A Platform Studies Book: Flash

Tuesday 16 September 2014, 10:03 pm   ///////  

I’m delighted that Flash: Building the Interactive Web by Anastasia Salter and John Murray has just been published by the MIT Press.

Flash: Building the Interactive Web

This is an excellent study of an influential software platform – our first such study in the Platform Studies series – and it both traces the history of the platform, its development and the contexts in which it arose, as it also covers many famous and representative Flash productions.

Mark Sample writes of it, “Combining historical research, software studies, and a deep appreciate for digital creativity, Salter and Murray dramatically explore Flash—whose very ubiquity has heretofore made it transparent to media scholars—as the defining technology for a generation of artists, storytellers, game designers, and Web 2.0 companies.”

Dene Grigar calls it “a must-read for all scholars and artists of digital media,” while Aaron Delwiche names it “the best and most provocative work I’ve encountered about emerging technologies since the publication of The Cyborg Handbook.

Flash is still with us, but Salter and Murray nevertheless take up the difficult task of providing the historical context for this platform’s creation, from the days before it supported general-purpose programming through its dominance on the Web. The relevance of this book is not limited to a particular product (now, but not always, an Adobe product). It extends to the Web to interactive computing overall.

Trope Tank Annual Report 2013-2014

I direct a lab at MIT called The Trope Tank. This is a lab for research, teaching, and creative production, located in building 14 (where the Hayden Library is also housed), in room 14N-233. Its mission is to develop new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language.

Trope Tank computers at work

The lab’s website has just been updated with some new information about our two major creative/research projects, Slant and Renderings. Earlier this academic year, a hardware and software catalog of Trope Tank resources was developed by Erik Stayton with contributions from Sylvia Tomayko-Peters.

As usual, the Trope Tanks hosts the monthly meetings of the local interactive fiction club, the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. Also, the Trope Tank’s series of digital writing presentations, Purple Blurb, continued this year; I was on leave in Fall 2013, but the series was back and hosted four excellent presentations in Spring 2014. See those sites for more information about PR-IF and Purple Blurb.

Here’s what we’ve been up to since our last annual report in May 2013:

New Works: Creative projects released.

  • Nanowatt, single-loading (3.5 KB) demoscene production for the VIC-20. By Nick Montfort, Michael C. Martin, and Patsy Baudoin as Nom de Nom, McMartin, and Baud 1. Shown and awarded 2nd place on 30 November 2013 at Récursion, Montréal.
  • World Clock, computer generated novel with source code by Nick Montfort. Published on the Web 30 November 2013, in print at the Harvard Book Store.
  • Round, digital poem by Nick Montfort. Published on the Web 14 August 2013 by New Binary Press.
  • Duels — Duets, digital poem. By Stephanie Strickland and Nick Montfort. Published on the Web 14 August 2013 by New Binary Press.
  • The Deletionist, digital poetry system. By Nick Montfort, Amaranth Borsuk, and Jesper Juul. 2011–2013. Premiered at E-Poetry 2013 in London and published on the Web.
  • Three Rails Live, an interactive video installation. By Rod Coover, Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. 2011–2013. Documentation published on the web in bleuOrange 7, 2013.

Trope Reports: We have issued two technical reports.

Exhibit & Museum Event:

  • Second Fridays: How People Connect, Presentation of Commodore 64 BASIC programming, Piotr Marecki and Erik Stayton, and event at the MIT Museum, February 14, 2014
  • Programs at an Exhibition, Nick Montfort & Páll Thayer, an exhibit at the Boston Cyberats Gallery, March 6-16, 2014

Presentations:

