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.

A Casual Revolution

Wednesday 6 January 2010, 9:57 pm   //////  
A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010

A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010

Juul’s latest, like his Half-Real, offers many insights, particular and general, while being succinct and clear stylistically. The book is not just about matching tile games, although there’s a good chapter on them and their genealogy. It’s about the moment in the history of videogaming where games overflow their “hardcore” niche and begin to appeal to everyone. Juul describes the stereotypes of casual and hardcore games and players; then he demonstrates, using data from many interviews, exactly how they’re wrong. An important, high-level innovation involves figuring out how to study both games and players – in this case, to understand what exactly is meant by “casual games” and how much of what we associate with that has to do with “causal” modes of play. There’s also an excellent analysis of the social space of play in front of the screen, in Guitar Hero and Wii games. A Casual Revolution will be valuable for academics and those in industry, and will help keep the sun shining on games.

IGF Finalists Announced

Monday 4 January 2010, 11:26 pm   //////  

The 2010 Independent Games Festival finalists have been announced. Especially interesting to me are the finalists and honorable mentions for the IGF Nuovo Award, an award intended to “honor abstract, shortform, and unconventional game development which advances the medium and the way we think about games.” My collaborator, Ian Bogost, has a game in the finals: A Slow Year, a suite of four 1k games for one of his, and my, favorite platforms … which means that he’ll be brining an Atari 2600 to GDC this year to display his wares.

Every Day the Same Dude

Monday 4 January 2010, 6:51 pm   ////  

From a 4 January 2010 conversation between Mary Flanagan and Nick Montfort:

nick: so, I just have this question about the way you (and someone else) reacted to gender stereotyping in a nightmarish/dystopian/stereotypical game environments

nick: you wrote While there are some glaring stereotypes that take away from its freshness and originality (especially in regard to gender; the character’s wife is in the kitchen with a frying pan in the morning and tells the character he is late for work; the office execs are all male, etc.) about Every Day the Same Dream [previously on Post Position]

nick: it struck me because I was describing a student project to a poet

mary: y

nick: one which was completed before that game launched

nick: but had a similar stereotyped/nightmare world made of words in 3D space

nick: one of which was “wife”

nick: and my poet friend said “spouse”!

mary: ok….

nick: but I don’t understand why these negative-valence spaces that embody stereotypes in all these other ways

nick: are supposed to be equitable when it comes to gender

mary: well…

mary: I am not partial to other stereotypes either

mary: unless they are spoofed in incredibly interesting ways

mary: but

nick: I read Every Day the Same Dream as having entirely white people, too

mary: for example if I brought them all up all the time, I’m a horrible harpy broken record, and that isn’t my point in life. But not bringing things up = acceptance

mary: yes exactly

mary: I agree and I had that in there and then cut it out.

mary: for reason above.

nick: well, I guess I would point those things out as being consonant with the project rather than as taking away from it

nick: the game (and my student’s project) seems to be saying “here is an even more exaggerated version of the stereotypical world”

mary: well that could be. But everdayness, monotony, boredom could be happening to two people following that routine, two men, women, or one of each if we’d like. Or three for that matter. It just the frying pan and housewife just needs to go.

nick: well, they do, eventually &smiley;

mary: Since there are more women than men, why could not the character be a woman going to a drudge job?

nick: but you’re trying to make the game an image of reality instead of nightmare hegemony

mary: you could make the office workers men and women of different races

mary: it annoys me — I have not collected the numbers, but it annoys me that existentialist moments appear to happen more with male characters. 1984. etc.

nick: then, I’d argue, the game would not become more realistic or effective; it would have this sort of parody of workplace diversity in it

mary: well I did add diversity to the LAYOFF game. Everyone started white, the artist (who was Asian) defaulted to white)

mary: well then perhaps that would speak to me as a player as an effective parody

mary: mock diversity says something else, and is interesting. especially in college ads.

nick: yes, but I see that (LAYOFF) as trying to poke a hole through the abstract, we-don’t-expect-this-to-represent-reality type of game to show something about the real world

nick: which is admirable, but it isn’t the same project as these other games

mary: I guess I am rejecting the repeated aesthetic of abstract commentaries that use a represention of all white men.

