Conferencing on Code and Games

First, as of this writing: I’m at the GAMBIT Summer Summit here at MIT, which runs today and is being streamed live. Do check it out if video game research interests you.

A few days ago, I was at the Foundations of Digital Games conference in Bordeaux. On July 1 I presented the first conference paper on Curveship since the system has been released as free software. The paper is “Curveship’s Automatic Narrative Style,” which sums up or at least mentions many of the research results while documenting the practicalities of the system and using the current terminology of the release version.

four FDG attendees

Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Malcolm Ryan, Michael Young (next year’s FDG local organizer) and Michael Mateas in between sessions at FDG 2011.

At FDG, there was a very intriguing interest in focalization, seen in Jichen Zhu’s presentation of the paper by Jichen Zhu, Santiago Ontañón and Brad Lewter, “Representing Game Characters’ Inner Worlds through Narrative Perspectives” and in the poster “Toward a Computational Model of Focalization” by Byung-Chull Bae, Yun-Gyung Cheong, and R. Michael Young. (Zhu’s work continues aspects of her dissertation project, of which I was a supervisor, so I was particularly interested to see how her work has been progressing.) Curveship has the ability to change focalization and to narrate (textually) from the perspective of different characters, based on their knowledge and perceptions; this is one of several ways in which it can vary the narrating. I’ll be interested to see how others continue to explore this aspect of narrative.

Before FDG was Digital Humanities 2011 at Stanford, where I was very pleased, on June 22, to join a panel assembled by Rita Raley. I briefly discussed data-driven poetic practices of different sorts (N+7, diastic writing, and many other forms) and presented ppg256 and Concrete Perl, which are not data-driven. I argued that as humanists we should be “digging into code” as well as data, understanding process in the new ways that we can. It was great to join Sandy Baldwin, Noah Wardrip-Fruin, and John Cayley on this panel, to discuss code and poetry with them, and to hear their presentations.

The Digital Rear-View Mirror

Saturday 28 May 2011, 6:38 pm   ///////  

I’m at the intriguing and very sucessful third 2011 symposium of TILTS, the Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies. (Interestingly, TILTS can be spelled using only letter from “The X-Files.”) I might have written more about the event, but my computer has been identified by automated UT-Austin systems as being a rooted Windows machine (although it’s not a Windows machine at all) and is banned from the network. Desite my radio silence, though, the symposium has certainly been a space of lively discussion of digital media work, computational linguistics and its application to humanistic inquiry, and the representation of technology in media.

I’ll mention a bit about the talk I gave today, one entitled “The Digital Rear-View Mirror.” The title was based on the dictum of Marshall McLuhan: “We see the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” The most obvious version of the digital rear-view mirror is the one on your Prius, but I started my comments about three specific topics (and one lament) by examining the nature of emulators, a type of rear-view mirror that’s been of great use to me.

I considered how emulators can be understood, via textual studies, as editions of computers, and how this helps us to better conceptualize the emulator and make more effective use of it in our work. This is a topic I wrote about recently here on Pole Position.

Then, I quickly introduced my current book project, which often involves emulators and is entitled “10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1);: GOTO 10”. I am writing a single-voice academic book with nine other authors; the book is about the one-line Commodore 64 BASIC program that is its title.

For the last of my three specific topics, I took my recent collaboration with Stephanie Strickland, Sea and Spar Between, a literary and aesthetic project which was based in part on consideration of the lexicon of Dickinson’s poems and of Moby Dick.

I wound up with some discussion of how the mainstream definition of the digital humanities, as effectively provided by funding agencies, does not clearly admit any of my specifics (building or using emulators, writing a book with nine others about a short program, collaborating on a poetry generator). None of these projects involve digitization or computational analysis of cultural heritage materials. Perhaps Sea and Spar Between, which involves computing on language but is not even a scholarly project, is actually closest to being a digital humanities project, but it isn’t that close.

Although people like our keynote speaker Johanna Drucker, Matt Kirschenbaum (who spoke on the panel with me), and Lev Manovich have done extremely significant work with contemporary objects of study and are also significant figures within the digital humanities, the exclusive fixation on the past means that we do not have major digital humanities projects about contemporary computational work – electronic literature, video games, computer music, digital installation art, etc.

So, I concluded with a plea to let there be some intersection between “digital media” and “the digital humanities” – to allow us a side-view mirror that would let us see what is happening alongside us, and in the recent past, as well.