  • Marecki, Piotr, “Sticker literature or augmented reality literature,” David Foster Wallace Conference, Department of English, Illinois State University, May 23, 2014 
  • Marecki, Piotr, “The Road to Assland and early Polish Text Adventure Games,” People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, The Trope Tank, MIT, May 13, 2014
  • Montfort, Nick, “Combinatory Media and Possibilities for Documentary,” OpenDoc Lab, MIT, May 8, 2014
  • Marecki, Piotr, “Polish Literature in the Digital Age,” MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, May 7, 2014
  • Marecki, Piotr, “Textual Caves: Expanding the Literary Writing Space,” Shapeshifters: Recycling and Literature, Department of Comparative Literature, Yale University, April 25-26 2014
  • Montfort, Nick “Exploratory Programming,” first of four major topics for the online Critical Code Studies Working Group 2014, 23 February-23 March, 2014.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Aesthetic Obfuscated Code,” Symposium on Obfusctation, New York University, 15 February 2014.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Ten Cases of Computational Poetics,” UCLA, M/ELT, 17 January 2014.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Computational Poetic Models,” University of Southern California, SCA Complex, 16 January 2014
  • Marecki, Piotr, “Polish Literature in the Digital Age,” IAP talk, MIT, January 21, 2014.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Computational Literary Models for Fun and Poetics,” Concordia University, Montréal, 10 January 2014.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Scaling Up Literary Models with Curveship and Slant,” 8th Mexican International Colloquium on Computational Creativity, UNAM, Mexico City, 15 November 2013.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Literary Models,” 8th Mexican International Colloquium on Computational Creativity, UAM Cuajimalpa, Mexico City, 14 November 2013.
  • Montfort, Nick, “Electronic Literature and Other Forms of Popular Creative Computing.” Keynote address at Writing Literature, Reading Society, Municipal Public Library, Kraków, 29 October 2013.
  • Montfort, Nick, “10 PRINT,” MIT CSAIL Programming Language & Software Engineering retreat, MIT Endicott House, 21 May 2013
  • Montfort, Nick, “Hardware and Emulation to Access Creative Computing,” Preserving.exe Summit, Library of Congress, 20 May 2013
  • Baudoin, Patsy and Nick Montfort, “10 PRINT,” Writing Across the Curriculum, MIT, 17 May 2013

Translations: Andrew Campana translated “The Two” by Nick Montfort into Japanese. Piotr Marecki translated Montfort’s “Lede,” “The Two,” and World Clock (via translation of the novel-generating program) into Polish, and, with Aleksandra Małecka, translated “Between Page and Screen” by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse into Polish. These will be placed online when revisions are complete.

Teaching:

  • The Trope Tank hosted a visit by The Word Made Digital, 21W.764, during Spring 2014.
  • “Exploratory Programming Workshop” by Nick Montfort, New York University, 14 February 2014.
  • Commodore 64 BASIC Workshop by Nick Montfort, offered for MIT’s Independent Activities Period, 29 January 2014.
  • “Workshop in Exploratory Programming” by Nick Montfort, UAM Cuajimalpa, Mexico City, two meetings on 11-12 November 2013.

Upcoming: In Milwaukee this month Trope Tank researchers will present at (int)7 (Intelligent Narrative Technologies 7) and the Electronic Literature Organization Conference. The presentation will be “Expressing the Narrator’s Expectations” by Montfort and Stayton at (int)7, and at ELO in the conference paper sessions “The Formation of the Field of Electronic Literature in Poland” by Marecki, “Computational Editions, Ports, and Remakes of ‘First Screening’ and ‘Karateka'” by Stayton and Montfort, and “New Novel Machines: Nanowatt and World Clock” by Montfort. The ELO Media Arts show will include “The Postulate to Hyperdescribe the World” by Marecki and Aleksandra Małecka and “Round” by Montfort. Andrew Campana’s work will be part of the Gallery of E-Lit 1st Encounters.

Many papers and even some books developed with Trope Tank support are forthcoming, but instead of trying to enumerate those, I’ll list them next year, when they have appeared.

Bitcoin for your Warhol!

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

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

CA$H for your WARHOL sign

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

The Future Was Here cover

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

Amiga soup can

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

Microcodes and more Non-Object Art

Wednesday 9 April 2014, 8:40 am   //////  

In NOO ART, The Journal of Objectless Art, there’s a conversation between Páll Thayer and Daniel Temkin that was just posted. (Thayer recently collaborated with me to put up “Programs at an Exhibition,” the first software art show at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery.) The conversation covers Thayer’s code art, including his Perl Microcodes and antecedents, but also touches on free software, Windows, various esoteric languages by Temkin and others, painting and drawing, Christiane Paul’s CodeDOC project at the Whitney, “expert cultures,” and the future of code-based art.

It’s great reading, and objectless art might be just the thing to go with your object-oriented ontology.

