Those Persistent Mainframes

Monday 7 April 2014, 12:11 pm   ///////  

Mickey Rooney is no longer with us, but the mainframe computer is. The Register writes up the 50th anniversary of IBM’s System 360, finishing by describing the current zEnterprise line of IBM mainframes. The line was updated just last year.

If this anniversary encourages you to hit the books about the System 360, I suggest IBM’s 360 and Early 370 Systems by Emerson W. Pugh, Lyle R. Johnson and John H. Palmer.

The Computer Museum is … Alive!

Tuesday 20 November 2012, 7:39 pm   ////  

A great story on the Living Computer Museum in Seattle, where they have computers … that work!

“Creative Material Computing in a Laboratory Context”

Thursday 26 April 2012, 2:28 pm   //////////  

The Trope Tank has just issued a new technical report:

Creative Material Computing in a Laboratory Context
Nick Montfort and Natalia Fedorova
TROPE-12-03

Download the full report

Abstract
Principles for organizing a laboratory with material computing resources are articulated. This laboratory, the Trope Tank, is a facility for teaching, research, and creative collaboration and offers hardware (in working condition and set up for use) from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, including videogame systems, home computers, an arcade cabinet, and a workstation. Other resources include controllers, peripherals, manuals, books, and software on physical media. In reorganizing the space, we considered its primary purpose as a laboratory (rather than as a library or studio), organized materials by platform and intended use, and provided additional cues and textual information about the historical contexts of the available systems.

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.

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 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.

Portal Past

Monday 14 February 2011, 3:09 pm   //////  

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Sometimes fiction just exaggerates for effect, of course. In the world of this commercial,

  • Early Macintoshes have a green-on-black, all-caps display.
  • Interactive fiction text goes only 3/5 of the way across the screen.
  • Macs use 5.25″ floppy discs.

These changes were no doubt thoughtfully made to construct the “retro” in a more intense way, allowing for a readable and seemingly old-school display and collaging different aspects of 1980s home computers. This way the green-on-black display and 5.25″ disks can live alongside the iconic presence of the early Mac. Plus, GLaDOS gets to say the multisyllabic word “Macintosh” at the end of the video. The creators of the video surely knew they were doing it wrong but decided to try to construct something more 80s than 80s.

I wonder if they knew they were making a tribute video for Rob Swigart, whose game/novel Portal was released by Activision in 1986 on 5.25″ and 3.25″ disk for Amiga, Macintosh, Commodore 64, Apple II, and PC.

Swigart also contributed to another early entry in the “pseudohacking” genre, the Activision game Hacker, which sported an all-text beginning that looked very much like the on-screen display in the video.

The commercial testifies to our memories of the 1980s by making things up. But there was Portal on 5.25″ disk in 1986. This video documents the Amiga version. Interesting to see that the first commenter on there can’t believe that something like this could crawl out of our memory hole, through the portal from the past.

Notes on the IF Community

I was a sort of “international observer” at the latest ELMCIP Seminar in Bergen, Norway. ELCMIP is a European project, funded by HERA, which looks at the ways electronic literature communities function and foster creativity. On the first day of the seminar (Monday, September 20) I presented about the IF community, supplementing that evening’s screening of Get Lamp at the Landmark Cafe. I offered some thoughts, summarized here, for those working in other types of electronic literature practices.

By “interactive fiction” (often abbreviated “IF”), I mean pretty much exactly what you will find if you Google for the term and starting looking through the first several pages of results. In my dissertation, I defined interactive fiction as: “A form of text-accepting, text-generating computer program that narrates what is happening in a simulated world in reply to input from a user, or interactor. Interactive fiction can have literary qualities and qualities of a game.” In recent decades, people have used the term in different ways, but this is how the interactive fiction community understands IF today and has understood it for a while. This means that IF is not defined by a particular platform, the way that Flash games are, but that people do expect something to work like a “text adventure,” with the simulation of space and objects and natural-language-like input, to be considered IF. Members of the interactive fiction community may find chatterbots, story generators, hypertext fiction, point-and-click graphical games, and other things very interesting, but these productions would not have a place in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, for instance, because they aren’t interactive fiction.