nick: I’m asking because I’ve heard the same comment twice about the same type of game, from two people whose perspectives I very much respect, but I don’t understand the problem with this particular context – with a dystopian game exhibiting sexism among other stereotypical ills

mary: ah ok

nick: so it’s not that the sexist portrayal is wrong for the context, but that you could have made a different game which made the same point without it?

nick: maybe?

mary: yep

mary: and possibly a more interesting game, through reworking or challenging these stereotypes

mary: but that remains to be seen in implementation

nick: Jason Rohrer gets complaints about Passage having only a guy avatar as an option

mary: i can see that.

nick: of course, he also has described Passage as autobiographical (although I argue with his use of that term)

mary: it’s not automagically horrific to include men in a game!

nick: sure, and it’s not automatically good in every way to include a hot chick avatar

mary: right.

mary: it is about intentionality

mary: and I don’t think molleindustria was intentionally critiquing white heterosexuality.

mary: in fact…

nick: do you think if the sexism in Every Day the Same Dream were somehow called out as such (I don’t have any ideas about how), and critiqued, it would be better?

nick: perhaps even better than making a gender-neutral version?

mary: possibly!

mary: but that isn’t the point right now.

mary: of that game.

nick: I’d say it was being critiqued about as much as the automobile was

mary: and granted, 6 days, its a miracle.

nick: yep

nick: well, it’s worthwhile to think about how to improve on a 6-day project like that, though

mary: Hm. It feels different. The automobile isn’t on the receiving end of dates who have sexist attitudes, or jobs with racial bias. Possibly certain critiques are touchier than others.

nick: I guess my feeling is that a sexist world (treated critically) would be more in keeping with the project, or with a project like that, than a gender-neutral one

nick: maybe it’s easier to critique the automobile

mary: that could be true. Then husband and wife could both go to work, but he brings home twice the salary and she still has to cook

mary: that makes it more interesting to me.

nick: ha

mary: it pays attention to a lived condition.

mary: a detail. see what i mean. could be the same for race and such. but details are hard to put into ‘dreams’ and broad strokes, unless we think about it cleverly

mary: I appreciate your inquisitveness here nick.

nick: I guess the game includes a lot of stereotypes, and from my standpoint I don’t see it buying into any of them. but some do call for more critique and treatment

nick: I appreciate the convo

mary: Bringing this stuff is actually harder than ignoring it and moving on.

mary: but I think we need to tease out these implications

mary: not all stereotypes are created equally

nick: I think we should do a blog post, actually

mary: ok i’m game.

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.

A Beautiful Game to Start Your 2010

Thursday 31 December 2009, 11:48 pm   ////  

Every Day the Same DreamMolleindustria has recently released an excellent short game with the music of Jesse Stiles. In Every Day the Same Dream, you play a man who awakens (continually) to your alarm going off, your clothes waiting to be put on, your television that cannot be watched, your wife who cannot be kissed good morning, traffic, and a seemingly endless cubicle farm where you work. A crone figure in the elevator suggests that you can break away from this routine, somewow. The music hits just the right point between the humdrum repetition of the workday and the idea of an alternative to these. The almost entirely grayscale game doesn’t write a prescription for the player’s happiness, and some of the steps are much sillier than others. Nevertheless, the game hints at how people can explore the everyday and escape the oppression of the ordinary. That’s not bad for six days of game development work and for a few minutes of your time.

Big Day at DAC 2009

Monday 14 December 2009, 1:49 pm   ////////  

Ian Bogost and I just gave our talk “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers” here at Digital Arts and Culture in Irvine, California. There were three other talks – fascinating ones – in this day’s opening plenary session. Garnet Hertz took us into circuit bending, tactical media, and the artistic recycling and reuse of electronic waste. Jason Farman spoke on locative media with a focus on geocaching as technologically-enabled, embodied, proprioceptive play. Conor McGarrigle explored, in detail and with reference to several specific projects, the relationship between the practices of the Situationist International and contemporary locative media work.

