I’ve been pleased to see how our overall approach has evolved.

Instead of simply dismissing emulation, migration, or the preservation of old hardware, we’ve had some good comments about the ways in which these different techniques have proven to work well and about what their limitations are. We saw this in the plenary discussion on archives and cultural memory late this morning – audio of that conversation will be coming online. Update: Here it is.

Clara Fernandez-Vara’s presentation “Emulation as a Tool to Study Videogame History” [Abstract] developed this discussion extremely well with regard to one important tool, the emulator. She presented the idea of a game in emulation as facsimile – not the original edition, but also not the Cliff Notes that we’d have to consult otherwise. She showed us a range of work with emulators that gives reserach, teaching, and casual access to older games, which would otherwise be neglected. Saving state, speeding games up, and even playing several of them at once with the same inputs are all facilitated by emulators.

Fernandez-Vara went on to note some limitations of emulation, such as that the physical controller, often significant to play, cannot be replicated in hardware; nor can particular hardware features such as those of the Dreamcast’s VMU or of a C64 floppy drive, which would whirr when something interesting was about to happen in a text adventure. Boxes and manuals are often very important and can’t always be effectively digitized; with online games and worlds, keeping the context is even harder. Finally, emulators have to be updated for new contemporary platforms every few years.

Much of the work of building emulators, Fernandez-Vara also noted, is done by fans who work as volunteers – institutional support can help them and can allow libraries to accumulate holdings. It would be nice if current platforms (the PS3!) were more backwards-compatible, too. “Abandonware” could be officially made available for use, to clear up legal questions.

The only thing I’d add to Fernandez-Vara’s excellent discussion is a slightly different framing perspective on the emulator. The emulated game may be usefully understood as a facsimile, but I see a different way to understand the emulator itself.

My suggestion is that an emulator can be conceptualized as an edition of a computer.

The first edition would be the original piece of hardware – for the Commodore 64, the August 1982 beige keyboard-with-CPU. Actually, in the case of the Commodore 64, even keeping to the United States there are at least three different “hardware” editions, since there are three ROM revisions, one used in very early machines, one in 1982 and 1983 computers, and one that was used in Commodore 64s and in the C64 mode of the Commodore 128. The three ROM revisions are not the only things that changed during the time the Commodore 64 was manufactured and sold, but they do change the behavior of the system. I suppose these better understood as being different “printings,” since the changes are limited to the ROM. That would be an interesting discussion to pursue. Either way, though, printing or edition, there are three different sets of hardware, three hardware Commodore 64s.

When the creators of VICE (the emulator I use) produce a program that operates like a Commodore 64, I understand this as being an edition of the Commodore 64. Yes, it’s a software edition. It isn’t an official or authorized edition – only being a product of Commodore would allow for that. (There are official, authorized emulators, but this is not one.) It’s not, of course, the original and canonical edition. But it’s nevertheless an attempt to produce a system that functions like a Commodore 64, one which took a great deal of effort and is effective in many ways. Thinking of this an edition of the system seems to be a useful way to frame emulation, as it allows me to compare editions and usefully understand differences and similarities.

A Programmed Data Processor for Your Browser

Thursday 12 May 2011, 8:55 pm   //////  

Using this shiny JavaScript PDP-11 emulator, you can play the influential 1973 game Hunt the Wumpus (type USR/GAMES/WUMP after following the instructions to start Unix) in a very suitable context. The FAQ explains why, for instance, backspace has no meaning on the system.

An Enigmatic Business Card

Monday 9 May 2011, 3:53 pm   /////  

TEch WArp: MIT is out of joint. Find an entry point, a placard, and play Tech Warp on your phone or on the Web. Check: A bookstore in Kendall, A mid-infinite location, A former arcade site, MIT’s main entrance, A corner lot dorm, A student street. Align MIT in time & unlock space for imagining the future.

These cards have been seen at MIT. Some say they point the way to an interactive fiction that you can play, if you search the campus and find a way in.