I have to note at this point that I can’t offer any proper sort of study of the interactive fiction community, as I am not an anthropologist by training (or pretension) and I don’t understand the workings of community in the way that people with a better background would. What I can offer, as a member of this community, are some notes about my experiences and some pointers to ways I have seen the community working together. My hope is that may notes may be of some use in generating ideas about e-lit community or for someone undertaking a systematic study.

Also, I’ll explain at this point that what I and others call “the IF community” is not the only IF community, even for English-language work. One other community is that of authors and players of ADRIFT games. ADRIFT (Adventure Development & Runner – Interactive Fiction Toolkit) is an easy-to-use shareware system for IF development. Another locus of interactive fiction practice and playing is “adult interactive fiction” or AIF, which prominently depicts sexual activity. The AIF community has its own annual awards, the Erins, which are analogous to the IF community’s XYZZY Awards (discussed later). Beyond these communities, there are IF communities, or at least IF activity that involved several people and that I know about, in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Russian language communities.

An important early resource for the IF community was the IF Archive, originally hosted in Germany thanks to Volker Blasius. The archive was announced on November 24, 1992 and is mirrored today on sites throughout the world, with the main site being ifarchive.org. The archive was originally accessed only by anonymous FTP and can still be reached by that method today, although there is a simple Web interface at the main site and a searchable interface at Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive. The “archive” is not a repository for an organizations old, inactive files; it a system for publishing and sharing new work, including the games for each year’s IF Competition.

The IF community communicated for many years on two USENET newsgroups – and some in the community still read these newsgroups. rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction were not originally devoted to what we now call IF, but those discussions came to predominate. The “arts” and “games” groups do not argue for different perspectives on interactive fiction; they are simply for discussion of making games (“arts”) and playing them (“games”).

A central institution in the IF community – perhaps the central one – is the annual IF Competition, which began in 1994. Now in its 16th year and run by Stephen Granade, “the Comp,” as it is called, showcases a wide variety of short games, some poorly written and/or poorly programmed and others quite exemplary. While winning the Comp or placing well in it is certainly desirable, anyone who enters the comp can be sure that dozens, if not hundreds, of people will play the game submitted. Many will even write review of it, since it is a tradition among the most enthusiastic members of the IF community to review all of the Comp games. Competitions are central to many popular communities of digital practice – the demoscene as well as creators of Flash games, homebrew 8-bit games, and graphical games. These comps or compos usually do not involve substantial rewards for winners or agonistic competition; instead, they provide an event (in person in the case of the demoscene, online in other cases) that focuses the interest and energy of the community.

Recent years have seen other IF events of different sorts, including “minicomps” with different themes and the “Speed IF” sessions in which several participants each write a themed or constrained game in two hours. Some of the community’s events highlight the different metaphors that are in play, ones that work across literary and gaming concepts. Although works of interactive fiction are conventionally called “games” and the people who interact with them are called “players,” the person who writes a game (almost always the same person who programs it) is an “author.” The online “Interactive Fiction Book Club,” founded in 2001, brought together those who had played a particular game for conversation modeled on conversation about books. In 2009, “Interactive Fiction Writing Month,” with some in-person events that took place mainly at CMU, made an obvious connection to National Novel Writing Month. The annual XYZZY Awards for interactive fiction, on the other hand, are styled after the Oscars. Although they are awarded by popular nominations and popular vote, they are named in the manner of Academy Awards and presented at an online event. Many IF community members even virtually dress up for the award ceremony.

