platforms and constraints

In Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (The MIT Press, 2009), Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort introduce platform studies as an approach to studying games and other digital media, tracing the history of the Atari VCS home video game console as a case study. Here’s how they define platform:

“Whatever the programmer takes for granted when developing, and whatever, from another side, the user is required to have working in order to use particular software, is the platform” (p. 2-3).

Platforms shape the actions of their users, which can cut two ways. The Atari VCS’ many limitations sparked creativity in game design, but the assumptions hidden in other platforms could have malign consequences. When preserving platforms and platform-dependent art, we’ll need to consider how best to make these influences explicit.

creativity from constraints

In order to preserve executable and/or reusable versions of software and digital artworks, we’ll need to document how constraints in platforms shape creative decisions. In Racing the Beam, a member of the design team for the Atari game Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back recalls, “We prioritized the game elements we wanted to include and watched the list diminish as the available cartridge space was used up” (p. 128). This is one of many instances in which designers and gamers maximized what they could do within the Atari VCS’s limitations.

Bogost and Montfort write, “Technical innovations are often understood as the creation of new technology–new materials, new chip designs, new algorithms. But technical innovation can also mean using existing technical constraints in new ways, something that produces interesting results when combined with creative goals” (p. 53). The limits of preservation, such as our inability to completely document or perfectly save an old piece of software, offer their own set of restrictions. Preservation-related constraints can be detrimental to faithful reproduction, but they also free artists and curators to reinterpret the works, with “interesting results.”

Specific documentation and interoperable data might be the dream combination enabling Ippolito and Rinehart’s gross but effective concept of a “mother copy” (Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014, p. 24). But where description and documentation inevitably fail could be where reuse really takes off.

hidden assumptions

While the restrictiveness of platforms can be good for creativity, hidden constraints and assumptions aren’t always beneficial. Game designers working with the Atari VCS seemed extremely knowledgeable about the limits governing their work, but that might not be true for artists working with software and hardware today. Platform studies suggests that we should continually interrogate the tools and systems we use, even as we build upon them.

I’m reminded of an article about “library as infrastructure” in which Shannon Mattern highlights problems with a popular “library as open platform” metaphor. Infrastructure is embedded, complicated, old and dirty, comes freighted with history. Open platforms are ostensibly about encouraging anyone to remix library collections and metadata (for example) but can obscure the values on which the platforms run. While Mattern argues that infrastructure is closer to the reality of libraries than the open platform, her “infrastructure” is akin to “platforms” as framed in Racing the Beam.

As a complement to Bogost and Montfort’s observations about technological innovation, Mark Matienzo’s keynote for the 2015 LITA Forum wraps up a lot of key issues in building new technology upon old platforms. He questions how innovative or revolutionary a technology — such as linked data created from old classification systems — can actually be, so long as participation and “the power to name” are distributed as before. My first reaction to the talk was, “Read this if you are human and work with information.” But these concerns are especially important for us since preserving platforms and their products means documenting creative cultures and relying upon members of those cultures in the documentation process.

Matienzo might find common ground with glitch artist Scott Fitzgerald, who says:

In glitch art, more so than a lot of other art forms, I am a really big proponent of the idea that the process is more important. Part of the process is empowering people to understand the tools, understand the underlying structures, like what’s going on inside of a computer. So, as soon as you understand a system enough to know why you’re breaking it, then you have a better understanding of what the tool is built for.

hidden histories go on and on

As Matt Kirschenbaum, Mattern and Matienzo (and many, many others) suggest, we can push, break apart, and interrogate platforms by delving into the social and political histories of the hardware and software. We’ll probably find that the hidden histories just keep going.

For example, Bogost and Montfort mention that the Atari VCS used a processor and other hardware manufactured by Fairchild Semiconductor. I happen to have read a paper by digital media scholar Lisa Nakamura tracing the history of Navajo women’s involvement in the manufacture of these parts at Fairchild’s plant in Shiprock, N.M. “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture” focuses on convoluted representations of these workers in Fairchild’s corporate archives, and the conspicuous absence of their actual testimonies in the archival record. This chance connection is based on my having just one other context for the name Fairchild Semiconductor, but it reinforces that platform studies are inseparable from studies of gender, labor, race, and class.

from platform studies to preservation strategy

All of this suggests that preserving digital art is a continuous process of investigation forward and backward in time from the moment of a digital object’s creation — if a singular moment can be identified at all.