¡Viva ICCC-11!

Tuesday 3 May 2011, 12:00 am   /////  

The Second International Conference on Computational Creativity (ICCC-11) in Mexico City was a great success, thanks in large part to local organizer Rafael Pérez y Pérez and to the support of UAM and UNAM Posgrado.

If you’re interested in computational models of creativity, please take a look at the proceedings. It was announced in Mexico City that the next ICCC will take place in 2012 at University College Dublin. We hope you’ll look forward to joining us there. And from year to year, computationalcreativity.net will keep you informed about conferences in the series.

ICCC-11 is Happening

Thursday 28 April 2011, 4:17 pm   ////  

Just a quick note that ICCC-11, The Second International Conference on Computational Creativty, is going very well here in Mexico City. We’ve had five sessions of brief presentations followed by lengthy discussions among the panelists and members of the audience. The research into computational creativity that is represented here includes work on theory and on creativity in many of the arts. We’re looking forward to this afternoon’s keynote speech by George E. Lewis.

By the way, for those who couldn’t make it here and for those who did, the complete ICCC-11 proceedings are online.

Why Watson Can’t Dance

Saturday 23 April 2011, 5:07 pm   /////  

Here’s the abstract from a presentation I gave yesterday, from my pedestrian stance as a non-dancer, at a high-energy workshop on dance technology:

Why Watson Can’t Dance: Attempts at On-Screen Dance in Popular Digital Media

Nick Montfort

Dance Technology and Circulations of the Social v2.0, MIT, April 21-23, 2011

Of all the ways that computing can connect to dance, one of the simplest but also most pervasive is seen in the animation of dancing bodies on screen. To inquire about how computers have done this sort of virtual dance over the decades, and how it relates to interactive games that require the player to dance, I begin by considering very simple digital media objects that represent dance. The first is a non-interactive BASIC program from the 1982 Commodore 64 User’s Guide: “Michael’s Dancing Mouse.” Comparing this to a dancing computer animation from the decade after — the dancing baby, which was one of the first viral animations or videos online — is instructive in considering the way digital media developed and whether or not the computing concept of dance developed. I then turn to focus on one game originally for the arcade and one home video game: Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution and Harmonix’s Dance Central. In examining these systems, I try to articulate the model of dance that underlies them and to understand what aspects of dance are foregrounded and which are left aside. Finally, I consider how well the computer can dance (in this one narrow sense of displaying an animated dancing figure) and how this compares to the computer’s ability in other domains, including the other arts.

Some relevant videos:

Digital Poetry at Dartmouth

Saturday 23 April 2011, 5:04 pm   /////  

My thanks to Mary Flanagan, Aden Evens, and the others at Dartmouth who put on the digital poetry symposium last Friday (April 15). I was very glad to participate along with Marjorie Luesebrink, Braxton Soderman, and my collaborator Stephanie Strickland. With Stephanie, I showed, discussed and read from our “Sea and Spar Between.” I also presented some of my smaller-scale poetry generations, including words from the ppg256 series, “The Two” and its French translation by Serge Bouchardon, and “Taroko Gorge” and its transformations by Scott Rettberg and J. R. Carpenter.

Mary has a writeup of the symposium on her blog, Tiltfactor, describing the excellent work that my fellow presenters showed. I was familiar with and pleased to hear more about the projects that Margie and Stephanie showed; it was great to see the work in progress, a provocative textual platformer, that Braxton was doing with Daniel C. Howe and that he showed.

Creativity and Cognition Deadline – Soon!

Monday 11 April 2011, 12:40 pm   /////  

As the call for papers for ACM Creativity and Cognition explains, we’re only two weeks away from the deadline. Papers, artworks, and proposals for tutorials and workshops are all welcome!

An Amazing Linked List

I strongly encourage those of you who haven’t seen it yet to check out Brian Kim Stefans’s Introduction to Electronic Literature: a freeware guide.

