February 27, 2005

Sweating the Small Stuff

by Nick Montfort · , 5:55 pm

Why should we study simple, old computer programs that no one at the time (including the programmers) ever thought would be studied? I didn’t want Andrew’s reply regarding my study of Combat to take over the other discussion Noah began about going beyond procedural literacy – this is a side comment based on a parenthetical question Noah asked about studying source code. But I did think it is worth a response…

I find it charming that Nick (and others?) are studying the assembly code of Combat and other early computer games. I think they’re worthy of study because of their place in history, they have some elegant features, their necessary use of abstraction (as opposed to the ever-increasing realism of today’s games), their extremely constrained operating systems (so little memory, CPU speed, squeezing in computation in between drawing of frames when the raster gun was travelling back to pixel 1, etc.). I find it amusing because I’d bet the mindset of the folks making those games at the time was simply to get a dumb little tank to move around and shoot the other tank.

At the risk of biting the scholar who appreciates me, there were some things I wanted to comment on in Andrew’s reply. He uses visual art vocabulary (abstraction/realism) while not mentioning in any way that Combat is a game, and his ideas about why such programs are interesting have to do with “elegance” and the extreme constraints of the platform. He also seems to think, to some extent, that the self-conscious reflection of programmers or other creators about the place of their work in history is relevant (at least for purposes of amusement). Andrew’s not alone here, either. The usual way of taking about Atari VCS games (on rare occasions when they’re discussed) involves using visual art concepts and more or less ignoring that they’re games, and mainly praising them as engineering feats accomplished with limited resources – cf. Mark Wolf’s article in The Video Game Theory Reader and Mark Lamoreux’s article in Gamers.

The usual attitude also places early work outside of history, as a practical matter, despite the nod to historical importance. “Serious” work like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is somehow part of video game history – presumably because the GTA:SA creators, despite working under very similar corporate pressures as Atari programmers were to produce a popular console game, are consciously creating a work for the ages? There isn’t much evidence that I know of that even Cicero thought his actual writing process would be studied two thousand years later, or that changes in the appearance of the icon of Michael Joyce’s afternoon: a story were consciously engineered by Joyce and Eastgate as a puzzle for future scholars. (I’m referring to Matt Kirschenbaum’s work on the materiality of electronic literature, here.) A lot of the subject matter textual studies has considered was not of self-professed importance. So I’m hardly going to wait around for permission from Atari VCS programmers themselves before looking at some of the actual games and code from the most important early game console.

Since we’ve started thinking about visual art, we might as well compare Combat to The Great Train Robbery, the 1903 film directed by Edwin S. Porter. While I think film studies is overemphasized in game studies, it does have something simple but important to show us here. When people study The Great Train Robbery, they don’t usually start and stop by saying “what a great feat of compression! A single reel, black and white film stock, no sound! That leet film hacker Porter sure did a lot with his highly constrained resources! Too bad this film has nothing to tell us about modern cinema, which has color, sound, digital special effects, large-scale camera movement, and so on…” Instead, they explain how techniques pioneered in The Great Train Robbery, however different it might have been from a modern feature film, influenced the history of film.

Why isn’t it more obvious that techniques used in Combat and other VCS games influenced console gaming in important ways? For one thing, we’re fixed on the surface (“their necessary use of abstraction”) rather than the workings of the game. If we’re trying to figure out how the visual appearance of the Combat biplanes or the Yar in Yars Revenge relates to Lara Croft, of course, we’ll meet with limited success – although even there, there are things to be said if we’re willing to talk about the gaming function of these visual elements: indicating the direction that your “man” is facing is always important, for instance. The interesting questions have to do with these systems as programs and as games. How did the dynamics of multi-player console gaming develop and change on the Atari VCS? How was the space of play spread across a virtual world larger than a screen, in Adventure, Pitfall, and other games? How were “properties” like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. – not to mention arcade games that were ported – presented on the VCS in a way that made the franchise owners happy? How does the platform, and previous code for that platform (including source code you can access, from your own company, and code you can only look at in binary form via your competitor’s cartridges) influence what you do?

Specific study of Combat and other games tells us a lot about the VCS, which tells us a lot about computing in the late 1970s, which tells us about the history of computing; it also tells us a lot about video gaming in the late 1970, which tells us about video games overall. Film studies awakened to the importance of early works in that form quite a while ago – I think it’s really time for game studies to do the same.