Wow, Game Mag. Wow.

I keep hearing about this Believer article about palindromes – actually, it’s mostly an article exposing a particular palindromist to readers’ chortles. The article signals no awareness of the palindrome as a literary form, but I appreciate it pointing me to Mr. Duncan’s “A Greenward Palindrome,” written for my local eco-boutique and charming in its topicality.

A community of practice is a set of people who do the same type of work (writing, art, game development, etc.) and who are at least aware of one another and have some interaction with one another. Poets constitute a community of practice, for instance, or at least several significantly interlocking communities of practice. Poets are aware that there are other poets. They read each others’ work. Sometimes they hate one another, which shows that they care.

Electronic literature authors are literary migrants to the computer, not always of the same genre or movement, and are less established as a single community of practice. But thanks to organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization and events like the E-Poetry festival and the ELO conference, many of them do get to meet each other, talk to each other, and learn about each others’ work and interests. Some specific sorts of practice, such as poetry generation, have much less community around them, of course; but others, such as interactive fiction, have a great deal of healthy community.

Palindromists, I would venture, do not constitute a community of practice. They mostly don’t know each other and aren’t aware of each others’ work, despite the efforts of people like Mark Saltveit, editor of the magazine The Palindromist. Duncan describes palindrome authors as “practicing the invisible craft.” When thinking of the short, canoncial palindromes that have circulated without attribution, this designation makes sense. But in other cases, it doesn’t.

For instance, there are plenty of palindrome books in print for those who look. Here are three from a single press, Spineless Books: 2002: A Palindrome Story by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie, I’d Revere Verdi: Palindromes for the Serious Music Lover by Jane Z. Smith and Barbara Thorburn, and the sublime Drawn Inward and Other Poems by Mike J. Maguire, which contains:

Same Nice Cinemas

Same nice cinemas,
same nice cafe.

We talk late.

We face cinemas.
Same nice cinemas.

There are several palindromes of literary interest online, too – my and William’s 2002 is just one, alongside “Dammit I’m Mad” by Demetri Martin and “The Big One” by Will Helston.

From reading that recent article, one would guess that palindromists aren’t a community of practice because palindrome writing isn’t a practice, but a pathology. The truth is that palindromes make for difficult reading, difficult writing, and unique engagements with language that have been savored by Edgar Allan Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, Harry Mathews, and Georges Perec. So, for those who want to take a break from gawking at personal quirks to read some brilliant texts, read a few of the many palindromes that are out there – works of writing that will wow you coming and going.

A New Game Studies Brings Racing Reviews

A new issue of Game Studies, the pioneering open-access journal that deals with computer and video games, is out. Of particular note – to me, at least – is that among this issues eight book reviews are two reviews of the book I wrote with Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam.

The two reviews are “Hackers, History, and Game Design: What Racing the Beam Is Not” by José P. Zagal and “The fun is back!” by Lars Konzack.

Zagal, who has a very interesting take on our project, calls the book “an accessible nostalgia-free in-depth examination of a broadly recognized and fondly remembered icon of the videogame revolution” and notes that it is “a book that both retro-videogame enthusiasts and scholars should have on their bookshelves.”

It’s important to note that Konzack developed a layered model for how games (and other digital media artifacts) can be abstracted and situated within culture in his article “Computer game criticism: A method for computer game analysis.” With only a few alterations (merging the “software” and “hardware” layer together into a “platform” layer, for instance, and considering the cultural context as influencing all layers), this model is used in Racing the Beam and in the Platform Studies book series. Konzack finds the book “a worthwhile read if the reader wants to know how early videogame development took place and thereby get an understanding of how videogame development came into being what it is today.”

I’m very pleased, as Ian is, to read these critics’ resposes to our book.

