Beyond the Steady State

by: Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken S. McAllister / University of Arizona

Pitfall

Pitfall

Imagine if the UCLA Film and Television Archive contained no films or television programs whatsoever. You could still access descriptive materials such as episode summaries and production stills, but you wouldn't actually be able to sample any of the delicious moving-image treasures those materials document. How useful would the Archive be?

The reason we ask is that this kind of functional semi-vacuity is the matter-of-course in contemporary computer game archiving. The Killer List of Videogames, MobyGames, and other publicly-accessible resources hold terabytes of tantalizing information about games and game hardware, but have none of the artifacts to which this information refers.

This factual and figural embarrassment of riches reveals a troubling situation in game studies, namely that the emerging field is being founded on just a wisp of material and experiential history. It's not uncommon, for example, to hear game scholars authoritatively describe the legendary adult-themed Atari 2600 game Swedish Erotica: Custer's Revenge (1983, Mystique) without ever having played the game or even held its lurid packaging in their hands. We've even seen folks at conferences make such unashamed claims as “I don't really play games or know much about them, but here's my analysis of….” In what other field could this happen? More to the point, why are game scholars allowing it to happen in theirs?

Pong

Pong

In one sense, such laxity is understandable; games and their peripherals tend to be expensive, bulky, hard to find, difficult to care for, and go out of date with startling swiftness. A case in point: Atari's first home Pong console (1975) is collectable (i.e., both overpriced and somewhat rare), requires a decent understanding of solid state electronics to maintain, and its packaging takes up almost the same amount of shelf space as half the Oxford English Dictionary (sadly, neither the console nor its packaging permit nearly as much fun). Everyone knows Pong is a milestone in computer game history, but too few game scholars have actually played it or indeed any of the innumerable other titles they write about. Games and their peripherals take real commitment (not to mention cash and time) to find, organize, and maintain.

Thus, the KLOVs and MobyGames of the Web offer the next best thing: pictures, stats, and descriptions.[1] They are essentially discursive rather than recursive archives.

Now, discursive archives are fabulous for certain types of research, and we certainly depend on them for our work. However, gaming is very much about the interplay between computer, program, and player. It's hard to develop a complex understanding of this interplay without mentally engaging with the external components that enable it: the software that warrants both textual and algorithmic analyses, and the hardware that warrants analyses on technical, kinesthetic, and industrial design fronts. Software, computers, and industrial designs are essential to the transformation of games into play experiences, which is why thinking about archival recursivity is so important for game study.[2]

Over the last seven years, our research group–the Learning Games Initiative (LGI)[3] –has experimented with building a recursive game archive. At present, the archive contains: 1) thousands of games from just about every commercial game-enabled device ever created; 2) the panoply of systems and peripherals needed to play those games; and 3) an extensive collection of print, audio, video, promotional, and souvenir materials, including back issues of Nintendo Power Magazine, limited-edition Pac-Man water tumblers, and even a couple of Super Mario Bros. lollypops (though admittedly those are probably a little stale by now). Because of the paucity of recursive game archives, we've tried to make ours as accessible as possible. The materials are in constant circulation among LGI's far-flung membership, from Utah and Illinois to France and Australia. The charge for such access? Postage (if necessary–many researchers simply visit the LGI Archive on the University of Arizona campus), and some sweat equity: helping to develop the online database, collaborating with other members on essays, grants, and game development projects, or digitizing print materials for the Archive's electronic text collection.

But as fun to build and as useful as the archive has been, it's not ideal. In addition to the mundane and wholly understandable issues that plague all archives (e.g., storage, retrieval, maintenance, organization, and so on), recursive archives are bedeviled by a host of unique physical and conceptual problematics. For example, there's the issue of space. As we've already mentioned, computer games take up lots of room, especially when some of those games are embedded in coin-operated arcade machines the size of a refrigerator. Even a small archive like ours–small in contrast to all possible game research materials–takes up roughly seven hundred cubic feet, the size of a good-sized studio apartment. More problematically has been the insurance issue: what kind of policy covers a diverse range of artifacts–many of which fall on a rarity scale somewhere between “scarce” and “unique”–that are routinely circulated to people around the globe for free? Hint: it's expensive and requires an attorney to finalize.

