> classes > the word made digital, spring 2012

The Word Made Digital
MIT · Spring 2012

Syllabus, 21W.764J/CMS.609J/CMS.844

Instructor: Nick Montfort, nickm at nickm dotcom, coachmontfort on IM, 14N-233
Class meets Wednesday, 7pm - 10pm, 14E-310
Office hours: By appointment (in person or via IM); set times TBA
Updated 8 February 2012

Short Description

Video games, digital art and literature, online texts, and source code are analyzed in the contexts of history, culture, and computing platforms. Approaches from poetics and computer science are used to understand the non-narrative digital uses of text. Students undertake critical writing and creative computer projects to encounter digital writing through practice. This involves reading and modifying computer programs, so previous programming experience, although not required, will be helpful. The graduate section includes additional assignments.

Elaborated Description

This course considers the wide spectrum of ways that text, language, and writing have been used in creative digital media, including video games, digital artworks and installations, electronic literature pieces, websites, message boards, the interface to and source code of recreational programs, and other sorts of systems and spaces. The focus is on the many non-narrative uses of text, which include the use of text for the display of information, for visual and lyrical purposes, and as human-legible computer code. The course considers these uses of text within different contexts of computing and upon different computing platforms. Drawing on concepts and approaches from poetics, the material history of texts, and computer science, the course explores how text has been used effectively in digital media and how the use of text relates to the overall goals of digital media creators. Students interact with and read various creative computer works, supported by critical readings from the Web and printed sources. The understanding of text in digital media is developed through practice, by completing several digital writing projects, some individually and some in groups. The projects in this course involve reading and modifying computer programs. Previous programming experience is not necessary, but students should arrive ready to learn the basics of programming if they do not already know how to program. While there are no prerequisites, some experience with writing, in the form of a previous writing course or in some other form, will be extremely useful.

Graduate students may take this course, with additional assigned work, as CMS.844 for graduate credit. One of the six sections of this course covers material explored in greater depth and more comprehensively in 21W.772 Digital Poetry. Another complement to this course is 21W.765J/21L.489J/CMS.845 Interactive Narrative, which deals with the narrative uses of text (and other media) in digital works and which can be taken at any point relative to this course.


The course serves a wide range of students interested in text and digital media, from artists and creative writers who want to create digital literary works to those interested in online and in-game advertising. The course builds on the Writing and Humanistic Studies Program's extensive undergraduate offerings that relate to digital media: Interactive Narrative, Digital Poetry, Becoming Digital, Transmedia Storytelling, Communicating with Web-Based Media, Writing for Videogames, and Writing in Cyberspace.

For those who want to take a single course on digital writing, this course offers one of several options. For majors and minors, this course will help to provide a deep and broad education in digital media and writing. For students in Comparative Media Studies, the course addresses a single aspect of digital media that is pervasive and important to our understanding of media ecology and the uses of digital media in culture. It complements courses that consider video gaming and digital media from visual, cinematic, and spatial perspectives.

Digital Media Events/Exhibits

It can be an invigorating experience to enjoy digital writing outside the classroom. In the past I have assigned students to do so, and to go to any of the many events, talks, and exhibits that are happening in town during the semester, for instance, a reading/presentation in the Purple Blurb series, a digital media exhibit at AXIOM or another local gallery, including the List Gallery on campus, or a talk in the Upgrade! Boston series. Inevitably, some students come to events as if at the end of a death march and others, who otherwise do well in the course, don't manage to find anything to attend all semester and drop a letter grade as a result. I am not requiring that students attend an event or exhibit this time around. Be aware that there are many of them out there, and that your time at MIT, however busy it is, may be a unique opportunity to experience digital writing in non-academic settings.

All three pairs of programs and papers are assigned simultaneously so that your critical writing can inform your creative programming practice and vice-versa. You may choose to do the two assignments in sequence and in isolation (program first, then paper), but if you do, you'll miss out on the chance for the paper to influence your program.


The specifics are all tentative (unless they are missing). This schedule will be elaborated throughout the semester.

Assignments and their due dates are noted. Readings will be linked; all of them will be available on the Web.

1: Feb 8, Simple Generators

Creative computing on text is introduced though a handful of small-scale systems that do something very simple - combining text fragments uniformly at random - but nevertheless produce interesting results.

In-class random/combinatory writing exercise.

Program 0.5 assigned, due Feb 22. Write a very simple text generator that is nevertheless interesting. No previous programming experience is needed; you may modify an existing program and can change only the textual data (leaving the code and parameters the same). Whether you modify a program or write one from scratch, it should do something new with language and computation. Programming languages that would work include BASIC, JavaScript, Perl, Processing, and Python - others would be fine, too. Consult with the instructor if you have any question about which language to use or how to get started.

Paper 1 assigned, due Feb 29. Write a short critical discussion of a particular system for random text recombination, bringing in some scholarship about combinatorics, randomness, computation, and/or the domain of the system - for instance, in the case of About So Many Things, gender stereotypes. The paper should be long enough to reach and develop some sort of significant insight - to reveal something about the system that is not obvious to begin with.

2: Feb 15, Sound and Real-Time Systems

Class meets at this special event at the Bartos Theatre, ground floor, building E15. Note that this is not in the usual room!

