Tracy Fullerton this Thursday at MIT on “Walden, a game”

Tuesday 6 November 2012, 7:55 pm   ///////  

Tried of thinking about well-defined regions of red and blue?

… start thinking about PURPLE BLURB, the digital writing series at MIT.

We’ll have our next event with TRACY FULLERTON, an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey – a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

Fullerton’s talk “Finer Fruits: Experiment in Life and Play at Walden” will take place:

November 8
In MIT’s 32-155 (Stata Center)

This is a joint event with the CMS Colloquium, and supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund.

Walden, a game, is an experiment in play being made about an experiment in living. The game simulates Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in living a simplified existence as articulated in his book Walden. It puts Thoreau’s ideas about the essentials of life into a playable form, in which players can take on the role of Thoreau, attending to the “meaner” tasks of life at the Pond – providing themselves with food, fuel, shelter and clothing – while trying not to lose sight of their relationship to nature, where the Thoreau found the true rewards of his experiment, his “finer fruits” of life. The game is a work in progress, and this talk will look closely at the design of the underlying system and the cycles of thought that have gone into developing it. It will also detail the creation of the game world, which is based on close readings of Thoreau’s work, and the projected path forward for the team as we continue our sojourn in experimental in play.

We have also added a Purple Blurb event this semester. Prof. Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania Kelly Writers House will join us for a conversation with Nick Montfort on December 10 at 5:30pm in 6-120. He’ll discuss his experience teaching modern poetry to 34,000 students online. More about this as the time nears …

For now, I hope to see you this Thursday for Tracy Fullerton’s presentation about Walden, a game.

Two E-Lit Gatherings in Europe

I was at a workshop in Bergen on Tuesday and a conference in Edinburgh Thursday through Saturday. There were many interesting things to report or at least mention, and I’ve only managed to note two of them on the blog so far. I’ll also mention that in Bergen, I did the first transverse reading of the full ppg256 series, reading through the seven generators’ output four times. I was very pleased with the art gallery setting, the other readings and screenings, and the way my reading went.

Fortunately there is good documentation of both events in the ELMCIP Knowledge Base, a resource that lists critical work, events, and presentations about electronic literature as well as works of e-lit themselves. For these two events, abstracts and (in the case of the “Remediating the Social” ELMCIP conference in Edinburgh) full papers are included in the Knowledge Base as well.

For instance, my presentation in Bergen, represented by an abstract in the Knowledge Base, was “The ELO and Two E-Lit Exhibits.”

And, my keynote address at the beginning of the ELMCIP conference in Edinburgh was “Programming for Fun, Together,” for which a corresponding paper is available. I covered the main topics of the paper in about the first half of the talk and spent the second half trying to explain how to program in Commodore 64 BASIC, using concrete-poem-generating programs (including 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10) as my examples. I began by developing a program that prints “H” or “I” at random, using bpNichol’ favorite letter (“H”) and an adjacent letter that can be seen as either a rotation of “H” or a component of it. A one-line program was developed to printing either one uniformly at random. In part, this was my response to the less interesting but certainly more conventional “HELLO WORLD” program. I continued to show how a program that printed “x” or “y” could be quickly developed by modifying this one, after using Commodore BASIC itself, via the ASC function, to determine the appropriate new ASCII code. Then, I converted that program to “our” 10 PRINT (that is, the program I and nine co-authors have written a book about) and showed how the distribution and pair of characters could be changed.

In presenting these various 10 PRINT programs and developing new ones through modification, I wanted to show that BASIC programming can truly be undertaken in an exploratory way without a great deal of background. I also wanted to share with the group some of the amazing facility for poetic experimentation that is provided by a 30-year-old computer, inexpensive even at the time, that allows you to program immediately after being turned on.

Jill Walker Rettberg liveblogged my keynote (bringing back another wonderful historical tradition in digital media!) and there was also some discussion of the talk on Twitter.

My only regret related to the talk was that Rita Raley, who was scheduled to be the respondent for my talk, was unable to make it to the conference due to the storm damage and flooding in New York City. Scott Rettberg filled in and made a worthwhile connection from collaborative, social programming activity to collaborative writing, also questioning my four points about programming socially for fun.

