A New “Platform” for Games Research?: An Interview with Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort (Part Two)

Henry: Does Platform Studies necessarily limit the field to writers who can combine technological and cultural expertise, a rare mix given the long-standing separation between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”? Or should we imagine future books as emerging through collaborations between writers with different kinds of expertise?

Nick: We definitely will encourage collaborations of this sort, and we know that collaborators will need all the encouragement they can get. It’s unusual and difficult for humanists to collaborate. When the technical and cultural analysis that you need to do is demanding, though, as it is in a platform study, it’s great to have a partner working with you.

Personally, I prefer for my literary and research collaborations to be with similar “cross-cultural” people, such as Ian; I don’t go looking for a collaborator to balance me by knowing about all of the technical matters or all of the cultural and humanistic ones. It is possible for collaborators on one side to cross the divide and find others, though. Single-authored books are fine as well, and it’s okay with me if the single author leans toward one “culture” or the other, or even if the author isn’t an academic.

Ian: I also think that this two culture problem is resolving itself to some extent. When I look at my students, I see a very different cohort than were my colleagues in graduate school. I see a fluency in matters of technology and culture that defies the expectations of individual fields. So in some ways, I see the Platform Studies series as an opportunity for this next generation of scholars as much as it is for the current one, perhaps even more so.

When you think about it, popular culture in general is also getting over the two culture problem. There are millions of people out there who know something about programming computers. As I’ve watched the press and the public react to Racing the Beam, it’s clear to me that discussions of hardware design and game programming are actually quite welcome among a general readership.

Henry: What relationship do you see between “platform studies” and the “science, technology and society” field?

Nick: A productive one. We’re very much hoping that people in STS will be interested in doing platform studies and in writing books in the series. Books in the series could, of course, make important contributions in STS as well as in digital media.

Ian: Indeed, STS already tends strongly toward the study of how science and technology underlies things. Platform studies has something in common with STS in this regard. But STS tends to focus on science’s impact on politics and human culture rather than human creativity. This latter area has typically been the domain of the humanities and liberal arts. One way to understand platform studies is as a kind of membrane between computing, STS, and the humanities. We think there’s plenty of productive work to be done when these fields come together.

Henry: Why did you decide to focus on the Atari Video Computer System as the central case study for this book?

Ian: We love the Atari VCS. It’s a platform we remember playing games on and still do. In fact, the very idea for platform studies came out of conversations Nick and I had about the Atari. We found ourselves realizing that a programmer’s negotiation between platform and creativity takes place in every kind of creative computing application.

Nick: Another factor was historical. While contributing to the cultural understanding of video games a great deal, game studies hasn’t looked to its roots enough. A console as influential as the Atari VCS deserved scholarly and popular attention beyond mere retro nostalgia. We wanted to bring that sort of analysis to bear.

Ian: Finally, I’ve been using the Atari VCS for several years now in my classes, both as an example and as an exercise. I have my Introduction to Computational Media class program small games on the system as an exercise in constraint. I also taught a graduate seminar entirely devoted to the system. Moreover, I often make new games for the system, some of which I’ll be releasing this spring. So overall, the Atari VCS is a system that has been and remains at the forefront of both of our creative and critical interests.

In fact, I’ve continued to do platform studies research on the Atari VCS beyond the book. A group of computer science capstone students under my direction just completed a wonderful update to the “Stella” Atari VCS emulator, adding effects to simulate the CRT television. These include color bleed, screen texture, afterimage — all matters we discuss in the book. I have a webpage describing the project at http://www.bogost.com/games/a_television_simulator.shtml.

Henry: You focus the book around case studies of a number of specific Atari titles from Adventure and Pac-Man to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Can you say more about how these examples allowed you to map out the cultural impact and technical capacities of the Atari system?