Console

Console

Then, of course, there's the matter of funding. Granting institutions generally like to know about the precedents behind prospective projects: Who has done something similar and how is your project going to be better? For us, the answers to these questions have been “no one that we know of” and “we're going to make some educated guesses.” Not exactly the most reassuring answers to funding agencies that prefer a sure-thing over a good bet.

Like discursive archives, then, recursive archives too are plagued by issues of materiality. So what's the solution? How do game scholars deal with the difficult yet essential work of facilitating rigorous hands-on research with the artifacts that underpin the field?

Perhaps the solution lies in the kinds of distributed thinking and collaboration that have made some of the best discursive game archives possible. What if groups of game scholars not only worked to start their own recursive archives, but collaborated on an online archive that joined these physical archives in a kind of interlibrary loan system? We're not necessarily volunteering to organize such a system, but we'd certainly be willing to help build it. How about you?

In any case, it's time for game archiving and game scholarship to move beyond the steady state, locate the material artifacts essential to game play, and enable game studies to engage in a more dynamic flow.

Notes
[1]
Actually, discursive archives offer the second next best thing. The next best thing would be emulated versions of the games, for example, NES games playable in Windows Vista or Sega Dreamcast games playable on the Nintendo Wii.

[2]
It's important to note that there are some recursive game archives out there, but they tend to take the form of private or corporate collections (e.g., Game Informer Magazine's venerable “Game Vault”). Occasionally, these collections become publicly-accessible (e.g., The Stephen M. Cabrinety Collection at Stanford University) but that's more the exception than the rule. More commonly, such collections remain private (e.g., David Freeman's massive Pong machine collection, which was recently sold to high-tech entrepreneur Andrew Filipowski), difficult to access (or even discover), and thus aren't especially useful for scholarly work.

[3]
LGI is a transdisciplinary, inter-institutional research group that studies, teaches with, and builds computer games. For more information, visit http://lgi.mesmernet.org.

Image Credits:
1. Pitfall
2. Pong
3. Console

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An Analog Form in a Digital Box: Sitcoms, Mitcoms, and New Media Pliancy

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A CNN Screencaputure

A CNN Screencapture

There’s a lot of static these days, in both industry and academic circles, about the ways in which new media are reshaping television’s visual field. Folks are talking about the flattening and fracturing of televisual space, the addition of overlays, banners, text crawls, and side bars to news and information programs, and the borrowing of many other techniques and aesthetics from the world of computer software.

At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about the powerful influence television exerts on new media aesthetics and the methods of information delivery. In the interest of prompting more discussion, we’d like to share some thoughts on machinima, a method of making animated videos using off-the-shelf computer games such as The Sims (Maxis) or Halo (Bungie Studios), and ways machinima sitcoms (or “mitcoms”) such as The Strangerhood (Rooster Teeth Productions) represent a kind of “televisualization” of computer games.

Nuke Winter

Nuke Winter

For readers unfamiliar with machinima (short for “machine cinema”), it’s basically bricolage storytelling for the information age. The repurposed objects in this case are computer game graphics and the engines that produce them. With real-time machinima, game play is recorded as “raw footage” and then edited using a digital video editing package such as Premiere Pro (Adobe) or Final Cut Pro (Apple). Script-driven machinima, on the other hand, requires machinima-makers to input action commands directly into development environments such as the ones that sit behind Unreal Tournament (Epic Games) and Quake (id software). These commands then are translated into animations by the game’s engine.

Though machinima depends on repurposing both stock and fan-created digital assets (e.g., 3D avatars and buildings, soundtracks), as well as the techniques used to generate such material, machinimations don’t always wind up resembling the games they’re derived from. Indeed, much of the appeal of machinima is the artistic freedom it allows. Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences board member Hugh Hancock documents this point well when he lists machinima’s most significant liberties: “with ‘virtual cameras’ you can develop an entirely new language…not hampered by the constraints of the real world.” Moreover, Hancock continues, there’s “the sheer flexibility of a world where you make up all the rules of physics, the option to add interactivity…. And on. And on.” Strangely enough, machinima-makers are using this seemingly infinite creative flexibility to explore the aesthetic and storytelling possibilities of the television sitcom.