The Edinburgh conference, which featured an exhibit at the Inspace gallery and performances throughout, resulted in a book that includes not only academic papers but also “artist’s pages” documenting the artistic works. I hope you’ll be interested in taking a look at the good supply of online “Remediating the Social” material.

The Cut Version, with Ads

Saturday 3 November 2012, 10:50 am   /////  

Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell did an excellent conceptual writing project, just presented at ELMCIP in Edinburgh.

Amazon provides American Psycho

A Study of the IF Community

Saturday 3 November 2012, 8:02 am   ///  

Here at the ELMCIP “Remediating the Social” conference, literature professor Yra van Dijk was added to the program and presented, today, on a topic of special interest to me – the interactive fiction community.

She has been examining the 2001-2004 exchanges on the IF newsgroups ( and with a focus on the online exchanges and the community’s archiving of them. Self-reflexivity and longevity makes this community particularly interesting to her. She sees a blending of roles: Practicioners, reviewers, and consumers are different roles but not different people. Her study uses literary sociology and literary theory, mainly Latour. She mentioned the “Interesting discussions” available on the Wiki; one does not have to join a mailing list to read them.

Technical issues, theory and self-reflection are discussed – many things that would be taken up by institutions in other contexts. She noted that actors on the newsgroups do not behave as if anonymous, but behave as they might in person. She noted as well that some in-person meetups now happen, that people often reflect on how to raise the profile of IF, and that awards and prizes imitate hierarchies of print literature, play a part in canonizing and archiving. She studied the consideration of IF as art – and found that most of the discussion is about craftsmanship, not poetics. Exchanges of code happen, and people discussed questions about how to write, not what we write.

She found that a well-defined genre is being redefined through discussion. Taste is being developed and discussed; intelligent readership is supported. An archive of knowledge about these works has been produced, along with an institutional network. So, the seemingly peripheral IF community has many interesting things happening. It resembles (to her surprise, she said) the 19th century literary communities with their emphasis on craftsmanship and criticism.

I regret that I didn’t get to speak with van Dijk, but it was great to hear her discussion of the IF community … and I have now something to report on at the next People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction meeting.

10 PRINT Reading / Release Party

Thursday 18 October 2012, 4:04 pm   //////////  

10 PRINT cover

Our first event for 10 PRINT is scheduled for:

November 12, 2012

at the

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA.

This means, of course, that the book will be printed and available for sale by then, which is less than a month from now.

The Harvard Book Store is an independent book store in Harvard Square, founded in 1932.

Of the ten authors of 10 PRINT, we’re planning to have at least me (Nick Montfort), Patsy Baudoin, and Noah Vawter there for some reading from the book, comments on the titular program and the writing of the book, and discussion. The reading is free and takes place at the bookstore itself, as the page on the event explains.

Purple Blurb at MIT this semester!

Yes we have Purple Blurb! The first event is in less than a week – sorry for the short notice; I hope you locals can join us. Here are the details:

Monday October 1, 5:30pm in 6-120

Rafael Pérez y Pérez, Fox Harrell, and Nick Montfort

In conversation about narrative generation and MEXICA, GRIOT, and Curveship

Three creators of poetic and imaginative systems speak about computational creativity, narrative generation, and the way systems for this sort of work are culturally generated. Rafael Pérez y Pérez is creator of the plot-focused MEXICA system for the generation of stories and is Profesor/Investigador Titular C in the Departamento de Tecnologías de la Información at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Cuajimalpa, México D. F. Fox Harrell is creator of GRIOT and the Alloy algorithm, which generates literary and multimedia texts based on conceptual structures. Harrell is associate professor of digital media at MIT in CMS/WHS, a principal investigator at CSAIL, and head of the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory. Nick Montfort developed Curveship, an interactive fiction and text generation systems that allows for parametrically controlled narrative variation. Montfort is associate professor of digital media at MIT in CMS/WHS and head of the Trope Tank.