An Alphabet in 25 Characters

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

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

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

Alphabet in 25

Imagination Fit to Print

If you’re heading over to look at today’s parodical “Final Edition,” allow me to suggest instead a thoughtful and compelling re-imagination of the New York Times, the special edition of July 4, 2009 by the Yes Men and the Anti-Advertising Agency. Instead of being just a joke that falls flat – one that was released on the 11th day of the month and features a New York skyscraper in flames, very tastefully – the latter “fake” newspaper is actually a productive utopian vision.

I don’t mind when parodists do the end times, but I think we should at least do them right. Take a look at the last daily page from, or, if you want to go back to the 20th century and bust out the microfiche, the final, April 24, 1966 issue of the New York Herald Tribune. (A predecessor of that merged newspaper has a square in New York named after it, as does the Times.) Those who consciously put togther a final edition often strive for summing up, even if their organization is in the final stages of falling apart. Last issues tend to be rich in history and thoughtful about the future.

I don’t see an online record of this quip, but I recall Bruce Sterling (perhaps in the context of the Dead Media Project) stating that being first isn’t nearly as difficult as being last. To be the last in a category means enduring, and continuing to endure, as all others drop away. Even to be writing the last issue of an important newspaper or other serial means to be concluding a tremendous accumulation of context, conventions, and expectations. When it comes, the last issue of the New York Times will be a swan song, not a belly flop. I’d love to see some serious imagination of what that will be like.

Label This One a Failure

It’s tough to write about the ideas that didn’t work out. Sometimes the negative results actually aren’t very interesting, and it’s better not to discuss them. In other cases, it’s impolite to point out other people’s roles – to blame them – and impossible to discuss the failure otherwise. But when a failure is not too big of a deal, possibly instructive to bring up, and as least as much my fault as anyone else’s, that rare opportunity to post about it presents itself.

In 2005, those of us blogging at Grand Text Auto had the idea of starting a “label.” We wanted something that would riff on our blog’s name and serve to showcase larger-scale projects that we did. The idea was that our creative projects would benefit from being associated with each other, just as our blog writing was more lively and had wider reach thanks to the shared context of Grand Text Auto.

After going through our usual best practices process of name development – perhaps, based on experiences like these, I’ll one day start a naming firm – we chose to call the label [auto mata]. With the square brackets and everything, if you want to really give a shout-out, although “Auto Mata” could work if that’s what fits your house style.

I offered to design the logotype. Now, I’m much less likely to start a career in graphic design, and certainly couldn’t drive that auto very far if I did, but I do like to indulge my dilettantish design interests when the opportunity presents itself. This is what I came up with:

Admittedly, it doesn’t exactly slap one in the face.

I don’t think my understated logo was the real problem with [auto mata], though. First Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (July 2005) and then my own Book and Volume (November 2005) were released “under” (perhaps “with” is a better preposition) this label. And that was it. No other “extraordinary e-lit, digital art, and computer games” appeared as [auto mata] releases, which was one big problem. A list of two things isn’t doing that much helpful association or offering people very much to browse. I think if we had kept adding a piece to the [auto mata] catalog every few months, we’d have accumulated a very interesting collection that people would be looking at. We might even encourage the crossing of boundaries between (the stereotypes of) literary work, visual art, and computer games that Grand Text Auto was all about. But we weren’t all regularly doing larger-scale projects that were downloadable. [auto mata] couldn’t really, in any straightforward way, “release” an immense, functional Atari VCS joystick.

Another problem, though, is that [auto mata] was just a list on a Web page. We didn’t build much buzz around [auto mata] itself, or work to promote the label per se as opposed to the two pieces that were released under it. Perhaps this work would have done itself to some extent as our list of publications grew and our offerings drew in people from different communities. But, unfortunately, the work wasn’t done.

Michael, Andrew, and I often mentioned [auto mata] in promoting our pieces. The site is still up. But now it’s 2011, and it’s worth noting that both Façade and Book and Volume have been published again in the fine context of the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 2. Although some “previous publication” information is included for each piece in the Collection, Michael, Andrew, and I all neglected to tell the editors that these two pieces are [auto mata] releases, so that information (provided within the pieces) doesn’t appear on the introduction pages where other bibliographic information is available.