Nick: The specific examples gave us the opportunity do what you can do with close readings: drill down into particular elements and see how they relate to a game, a platform and a culture. But we wouldn’t have found the same insights if we had just picked a game, or six games from different platforms, and got to work. We used these games to see how programmers’ understanding of the platform developed and how the situation of computer gaming changed, how people challenged and expanded the 1977 idea of gaming that was frozen into the Atari VCS when they put this wonderful machine together.

Ian: We also chose to focus on a specific period, the early years of the Atari VCS, so to speak, from 1977 to 1983. These games in particular allowed us to characterize that period, as programmers moved from their original understanding of this system — one based on porting a few popular coin-op games — to totally different and surprising ways of making games on it.

Henry: Platform Studies seems to align closely with other formalist approaches to games. Can it also be linked to cultural interpretation?

Nick: Formalist? Really? We were indeed very concerned with form and function in Racing the Beam, so I won’t shun the label, but we tried to be equally attentive to the material situation of the Atari VCS and the cartridges and arcade games we discussed. For instance, we included an image of the Shark Jaws cabinet art so that the reader could look at the typography and decide whether Atari was attempting to refer to Speilberg’s movie. We discuss the ramifications of using a cheaper cartridge interface in the VCS design, one that was missing a wire.

Ian: We should also remember the technical creativity that went into designing a system like the Atari VCS, or into programming games for it. The design of the graphics chip, for example, was motivated by a particular understanding of what it meant to play a game: two human players, side by side, each controlling a character on one side of the screen or another.

By the time David Crane created Pitfall! many years later, those understandings had changed. Pitfall! is a one-player game with a twenty minute clock. But it’s also a wonderful mash-up of cultural influences: Tarzan, Indiana Jones, Heckle and Jeckle.

Nick: I’ll admit that ours is a detailed analysis that focused on specifics (formal, material, technical) rather than being based around broad cultural questions: it’s bottom-up rather than top-down. We’re still trying to connect the specifics of the Atari VCS (and other platforms) to culture, though. The project is not only linked with, but part of, cultural interpretation.

Ian: I’d go even further; there’s nothing particularly formalist about a platform studies approach, if formalism means a preference of material and structure over cultural reception and meaning. If anything, I think our approach offers a fusion of many influences, rather than an obstinate grip on a single one.

Henry: There is still a retro-gaming community which is deeply invested in some of these games. Why do you think these early titles still command such affection and nostalgia?

Ian: Some of the appeal is related to fond memories and retro-nostalgia, certainly. Millions of people had Ataris and enjoyed playing them. Just as the case with the Apple ][ or the Commodore 64 may have introduced someone to computing, so the Atari VCS might have introduced him or her to videogaming. So part of the appeal of returning to these games is one of returning to the roots of a pleasurable pastime.

Nick: That said, we resist appeals to nostalgia in the book and our discussions about it, not because nostalgia and retro aesthetics are bad, but because it would be a shame if people thought you could only look back at video games to be nostalgic. There are reasons for retro-gaming that go beyond nostalgia, too. It’s driven, in part, by the appeal of elegance, by a desire to explore the contours of computing history with an awareness of what games are like now, and by the ability of systems like the Atari VCS to just be beautiful and produce really aesthetically powerful images and compelling gameplay.

Ian: It’s also worth noting that there is a thriving community interested in new Atari games, many of whom congregate on the forums at AtariAge.com. For these fans and hobbyist creators, the Atari is a living platform, one that still has secrets left to reveal. So the machine can offer interest beyond retro-gaming as well.

Henry: What factors contributed to the decline of the Atari empire? How did that decline impact the future of the games industry and of game technology?

Nick: I think it takes a whole book on the complex corporate history of Atari to even start answering this question. Our book is focused on the platform rather than the company. Scott Cohen’s Zap!: The Rise and Fall of Atari is a book about the company, and my feeling is that even that one doesn’t really answer that question entirely. We’re hoping that there will be more books on Atari overall before too long.