Ian and I addressed six misconceptions about platform studies (the concept, the focus) which we’ve already heard a few times. Our talk was an attempt to better invite people to participate in the project and in the book series. In brief, the six misconceptions, and our responses, are:

#1 Platform studies entails technological determinism. Platform studies is opposed to “hard” determinism and invites us to continue to open the black box of technology in productive ways. #2 Platform studies is all about hardware. Platform studies includes software platforms as well. #3 Platform studies is all about video games. Platform studies extends to all computing platforms on which interesting creative work has been done. #4 Everything these days [in the Web 2.0 era] is a platform. We invite a focus on computational platforms, the basis for digital media work. #5 Platform studies is about technical details, not culture. Platform studies connects technical details to culture. #6 Platform studies means that everyone in digital media will have to get computer science training or leave the field. Platform studies shows how technical understanding can lead to new sorts of insights, but will not evict the many other important sorts of scholars from digital media.

The full paper is online, too. Since the beginning of the project, we’ve insisted on the embedding of the platform level in culture and other non-technical contexts, and we’re tried to draw connections between the way computing systems work and culture, history, and society. Others, we’re sure, will have new ways to do that; please, join us in taking up the platform as an focus for digital media studies.

I have one other collaborative paper today, which will be presented by Alex Mitchell: “”Shaping Stories and Building Worlds on Interactive Fiction Platforms.” Then I’ll present “The ppg256 Series of Minimal Poetry Generators.” Finally, I’ll be part of the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza with a reading called “Five Uneasy Pieces.” I’m looking forward to it all, but I’m sure I’ll be glad to be looking back on it when the day’s done.

You can search Tweetland for #DAC2009 to see what the cool kids are saying about the conference.

IF, Visuality, and Other Bits of DAC

Among the many great presentations here at DAC 2009 at UC Irvine, the paper by Aaron Kashtan, “Because It’s Not There: Verbal Visuality and the Threat of Graphics in Interactive Fiction,” was particularly nice to hear. Aaron discussed my 2000 interactive fiction Ad Verbum, related it to Emily Short’s City of Secrets, and presented a nice argument about how these two engage (differently) with text’s ability to represent the visual. Here’s the abstract:

In this paper I analyze two contemporary works of interactive fiction (IF), Nick Montfort’s Ad Verbum and Emily Short’s City of Secrets, as examples of two contrasting ways in which IF reacts to the perceived threat of computer graphics. In the post-commercial era of IF, graphics represent a factor that, without being acknowledged, has profoundly shaped the development of the medium. Post-graphical works of IF may be distinguished according to how they respond to the threat or promise of graphics. Ad Verbum’s response to graphics is to emphasize the purely textual, and thus anti-graphical and anti-visual, aspects of the medium. The implication is that IF’s closest affinities are not with visual prose but with printed works of procedural textuality, and that IF is a visual medium. By contrast, City of Secrets activates a mode of visuality that depends less on immediate presence than on emotional affect and imaginative participation. Short suggests that IF is a visual medium, but that it differs from graphical video games in that its visuality depends on absence rather than presence.

I was also really impressed by Brett Camper’s discussion of the MSX-inspired “fake 8-bit” game La-Mulana and, on a very different level, the wide-ranging first talk of the conference, by Kate Hayles, which engaged cognition, tools, attention, and evolution.

DAC 2009 has proceedings which were handed out to attendees on CD-ROM and which will be (to some extent?) available. So, while I hope to mention a few more DAC highlights, I won’t aim to summarize talks.

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.

Lots Has Happened and Is Happening

Wednesday 18 November 2009, 5:57 pm   ////////  

Andrew Stern’s company Stumptown Game Machine released their Touch Pets Dogs, published by ngmoco for the iPhone. On this social network, everyone knows that you’re a virtual dog. Versions of it are in the top 10 free apps on the iPhone App Store now, and in the top 100 of pay apps.

Rover’s Day Out is the winner of the IF Comp. (Dogs everywhere!) The game is by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman. Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati took second, Snowquest by Eric Eve third. Congratulations to all authors! If you haven’t played the games yet, they’re still there waiting for you.