Thursday November 8, 5:30pm in 32-155

Tracy Fullerton

“Finer Fruits: Experiment in Life and Play at Walden”

A joint event with the CMS Colloquium

Walden, a game, is an experiment in play being made about an experiment in living. The game simulates Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in living a simplified existence as articulated in his book Walden. It puts Thoreau’s ideas about the essentials of life into a playable form, in which players can take on the role of Thoreau, attending to the “meaner” tasks of life at the Pond – providing themselves with food, fuel, shelter and clothing – while trying not to lose sight of their relationship to nature, where the Thoreau found the true rewards of his experiment, his “finer fruits” of life. The game is a work in progress, and this talk will look closely at the design of the underlying system and the cycles of thought that have gone into developing it. It will also detail the creation of the game world, which is based on close readings of Thoreau’s work, and the projected path forward for the team as we continue our sojourn in experimental in play.

Tracy Fullerton, M.F.A., is an experimental game designer, professor and director of the Game Innovation Lab at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she holds the Electronic Arts Endowed Chair in Interactive Entertainment. The Game Innovation Lab is a design research center that has produced several influential independent games, including Cloud, flOw, Darfur is Dying, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and The Night Journey – a collaboration with media artist Bill Viola. Tracy is also the author of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, a design textbook in use at game programs worldwide.

As always, all events are free and open to the public. The Purple Blurb series is supported by the Angus N. MacDonald fund and Comparative Media Studies / Writing and Humanistic Studies.

Islands of (Text) Adventure

Friday 13 July 2012, 1:00 pm   ///////  

In the “Michelangelo” room of the Portofino Bay hotel, at Ascendio (the latest and last in a long series of Harry Potter fan conferences), just down the lagoon from The Islands of Adventure and the Harry Potter area of that theme park, Flourish Klink presented her interactive fiction, “Muggle Studies.”

(In Michelangelo the women come and go, talking of rooms…)

We had a reading/playing of the game, to start, in the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction public reading style. It worked well; another option would have been to “demo” the game using the successful format we tried out at the New School, Penn, and some Purple Blurb IF readings. The audience was game to try commands, though, and a volunteer read the game’s text aloud.

Then, Flourish provided some context, describing a bit about IF and Inform 7.

Given the vigorousness of fandom and the way interactive fiction production continues apace, it’s particularly good to see a demonstration of and call for more crossover work.

“Taroko Gorge” at the WVU ELO Conference

Friday 22 June 2012, 12:47 pm   ////////  

This was my statement for the “Taroko Gorge Remixed” panel yesterday (June 21) at the 2012 ELO conference. The panel was organized by Mark Sample and also featured Scott Rettberg, J. R. Carpenter (who joined us by video chat), Talan Memmott, Eric Snograss, Flourish Klink, and Andrew Plotkin. In attendance and part of the discussion were Leonardo Flores and Sonny Rae Tempest, who did work based on the Taroko Gorge code after the panel was proposed.

It is curious that I was invited to be part of this panel today, for I am the only speaker in this session who has not created and released a remix of Nick Montfort’s “Taroko Gorge.”

Today, however, to remedy this mismatch, to bridge this gap, to traverse this gorge, I am releasing a remix of my poetry generator, “Taroko Gorge.” This new work that I have completed and placed online today is also called “Taroko Gorge.” This remix was created to be an elegant poetry generator, producing a boundless nature poem and inspired by the experience of walking through Taroko Gorge National Park in Taiwan. The code of the program is the same as that of the original, and the text used as strings in the generator is also the same as that of the original. No comments have been added.

So, how can one distinguish this new “Taroko Gorge” from the original poetry generator of the same name? For one thing, I have placed today’s date on the right side of the page, to indicate that this is the remix that was completed today. When citing this work, you must also include the date that you accessed this page to comply with MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, and other bibliographic standards. If you leave the “Taroko Gorge” page open long enough, staring at it with meditative bliss, rapt attention, or monomaniacal trembling, you should include a date range rather than a single date in your bibliographic entry.

But enough of the temporal dimension. In addition to including a date, the new version of “Taroko Gorge” includes the names of all known vandals, those who have replaced my own lyrical words and phrases with ones associated with various other individual visions, ranging from the idiosyncratic to the downright perverse. These appear on the right-hand side – stricken out. Since it is not proper to condemn people without evidence – unless we put them aboard a plane and take them to another country – I have also included links to the offending Web pages.