Ah, well. I don’t regret the discussion that led to our developing [auto mata]; nor do I regret the not particularly onerous efforts that we took to get this label launched. In a different situation, such a label might have served not just to catalog work, but as an incentive or rallying point for the Grand Text Auto bloggers in creating work that could be proudly presented alongside other pieces. Perhaps a similar label could still do that for a different group of people.

Book Arts and Broadsides Showcased

a photo (and not a very good one, sorry) of the Building 14 WHS Books Arts & Broadsides display case

MIT’s Building 14 has a great new display thanks to poet Amaranth Borsuk, who is a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Writing & Humanistic Studies program, where I also work. There are some wonderful pieces from many of my colleagues and their students, all of them displayed brilliantly. I’ll mention the digital tie-ins: The broadside “Love Letters,” done in one of my graduate CMS.950 Workshop classes, consists of computer-generated poems produced by a Manchester Mark I emulator. These were set on a letterpress by the class thanks to the Bow & Arrow Press’s John Pyper. And Peer Hofstra, who took my 21W.750 Experimental Writing class last semester, did an extraordinary untitled book for his final project. It’s made of punched cards, with the words are formed by alphabetically-arranged letters punched out from those pages. Each word is some are subsequence of the alphabet, so “APT” can occur, while “APE” cannot. Alex Corella’s Experimental Writing final project, which cuts up and rearranges the text on Cambridge historical plaques, is also on display. If you’re on campus, do stop by to see the case, which is by the elevator on the first floor of Building 14. It will be up for at least this month, December 2010.

Robot Prints and Binds Riddle & Bind

If you’re looking for my new book of poems, Riddle & Bind, and you happen to be near the MBTA’s Red Line or Harvard Square specifically, prepare for excitement. You can not only purchase the book in this venerable area of Cambridge; you can have the Harvard Book Store’s book-making robot, Paige M. Gutenborg, manufacture a copy of Riddle & Bind for you in about four minutes. The cost for the book and the bibliotronic display in which it is forged is simply the retail price, $16.

The Harvard Book Store's book-making robot.I have the feeling that someone must have put in a good word for me.

Update: As of August 14, 2012, Riddle & Bind is not available to be printed on the Espresso Book Machine at the Harvard Book Store. The book can be special ordered through the Harvard Book Store, however.

The MIT Press bookstore, down the red line at the MIT/Kendall stop, has copies of Riddle & Bind in the store and available for purchase.

Horror Lurks on Halloween

A special event: The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction is hosting a session in which we’ll play The Lurking Horror, October 31, 2-5pm, MIT’s room 4-145. We’ll take a tour of some MIT campus locations that inspired the ones in this game, and David Lebling, the Infocom implementor who created the game, will be joining us.

Also, remember that there’s a Tuesday Nov 2 book party for the release of my Riddle & Bind, at Grafton St. in Harvard Square, 6-9pm. And on Sunday Nov 7 we’ll have a codefest where people can work on games in Curveship, or on the core system, if they like. Contact me (the login name is “nickm”, the domain to use is this one) if you’d like to join us for that event.

Riddle & Bind is out. Party!

My book Riddle & Bind (with an official publication date of October 31) is out. One day Amazon will have an image of the cover. But for now, anyone can order it through Spineless Books or Amazon, and … there’s a book release party here in Cambridge, in Harvard Square:

Grafton Street Restaurant and Bar
1230 Massachusetts Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138

Tuesday November 2

You’re invited to stop by, peruse the book, and hang out with us. The book will be available for sale, too, but if you just want to come by and flip through it, or try to crack the code of Christian Bök’s encrypted back-cover blurb, that’s fine too. Grafton Street serves fine food and drink, and you’re welcome to purchase yourself some of it – there are no retail obligations, though. I’ll hope to see you there.