CYOA visualizations are the talk of the town: Mainly this extensive site that considers many books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, but also this PDF mapping Journey under the Sea.

People on the Interweb donated $25,000 to Jason Scott, the textfiles.com, BBS Documentary, and Get Lamp guy. Man, it’s so easy to get money on the Web. Maybe you could do it too, if you first spend years, in your spare time and without pay, saving BBS files, saving Geocities, documenting computer history, and generally amassing a larger archive of digital media history than almost every university in the world put together.

Truly “indie” artgames made the New York Times Magazine. Jason Roherer leads the charge, but many of the usual suspects are quoted in this look at how non-industrial gaming is augmenting and challenging games of the commercial sphere.

A new issue of Game Studies is out, with these articles: “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games,” “Moral Decision Making in Fallout,” “Cheesers, Pullers, and Glitchers: The Rhetoric of Sportsmanship and the Discourse of Online Sports Gamers,” and “World of Warcraft: Service or Space?” Game Studies is free to everyone! No page fees for authors! Peer reviewed! The future of academic publishing, already here, and about games!

JayIsGames hosts an IF contest and calls for interactive fiction authors to create escape-the-room games. The deadline for this Casual Gameplay Design Competition #7 is January 31. Z-code only, unfortunately for those of us wedded to Curveship, but that lets you use Inform 6 or 7.

Eludamos Posts New Issue, Seeks Articles, Volunteers

Sunday 1 November 2009, 12:13 am   ///  

Those of us who study computer and video games are very fortunate to have two free, online, peer-reviewed journals that do not assess page fees: Game Studies and Eludamos. And, there is at least one more free, online, peer-reviewed journal that does not assess page fees and includes articles about computer and video games: Digital Humanities Quarterly.

That’s the preface to my mentioning that a new issue (vol. 3, no. 2) of Eludamos is now out.

Also, that journal has issued a new call for papers:

The new call for papers for “Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture” is now open, and again, we cordially invite submissions dealing with everything that is relevant to the field of game studies. All articles undergo a double blind peer review process except for papers submitted to the game review section. We expect all submissions to be in English and accept full papers only. For further specifications about our submission guidelines please consult the Eludamos site.

Eludamos also seeks volunteers to do editorial and proofreading work:

We are happy to announce that since its initiation three years ago, not just Eludamos’ readership but also its submission numbers have grown steadily. Thus we are looking to expand the ranks of our editors and proof-readers. Please note that all positions are honorary. We are specifically looking for a book review editor. The editor’s responsibility would be to identify “hot topics” and to solicit reviews of new publications that deal with them. We are also hoping to attract two volunteers for copy editing / proof reading. Please send a short statement of interest via e-mail to the following address: ajahn2 at uni-goettingen dot de

Mary Flanagan Speaks in Purple Blurb, Monday 11/2 6pm

Thursday 29 October 2009, 11:42 pm   ///////  

On Monday (November 2) at 6pm in MIT’s room 14E-310,

The Purple Blurb series of readings and presentations on digital writing will present a talk by

Mary Flanagan.

Mary Flanagan

author of Critical Play: Radical Game Design (MIT Press, 2009)

Mary Flanagan is the creator of [giantJoystick], and author of [theHouse] among other digital writing works. She is Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth, where she directs Tiltfactor, a lab focused on the design of activists and socially-conscious software.

Flanagan investigates everyday technologies through critical writing, artwork, and activist design projects. Flanagan’s work has been exhibited internationally at museums, festivals, and galleries, including: the Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum of American Art, SIGGRAPH, and The Banff Centre. Her projects have been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Pacific Cultural Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Flanagan writes about popular culture and digital media such as computer games, virtual agents, and online spaces in order to understand their affect on culture. Her co-edited collection reload: rethinking women + cyberculture with Austin Booth was published by MIT Press in 2002. She is also co-author with Matteo Bittanti of Similitudini. Simboli. Simulacri ( SIMilarities, Symbols, Simulacra ) on The Sims game (in Italian, Unicopli 2003), and the co-editor of the collection re:skin (2007).

