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.

Medal of Honor: Frontline – June 6, 1944

“And when he gets to heaven, to Saint Peter he will tell: One more soldier reporting sir – I’ve served my time in hell.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
It’s June 6, 1944. I’m Lt. James “Jimmy” Patterson. The game throws me right in to the action as the camera zooms in to my boat, which is carrying me towards the beach. The beach destination: Omaha beach. Of the five beaches considered for the game’s first level, wide cited as the, “centerpiece of the game… it showcases the audio and visual presentation better than any other level” (Gamespot 2002), Omaha was chosen over Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Before I am even granted control over my body, as I’m relegated to craning my neck to check my surroundings (breaking-edge for 2002), I’m witness to the soldiers in front of me praying, puking and everything in between in anxiety of what’s to come. As my Captain screams orders at us, “meet me on the beach,” a plane overhead shells the boat with a bomb. Everyone who is on the boat is either killed or thrown overboard in to the carnal, calm waters of Normandy Beach. I still haven’t been given controls over Patterson and am witness to several of my fellow soldiers being mowed down as I swim towards the surface. Speaking objectively, at this point in the game, I’m bored. I’m not allowed to do anything or kill those bastard Nazis but am instead watching as my avatar swims (slowly, at that) to the surface to try and meet up with the captain. Gee would cite this as my desire to engage in the Self-Knowledge Principle, stating that, “the virtual worls is constructed in such a way that learners learn not only about the domain but also about themselves and their current and potential capacities” (Gee 64). I want to know how hard this game is going to be, how dexterous I’ll be with a gun, how fragile my character will be and how easily I’ll be able to make sense of objectives.
I surface. The deafening quiet of the ocean is replaced with the whizzing sound of bullets and the yells of fellow soldiers attempting to progress onwards and upwards towards the Nazis. Before I’m cognizant of my first objective, meeting with the Captain, I hear a “thud” sound as a stray bullet tags me. Ow? I have a life bar and I’ve lost, at most 5%. I could only hope to fare as well should I ever personally be shot. Sense of invulnerability enabled, I casually stroll over to the Captain who informs me it’s my mission to provide cover fire for four injured men to escape the murderous sights of Nazi machine gunners. I loll over to the first, second, third and finally fourth man, providing lackadaisical cover fire. I’m hit a number of times but, even after rescuing my fourth prisoner, I’ve only just dipped in to my yellow health meter (0-20% = flashing red, 21-60% = yellow, 61%- 100% = green). I’m doing just fine and am not too concerned. My lazy self is caught unaware as I’m hit with a falling bomb. Little to no health is suddenly a concern. A few unfortunate machine gun shots later, I’m dead. I restart the level on hard mode, rather than easy – time to unleash my inner gamer. There is no thought to Jimmy Patterson’s mortality, his family, his friends, his highschool sweetheart, etc. There is, however, extended eye rolling at the long loading scenes, the tedious introduction and the repeating of the same cinematic and beginning objectives. Gee cites my attitude as the Psychosocial Moratorium Principle, stating that, “learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered” (222).
Hard mode is suddenly different. Each time I get shot, my health bar begins to drastically dip. I run and take cover. Gee states that, “playing through the invasion of Omaha Bach in medal of Honor gives one a whole new perspective of what the battle is like… [it] puts the player right in the midst of the action, pinned to the ground, surrounded by deafening noise and wounded, sometimes shell-shocked, soldiers, and facing the near certainty of a quick death if he/she makes one wrong move” (145). Soldiers rescued, despite my best efforts, I’m still at around half health. I stumble upon what I assume is a medical canteen, which gives me about 20% more life. Not too shabby. I escort an engineer who cuts the wire obscuring allied forward progress and sprint quickly to the cover of the Nazi Bunker’s wall. From that point, my Captain (somehow still alive) tells me it’s my job to take out the two machine gun nests rested on the hill above us. I run over to the nearest machine gun, shoot the six Nazis guarding it, commandeer the controls, take aim at the machine gun nests, take them out and then quickly turn to the four Nazi soldiers that were shooting me the entire time from a trench and quickly disperse with them. Nazis dealt with, I’m greeted with a loud banner across the screen that displays, “all Nazi soldiers eliminated” (if only). I run to the nearest door to access one of the bunkers and my invasion in to Normandy is over.
Reflecting, the experience can’t help but be portrayed to the likes of Captain America. I, Jimmy Patterson, just single-handedly saved all my fellow soldiers and eliminated just about every single Nazi on the dreaded beach. Gee supplements this, stating that, “ as in most shooter games, your character can take a great deal of damage before he dies. It takes a number of bullets to kill him, and he can find health kits throughout the game to replenish health. While he faces tough enemies, the fact that he can dish out a great deal of damage with special weapons and sustain a good deal of damage makes you, the player, feel like quite a superhero” (161).
Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman, with blanketing statements, assert that, “effects of exposure to violent media result primarily from the development, rehearsal and eventual automatization of aggressive knowledge structures such as perceptual schemata, social expectations and behavioral scripts” (Anderson and Bushman 356). The two also state that the average Youth between 8 and 18 spends more than 40 hours per week using some sort of media, alluding to the sway video games and electronics take over the young populace (354). Despite this, playing through Medal of Honor: Frontline, the only overwhelming feeling I got was of entertainment. Never at any time were the two worlds confused or meshed together. Frustrated with the second level, I even sought cheat codes to make my passing of the game a touch easier and more expedient (for purposes of writing this paper, I swear – cheaters never prosper). The detachment I felt from the inhuman crimes being committed was palpable. Never during my playing did I, despite entering in to the virtual world through a first-person shooter, entertain the notion of my historical setting.
This phenomenon was noted by Gee. In alluding to Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, Gee allowed a six-year old to play the game. While playing as Dark Sonic, presumably the evil version, the kid noted that, “the bad guy was the good guy” (145). Notably, this embodies the belief that video games measure themselves apart from the reality of situations. In Return to Castle Wolfenstein multiplayer, when characters are divided up in to Nazis and American soldiers, there is little to no remorse of sniping an American engineer placing a mine, etc (161). The feeling, I found, was best discovered through third-party witnessing, rather than interaction.