This remix of “Taroko Gorge” asserts something very simple: that the rebirth of the author comes at the expense of the death of other authors. Something simple, about originality, voice, and purity of essence, which has been said in so many ways: Remix = death. Take back the gorge. Don’t tread on me. There’s a bear in the woods. Make it old. I did it my way. Under the page, the code.

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.

The End of ppg256

Friday 8 June 2012, 8:38 pm   //////  

I presented the last ppg256 poem (ppg256-7) in Paris today at &Now.

Here are the current versions of all of the ppg256 poems/programs:

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.

Computational Creativity: MIT at ICCC

Thursday 31 May 2012, 2:27 am   ///////  

Many exciting things here at ICCC-12 (the International Conference on Computational Creativity 2012) in Dublin, but here are those that come from MIT, Writing and Humanistic Studies, and Comparative Media Studies:

I represented my lab, The Trope Tank, by presenting by the position paper “Small-Scale Systems and Computational Creativity” by Nick Montfort and Natalia Fedorova. The Trope Tank has a longer technical report that deals with this topic, written for a more general audience: “TROPE-12-02 – XS, S, M, XL: Creative Text Generators of Different Scales” by Nick Montfort.

One of the demos here, “Exploring Everyday Creative Responses to Social Discrimination with the Mimesis System,” by D. Fox Harrell, Chong-U Lim, Sonny Sidhu, Jia Zhang, Ayse Gursoy and Christine Yu, is the work of Harrell’s ICE (Imagination, Computation, and Expression) Lab at MIT. Harrell presented this demo yesterday, showing the current state of the iPhone game Mimesis, developed as part of the Advanced Identity Representation project.

Christian Bök in Purple Blurb *Thursday* 6pm

Monday 30 April 2012, 12:14 am   ////////  

Update: Thanks to Francisco Ricardo, a video of some of Christian’s Purple Blurb reading is now online.

The Spring 2012 Purple Blurb series comes to an end this week, not with a whimper, but with Christian Bök!

Thursday May 3

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (Coach House Press, 1994),  a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial  Award, and of Eunoia (Coach House Books, 2001), a bestselling work of  experimental literature, which has gone on to win the Griffin Prize for  Poetic Excellence. Bök has created artificial languages for two  television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter  Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso  performances of sound poetry (particularly the Ursonate by Kurt  Schwitters). His conceptual artworks (which include books built out of  Rubik’s cubes and Lego bricks) have appeared at the Marianne Boesky  Gallery in New York City as part of the exhibit Poetry Plastique. Bök is  currently a Professor of English at the University of Calgary.

If you’re in the Boston area, and interested in radical play with language (why else would you have found this blog?) please come by.


Wednesday 25 April 2012, 11:52 am   ///////  

Developers of digital storytelling systems, take note: The call for papers for the Fifth International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling is now out. Conference to be held November 12-15, 2012 in Spain.

Borsuk, Bök, Montfort – May 5, 7pm, Lorem Ipsum

Saturday 21 April 2012, 10:05 pm   ////////  

I’m reading soon with our Canadian guest Christian Bök and with my MIT colleague Amaranth Borsuk, who will present Between Page and Screen (published by Siglio Press this year). The gig is at:

Lorem Ipsum Books
1299 Cambridge Street
Inman Square
Cambridge, MA
Ph: 617-497-7669

May 7, 2012 at 7pm

Amaranth Borsuk is the author of Handiwork (2012), the chapbook Tonal Saw (2010), and a collaborative work Excess Exhibit to be released as both a limited-edition book and iPad application in 2012. Her poems, essays, and translations have been published widely in journals such as the New American Writing, Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, FIELD, and Columbia Poetry Review. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Comparative Media Studies, Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT where she works on and teaches digital poetry, visual poetry, and creative writing workshops.

Christian Bök is the author of Crystallography (2003), a pataphysical encyclopedia, and of Eunoia (2009), a bestselling work of experimental literature. Bök has created artificial languages for two television shows: Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon. Bök has also earned accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry (particularly Die Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters). Currently, he is conducting a conceptual experiment called The Xenotext (which involves genetically engineering a bacterium so that it might become not only an archive for storing a poem in its genome for eternity, but also a machine for writing a poem as a protein in response). He teaches English at the University of Calgary.