The XYZZY awards take place on ifMUD, a simple text-based MUD that serves almost entirely as a chat room. That is, role-playing and puzzle-construction and -solving have little place there and RPG-style combat has none. The people on ifMUD do use some of the unique MUD-like facilities to support their communications, however, and they also program new capabilities into the MUD for that purpose. There is a bot, Alex, who parrots things that he has been taught, allowing people to query him for the definition of terms and acroymns. An “automeeter” keeps track of which pairs of people have met in person. People use another bot, Floyd, to play IF together on ifMUD, participating in “Club Floyd” sessions. People also ask for programming, design, and writing help, and sometimes even discuss theoretical or critical ideas. Much of the discussion is not directly focused on IF, but when one does want to discuss IF in real time, ifMUD is a great place to do so.

There are now local groups that meet in person to discuss and play interactive fiction. The one I know most about is the one I host in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, organized by Kevin Jackson-Mead. PR-IF meets monthly, and had a hotel room with snacks and talks, thanks mainly to Andrew Plotkin, at Penny Arcade Expo East. They have also produced a card with instructions for first-time IF players. I organized the first meeting of the PR-IF writers’ group, Grue Street. And two successful events have been held in which the public was invited to play interactive fiction together: the early MIT version of Zork, in the first case, and Admiral Jota’s Comp-winning game Lost Pig in the second.

By now, most people who deal with electronic literature in some way seem inclined to accept that interactive fiction falls under this umbrella term. But even if some resist this, it’s hard to ignore that the community itself connects its meetings, events, roles, and practices to literary ones. Of course, simply importing the institutions of IF into other communities is unlikely to be helpful: Other e-lit communities may not need an FTP site, two USENET newsgroups, a MUD, and so on. But understanding how different structures, conventions, and tools have helped IF authors and players could have broader applicability. For instance, the IF Comp has worked to encourage the annual production of games, but it has also dominated IF production so that the best-known games are those short ones released for the IF Comp. (The community has responded with other comps and with projects to review other games, so the IF Comp is not too much of a victim of its own success.) Nevertheless, this situation can highlight the benefits and the dangers of a regular, central activity with its own format requirements. Considering the IF community may also point the way to other groups that are less obviously literary, but are creative communities of practice involved with computing.

Get Lamp and Watch

Get Lamp DVD package coverYou may have noticed a slew of posts on the Get Lamp blog, Taking Inventory, or seen the writeups on Boing Boing, PC Gamer, CNET, or other sites. But I’ll say it here too: Jason Scott’s documentary about text adventures, years in the making, is completed, has been pressed and assembled, and is now for sale and shipping. The movie is Get Lamp, and there is a trailer for it online.

Tipped off by my book Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Jason Scott got in touch with me way back in 2005, before he had started filming interviews for Get Lamp. He came to Philadelphia, where I was working on my Ph.D. at Penn. I ended up doing one of several interviews with him there and bringing him to Autostart, a digital literature festival I helped organize at the Kelly Writers House, where he interviewed a few of the participants – just a handful of the many dozens of interviews Scott did for the documentary. I’ve gotten to see the documentary develop. I listened to audio files of the interviews, discussed the project on ifMUD, and got to see screenings of early versions with audiences at the Penny Arcade Expo East and @party.

Get Lamp is an essential film for the interactive fiction enthusiast – as I think more or less all of us know already. It’s also going to be an important film for students of electronic literature or computing history. There are some good short YouTube videos explaining interactive fiction, such as Exploring Interactive Fiction, which I did with Talieh Rohani, and Jason McIntosh’s The Gameshelf #8: Modern Interactive Fiction. These are great for people whose interest has been piqued already and who want to know a bit more about IF history and how to play. But it’s really difficult to get contemporary, non-IF playing students to understand why they should give interactive fiction a chance. Those who put a few short games on a syllabus often return to classrooms of perplexed or disgruntled people who have made no progress. Screening at least the “non-interactive” cut of Get Lamp will be time well spent. It will provide ideas for discussion and will give students permission to appreciate interactive fiction in several new ways, allowing them to better engage with assigned games.