Right now it is “just” a list of links to online resources, from Futurism through 2010, that are relevant to understanding different important aspects of electronic literature – making it, reading it, sorting through different genres, and understanding its historical connects.

It’s extremely useful in this form, but Stefans is also hoping to put these selections together in a Lulu.com book that he’ll sell at cost. To that end, he’s selected only texts – work that will fit in a book – as opposed to pieces that need to be read on a networked computer. Stefans also intends to put together a website that collects and mirrors these writings, uniformly typeset in a legible way, as PDFs.

I’m of course pleased that Stefans was inspired by The New Media Reader, which Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I edited for the MIT Press, and that he included a few of my pieces.

As I have a strong preference for assigning publicly available texts instead of scanned articles that live being a university paywall, I find these texts very useful for teaching. Stefans is taking suggestions for how to revise his Introduction over on his netpoetic.com post.

Keynote, Papers Announced for ICCC-11

Monday 28 March 2011, 6:50 pm   /////  

The 2011 International Conference on Computational Creativity will be held in Mexico City April 27-29. We now have information on the keynote address by Prof. George E. Lewis, “Improvising With Creative Machines: Reflections on Human-Machine Interaction.” And, there’s a list of accepted papers and demos. I’m looking forward to seeing those of you who are presenting at the end of April in Mexico City. And if any others with an interest in the field can make it to the gathering and be part of the discussion, attend the presentations, and learn about systems through demos, please do!

My Curveship Talk at PAX-East 2011

Monday 28 March 2011, 9:34 am   /////////  

I gave a talk about Curveship in the “IF Suite” (actually an ordinary hotel room with a few upturned beds, not a suite) at PAX-East 2011 earlier this month. It was great to present to fellow IF author/programmers from around the world at this event, which was effectively the second annual Festival of Interactive Fiction. The IF Summit was organized by Andrew Plotkin, a.k.a. Zarf, once again this year. Thanks to Jason McIntosh, there’s pretty good-quality video (very good, considering the ramshackle setup) of the first 22.5 minutes of my talk:

Nick Montfort on Curveship at PAX-East 2011: Watch on Vimeo

The parts where I actually demo the system and discuss how games are written are missing, unfortunately, but my comments do introduce Curveship and its motivation.

Also check out the video documentation of the “Setting as Character” panel with Andrew Plotkin, Rob Wheeler, Stephen Granade, and Dean Tate. (This one took place in the more capacious Alcott Room, which we had on Saturday, March 12 thanks to Dave Cornelson.) Also, there’s video of the panel on “Non-Gamers Gaming,” with Caleb Garner, Tim Crosby, Heather Albano, Sarah Morayati, and Andrew Plotkin.

La Muchacha y el Lobo

Friday 25 March 2011, 11:50 am   ////////  

In 2001, Beehive was the first Web publication to print a creative digital media piece of mine, “The Girl and the Wolf.” I had written this story back in 1997 in Janet Murray’s Interactive Narrative class at MIT. (These days, I teach this class here at MIT.) It was strongly inspired by the readings of folk tales we had done in Henry Jenkins’s Children’s Literature class. “The Girl and the Wolf” is a very early creative piece of mine, but I remain pleased with the systematic concept and with what I wrote. It’s a simple arrangement of nine versions of a story, allowing the levels of sex and violence to be increased independently. With some contemporary references and a few other turns of phrase, I introduced only a few deviations from well-known folkloric versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story.

Ruber Eaglenest has now translated this “variable tale” into Spanish as “La Muchacha y el Lobo.”

Eaglenest describes himself as a “wannabe” game programmer, but has participated in the Spanish IF community in many ways using the name El Clérigo Urbatain. In addition to writing many reviews and articles and doing several interviews, he has written and collaborated on several pieces of interactive fiction: Por la necedad humana, Astral, Aventurero en el Sega Park, El extraño caso de Randolph Dwight, and an episode of El museo de consciencias. He has also adapted several interactive fiction games and translated several to Spanish – most recently, Graham Nelson’s Relics of Tolti-Aph.