Arms and Fleischhauer (2005) make two especially helpful contributions to how we might translate platform studies into preservation strategy. First, they conceive of digital formats as tied to the stages of a digital project’s life cycle (creation, preservation, and use). They call for archivists to investigate the full range of formats used and the relationships between content stored in each. Second, they enumerate specific sustainability and quality/functionality factors for promoting the longevity of digital formats. Each factor could serve as a way for archivists to enter into conversation with creators and users of digital media platforms, from whom we seek help.

17 Replies to “platforms and constraints”

  1. Amy, that link about the Fairchild semiconductor looks really interesting. I was thinking about similar intersectional issues while watching the two webcasts on glitch art and 8-bit art: not a single woman was interviewed, and not a single Japanese person. Considering the popularity and influence of Nintendo and Sega systems after the Atari, chiptunes and 8-bit art isn’t just a US phenomenon.

    1. Great points, Sarah. Love to hear what you think of the Nakamura piece if you end up reading it. If anyone’s looking for more 8-bit, try searching 8ビット音楽 on YouTube. Some fun stuff out there… I found an 8-bit version of the theme for City Hunter, a show I definitely watched as a kid in Japan. Which is probably kind of boring for the rest of you! Now I’m thinking that tapping into someone else’s nostalgia might not be as engaging as indulging our own — what do you all think? What are the implications for digital preservation?

      1. So I read the article, started on a comment, and then promptly got sidetracked for the better part of a week. This is going to be my continual struggle in this course.

        Kylie Jarrett’s use of women’s work and the general discussion of chip building versus programming reminds me of a discussion about women artists I had in an art history course on the Gilded Age. Women artists were generally pushed towards media with a ‘reproductive’ quality (sewing, portraiture); ‘original’ art and creativity was the realm of men. To say nothing of the resonance between the devaluing of emotional labor and housework.

        The discussion of the ‘creative class’ being happy because their work allows them to be creative is also familiar to me — this is basically the argument the arts world uses to force low to starving wages on newcomers (or really anyone it can). Driving the trope of ‘starving for your art’ allows the high-level producers to cost-save on the backs of those doing the actual production labor.

        1. This is such a rabbit hole but absolutely, yes: There’s a clear divide in talking about creativity in which the concept of women’s work is extended to encompass teaching (reproducing knowledge and knowledge workers?) while remaining excluded from building or making. Rebecca and Catherine probably remember some specific readings from a digital humanities class we took last spring — but also… from Life. And I know you and I have talked about starving artists before! Maybe also last spring? The most pernicious idea coded right into “creative class” economics. Thanks for bringing it up; so appropriate as we’re discussing whose art and whose experience of art merits preservation.

          1. This is a fascinating way of looking into art history which had not even occurred to me before. I feel a little silly. Naturally, gender, class and economics in gaming history would feature as part of art history.
            I find it fascinating that just as we are exploring how to preserve these objects, we are also interrogating our understanding of the cultural, social and political histories surrounding their genesis.
            Thanks for the links and a great blog post!

          2. The trope of starving artists is why I’m in library school instead, so I talk about it a lot, I’m sure I’ve discussed it in nearly all of my classes.

  2. The idea that limitations and constraints is a driving force behind creativity is an interesting one. It focuses on ‘how do i use what i have’ rather than on ‘what is the best thing to use’. However, i think that it is very important that those limitations and constraints be the result of natural circumstances rather than artificial ones. what i mean is that you should always push what you have to its limit and build/design around that rather than set an artificial limit that prevents you from using what resources you have to the utmost. This does not me that creativity resulting from artificial constraints is bad, i just believe it is better to use everything you have available.

    1. James, I think the authors of Racing the Beam would agree it makes sense to be resourceful and inventive whatever the circumstances. I don’t have the strongest art history background but folks in class who do can probably speak more to exercises that artists of different schools have done to stretch their brains by artificially (and temporarily) limiting themselves in materials, techniques, and so on. We’re in charge of the artificial limits we place on ourselves, but not at all in charge of the external limits of circumstance, so maybe there’s a degree of empowerment too.