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 C64 in the NYT

Saturday 22 February 2014, 10:46 pm   /////  

My colleague Myke pointed out this New York Times column about the Commodore 64, which waxes nostalgic and also points out how the computer opened up possibilities for new programmers to explore and learn. Myke also pointed out, quite aptly, that the photo, which is supposed to be of a Commodore 64, is actually of a 1541 disk drive. Alas, the Grey Lady, in reference to the rainbow-logoed computer, nods…

It’s a Good Word. Maine.

Monday 18 November 2013, 11:03 pm   ///////  

Just back from several travels, I’ve found that there’s a video record online of me, Patsy Baudoin, and John Bell presenting 10 PRINT at the University of Maine way back in April of this year. In our presentation, we answer questions and discuss the origin of the 10 PRINT project and the nature of our collaboration. And I do some livecoding. Pretty often, actually.

Please note that 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 is available as a beautiful MIT Press book, designed by our co-author Casey Reas, ans also as a free PDF.

Here’s the video of our University of Maine presentation on the “10 PRINT” program and book.

Media Archaeology Lab’s New Media

Tuesday 16 July 2013, 4:53 pm   /////  

Lori Emerson has been running an excellent facility at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is a kindred lab, and an inspiration, to my Trope Tank here at MIT.

This is the Media Archaeology Lab, which has recently launched a new site (with blog) and has also begun (as a lab) to tweet.

The Colorado lab, like the Trope Tank, offers working systems from decades past to support research, teaching, and artistic/literary work. The MAL is ahead of us in several ways, for instance by providing extensive information about its holdings in the form of an inventory. They even have a NeXT cube, like we do – although I think the retail price estimate on that page is missing a digit. The Trope Tank only has such information on placards placed on the hardware itself, as discussed in our technical report on the setup of the lab, but perhaps we’ll look to better publish what we’ve gathered here in months to come. I hope the MAL’s progress continues and that I’ll get to visit before too long.

Is that a Computer in Your Browser?

Wednesday 5 June 2013, 9:56 am   //////  

Two online emulator initiatives I found out about at the Library of Congress recently, at the Preserving.exe Summit:

The Olive Executable Archive, which originated at CMU and which is not open to the public yet, provides Linux VMs running emulators via one’s browser. When I saw it demonstrated, I was told it worked only on Linux, but that the team planned to have it working on other platforms soon.

JavaScript MESS, a port of the famous multi-emulator to allow it to run in a browser window. It’s not complete, but some of it is working and the code’s on GitHub. This one is an initiative of Jason Scott’s, with a great deal of work contributed by others.

Trope Tank Annual Report 2012-2013

Trope Tank home computers

I direct a lab at MIT called The Trope Tank. This is a lab for research, teaching, and creative production, located in building 14 (where the Hayden Library is also housed), in room 14N-233. Its mission is to develop new poetic practices and new understandings of digital media by focusing on the material, formal, and historical aspects of computation and language.

Trope Tank Atari VCS

The Trope Tank is a physical facility with unusual material computing resources from the past few decades – as well as places for researchers to sit and work with their more modern computers. The facility and materials provide for visits from classes, discussions with visiting researchers, and support for creative and research projects. The lab space continues to house the monthly meetings of the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, the Boston Area’s local IF group. Trope Tank equipment has supported talks this year at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, Microsoft Research in Redmond, UCLA, the University of Maine, and other venues.

This academic year, two Trope Tank affiliates are becoming faculty members:

  • Clara Fernández-Vara, who took part in the Tools for the Telling project back in 2007-2008 and has been a visiting scholar at the Trope Tank this year, is joining the faculty of NYU’s Game Center at the end of summer as an associate arts professor.

  • Amaranth Borsuk, who was guest organizer of the Purple Blurb series in 2011-2012 and is a current collaborator on The Deletionist, is joining the faculty of The University of Washington, Bothell as an assistant professor. She has been a senior lecturer there.

The Trope Tank’s series of technical reports, called the “Trope Report” series, now features five items and is archived in MIT’s DSpace.

There have been two major research projects (both with artistic aspects) and one creative, poetic project this past year:

  • The book 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10 was published last year by the MIT Press (and is also available for free download as a PDF). Various subsets of the ten authors have been doing presentations related to the book in many different contents.