Flanagan is also the creator of The Adventures of Josie True, the first web-based adventure game for girls, and is implementing innovations in pedagogical and values-based game design.

Using the formal language of the computer program or game to create systems which interrogate seemingly mundane experiences such as writing email, using search engines, playing video games, or saving data to the hard drive, Flanagan reworks these activities to blur the line between the social uses of technology, and what these activities tell us about the technology user themselves.

A representative from the MIT Press bookstore will be at the talk offering copies of Flanagan’s books for sale.

Platform Readings: Jaguar, Pseudo 3D

Thursday 22 October 2009, 1:27 am   /////  

As an Atari Jaguar owner, I suppose I have something of a soft spot for the system, but I really do wish that it had more than one awesome game. There’s a recent article on the failure of Atari’s last console by Matthew Kaplan. He ends up singing of the Jaguar rather as if it has been the Great White Hope, sadly fallen to Japanese consoles, but touches on several interesting aspects of the console along the way. Technology, pricing, and marketing are all discussed in some detail. This will help us remember the “64-bit” claims that were made for the system and the never-shipped VR helmet that made appearances at trade shows. Thanks to Jason Scott for this link.

Pseudo 3D graphics is the road less traveled these days, but this non-polygon method of making racetracks and other planar spaces appear to be 3D is fascinating. It’s written up very clearly, with code, example images, and discussion of games that use unusual pseudo-3D techniques, in an article by Louis Gorenfeld. I like how the advantages and disadvantages of these techniques are discussed – the method is treated as neither strictly inferior or “way better” than what we usually think of as 3D. This one’s not only relevant to platform studies, but an obvious topic for a blog called Post Position. Thanks to Josh Diaz for the link.

Computer Game Maps Sought for Exhibit

Saturday 17 October 2009, 2:15 pm   ////  

Hand-drawn, player-created computer game maps are sought for a traveling exhibit in the UK. They’re needed soon – by mid-November. Thanks to Ian Bogost for letting me know about this.

Of Late

Tuesday 13 October 2009, 9:49 pm   ///////  

People I know have been up to many things lately, and many of these surely deserve a full, thoughtful blog post. I won’t manage that, so the least I can do is mention that …

Jason Scott continues to back up Geocities, and, in the process of doing this, has posted page-heaps of under construction and email icons. Warning: ginormous.

Jason Nelson presented his new, uncanny, crapcredible game, Evidence of Everything Exploding.

Jason McIntosh has a great video about a non-digital game, Diplomacy, that he and friends did during a day-long session, wearing more-ot-less nationally appropriate hats.

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Jill Walker Rettberg has a short and insightful video about blogging as a way of learning.

Robert Pinsky’s libretto was sung in a musical reading of Tod Machover’s opera Death and the Powers at Cambridge’s A.R.T. on September 17. The workshop presentation (check out the photos) was a major milestone toward a full production of the digitally augmented “robot pageant,” which I found zestfully written and very cleverly framed.

Lots of people are playing and reviewing Interactive Fiction Competition games. A list of way-many reviews was put together and is being updated by Yoon Ha Lee.

The Games Begin

Saturday 3 October 2009, 11:56 pm   ////  

The 15th Interactive Fiction Competition games are out. You can download them and, this year, play 14 of them online. Voting in the IF Comp is done by the public at large, so you can participate at the ballot box as well as at the prompt.

Interactive Fiction Suggestions, Fall 2009

Thursday 10 September 2009, 12:29 am   /////  

People who are interested in interactive fiction but who haven’t played much or any of it ask me for suggestions from time to time — not as often as I’d like, of course, but, luckily, once in a while. I’ve had a page of recommendations up on my site since 2005. The games on that list remain good ones, but I’m now updating those recommendations to take into account games from recent years. I’m posting the new recommendations here. Note that many of the people who ask me about IF are of a literary bent, as am I, and my suggestions reflect that.

