Final Paper

Paper Poster

This is definitely not the paper I was planning to write when I started it.  That paper would have drawn on a variety of video games, reaching across genres and including producers from the United States, Europe, Russia, and Japan, and would have contemplated how they all approached some of the darkest material human history has to offer.  I’m still interested in writing that paper at some point, but I’m glad I focused in on the Call of Duty franchise.

 

What I found was that Call of Duty has a history of undermining many of the themes video games in general and first person shooters in particular have often been accused of thoughtlessly propagating.  Starting from the earliest games of the series, it has been made clear that the one man army player avatars which are common in other games are simply not a worthwhile way of engaging with military history, and the idea that America single handedly won the war, present and uncriticised in a great deal of media holds no water.  Interestingly, these changes from what had been the norm in video games up to that point not only resulted in a more accurate reflection of history, but seem to widely be credited with making the game more popular.

 

Later games in the franchise would move to directly criticizing the aggressively interventionist foreign policies which America has implemented throughout both the Cold War and the War on Terror.  The most striking example of this is the second Modern Warfare game, in which the main villain is an American general seeking to further militarize American society.  Given that the game ends with the player killing him, I’m quite surprised in retrospect that the game did not attract more criticism.  In fact, were it not for the Call of Duty’s central place in gaming culture, it seems unbelievable that games with plots like theirs could be made without attracting no end of attacks from those who support such policies.

Digital History Paper Draft: The Horrors of War-games

So far, work on my paper has basically proceeded as anticipated.  The one major surprise thus far has actually been a pleasant one.  While I had initially intended for this project to look at a broad range of games, I have discovered the Call of Duty franchise has been a much rich set of sources than anticipated, and so far I’ve spent all my paper discussing different games in it.  I’m still considering including games from outside the franchise, but I’m not sure how I feel about spending 5/7s of the paper discussing games which are all tightly linked, and then only moving on in the last portion to games that, while still connected thematically, are not quite so linked together.  Whichever way I go, and I’d love to hear people’s thoughts, I’m almost certainly going to need to rewrite the introduction, so while I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the paper as a whole, there’s probably not much value in thinking about how to improve that.

Games and Gaming in Society

Apologies to everyone for this going up late, I’ve been in Georgia for a cousin’s wedding, and the internet there was worse than anticipated.

 

Critical Play is an attempt to more deeply understand games as artistic critiques of society, and to help bridge the gap between academic understandings of video games and academic studies of more traditional recreational activities.  Each of the book’s chapters is really more of an essay on this theme, investigating a different type of play throughout history, showing how it was used to reinforce societal norms and subverted to attack them, and then linking them to modern gaming.

 

The first of these chapters regards playing house, and doll play.  While initially, these forms of play parents to reinforce social expectations for their children by encouraging them to enact scenes in keeping with social norms, children were quick to subvert this by using them to act out more taboo scenes and confront new anxieties.  Recreating murders and police investigations allowed children to engage with larger societal problems, while recreations of parental disputes allowed them to engage with more immediate ones.  These themes have been carried forward into modern gaming by games such as The Sims.

 

The next chapter investigates one of the oldest categories of game, the board game.  From ancient games such as Mancala to more modern ones like Monopoly, these games have served as ways to reinforce dominant forms of resource distribution, but much like dolls, they could easily be re-contextualized to criticize just as easily as they could be used to support society, as shown by games like Anti-Monopoly. These games could also be used to disseminate controversial opinions, using the excuse that “they’re just games” to avoid scrutiny, and this has been done for both positive and negative reasons; the former can also be seen in Anti-Monopoly while the latter can be seen in various racist games.  Flanagan also shows how the often violent focus of board games would later transfer to video games.

 

The next chapter investigates language games, and shows how word play can be considered a type of play, and used by artists to bring attention to the absurdities of society.  Secret languages are also discussed, as a tool for the dis-empowered to achieve their own goals and protect themselves while doing so.

 

The next chapter is entitled “Performative Games and Objects” and is perhaps the book’s least straightforward; it seems a better title might be performative art.  It begins by informing the reader that all games have performative components, and moves to the discussion of artistic creations which require some input from the art viewer, and take on a game-like aspect in that fashion.