Charles Bernstein Sounds Off

Saturday 21 May 2011, 3:04 pm   /////  

Charles Bernstein just gave the keynote-like presentation at E-Poetry. (Actually, he used PowerPoint.) I’m providing a few notes, feebly extending in my subjective way some of his oral and photographic/digital presentation for those of you in the information super-blogosphere.

He started by mentioning the UB Poetics Program and its engagement with digital humanities, saying: “As Digital Humanities departs from poetics, it loses its ability to articulate what it needs to articulate.”

EPC and PennSound, he explained, are noncommerical spaces that aren’t proprietary, don’t have advertising, and are not hosted on corporate blogs or systems. These are dealing with digital archival issues – not as much computational poetry – but very important work to do on the Web. There was no foundation support for EPC, even though it was acknowledged as the most widely used poetry site on the Web.

PennSound, a project with the strong support of Penn thanks to the work of Al Filreis, has around 10 million downloads/year – even bigger than Billy Collins! There are about 40,000 individual files. This is bigger than anyone thinks poetry is today. But the NEH won’t fund the project because we aren’t mainly a preservation project; we don’t put audio on gold-plated CDs and place them in a vault.

Bernstein’s new book Attack of the Difficult Poems gives an account of language reproduction technologies and poetics, explaining how different technologies exist overlaid at once. Hence, he explained that he is interested not only in e-poetry but also in d-poetry and f-poetry. Alphabetic, oral, and electronic cultures are overlaid today.

Talking machines, since Edison’s recitation of “Mary had a little lamb,” produce sounds that we process as if they were speech. The recorded voice only speaks and is private – unlike in the public of a live talk. The digital creates proliferations of versions, undermining the idea of the stable text even further.

Bernstein demonstrated the aesthetics of microphone breakdown and then explored the poetic possibilities of the presenter having difficulties with computer interface – he played some audio clips, too, showing that the “archives” we are discussing are productive of new works. Bernstein also welcomed an outpouring of “cover versions” of poems. Poets now only read each others’ work aloud at memorial gatherings. “Any performance of a poem is an exemplary interpretation.” Bernstein went though the specifics of four possibilities found in speech but not in text. Bernstein discussed “the artifice of accent” and how recorded voice, and digital access, have been important to this aspect of poetry.

Bernstein went on to discuss Woody Allen’s fear of books on tape, odd for someone for whom the more recent technologies of TV were so important. Charles presented his Yeats impersonation, which he suggests may be not as important as Yeats’ actual recorded reading, just as the Pope’s prayers may actually be more important even though we like to think that everyone’s are the same. Sound writing is the only kind of writing other than unsound writing.

I have a final image macro based on something Bernstein said immediately before he corrected himself. I hope this gives you some idea of why I’m a follower, a close follower, of Charles Bernstein…

an image macro

Some Notes on E-Poetry

Friday 20 May 2011, 2:14 pm   ////  

[If this is funny to anyone, it will probably be funny to people here at E-Poetry. Nevertheless, I offer it up here to the Internet as a curious digital relic of this gathering.]

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An Alphabet in 25 Characters

Thursday 19 May 2011, 8:26 pm   /////  

I’m here at the University at Buffalo enjoying the E-Poetry Festival. Amid this discussion of digital work, concrete poetry, and related innovative practices, and among this great crowd of poets, I’ve developed a very short piece for anyone with Perl installed to enjoy – just copy and paste on the command line:

yes | perl -pe '$.%=26;$_=$"x$..chr 97+$.'

It does use “yes,” one of my favorite Unix/GNU commands, and the -p option to wrap the Perl code in a loop. So there’s some bonus stuff there on the command line. But the Perl code itself is only 25 characters long, not a bad length for a program that displays the alphabet.

Alphabet in 25

“Wheel On” in Downtown Buffalo

Wednesday 18 May 2011, 9:35 am   ///////  

I’m here in Buffalo for the E-Poetry Festival at UB. Last night I got to present work downtown at the Sqeuaky Wheel, a media arts center that has been helping artists produce video, film, and digital work since 1985.

With my collaborator Stephanie Strickland, I presented “Sea and Spar Between,” our recent poetry generator which offers an unusual interface to about 225 trillion stanzas arranged in a lattice.