My New Book, Riddle & Bind

Riddle & Bind My new book – a book of poems entitled Riddle & Bind – has been published by Spineless Books. The book contains figurative language that does not explicitly state what is described, but leaves this for the reader to discern: riddle. And I have placed myself within certain constraints to write poems in this book: bind. The official publication date is October 31, but thanks to the attention and deft work of my publisher, I was able to lay my hands on a book and volume today. I will follow up soon with details about this tome and its availability, but for now: Riddle & Bind is bound. And it even has a spine.

Notes on the IF Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010
Eden, by Pablo Holmberg, Drawn & Quarterly, 2010

Yes, these comics sometimes veer into the extremely sappy, but they’re metafictional and wonderfully fabular throughout. Eden collects more than 100 simple four-panel strips featuring a diminutive, somewhat rabbit-like king, or at least, someone who wears a crown, in a magical land. An extremely insightful naïvite, of the sort that one hears in the occasional oracular pronunciation of a child, comes through at times. But these comics do not overlook death or other serious subjects. Holmberg, who writes and draws in Buenos Aires, has Eden and more available on his website, in Spanish. Odd that to learn about a Web comic, I had to go into my local comic store and buying a book, but it goes to show that book-based institutions have more than a retail function. And, it seems unlikely that Holmberg’s work would have appeared in translation without a publisher such as Drawn & Quarterly. Through such everyday efforts, we sometimes find the extraordinary.

New Journal Primes You for ppg256

Emerging Langauge Practices is a new journal based at SUNY Buffalo (poetic hotbed and host of the next E-Poetry) and founded by Loss Pequeño Glazier, Sarah JM Kolberg, and A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz. Issue one is a real accomplishment.

There are eye-catching creative projects by mIEKAL aND & Liaizon Wakest and by Lawrence Upton and John Levack Drever. There are also pieces by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries and Molleindustria. (We can only hope for further industrialization of this sort and more of these compelling productions in future issues.) The issue also includes a piece by Abraham Parangi, Giselle Beiguelman’s mobile tagging, Sandy Baldwin’s plaintive piece “** PLEASE REPLY MY BELOVED **,” and Jorge Luis Antonio’s wide-ranging article on digital poetry.

The item that particularly caught my eye, though, was this article by Mark Marino: “The ppg256 Perl Primer: The Poetry of Techneculture.” Marino is an officer of the Electronic Literature Organization with me and a current collaborator of mine, although he completed this article before joining me on our current project. The discussion he developed for the first issue of ELP is really in-depth. Marino not only considers the workings and connotations of my ppg256 series of poetry generators, and considers related code and literary traditions from Perl Golf to the Oulipo – he also considers other programs that interest me and that I’ve discussed publicly in various contexts, sometimes with collaborators. And, he connects the coding traditions relevant to ppg256 to technical practices in boy culture and (via needlework) girl culture.

In one section near the beginning of the article, Mark relates a line of BASIC that I posted on his Critical Code Studies forum and notes (partly in jest, I think) the following:

>I cannot include the full discussion here (over 5000 words) because as Montfort told me over the phone (in jest, I think), he is planning a book-length anthology of readings about the program.

Well, that’s more or less the project Mark and I, along with several others, are now embarked upon. However, we’re writing this book in a single voice rather than collecting articles about the program. More on that before too long; for now, go and enjoy the new Emerging Language Practices.

Videos on Storytelling

Kurt Reinhard of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences and Arts has posted a 10-part video series about storytelling in our networked, digital age. The first part (“Change of Storytelling”) includes comments by:

– Ian Condry (MIT)
– Joshua Green (UCSB)
– Dean Jansen (Participatory Culture Foundation)
– Henry Jenkins (USC)
– Joe Lambert (Center for Digital Storytelling)
– Nick Montfort (MIT)
– Clay Shirky (NYU)

I also appear in part 7 (“Risks of Social Media”) and part 10 (“Bits and Pieces”). Besides the august company listed above, you can see that the videos get to some of the critical issues in storytelling today: fans attired as stormtroopers and “Charlie Bit My Finger – Again!”