Nick Montfort writes computational and constrained poetry, develops computer games, and is a critic, theorist, and scholar of computational art and media. He teaches at MIT and is currently serving as president of the Electronic Literature Organization. His digital media writing projects include the interactive fiction system Curveship; the group blog Grand Text Auto; Ream, a 500-page poem written on one day; 2002: A Palindrome Story, the longest literary palindrome (according the Oulipo), written with William Gillespie; Implementation, a novel on stickers written with Scott Rettberg; and several works of interactive fiction: Winchester’s Nightmare, Ad Verbum, and Book and Volume. His latest book, Riddle & Bind (2010), contains literary riddles and constrained poems.

Steve McCaffery Reading Carnival at Purple Blurb

Saturday 21 April 2012, 1:32 pm   ///////  

Steve McCaffery read at MIT in the Purple Blurb series on March 19, 2012. A recording of part of that reading (his reading of Carnival) is embedded above; the text of my introduction follows.

Thank you all for braving the cold to come out today. Did you know that today is officially the last day of Winter? Ever! Winter is officially over forever!

But I come not to bury Winter, but to praise Steve McCaffery, and to introduce him. Steve McCaffery is professor and Gray Chair at the University of Buffalo in the Poetics Program. He comes to us from there, and before, from Canada, where he did much of his pioneering work in sound and concrete poetry. He is one of those people who is know for his non-digital work but without whom the current situation of electronic literature, of digital writing, could not exist. He is in that category, for instance, with Jorge Luis Borges.

You would have me institutionalized for loggorrhea if I attempted to read Steve McCaffery’s entire bibliography and discography to you.

Know, however, that McCaffery was one of the Four Horsemen, along with bpNichol, Rafael Barreto-Rivera, and Paul Dutton. This groundbreaking group of sound poets, numbering almost as many mouths as there are vowels, released several albumbs: “Live in the West,” and “Bootleg,” and “caNADAda.”

McCaffery’s critical writing can found in “North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986” and “Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics” His two-volume selected poems, “Seven Pages Missing,” was published in Coach House in 2000. It earned him his second Governor General’s Awards nomination; his first was for his 1991 book “Theory of Sediment.” More recently, there’s his “Verse and Worse: Selected Poems 1989-2009,” which he and Darren Wershler edited.

And, I’ll mention two other books, his “The Basho Variations,” published in 2007, which consists of different translations and version of Matsuo Basho’s famous haiku, which could be rendered clunkily as “old pond / frog jump in / water sound.” A digital version of this haiku can be seen in Neil Hennesy’s “Basho’s Frogger,” a modified version of the game Frogger in which the first row of floating items is missing so that one can only … you know … jump in. McCaffery is pond and frog and sound, placid and salient and resonant, and we are very lucky to have him here with us tonight.

Finally, I want to mention his extraordinary poem “Carnival.” I’ve taught the first panel to dozens of students here at MIT, so it’s black and red and read all over. The two panels of “Carnival” are incredible documents. If only fragments of them survive in three thousand years, that will be adequate for archaeologists to reconstruct the functioning and history of the typewriter completely. Of course, there’s more to “Carnival” than that material writing technology. But instead of saying more, I should simply let our guest give voice to “Carnival” and other works of his. Please join me in welcoming Steve McCaffery…

Palindrome “Sagas”

Saturday 24 March 2012, 12:12 pm   ///////  

Marty Markowitz, borough president of Brooklyn, said his borough was “the heart of America” in welcoming the 35th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. My heart was certainly in Brooklyn last weekend, both literally and figuratively. I was there to participate in the First Annual World Palindrome Championship on Friday and, on Saturday, to visit Big Reality, a wonderful, scruffy art show that included some of my work. More on Big Reality soon; here’s a belated note about the WPC.