It’s people and their stories that are always the focus of a documentary, and that’s certainly the case with Get Lamp, which assembles quips, and the occasional longer argument or rant, from players and authors of different eras. The statements from people in the film give a great sense of the many ways in which interactive fiction was and is important. This is something you don’t get in Twisty Little Passages, because my method wasn’t to interview people about their experiences; I focused more on the printed and digital record, on describing how interactive fiction works, and on scholarly questions about the status and history of the form, for instance, as it relates to the literary riddle. While people are central to the documentary, Scott certainly doesn’t shy away from archival materials such as printouts, maps, and notes or from original early packages in the documentary, though. He uses those worth-a-thousand-words pictures to give a sense of the contexts in which interactive fiction has been played from the early days of Adventure through today. Which I guess means, as everyone’s favorite retail site says, “Buy these items together!” (Actually, though, you should go to the Get Lamp order page to buy the documentary.)

Scott has done a great deal to provide coverage of today’s “modern era” of interactive fiction development while also covering its origins in Adventure, the ties that game has to caving, and the commercial heyday from Adventure International through Infocom. The history of the IF Comp is explained by current organizer Stephen Granade and others, and the emergence of short-form IF (and its relationship to the comp) is discussed as well. But the documentary’s perspective on interactive fiction clearly gazes longingly over the “golden age” of commercial IF, when Infocom was king. There’s the sense – which several people share – that interactive fiction has managed to continue in some ways from that time, which was its finest hour.

That’s not the perspective some contemporary IF authors have, though. For some, Infocom is a happy but dim memory rather than the holy city of Byzantium. Others never even played an Infocom game before playing modern IF and writing their own IF. And of course, games are not just shorter now; they are written in a wider variety of styles on a wider variety of topics. It won’t be tough for enthusiasts to find other favorite aspects of IF which didn’t manage to fit into this full and rich documentary: the relationship to MUDs or the graphical adventure, commercial games in English outside the US, or global communities working on IF in recent years. Which is just to note that while Get Lamp relates an important and untold story, it’s not the only story of interactive fiction. It’s the kind of movie that leaves me listening to my fellow IF authors and aficionados and being constantly surprised about how much I share certain people’s perspectives and how different, at other times, my view of IF is. That’s not just informative; it’s also thought-provoking.

Yes, despite the breadth and unusual textures of the topic, the film goes beyond being a great introduction to IF and the people who play and write it. There are many surprising discussions outside the main line of IF history. The academic study of IF is discussed by Mary Ann Buckles, whose 1985 dissertation on Adventure is the first study of IF and probably the first long example of work in game studies. John Romero explains the debt that computer games in general owe to text adventures. Robert Pinsky, who has served as poet laureate in addition to writing the IF Mindwheel, discusses puzzles and the pleasures of literature. Other less-than-usual suspects chime in, including fellow academics and collaborators of mine Jeremy Douglass, Ian Bogost, and Stuart Moulthrop.

One of my favorite points in the movie is when Brian Moriarty says empathetically of the Infocom catalog, “It was for literate people – it was for people who like to read!” Get Lamp is also for people who like to read, explore, and see from different perspectives. It’s not only for those who have already discovered interactive fiction, but it will delight most those who are enthusiastic about computing and what the computer can do with storytelling, language, and the modeling of words.

Jason Scott is now preparing for a “Jet Lamp” tour in September, in which he’ll show the film around the country. Perhaps you’ll get to catch it at a theater near you.

Wheel Make You Texts

Tuesday 8 June 2010, 5:40 pm   /////////  

Just posted at ebr (Electronic Book Review) is Whitney Anne Trettien’s article “Computers, Cut-ups, and Combinatory Volvelles.” (We already love computers and cut-ups, but be aware that volvelles are extremely cool.) Some illustrations are still to come, but the article’s text and references are now up … I believe in link early, link often.

The article is born of Trettien’s born-digital MIT Comparative Media Studies thesis “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” a two-or-more-dimensional arrangement of reconfigurable texts. Like a conservative child reacting against his liberal parents, the ebr article is linear, but that should offer an helpful complement to the machinations of the thesis. The article reels back to long before the 20th century avant-garde to find recombinatory text machines and perspectives on reading that are relevant to the digital age. I highly recommend the ebr piece to those working with ergodic texts and operating today’s textual computer machines. It will hopefully serve as a nice gateway drug, too, interesting more readers in Trettien’s combinatory thesis.