Ian: There are some reasons for Atari’s decline that are connected specifically to the Atari VCS platform, though. It turned out to be incredibly flexible and productive, to support more types of game experience than its creators ever could have imagined. No doubt, Atari never imagined that third-party companies such as Activision would come along and make literally hundreds of games for the system by 1983, cutting in on their business model right at the most profitable point. But the system was flexible enough for that to happen, too.

Nick: That’s why Nintendo did everything they could, by license and through technical means, to lock down the NES and to prevent this sort of thing from happening with it. The industry has been like that ever since.

Ian: As we point out in the book, this was a bittersweet solution. Nintendo cauterized the wound of retailer reticence, but it also introduced a walled garden. Nintendo (and later Sony and Microsoft) would get to decide what types of games were “valid” for distribution. Before 1983, the variety of games on the market was astounding. So, on the one hand, we’re still trying to recover from the setback that was first-party licensing. But on the other hand, we might not have a games industry if it wasn’t for Nintendo’s adoption of that strategy.

Henry: Can you give us a sense of the future of the Platform Studies project? What other writers and topics can we expect to see? Are you still looking for contributors?

Nick: Yes, we’re definitely looking for contributors, although we’re pleased with the response we’ve had so far. We expect a variety of platforms to be covered — not only game systems, but famous early individual computers, home computers from the 1980s, and software platforms such as Java. Some families of platforms will be discussed in books, for instance, arcade system boards. And although every book will focus on the platform level, we anticipate a wide variety of different methods and approaches to platforms. While getting into the specifics of a platform and how it works, people may use many different methodologies: sociological, psychoanalytic, ethnographic, or economic, for example.

Ian: In terms of specific projects, we have a number of proposals in various stages of completeness and review. It’s probably a bit early to talk about them specifically, but I can say that all of the types of platforms Nick just mentioned are represented.

There are a few different types of book series; some offer another venue for work that is already being done, while others invite and maybe even encourage a new type of work to be done. I suspect that Platform Studies is of the latter sort, and we’re gratified to see authors thinking of new projects they didn’t even realize they wanted to pursue.

Henry: You both teach games studies within humanities studies in major technical institutions. How do the contexts in which you are working impact the approach you are taking here?

Ian: Certainly both Georgia Tech and MIT make positive assumptions about the importance of matters technical. Humanities and social science scholarship at our institutions thus often take up science and technology without having to justify the idea that such topics are valid objects of study.

Nick: I have to agree — it’s very nice that I don’t have to go around MIT explaining why it’s legitimate to study a computing system or that video games and digital creativity are an important part of culture.

Ian: Additionally, at Georgia Tech we have strong relationships between the college of liberal arts, the college of engineering, and the college of computing. I have many colleagues in these fields with whom I speak regularly. I have cross-listed my courses in their departments. We even have an undergraduate degree that is co-administered by liberal arts and computing. So there’s already an ecosystem that cultures the technical pursuit of the humanities, and vice versa.

I also think technical institutes tend to favor intellectual experimentation in general. We often hear cliches about the “entrepreneurial” environment at technical institutes, a reference to their tendency to encourage the commercial realization of research. But that spirit also extends to the world of ideas, and scholars at a place like Georgia Tech are perhaps less likely to be criticized, ostracized, or denied tenure for pursuing unusual if forward-thinking research.

Dr. Ian Bogost is a videogame designer, critic, and researcher. He is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. His research and writing considers videogames as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on games about social and political issues. Bogost is author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (MIT Press 2006), of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press 2007), and co-author (with Nick Montfort) of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press 2009). Bogost’s videogames about social and political issues cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His games have been played by millions of people and exhibited internationally.

Nick Montfort is assistant professor of digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Montfort has collaborated on the blog Grand Text Auto, the sticker novel Implementation, and 2002: A Palindrome Story. He writes poems, text generators, and interactive fiction such as Book and Volume and Ad Verbum. Most recently, he and Ian Bogost wrote Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009). Montfort also wrote Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (MIT Press, 2003) and co-edited The Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1 (ELO, 2006) and The New Media Reader (MIT Press, 2003).