I made into New York in time to meet at Jon Agee’s sister’s house in Brooklyn with him and several other palindromists who would be competing that evening. (Agee is a cartoonist whose books include Go Hang a Salami! I’m a Lasagna Hog! and Palindromania!) The other competitors included a fellow academic, John Connett, who is professor of Biostatistics at the University of Minnesota and an extremely prolific producer of sentence-length palindromes. Martin Clear, another author of many, many sentence-length palindromes, came from Australia. Barry Duncan, a Somerville resident and thus practically my neighbor, also joined us. Another competitor was Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist and a stand-up comedian. And Douglas Fink, who won a celebrity palindrome contest with his now-famous entry “Lisa Bonet ate no basil,” was the audience contestant selected to join us.

I met Barry and Doug later that day, and had a great time sitting around and discussing palindromes with the others over lunch. We had plenty to talk about. It was interesting to see that we also had different perspectives, interests, and terms associated with the art. Jon thought “Er, eh – where?” was a good palindrome, probably in part because he was imagining how to illustrate it or frame it in a cartoon in a funny way. The others generally thought this one was bogus. A sentence was the desired outcome for most of us, while I was a fan (and writer) of longer palindromes. And, as we found out that night, the audience had their own tropisms and aesthetics when it comes to palindromes.

We had 75 minutes to write up to three palindromes that we’d read to the crowd, which was to vote for their two favorite. There were three possible constraints given: Use X and Z; Refer to events in the news in the past year; or refer to the crossword tournament itself. Here’s what I came up with, using the first constraint:

The Millennium Falcon Rescue

by Nick Montfort

Wow, sagas … Solo’s deed, civic deed.

Eye dewed, a doom-mood.

A pop.

Sis sees redder rotator.

Radar sees racecar X.

Oho! Ore-zero level sees reviver!

Solo’s deified!

Solo’s reviver sees level: ore-zero.

Oho: X, racecar, sees radar.

Rotator, redder, sees sis.

Pop a doom-mood!

A dewed eye.

Deed, civic deed.

Solo’s sagas: wow.

All of the results (and the text of the palindromes) are up on The Palindromist site – take a look!

Mark Saltveit became champ with a short palindrome about acrobatic Yak sex. John Connett got 2nd, Jon Agee 3rd, and yours truly 4th.

Which is the longest?

In mine, I count 54 words, 237 letters, and 327 characters. If “doom-mood” and the like are single words, we’d have 50 words. Mark says on The Palindromist site that it’s 57 words long; I’m not sure how the counting was done there.

In Barry’s, the only other possible contender, I count 70 words (as does Mark), 184 letters, and 311 characters. Some of those words are “7” and have no letters in them, as you’ll note if you check out the results page.

So, they’re both the longest: Barry’s has the most words, while mine has the most letters and characters.

It’s a sort of odd comparison, because the constraint I used (employ only palindromic words, counting things like “ore-zero” as words) let me reframe the problem as that of constructing a word palindrome with a restricted vocabulary. Of course, you should be very very impressed anyway, with my general cleverness and so on, but I think Barry chose a more difficult feat at the level of letter-by-letter construction.

Does length matter?

Yes. A palindrome should be the right length. 2002 words is a good length if you’re trying to write a palindromic postmodern novel. For a snappy statement, a short sentence is a good length. I think some of the best palindromes are longer than a sentence and much shorter than 2002. My last edits to “The Millennium Falcon Rescue” were to cut several words (an even number, of course), and maybe I should have cut more? And, should I revise this one, I might cut the word that was included for the sake of the Z.

What about those palindromists?

The most interesting thing about this event, for me, was a gathering focused on palindrome-writing. Kids know what palindromes are, the form of writing has been around for more than a thousand years, many people have palindromes memorized, and there are a handful of famous books … but as I see it there hasn’t even been a community of palindrome-writers, discussing writing methods, coming up with common terms and concepts, sharing poetic and aesthetic ideas.

Well, perhaps there has been, in the Bletchley Park codebreakers. But I only learned about them because I met Mark, who is one of the people researching the origins of famous palindromes. And that was, due to wartime security, a very secretive group.

It was great having the Championship hosted by Will Shortz at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, with many puzzle-solver and -constructors who are interested in formal engagements with language. Of course, palindrome events would fit will at other sorts of gatherings that are focused on poetry and writing, too.

Whether or not we have another championship (which would be great), it would be nice to have another summit of some sort and to build a community of practice around this longstanding practice. Particularly if we can get someone named Tim to join us: Tim must summit!

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