Art as Process, BASIC Considered Helpful

Monday 15 March 2010, 5:22 pm   ////////  

Two quick interruptions to our unscheduled blog hiatus:

Francisco J. Ricardo of RISD’s Digital+Media Department has written a deep and detailed blog post, “From Objecthood to Processhood.” In it, he defends artists, their work, and their discourse about the digital, responding to Henry Jenkins’s 2000 article “Games, the New Lively Art,” which celebrates video games but isn’t as keen on the work of artists. He also describes the transition from a focus on the artwork, an object, to consideration of art as process, concluding with reference to my ppg256 series.

Also, a rather innovative defense of BASIC is advanced in “Where Dijkstra went wrong: the value of BASIC as a first programming language,” a post by Mike Taylor, who, by the way, has a totally sweet banner at the top of his blog. Edsger W. Dijkstra, who was my teacher at the University of Texas, is known for his work on structured programming and just about as well known for his quick denunciations of COBOL and BASIC. The post argues that BASIC is useful to programmers and allows them to discipline their thinking about programs. I would defend BASIC for a different, although not inconsistent, reason: The huge outpouring of innovative, diverse, creative programs – often very short ones – that were written in the 1970s and 1980s, making programming a widespread activity and showing people the potential of the computer for (among other things) amusement, simulation, play with language, and production of visual art. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and I wrote a bit more on this back in 2003 in our introduction to two BASIC programs on The New Media Reader CD-ROM.

A Note on the Word “Zork”

Friday 8 January 2010, 11:46 pm   ///////  

Yes, It’s a Nonsense Word

The lowdown on Zork‘s name, inasmuch as a lowdown has been provided in print, was given by authors Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, and Tim Anderson in 1979 in the article “Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game,” Computer 12:4, 51-59 (April 1979):

The first version of Zork appeared in June 1977. Interestingly enough, it was never “announced” or “installed” for use, and the name was chosen because it was a widely used nonsense word, like “foobar.”

This is a clear explanation, but it raises the question of how this particular nonsense word came into wide use at MIT. It seems reasonable to pursue this question, and reasonable that there would be some discernable answer. After all, there’s a whole official document, RFC 3092, explaining the etymology of “foobar.” It could be interesting to know what sort of nonsense word “zork” is, since it’s quite a different thing, with very different resonances, to borrow a “nonsense” term from Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll as opposed to Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara. “Zork,” of course, doesn’t seem to derive from either humorous English nonsense poetry or Dada; the possibilities for its origins are more complex.

Slouching from “Zorch”?

In the first part of “The History of Zork,” The New Zork Times 4:1 (Winter 1985), Tim Anderson adds to the earlier discussion and suggests a possible derivation for the word:

Zork, by the way, was never really named. “Zork” was a nonsense word floating around; it was usually a verb, as in “zork the fweep,” and may have been derived from “zorch.” (“Zorch” is another nonsense word implying total destruction.) We tended to name our programs with the word “zork” until they were ready to be installed on the system.

“Zorch” is listed in Peter R. Samson’s 1959 “TMRC Dictionary” – the dictionary of the Tech Model Railroad Club, an organization that was important in helping to begin and foster recreational computing. The term meant, at that time, “to attack with an inverse heat sink” – that is, to attack with a heat source – and is explained as “Another of David Sawyer’s sound effects, which I reinterpreted as a colorful variant of ‘scorch.'” It could also be imagined as a variant of “torch” – either way, the application of heat is suggested. This definition is consistent with the sense of “zorch” that Anderson gives, although a bit more specific. It is quite possible that “zork” does derive from “zorch,” as Anderson and others guess, but it is not clear why a word so derived would then be used as a placeholder program name. It’s also at least arguable that “zork” sounds less destructive than “zorch,” as the unintimidating back-formations “scork” and “tork” suggest. If that’s the case, why would a less intense term come to be used when the original term is more intense and very comical? While the “zorch” etymology might be right, it at least seems worthwhile to look to other possibilities.