We say “strangely enough” for several reasons, not the least of which is that television sitcoms may very well be going the way of the dodo. A leaner (and definitely meaner) kind of program has appeared — the reality show — and it’s chasing the sitcom from the airwaves. Whether or not television sitcoms eventually become extinct is anyone’s guess, but there is certainly a sentiment shared by both the broadcast and cable industries that the genre’s time is running out. This anachronistic quality is, in part, what makes mitcoms such as The Strangerhood — replete as it is with a living room couch, goofy neighbors, and a laugh track — such odd ducks: they’re emerging just as the sitcom form has been declared dead (or, at least, dying an expensive and unpleasant death) by its progenitor, network television.

The mitcom also is weird because of the inherent pliancy of machinimation. If machinima-makers are not “hampered by the constraints of the real world” (which they’re not), and therefore have the opportunity to “develop an entirely new language” (which they do), why are they looking to one of the most famously formulaic modes of storytelling? Ten years ago, when the first machinimations started appearing on the Internet, serialization and an adherence to well-established genres were necessary because of bandwidth restrictions. The pipes were simply too narrow to allow much content through, meaning machinima-makers (like the early game developers before them) had to rely on well-worn and thus easily and quickly recognizable tropes and iconography to tell their stories.

Today, that’s not the case: consumer-level broadband connections and distributed, self-organizing networks with multi-source file sharing such as eDonkey (MetaMachine) and Morpheus (StreamCast Networks) make short work of even the largest video downloads. There really are no restrictions to storytelling, which makes machinima-makers’ interest in the sedimented and highly-structured narrative form of the sitcom so curious.

Granted, in the case of The Strangerhood, the sitcom form is used in part because of its antique qualities (e.g., ensemble cast, laugh track, catch phrases, and recurring plotlines). What better way, then, to both parody and critique the medium (not to mention indulge in a bit of nostalgia) than through one of its most iconic forms?

That said, The Stangerhood and mitcoms like it are more than just parodic: they’re also explorations of televisuality — of the form and function of television as a medium, an art form, an industrial complex, and a cultural force. In both borrowing from and playing with the sitcom form, mitcoms bring to the surface the nature of that form and the agential and structural networks that created it.

Of course, mitcoms as explorations of televisuality are yet nascent, but they nonetheless show the resiliency and potential of televisual forms of meaning-making across media. The pre-machinima history of computer games includes numerous examples of the television/game crossover, some of which — such as the run-a-network simulation Mad TV (Rainbow Arts) and Eugene Jarvis’ infamous parody/action game Smash TV (Acclaim Entertainment) — exercised the new medium’s pliancy far more vigorously than such ham-fisted tie-ins as The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island (Bandai America), Yes, Prime Minister (Mosaic Publishing), and ALF (SEGA Entertainment).

The mitcom may very well be a kind of televisual future anteriorism, a seeing of what will have been, an artifact from the future documenting an interregnum. We can’t help but think of Harold Innis’ observation that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural
disturbances.” Perhaps in drawing on the sitcom, the mitcom is not only celebrating a predecessor’s aesthetic, but also subverting that aesthetic’s representations of social relations.

Our guess is that we won’t find out what will have been until we see how HDTV, digital cinema, and next-generation game consoles such as the PlayStation 3 converge. That’s likely to be sooner than most of us expect.

Notes:

We prefer the term “computer game” over “video game” as the universal designation for electronic entertainment software because it privileges the medium’s inevasible technological foundation rather than its admittedly dominant but nonetheless excludable sensory element, video. There are many games that have no video at all (see Games for the Blind for examples).

Hugh Hancock, “A View from the Shack,” 1 January 2000. machinima.com.

Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 31.

Image Credits:

1. A CNN Screencapture

2. Nuke Winter

Links:
The Strangerhood
Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences
Red vs. Blue (Halo Machinima)

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