  • The story generation project Slant was initiated and the first paper was accepted at ICCC 2013. It will be presented there, in Sydney, next month. The project involves integrating or developing new work based on decades of research by Nick Montfort, Rafael Pérez y Pérez, and Fox Harrell; those three and Andrew Campana have collaborated to initiate the project.

  • The Deletionist is a current poetic project by Amaranth Borsuk, Jesper Juul, and Nick Montfort which will premiere at E-Poetry next month at Kingston University, London.

The Trope Tank will continue to support research, creative work, and teaching this summer and beyond. This is a laboratory to allow people to work with material computing systems; while it is not an archive, museum, or library, and does not offer all that such institutions do, it does provide for hands-on access to the history of creative computing. If you are interested in using the systems and materials in the Trope Tank, please contact Nick.

What’s the Story on Digital Media?

Tuesday 4 December 2012, 9:08 am   /////  

I generally will reply to any email messages that was personally written to me and which requests a reply. Perhaps because I wrote for my college newspaper, I’m inclined to try to help student journalists when I can. Sometimes, though, the best suggestions I can offer are ideas about how to rethink the basic approach and find a real story, rather than the sought-after quotations. As when, recently, I wrote basically this in reply to some extremely general questions about digital media and changes in the way we communicate – perhaps prompted by a class assignment rather than part of work toward an article for publication:

Grouping together Facebook, blogs, and text messages on one side and letter-writing on the other isn’t really sound, since it assumes that Facebook, a blog, and a text message are the same sort of thing and that a letter is a different sort of thing. Is a letter typed on a word processor the same as or different from a hand-written letter? Is one a digital media letter and the other pre-digital? Why is publishing a long, public blog post at all like sending a text message to a friend?

Your questions also suggest that people are constantly making choices between using digital media and traditional media. We live in a media ecology in which old media are not simply replaced by new. There are many ways to communicate, but we very seldom choose one over the other. I suppose there are circumstances under which you might send a friend a postcard, for instance, but I find it very unlikely that you’d make a direct and conscious decision to do that instead of sending that friend a text message.

Your questions also seem to assume that new media technologies just appear and that we are influenced by them, because you ask only about the effects of these technologies. Facebook was not given to the Earth by aliens, though. It was developed by people based on existing ideas about communication. The same can be said for the Web and any other digital communication system. Someone who is interested in knowing why communication online is the way that it is will never figure that out just by asking about how Facebook influences the way people write. It’s also necessary to understand why Facebook came to be the way it is, in terms of its original motivation and development and down to specific questions (such as your last one) related to particular features.*

I would suggest focusing on a particular digital media system and asking about how it arose, how it is used, and what’s special about it — not just in relation to some non-digital means of communicating, but overall. It can be worthwhile to ask what niche such a system has in the media ecology: What does it offer in particular that is better than other media channels? Then, you can see how people use language within that channel in interesting ways that is revealing in terms of culture, cognition, and so on. The people who study these systems successful in the humanities and social science, and those who build them and do well at it, take this sort of approach, and there are certainly interesting stories that result about why certain systems are successful in certain ways and how they are actually used.

The paragraph marked with *, of course, is just as true for computational platforms (the focus of the platform studies approach and the MIT Press Platform Studies series) as it is of communications systems, and it’s one of the core ideas behind platform studies and what it comprehends.

This student didn’t seem interested in approaching the topic differently and more productively, and asked instead if I could recommend someone who would provide quotes. That’s not a surprise – it’s the typical nature of this exchange, after all, and not a desire to roast any (unnamed) person, that motivates me to post this. It does go to show that whether you use in-person interviewing, an analog land-line phone, or email, you can miss gaining insight in the same way.

10 PRINT Reading / Release Party

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

10 PRINT cover

Our first event for 10 PRINT is scheduled for:

Monday
November 12, 2012
7pm

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.

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 pouet.net, which I have linked to and from which I have appropriated the three images. There is video documentation of them linked there, too.

The Amiga Book: Maher’s The Future Was Here

Tuesday 24 April 2012, 11:34 pm   ///////  

Congratulations to Jimmy Maher on his just-published book, The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga. As you might expect, Amazon has a page on it; so does Powell’s Books, for instance.