The full program for the evening included Alan Bigelow’s presentation of his “This Is Not a Poem,” which allows you to become a “treejay” and modify Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”; a presentation of the voice-acted, distributed disaster narrative L.A. Flood project by Mark Marino; and a tribute to Millie Niss presented by her mother and collaborator, Martha Deed. These were followed by a very nice set of motion pictures, including, for instance, Ottar Ormstad’s “When,” featuring hulks of cars, the lowercase letter y, and the color yellow.

It was great to present with Stephanie in this context. Thanks particularly to Sandy Baldwin for introducing us and to Tammy McGovern at the Squeaky Wheel for hosting us.

“Indy” Text Adventures in the Eastern Bloc

Saturday 14 May 2011, 4:43 pm   ////////  

Interactive fiction aficianados who aren’t at MiT7 (Media in Transition 7) and who thus missed Jaroslav Svelch’s excellent presentation – please check out the corresponding paper which he’s helpfully placed online: “Indiana Jones Fights the Communist Police: Text Adventures as a Transitional Media Form in the 1980s Czechoslovakia.”

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.

Computer Histories at MiT7

Saturday 14 May 2011, 2:09 pm   //////  

At Media in Transition 7 here at MIT, after a good start in the opening plenary and first break-out session, we had a fascinating session yesterday on “Computer Histories.” The papers presented were:

  • Sandra Braman presented “Designing for Instability: Internet Architecture and Constant Change.” [Abstract.]
  • Kevin Driscoll spoke on “Revisiting Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists.” [Abstract.]
  • Colleen Kaman’s talk was “‘Interop,’ Internet Commercialization, and the Early Politics of Global Computer Networks.” [Abstract.] [Full paper.]

The individual presentations were very interesting, and it was a fascinating set to hear together. Two were on the development of the Internet: Braman delved deeply into the more than 6000 Requests for Comments (RFCs) used to develop Internet protocols, doing a line-by-line discourse analysis. In these documents, which people might guess would be dry and purely technical, she found a great deal of embedded political and social thought. The complete manuscript on this topic should be done and available in a few weeks. Kaman looked a different forum for communication that was important to the dramatic expansion in Internet connectivity from 1991-1997: a trade show. Following on discussions in 1996, to deal with the Internet’s rapid growth and the competing European standard for networking, the Interop conference was formulated. It included a demo network, Shownet, where vendors could come to test products and academic and research work could connect to practical experience in a “negotiation space.”

And, there was one presentation on early microcomputing. Discoll began with the image of a book cover featuring a two-tier desk typical of HAM radio operation, declaring: “Hobby Computers Are Here!” He showed a response to Bill Gates’ famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” and a clip from Revolution OS with an increasingly hysterical reading of the original letter – the dominant understanding of the letter today, as if it were the beginning of opposition to free software. Hobbyists learned to program on calculators and didn’t have contact with, for instance, the Internet protocol developers. In Interface, Art Childs (the editor) questions what software is and deals with many important issues in free software in replying to Gates’s letter. He concludes that a service model is best – just as GNU did later. This antecedent to free software has been overlooked, just as computer culture in much of the country (beyond Boston and Silicon Valley) have been overlooked.

I was fascinated at these two different perspectives on the formation of the Internet (finding surprising non-technical discussion in RFC and surprising technical implications of a trade show) and on the difference between the culture of hobbyist computer builders, programmers, and users and that of those involved with the development and growth of the Internet. Driscoll’s more sensitive reading of Bill Gates’s “open letter,” Braman’s deep analysis of RFCs, and Kaman’s exploration and discussion of Interop provide great models for the understanding of computer histories.

¡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!

Records of Oulipolooza

Monday 4 April 2011, 5:38 pm   /////  

Video and audio of Oulipolooza, a festive tribute to the Oulipo in which I participated, is now online. The event was held on March 15, 2011 at the Kelly Writers House at Penn and was organized by Michelle Taransky and Sarah Arkebauer. Speakers were:

KATIE PRICE
LOUIS BURY
JEAN-MICHEL RABATÉ
GERALD PRINCE
and NICK MONTFORT

It was quite an honor to be part of this group, which included one of my Ph.D. advisors – Gerry Prince. I may have been the least distinguished Oulipo scholar among these speakers, but I tried to make up for that by being the only one to wear a party hat.

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.

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