Eaglenest has also provided a lengthy and very useful post about the Little Red Riding Hood story and “The Girl and the Wolf” on his blog (in Spanish).

Death and the Powers Permieres in the U.S.

Sunday 20 March 2011, 10:31 pm   /////  

Death and the Powers had a brilliant and resonant U.S. premiere on Friday at the Cutler Majestic in Boston. I’ve been looking forward to the opera’s completion, and then to its coming to the U.S., for several years. My mentor from the B.U. poetry program, Robert Pinsky, wrote the libretto, and my current colleague Tod Machover composed the opera. Congratulations to all those who put this production together, including Tod’s Opera of the Future group at the Media Lab. Death and the Powers is technically intricate and thematically ambitious, and all of that came together perfectly. (Image source.)

Improviso is Out

Wednesday 16 March 2011, 11:40 pm   /////  

Jeff Orkin, of Restaurant Game fame, has just launched Improviso, a system that allows players to improvise (online) and make a somewhat corny science fiction film by taking the role of director or lead actor. Orkin developed the system with collaborating students at the Singapore MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. I was pleased to see an early version of the system this summer, and very glad that the project has now blasted off. If you do Windows, download Improviso and see what you can make of it and with it.

March 14 in Philadelphia: Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Wednesday 9 March 2011, 6:34 pm   //////  

Platform Studies, Material Computing, and the Atari VCS

Nick Montfort, MIT

A presentation in the
Workshop in the History of Material Texts
University of Pennsylvania – March 14, 2011 – 5:15pm
Van Pelt Library, 2nd Floor

Platform studies is a family of approaches that aim to help us understand the relationship between computational platforms and the creative work that is done on them. At a high level, two realizations are particularly important to platform studies: First, that creative production on the computer, using computation, is culturally relevant; and second, that we can usefully look to the underlying systems and structures that constrain and enable this creative production. In this talk, I will describe how participating in this workshop helped me to engage with the materiality of texts and then of computing, how I initially sought to investigate the relationship between textual studies and computational media, and how, working with my collaborator Ian Bogost, I found a deeper, productive connection between digital media and textual materiality that is based on the concept of the platform. Along the way, I will discuss and use as my main example the Atari VCS (a.k.a. Atari 2600). This famous early cartridge-based game system was the focus of my and Bogost’s 2009 book, Racing The Beam, the first book in the MIT Press series Platform Studies.

The ELMCIP Knowledge Base is Online

Friday 4 March 2011, 12:24 am   ///  

Interested in electronic literature, and a new large-scale resource listing works, authors, and more? The ELMCIP Knowledge Base is now available in beta form. Also, check out this screencast about the ELMCIP Knowledge Base.

By ELMCIP, we mean Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice, a research project that extends throughout Europe and is funded by the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) JRP for Creativity and Innovation. ELMCIP is a project to try to understand creative communities working in electronic literature. Among the many involved parties are friends and collaborators Scott Rettberg (the project leader) and Jill Walker Rettberg.

In describing the newly opened Knowledge Base, Scott writes:

We are still working on the design and some features are still in progress but we are happy enough with the work-in-progress to open it up to more readers and contributors. I hope that you will join us in developing this important resource. We need your help to make a good platform into a great resource.

Here, as it stands, is the list of works in the Knowledge Base. Take a look, even if you want to browse, but particularly if you think you may wish to contribute.

Get Yer Art, Culture, and Game Studies

Wednesday 23 February 2011, 11:56 pm   //////  

This and That Thought, a Turbulence commission, is a robot riot. (Turn on your sound before beginning!) The new issue of Culture Machine grapples with e-lit and the digital humanities and looks to be made of win. And there’s the happy occasion of a new issue of Game Studies, focused on game reward systems.

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