This MIT Press title is the third book in the Platform Studies series. Jimmy Maher has done an excellent job of detailing the nuts and bolts of the first multimedia computer that was available to consumers, and connecting the lowest levels of this platform’s function to cultural questions, types of software produced, and the place of this system in history. The book considers gaming uses (which many used to brand the Amiga as nothing but a toy) but also media production applications and even, in one chapter, the famous Boing Ball demo.

The Platform Studies series (which also has a page at The MIT Press) is edited by Ian Bogost and yours truly, Nick Montfort, and now has three titles, one about an early videogame console, one about a console still in the current generation and on the market, and this latest title about an influential home computer, the Amiga. We have a collaboration between two digital media scholars and practitioners of computational media; a collaboration between an English professor and a computer science professor; and this latest very well-researched and well-written contribution from an independent scholar who has, for a while, been avidly blogging about many aspects of the history of gaming and creative computing.

Jimmy Maher, not content with his book-writing and voracious, loquacious blogging, has created a website for The Future is Here which is worth checking out. If you were an Amiga owner or are otherwise an Amiga fan, there’s no need to say that you should run, not walk, to obtain and read this book. But it will be of broader interest to all of those concerned with the multimedia capabilities of the computer. Really, even if you had an Atari ST – do give it a read, as it explains a great deal about the relationship between computer technology and creativity, exploring issues relevant to the mid-to-late 1980s and also on up through today.

A New Paper on the Dreamcast

Sunday 5 February 2012, 10:21 am   ////////  

I’m very pleased to see the article Mia Consalvo and I wrote published in Loading…, the journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association (CGSA). There’s an intriguing lineup of articles in Loading… Vol 6, No 9; ours is:

Montfort, Nick and Mia Consalvo. “The Dreamcast, Console of the Avant-Garde.” Loading… 6: 9, 2012. http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/104/116

We look at the connections between the Dreamcast platform, five games in particular (Jet Grind Radio, Space Channel 5, Rez, Seaman, and SGGG) and avant-garde movements and work in art, literature, and other areas in the 20th century. By seriously considering and applying the idea of the avant-garde and looking into these fives games closely (in terms of gameplay, in interpretive ways, and with regard to players’ online discourses about them), we show some ways in which videogames, within gaming, have done the work of the historical avant-garde; the business situations and factors in platform technology that relate to this innovation; and what opportunities for radical exploration in console gaming remain.

E-Lit Platforms at the MLA

Saturday 7 January 2012, 5:19 pm   ///////  

Dene Grigar, vice president of the Electronic Literature Organization and one of the organizers of the excellent e-lit gallery and reading here at the MLA Convention, just gave a great presentation about the importance of platform in the development and reception of electronic literature. I was pleased initially to see that there was not only this presentation with “Platform” in the title, then very interested to hear about her work in a lab with original older computer hardware and her discussion of platform differences and changes through the years.

Even more surprising is that Ian Bogost and I have managed to advance part of our diabolical plan to have people use five long, colored rectangles stacked on top of each other:

HypeDyn Hypertext Authoring System Released

Monday 19 December 2011, 10:12 pm   //////  

Here’s an announcement about a new, free hypertext authoring system from my collaborator Alex Mitchell:

We are pleased to announce the first public release of the HypeDyn hypertext fiction authoring tool: http://www.partechgroup.org/hypedyn

HypeDyn is a procedural hypertext fiction authoring tool for non-programmers who want to create text-based interactive stories that adapt to reader choice. HypeDyn is free to download and open source, and runs on Linux, MacOS and Windows. You can download HypeDyn from http://www.partechgroup.org/hypedyn/download.html

HypeDyn was written in Kawa Scheme, http://www.gnu.org/software/kawa/

As part of our ongoing research, we are interested in how people use HypeDyn. Please let us know at hypedyn@partechgroup.org if you are using HypeDyn and would like to tell us about your experiences, in particular if you have made any changes to the code.

We are also interested in having authors take part in a more detailed study. If you are interested in helping with this study, please read the details at http://www.partechgroup.org/hypedyn/study.html

Note that downloading/using HypeDyn does not require participation in the study.

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