A New "Platform" for Games Research?: An Interview with Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort (Part One)

Any time two of the leading video and computer game scholars -- Ian Bogost (Georgia Tech) and Nick Montfort (MIT) -- join forces to write a book, that's a significant event in my book. When the two of them lay down what amounts to a new paradigm for game studies as a field -- what they are calling "Platform Studies" -- and apply it systematically -- in this case, to the Atari system -- this is something which demands close attention to anyone interested in digital media. So, let me urge you to check out Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, released earlier this spring by MIT Press. In the interview that follows you will get a good sense of what the fuss is all about as the dynamic duo lay out their ideas for the future of games studies, essentially further raising the ante for anyone who wants to do serious work in the field. As someone who would fall far short of their ambitious bar for the ideal games scholar, I read this discussion with profoudly mixed feelings. I can't argue with their core claim that the field will benefit from the arrival of a generation of games scholars who know the underlying technologies -- the game systems -- as well as they know the games. I certainly believe that the opening up of a new paradigm in games studies will only benefit those of us who work with a range of other related methodologies. If I worry, it is because games studies as a field has moved forward through a series of all-or-nothing propositions: either you do this or you aren't really doing game studies. And my own sense is that fields of research grow best when they are expansive, sucking in everything in their path, and sorting out the pieces later.

That said, I have no reservations about what the authors accomplish in this rigorous, engaging, and ground-breaking book. However you think of games studies as an area of research, there will be things in this book which will provoke you and where Bogost and Montfort are concerned, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Henry: Racing the Beam represents the launch of a new publishing series based on what you are calling "Platform Studies." What is platform studies and why do you think it is an important new direction for games research?

Nick: Platform studies is an invitation to look at the lowest level of digital media -- the computing systems on which many sorts of programs run, including games. And specifically, it's an invitation to consider how those computing systems function in technical detail, how they constrain and enable creative production, and how they relate to culture.

Ian: It's important to note that platform studies isn't a particular approach; you can be more formalist or materialist, more anthropological or more of a computer scientist, in terms of how you consider a platform. No matter the case, you'll still be doing platform studies, as long as you consider the platform deeply. And, while platform studies is of great relevance to the study of video games, these studies can also be used to better understand digital art, electronic literature, and other sorts of computational cultural production that happens on the computer.

Nick: In games research in particular, the platform seems to have a much lower profile as we approach 2010 than it did in the late 1970s and 1980s. Games are developed for both PC and Xbox 360 fairly easily, and few scholars even bother to specify which version of a such game they're writing about, despite differences in interface, in how these games are burdened with DRM, and in the contexts of play (to name just a few factors). At the same time, there are these recent platforms that feature unusual interfaces and limited computational power, relative to the big iron consoles: Nintendo's Wii and DS and Apple's iPhone.

Ian: And let's not forget that games are being made in Flash and for other mobile phones. Now, developers are very acutely aware of what these platforms can do and of how important it is to consider the platform level. But their implicit understanding doesn't always make it into wider discussions, and that understanding doesn't always connect to cultural concerns and to the history of gaming and digital media.

Nick: So, we think that by looking thoroughly at platforms, we will, first, understand more about game consoles and other game platforms, and will be able to both make better use of the ones we have (by creating games that work well with platforms) and also develop better ones. Beyond that, we should be able to work toward a better understanding of the creative process and the contexts of creativity in gaming and digital media.

Henry: What do you think has been lost in game studies as a result of a lack of attention to the core underlying technologies behind different game systems?

Nick: For one thing, there are particular things about how games function, about the interfaces they present, and about how they appear visually and how they sound which make no sense (or which can be attributed to causes that aren't really plausible) unless you make the connection to platform. You can see these in every chapter of Racing the Beam and probably in every interesting Atari VCS game.

Ian: And more simply put, video games are computational media. They are played on computers, often very weird computers designed only to play video games. Isn't it reasonable to think that observing something about these computers, and the relationship between each of them and the games that they hosted, would lead to insights into the structure, meaning, or cultural significance of such works?

Here's an example from the book: the graphical adventure genre, represented by games like The Legend of Zelda, emerged from Warren Robinett's attempts to translate the text-based adventure game Colossal Cave onto the Atari VCS. The machine couldn't display text, of course, so Robinett chose to condense the many actions one can express with language into a few verbs that could be represented by movement and collision detection. The result laid the groundwork for a popular genre of games, and it was inspired largely by the way one person negotiated the native abilities of two very different computers.

Nick: More generally, the platform is a frozen concept of what gaming should be like: Should it come in a fake wood-grain box that looks like a stereo cabinet and fits in the living room along stereo components? Should it have two different pairs of controllers and difficulty switches so that younger and older siblings can play together with a handicap? Only if we look at the platform can we understand these concepts, and then go on to understand how the course of game development and specific games negotiate with the platform's concept.

Henry: Early on, there were debates about whether one needed to be a "gamer" to be able to contribute to games studies. Are we now facing a debate about whether you can study games if you can't read code or understand the technical schematics of a game system?

Nick: All sorts of people using all sorts of methods can make and have made contributions to game studies, and that includes non-ethnographers, non-lawyers, non-narratologists, and those without film studies backgrounds as well as people who can't read code or understand schematics. Games are a tremendous phenomenon, and it would be impossible for someone to have every skill and bit of background relevant to studying them. We're lucky that many different sorts of people are looking at games from so many perspectives.

That said, whether one identifies as a "gamer" is a rather different sort of issue than whether one understands how computational systems work. If your concern is for people's experience of the game -- how they play it, what meaning they assign to it, and how the experience relates to other game experiences -- then the methods that are most important to you will be the ones related to understanding players or interpreting the game yourself. But if you care about how games are made or how they work, it makes a lot of sense to know how to program (and how to understand programs) and to have learned at least the bare outlines of computer architecture.

Ian: Even if you want to thoroughly study something non-interactive, like cutscenes, won't you have to understand both codecs and the specifics of 3D graphics (ray tracing, texture mapping, etc.) to understand why certain choices were made in creating a cutscene? How can you really understand Geometry Wars without getting into the fact that vector graphics display hardware used to exist, and that the game is an attempt to recreate the appearance of those graphics on today's flat-panel raster displays? How could you begin to talk about the difference between two radically different and culturally relevant chess programs, Video Chess for the Atari VCS (which fit in 4K) and the world-dominating Deep Blue, without considering their underlying technical differences -- and going beyond noticing that one is enormously powerful and other minimal?

Nick: I certainly don't want to ban anyone from the field for not knowing about computing systems, but I also think it would be a disservice to give out game studies or digital media degrees at this point and not have this sort of essential technical background be part of the curriculum.

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).