Textbook Examples

“Zork” occurs occasionally, although rarely, as a proper name in various print sources in the decades leading up to 1977. Google Book Search reveals that some more nonsensical uses occur in some textbook examples in the 1970s. In Introduction to Experimental Psychology by Douglas W. Matheson, Richard Loren Bruce, and Kenneth L. Beauchamp (1970, 2nd. ed 1974) the meaningless “zork” model is introduced as a contrast to a medical model. “Zork” is also used as a fictional place name in Henry F. DeFrancesco’s 1975 Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts. There is some chance that the term was picked up from such a source. Zork explicitly pokes fun at the material nature of textbooks by including a “this space intentionally left blank” joke, which refers to a message sometimes printed on textbook’s blank pages to let readers know that they have not been left blank due to a printing error. Given this, it would be hard to rule out to possibility of the term “zork” coming from a textbook. Of course, the term could have appeared at MIT indirectly, in an example given in a lecture, on a problem set, or on a test, even if a book with the example in it was not assigned as a text. But there is nothing to strongly recommend this etymology, either. And while the former textbook example is clearly the more vivid, it is also much less likely to have been encountered by the Zork authors, [updated January 10] since they were involved with a computer science research group, Dynamic Modeling. MIT does not now have a department named psychology, but Course 9 (now Brain and Cognitive Sciences) was called Psychology from 1960-1985.

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, cover

There has been some speculation – specifically, in this mailing-list thread – that the term “zork” may come to MIT via John Brunner, whose poetry chapbook A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork was published in 1974. Although the sense of the word as it appears in the title is completely consistent with the MIT meaning of the term, it is not clear that this 24-page pamphlet, published by Square House Books in an edition of 200 (50 numbered and signed), had made it to MIT by the time Zork coalesced, beginning in 1977. Nevertheless, the idea of a science-fictional vector for the term is appealing.

How Brunner Happened upon “Zork”

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, page 2

On the unnumbered second page of A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, Brunner notes that “the title resulted from Simon Joukes’s first encounter with a typewriter that didn’t speak Flemish.” According to this history of Dutch and Flemish fandom, Simon Joukes was active in Flemish fandom and was a part of the club Sfan, helping to publish Info-Sfan, which became SF Magazine.

A Belgian typewriter

Here is a Belgian typewriter, manufactured by Olivetti. (This blog post is the source for the image.) The letters are laid out just as they are on a French typewriter, in the AZERTY scheme. As you can see, if you’ve learned to type the word “WORK” on a typewriter like this, and someone then substitutes a British (or US) typewriter without your noticing, and you then try to type that word without looking at the keys, you’ll type “ZORK.” (Since the “W” and “Z” are switched in this layout, the same thing would happen to a British typist who uses to a Belgian typewriter without noticing how the keys are labeled.)

It’s particularly appealing that this etymology makes zork an altered form of, or an alternative to … work.

Another Science-Fiction “Zork”

Brunner’s use of “zork” in the title of his book was not the first appearance of the word in science fiction. The word made an appearance earlier in Lin Carter’s novel The Purloined Planet, published in 1969. It was used in the name of an important character … “Zork Arrgh.”

The Purloined Planet, page 109

It’s likely that Brunner at least glanced at the name of this key character. Lin Carter’s novel was published in a Belmont Double edition with “two complete science fiction novels.” The other was Brunner’s The Evil That Men Do.

The Purloined Planet, cover

While Simon Joukes may have typed out the word “Zork” and directly inspired Brunner’s 1974 title, the word may have rang out to Brunner as interesting and particulaly amusing because of Carter’s earlier use of it.