A good introduction to interactive fiction does not have to be easy or simple. A game that you have to restart several times, and that you can only scratch the surface of after a few hours of effort, may show you, by being intricate and compelling, why it’s really worthwhile to try to meet the challenges of IF. It seems most important to me that a piece of IF quickly gives a sense of the powerful, interesting play of simulation and language. Such a game might happen to be hard or easy. On the other hand, some good games rely on a player knowing about IF conventions and even particular earlier games, characters, or puzzles. These often aren’t good places for someone just starting. There are many good commercial games from the 1980s and some from more recent times, but in my main list, I’ve limited myself to games that authors have made available for free download.

Although it’s possible to play some IF on the Web, it’s really best to use an interpreter to run all of this interactive fiction; the interpreter is to IF as the Flash player is to Flash and the Web browser is to the Web. There are good interpreters for Windows (Gargoyle) and Mac OS X (Spatterlight) that run IF in all of the major formats; you can also find interpreters for Linux and for smartphones. There are plenty of things you can read to help you play interactive fiction — one that I’d particularly suggest is Emily Short’s PDF introducing interactive fiction — but if you have the chance to play together with someone who knows the conventions of IF and has played a few games before, that will surely be the best way to get into IF.

These are my suggestions for eager first-time IF players, organized by year of release:

Anchorhead by Michael Gentry, 1998

A sprawling horror based on the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, with exquisite attention to detail and compelling characters and places.

Bad Machine by Dan Shiovitz, 1999

The surface of this game seems to be a confusion of code, error messages, and a small bit of English, but its strange science fiction world is deeply systematic.

For a Change by Dan Schmidt, 1999

Schmidt’s game programming is better known thanks to Guitar Hero but before he coded that up he was inspired by Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and wrote this piece of interactive fiction, which features an odd lexicon and curious, magical assemblages.

Varicella by Adam Cadre, 1999

A sort of revenge-play, difficult, complex, and worth several attempts. A strange palace holds intrigues, surprises, an array of excellent characters who wander and plot against the player character, the palace minister.

Shade by Andrew Plotkin, 2000

The most famous “one room game in your apartment.” What seems to be a sleepless night undergoes a disturbing transformation as the character, undertaking ordinary actions, uncovers a different reality.

Slouching towards Bedlam by Daniel Ravipinto and Star C. Foster, 2003

An intricate steampunk piece with that deals with insanity and language and offer several different concluding threads.

Whom the Telling Changed by Aaron Reed, 2005

A reframing and reworking of Gilgamesh, the first known epic, which combines elements of hypertext-like word selection with the usual command-based IF interface.

Bronze by Emily Short, 2006

Reworks the beauty and the beast legend, embedding memories in an architectural space in compelling ways. It has a special “novice mode” and a status-line compass that will aid players in understanding and navigating IF locations.

Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground) by Admiral Jota, 2007

A hilarious underground romp that brings every major type of puzzle together in miniature form. The really wonderful aspect is the orcish, semi-literate narration that is used throughout.

Violet by Jeremy Freese, 2008

A graduate student locks himself in his office to try to make progress on his dissertation. The puzzles, as the player seeks to overcome distraction, are amusing, but the atmosphere and the voice of the character’s absent, imagined girlfriend are extraordinary.

I still like all of the pieces I originally suggested, but, in the interests of bringing in some newer games while making only ten main suggestions, I’m moving these here: Aisle, by Sam Barlow, 1999; Dangerous Curves, by Irene Callaci. 2000; The Edifice, by Lucian Paul Smith, 1999. Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short, 2002. And, in case you feel comfortable obtaining (previously) commercial games from abandonware sites or want to quest for them on eBay, I’ll also mention A Mind Forever Voyaging, by Steven Meretzky, Infocom, 1985; Mindwheel, by Robert Pinsky, Brøderbund/Synapse, 1984; Suspended, by Michael Berlyn, Infocom, 1983; Trinity, by Brian Moriarty, Infocom, 1986; and Wishbringer, by Brian Moriarty, Infocom, 1985. Note that reading or at least looking over the documentation to these commercial games is often very useful, and sometimes essential, in getting started with them.

Does anyone else have other good IF starting points to suggest? Or, does anyone want to report experiences of delight or frustration with one of these ten games?

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