      1. The notion of natural vs artificial constraints is interesting; however, I don’t know if I could comfortably say one method is better than another. As Amy suggests, stretching one’s brain by consciously cutting off familiar routines and methods is a great way to find new ideas and develop a more diverse understanding of a subject. It really makes no difference if the constraint is self-imposed or not. But I think that when you say natural circumstance, you are referring to things like the commercial pressures that lead a programmer to write for Atari VCS in order to have an actual audience and make money — not necessarily creating something for the heck of it. In this sense, I guess that it would be a little weird for Bethesda Software to attempt to create Fallout 5 by using some type of avant garde code!
        A great documentary that touches on these topics is Lars von Trier’s “The Five Obstructions,” in which a director challenges another to remake the same film five times under different constraints. It definitely touches on the idea of empowerment that Amy brings up.

  3. Amy, the history in Racing the Beam was extremely interesting. The link drawn from the midway at carnivals, to pinball and darts in bars, to arcades and finally to home-based game consoles exemplifies your point “ . . . that preserving digital art is a continuous process of investigation forward and backward in time . . . . ” Platform studies are truly inseparable from cultural and social influence, as well as the influence platforms have on culture and society.

    1. Yes, for sure! There’s probably even more to say about the shift from gaming in public to gaming at home, and the sort of new publics that developed in response. But that’s another series of books, right?

  4. Amy, thrilled to see how you are folding in all of this additional outside reading! In thinking through some of your examples I’m reminded of a nice piece Mark Sample wrote a few years back “What Comes before the Platform: The Refuse of Videogames” (http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2324). In that piece, he focuses on where the actual hardware of games is produced and where e-waste ends up. When we shift to think about that as part of the story of these platforms, we are moved to document and consider the global context of labor, markets and power. Which goes to underscore how essential the issue of thinking through what the objectives of preservation activities are upfront, in that deciding what to document or preserve upfront will inevitably limit, structure and suggest particular ways of interpreting those records.

    1. Thanks, Trevor, and thanks for the link to Mark Sample’s post. This is maybe the most minor thing to notice but his phrase “deleted agent” is new to me, and is going to be very useful. Sarah pointed to e-waste and its archaeology as an afterlife of game production (in her comment on Joe’s post) but it really is a perpetual by-product.

  5. Rereading the post, I was arrested by your comment “All of this suggests that preserving digital art is a continuous process of investigation forward and backward in time from the moment of a digital object’s creation — if a singular moment can be identified at all.” As a juxtaposition against, for example photography, it reminded me of cathedral-building to get through the development and execution of the work. What it lead me to wonder was how cumulative current platforms are. Not being much of a gamer, I have no practical knowledge, but the controllers all still look more or less the same. Wii stick had buttons I recognized from playing Dr. Mario on the NES original. So how much of the gameplay of the NES informed the Wii? How much trickled down through the various intermediary platforms to the one that was supposed to be so very different and yet had such obvious call backs to the original platform; embracing the known quantity in the shiniest of shiny new toys?

    1. The quote “The past is prologue” applies for most things, especially technology and games. As a gamer, the controllers evolve more than one might think through the various different consoles and generations. The Wii controller tried to change how people played games by allowing gestures and actions to control the game. However, many gamers do not want the controls to change too much causing the adoption of motion controls to be slow. People get used to one thing and don’t want to learn a new way of doing things. The same can be said in photography. The camera controls are roughly the same as they were on earlier cameras. There are still f/stops, shutter speeds, and ISOs, even if some of the things are now virtual or automated.

  6. I really appreciate what you have highlighted here in your blogpost; I definitely found myself thinking a lot about the idea of constraints and how they can be approached. A lingering question I had after reading Bogost and Montfort’s book was how the constraints created by one platform can affect how subsequent/alternative platforms work. Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not A Gadget talks a lot about how particular paradigms in programming languages (particularly MIDI) and web formats almost self-replicate; as new platforms are developed, many of them retain the qualities of the older ones. His “call,” so to speak, is for people to consider the ramifications of these.

    Something that I have been considering recently is how the “personal website” has gone a bit to the wayside in favor of having sites work as aggregations of lots of “personal pages” (e.g., facebook, twitter, tumblr) where most of the websites look and act the same. The question becomes, do we want our webpages to look like that? These might not be considered platforms per se, but it’s interesting to consider them with a similar eye for, as you say, how issues of race, gender, class, and labor are playing out.

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