Visiting Artist Ben Houge leads the panel Sound and Real-Time Systems, a discussion about the overlap between such disparate disciplines as video games, digital media, and music composition. To underscore these connections, MIT panelists will share their experience in a range of fields: Joe Paradiso will present his modular synthesizer, newly installed at the MIT Museum; Evan Ziporyn and David Cossin of Bang on a Can All-Stars will discuss performance and composition; and Nick Montfort will provide insights into media environments.

Class will let out early, since this event will probably only take about half of our usual meeting time.

3: Feb 22, Program 0.5 Workshop

Program 0.5 due for discussion in class.

Program 1 assigned, due Mar 7. Revise program 0.5, or rework it, or set off in a new direction based on how that project went.

4: Feb 29, Program 0.5 Workshop Continued

5: Mar 7, Constrained Writing

Readings for today: "The Oulipo: Constraints and Collaboration," by William Gillespie; "Into the Maze: OULIPO" by Mónica de la Torre.

Program 1 due. We will admire and briefly discuss the finished programs in class.

Paper 1 due. Submit it either by email, as a PDF, or on paper. We will discuss the insights we reached in class.

Program 1.5 assigned, due Mar 14 (next week). The implementation of an originally non-digital writing procedure, of writing within a set pre-digital form, or of writing using a constraint, such as an Oulipian constraint. You should select an existing formal writing technique of some sort and implement it. You can make a system that is general (works on any source text) or not. In program 0.5 and 1, you were to write a simple combinatorial program with systems discussed in class as reference points. In programs 1.5 and 2, you are to take existing, documented writing procedures and constraints as starting points.

Paper 2 assigned, due Mar 21. Write a short critical discussion of a particular form of digital writing that traces one or more of its material, formal, explicit, or implicit constraints and explains something about the form in light of those constraints. The form could be popular or unpopular, low-brow or high-brow: Lolcats image macros, quotes, Wikipedia articles, Arts & Letters Daily teasers, Unix man pages, etc. You should characterize the form and the important constraints and reveal at least one non-obvious thing about the form through your analysis.

Pages to consult for constraints/procedures (you can also look beyond these...)

6: Mar 14, Program 1.5 Workshop

Program 1.5 due for discussion in class. We will have a more rapid workshop discussion.

Program 2 assigned, due Mar 21 (next week). Revise program 1.5, or rework it, or set off in a new direction based on how that project went. More specificity will be provided in class.

Purple Blurb reading by Steve McCaffrey, Monday March 19, 5:30pm, 6-120

7: Mar 21, Words in Spaces & Digital Concrete

Program 2 due. We will admire and briefly discuss the finished programs in class.

Paper 2 due. We will discuss the insights we reached in class.

Program 2.5 assigned, due Apr 25. Produce an interactive prototype that engages language and computation. It may be a game, may be a multimedia production, may be networked, etc. but in any case should be as simple as possible for its purpose. Program 2.5 should be interactive (this part is new from earlier programs) and demoable, but does not need to be fully tested and ready for arbitrary users. It also does not need to be technically complex; it should be designed to work well given your concept and the nature of the English language.

Paper 3 assigned, due May 9. Compare two different digital media productions that engage with text in interesting ways. These can be of any sort: videogames from AAA games to single-person Flash productions or interactive fictions; electronic literature; iPad, iPhone, or Android apps; digital art pieces; etc. Select two that interest you and that relate to some of the work you are trying to do in program 2.5 and program 3.

8: April 4, Obfuscated Code & Strange Text Games

For next time, to follow up the lecture, read A Box, Darkly: Obfuscation, Weird Languages, and Code Aesthetics by Michael Mateas and Nick Montfort

We played Bad Machine (you will need a TADS interpreter, linked from there) and saw a bit of Lost Pig (playable online at the PR-IF play page).

Purple Blurb/ELO Open Mic/Open Mouse Electronic Literature reading, Monday April 9, 5:30pm, 6-120

9: April 11, Playing with Your Language

The documentary Demographics, a visit to the Trope Tank.

10: April 18, It Came from the Art World

Jenny Holzer, Jeffrey Shaw's Legible City, Noah Wardrip-Fruin et al.'s Screen, Natalie Bookchin's The Intruder, Windows Demos.

11: April 25, Program 2.5 Discussion

Read/play Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy and Ezra Pound's Canto I

Program 2.5 due for discussion in class.

Program 3 assigned, due May 16. Complete program 2.5, testing it and making it a polished experience that can stand alone on the Web (or in whatever context you intend for it).

12: May 2, Program 2.5 Discussion Continued

We may have a guest speaker this day; details TBA.

Purple Blurb reading by Christian Bök, Thursday May 3, 6pm, 6-120

Symposium, with electronic literature theorists N. Katherine Hayles and Rita Rayley, e-lit publisher Bob Stein, and others, Friday May 4

13: May 9, Comparative Highlights

Paper 3 due. In class, we'll discuss the insights you reached by comparing the two productions you selected. If possible, we will show documentation or start up the actual pieces that each person talked about. If there is something we can bring up on the Web, please bring a link or be prepared to find it. You do not need to prepare slides, video, or other documentation, though.

14: May 16, Concluding Collaboration

Program 3 due. We will admire and briefly discuss the finished programs in class.

We'll conclude with a collaborative in-class digital writing activity.


Note: The Writing & Communication Center

The Writing and Communication Center (12-132) offers free one-on-one professional advice from lecturers who are published writers about all types of academic, creative, and professional writing and about all aspects of oral presentations. Go to and click on "Appointments." The Center's core hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.; evening and Sunday hours vary by semester — check the online scheduler for up-to-date hours.