 

The next chapter explores “Artists’ Locative Games” which are games played in public places not only for the benefit of the players, but also for the edification of their audience.  This moves into a discussion of mixed reality games which have been made possible by modern technology, as well as a discussion of recent games commissioned by artistic groups.

 

The next chapter moves to focus specifically on video games, and the industry which makes them.  Flanagan harshly criticizes the industry by comparison to the artists involved in the creation of older games, particularly in terms of a lack of diversity and the promulgation of harmful ideologies.  The chapter ends by discussing a handful of activist games which are in keeping with the socially transformative games of the past.

 

The final chapter is focused on encouraging more of these activist games, and provides instructions for future developers to enable this.

 

Discussion:

Flanagan’s definition of “game” includes many things which one would not normally anticipate in a study of games.  Is this definition convincing or would a narrower (or even broader) one have produced a better argument?

If you are a gamer, do you feel that you often see activist messages in the games you play?  How do these messages differ from those in other forms of media? Are there differences between the messages of different genres of games?

Many of Flanagan’s sources come from an art history background.  As historians, how does this impact your reading of her argument?

Practicum: Glitching Files

There’s a lot to be learned from taking the assorted files we all have laying around on our computers and taking them apart, seeing what makes them tick, and then breaking them.  First and foremost, doing this is a chance to recognize that, although we may look at an image file or text file as simply an image or text, they only appear as such when viewed through a lens provided by our computers.  Those files, however, are not those things.  At their most basic, they are set of electromagnetic states of certain physical spaces on your hard drive (or electrical states of your solid state drive, if your computer uses one of those).  In an intermediate sense, the computer uses more basic lenses to view those states as code, and that code may need several layers of interpretation by your computer before you see it in the form it was intended to be viewed in.  This should remind us that, although we often imagine a dichotomy between the physical world and the digital, all digital objects are merely physical objects which are being viewed in a certain manner.  We can achieve similar understandings of the physicality of digital items by placing a magnet near one’s hard drive, provided one does not mind loosing the further use of that hard drive.  We should also be reminded that the appearance of these digital objects is not static, but depends on what lenses they are being viewed through, and we are also reminded that, although two image, text, video, or sound files of different types may appear similar to us, they are actually quite different.

 

While it may sound technically complex to some, glitching a file can actually be quite an easy thing; many of us even manage to do it by accident.  To demonstrate, I will use 3 different types of image file (with the hopes of demonstrating how these are different), as well as an audio file.  Those trying this themselves should make sure to make copies of all the files they intend to glitch and preferably cordon them off in a separate folder, to make sure they don’t accidentally break a file they didn’t mean to.  For the images, I’ve selected a .jpg (a preliminary design for an unbuilt class of USN warships), a .png (a shot from the opening of a recent, award winning television show), and a .gif (a motivation penguin).   The specific images have been chosen in the hopes that they will prove memorable and to show that one can learn from glitching whatever images one has on hand.

To begin with, the .jpg in an unaltered state:

Next, we will convert this file to a text file.  To do this, you will need to rename the file, so that the extension (the 3 letters at the end of the file name after a period, which exist to tell the computer what type of file this is and what program it should use to open it) says .txt instead of .jpg.  If you cannot see any file extensions, open file explorer options from the control panel and ensure all options pertaining to extensions have been set correctly.  When the file has been converted to a .txt file (a common type of text file), it should then be possible to open it with a word processor.  Some word processors, such a Microsoft Word, may recognize that the file is not what it appears to be, but wordpad and notepad will both suffice.  I will be using Notepad++, a version of notepad with extended functionality.  The result looks like this:

Note that although this is mostly gibberish, the “Photoshop 3.0” appears in the first line, and “8BIM” appears several times in the first few lines.  Removing these will not actually change the image.  On the other hand, deleting several full lines, particularly from the very beginning or end, can easily result in a file which cannot be opened.  More judicious removals of one or two lines here and there from the beginning of the body of thefile resulted in this:

Copy and pasting segments of text at the center of the document, meanwhile, added this to the image:

By doing this, one can see the methodical way in which the data which the image represents is stored; if code from the top of the file is removed segments of the image are also removed, starting from the top.  .png files, on the other hand, are less straightforward.  Here is an unaltered .png and the same file as text:

Once again, the Photoshop name appears, but beneath it, we see a collection of metadata, intended to provide us with information about what this image is.  Most of it is incomprehensible to those who are not more technically skilled than me, but the “history” section is interesting, as it contains a date, presumably when this file was created; this date does coincide with when the show was airing.