“Zork” and How She Is Spoke

There is some chance that people at MIT saw Brunner’s slim book of poems, but it seems far from certain. As of this writing, WorldCat lists only four university libraries in the United States that have this limited-edition book. MITSFS, the MIT Science Fiction Society, boasts the world’s largest open-stack library of science fiction and has 83 titles by Brunner in its catalog – but A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork is not among these. The Evil That Men Do / The Purloined Planet is in the collection, however.

Even when all of these additional leads are considered, it seems there is no strong conclusion to be drawn about the deeper etymology of the name of MIT’s, and Infocom’s, most famous text adventure. “Zork” might have been a corruption or further development of “zorch.” It may have entered the argot because of its use in an amusing curricular example, perhaps thanks to Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts or another textbook that hasn’t yet been ingested into Google Books. Or, science fiction may have been the vector for the word. If it was, though, it seems likely that it made its way into MIT speech not because of Brunner’s book of poems, but thanks to Zork Arrgh, a key character in 1969 novel by Lin Carter, one that was sitting on the shelves at MITSFS.

Perhaps more evidence will come to light, and the origins of the word “zork” as it was used at MIT in the late 1970s will become clear. Or, it may be that the origins of the word are lost forever – obliterated in a nook of a subculture’s linguistic history that has been irreversibly zorched.

Short Video & Interview on Interactive Fiction

Sunday 3 January 2010, 9:17 pm   ///////  

Exploring Interactive FictionTalieh Rohani made a video of about six minutes in which I discuss the basics of interactive fiction and show a few artifacts related to the material history of this form of computer game and digital literature. This video, “Exploring Interactive Fiction,” was made for the recent Jornada de Literatura in Passo Fundo, Brazil, and a subtitled version was screened there. I’m a few months late in putting it on the Tube for anyone else who is interested, but it’s online now.

Also, a short interview with me about interactive fiction and computer games is online at RPG Examiner. Thanks to Michael Tresca for his interest, his questions, and for posting the interview.

Racing the Beam a Front Line Awards Finalist

Wednesday 9 December 2009, 9:19 am   //////  

An interesting development: The magazine Game Developer recently announced the finalists for the 2009 Front Line Awards, gathering “the year’s best game-making tools in the categories of programming, art, audio, game engine, middleware, and books.”

In the book category, the finalists are:

  • Game Coding Complete 3rd Edition by Mike McShaffry (Charles River Media)
  • Game Engine Architecture by Jason Gregory (AK Peters)
  • Mastering Unreal Technology Vol. 1 by Jason Busby, Zak Parrish, and Jeff Wilson (Sams Publishing)
  • Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (The MIT Press)
  • Real Time Cameras: A Guide for Game Designers and Developers by Mark Haigh-Hutchinson (Morgan Kaufmann)

In 2007, Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s collection Second Persion was a finalist, so we’re not breaking any ground here for digital media studies or MIT Press. But it’s nice to be selected by the folks at Game Developer.

The Deena Larsen Collection Opens

Wednesday 2 December 2009, 5:34 pm   /////////  

The Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) has just announced a site showcasing the Deena Larsen Collection, which Deena gave to MITH in 2007. Early on, Deena wrote two Eastgate-published pieces, Marble Springs and Samplers, but these are only two of dozens of pieces she has developed individually and in collaboration over the years. In addition to creating e-lit for decades, she has amassed published and unpublished material from a wide range of e-lit authors along with many computers and print materials. MITH has also announced that they are now

opening the collection to scholars on a limited basis. Researchers interested in visiting Maryland to work with the Larsen materials on site should write to us at mith@umd.edu.

Invisible GeoCities

Monday 26 October 2009, 11:18 pm   //////  

GeoCities, founded in 1995, grew to become the third most visited site on the Web in 1999, when it was bought by Yahoo! for more than $3.5 billion. It offered free Web hosting in directories themed as different cities. Many people published their first page and first site on GeoCities. The Archiveteam has been working to save as much of it as possible; this wildly individual Web work won’t be completely lost to us as much of the pre-Wayback Web is. But at midnight Pacific Time, the plug will be pulled on this significant and populist piece of the Web. Here is, not an archive, but at least a peek at some of what will go dark.

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

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