If we start deleting segments from the body of this image, we see a much different result:

The new image contains not only the missing and correct segments we saw in the .jpg, but also an area which is highly distorted.  This indicates that the file does not store data in a purely linear fashion, pixel by pixel, but stores some information about one area of the image in one part of the file and other information elsewhere.  Also worth noting is that the blog did not allow me to display this image, so the print screen function was used to replicate it.

.gif files are interesting because, although they are an image format, they allow for simple animations to be displayed.  Here is one accompanied by the same file as a .txt.  Note that you will need to click the .gif for it to play.

Once again, there is a small amount of comprehensible text, this time in the form of “GIF” at the very beginning of the file.  Editing the file results in a much shorter animation playing, with a small amount of distortion of the image:

As you can see, this also results in the .gif playing automatically, for reasons which are beyond my technical skills to understand.  We can see from this that even a small amount of glitching can result in large changes to a .gif file.

As I am unclear of the legality of simply uploading an unaltered music .mp3 file to wordpress, I have elected to use music which all readers should be able to access through Youtube, specifically, the song Sonntagsfahrer (Sunday Drivers) by the Ostrock band Puhdys. If readers are interested in making their own glitches of the same song, an .mp3 can be purchased from Amazon, and otherwise, it can be listened to here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACZU4wTd5uE

As a file, the song can also have its extension changed from .mp3 to .txt, which looks like this:

Once again, the file starts with a small amount of metadata, such as that this file came from Amazon.  Editing this file as a text document can produce surprising results; it often takes the removal of large swaths of text to produce a change in the song, usually in the form of segments simply disappearing, rather than being distorted.  I will refrain from posting my own examples, again in the interest of not attracting the attention of amazon’s lawyers, but one can easily see this by editing their own .mp3s.

I hope this has proven instructive, as to the nature of the files we often interact with.  If your own experiments with glitching files produce any interesting results, please share them below.

The Defenses of D.C.

While of the 1814 British assault on Washington is almost certainly the city’s most famous battle, it was not the only one, or even the largest.  In the Summer of 1864, Confederate cavalry forces under Lieutenant General Jubal Early began a campaign of raiding directed towards the Capital, with the hopes of drawing Union forces away from ongoing campaigns in rebel held territory.  While loyal troops were eventually dispatched to help guard the city, Washington’s own ring of fortifications proved their value in discouraging an earlier attack.  These fortifications had been constructed in the wake of the Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, and have continued to play a small but noticeable role in the city’s landscape.  Military road, for example, had originally been constructed to provide supplies to this network of fortifications.  Despite this, many of the forts now lie forgotten or at least unremarked upon.

This project will use History Pin to provide users a guide to the city’s fortifications.  As such, its primary audience will be inhabitants of and visitors to Washington DC, who want to learn more about the context of the environment they encounter; it will hopefully also be of interest to those studying the history of the city, or to military historians interested specifically in the history of fortifications.  In addition to simply providing the locations of these sites, this project will also provide users with accounts of these fortifications’ individual roles in seeing off Confederate attackers.  Where possible, the units involved in building and manning these fortifications will also be identified, with a description of the previous and later service of those units; if memoirs from those who served at these forts can be found, users will be provided with their titles and brief summaries.  The reason for making this a digital history project is straightforward: it allows for a larger audience to be reached, and for the informative material to be presented alongside the physical spaces it intends to inform the user about, without needing signs or other installations.

Outreach for this project would start with social media sharing via pages about Washington DC, its history, and even travel to the city.  References to it could also be inserted into Washington’s WikiTravel pages.  This would also account for how the project could be evaluated: if it is displayed to potential users via social media, then they could be asked to provide their thoughts on it by way of the same platforms.