Looking back: computation and image

Hey class,

I chose to blog about computation and image. This was one of my favorite workshops of the semester and I wish we’d had more time to discuss it.

Reviewing the Processing overview that we were assigned before the workshop, I’m struck by the creators’ statement that their program is designed to “[promote] software literacy, particularly within the arts, and visual literacy within technology.” Thinking back to our early discussions in week 2, it’s worth pondering what implications computational literacy might have for the arts. A key point in Annette’s article was that the spread of literacy allowed certain types of (for lack of a better word) utterances that didn’t exist before, like contracts and signatures. The same can be said for programming in the arts. Interestingly, Aaron mentioned that he approach a bunch of different people for technical aid and, IIRC, had assistants help him program the spotlights. Strictly speaking, he might not be considered fully computationally literate, and this adds a layer of complication to questions of authorship and artistic integrity. (Of course, these questions aren’t unique to programming—in most conceptual art, the artist herself is still considered the author regardless of whether she physically put together the installation herself.) It’s conceivable that people who are totally computationally illiterate (e.g., me) are circumscribed from participating in certain genres of conceptual art that rely on computation.

What are the consequences, then, of “promoting software literacy” in fields that it hasn’t yet penetrated? It seems that when visual artists integrate computational media into their toolboxes, it pushes the field in an even more conceptual direction than it has already been heading. Of course, there’s also the rather vulgar argument that software literacy gives artists a marketable skill and serves as a bridge between the arts and other disciplines. I hate this line of thinking, but there is something to be said for the idea of visual artists working in a medium that is accessible to people who might not normally engage much with the arts. After all, painting is a type of technical literacy that most lay people don’t get to participate in, because of the skill required and the expense of materials. If, in 20 years, everyone has a basic level of programming literacy, then it would be arguable that programming-based art is more democratic than art made with traditional media.

Distant reading for journalism?

As a journalist, I can’t wait for tomorrow’s workshop. I’ve heard a lot about ‘distant reading’ (much of it hostile) and while Agate sounds like it’s mainly used for quantitative data, this new JSTOR project looks very promising. I’m particularly interested in how it can help me grasp unfamiliar topics more quickly. I like to write about specialized subjects, and one of the great dangers of that is failing to understand the ‘shape’ and current status of a field because I’m a layperson trying to grasp it very quickly. For instance, I recently had occasion to read a lot of material about Chicana studies, and it took me longer than it should have to get a sense for which writers/concepts are considered to be the most important in the discipline, and which are marginal. (You’d be surprised how rarely information like this is spelled out.) JSTOR’s DfR sounds like it could make those situations a lot easier to avoid.

I found Agate’s homepage a little difficult to understand, so I Googled around for a more accessible explanation of what it’s all about. I found one article that argues Agate’s main utility is as follows:

As journalists, we not only need to solve these problems for practical reporting purposes, but also for philosophical ones. How can we assert that our numbers are correct if we performed a series of manual processes in a spreadsheet exactly once? Do it that way and the only record of how it was done is the one in your head. That’s not good enough. Journalistic integrity requires that we’re able to document and explain our processes.

The idea that multiple iterations are necessary to get accurate data is certainly new to me, although intuitively, it makes sense in processes where probability, chance, and randomness are at play. I’m not quite sure how this applies to us as humanities researchers, since we tend to engage with static datasets more than processes, but I think that’s exactly the developers’ point: providing better tools will enable more process-oriented research methods. What kind of applications do you see for this kind of research going forward?

Could a Martian play Dwarf Fortress?

Hello all,

I wasn’t in class this past week so I’m a little out of the loop, and I apologize in advance if any of these observations are redundant to what you guys discussed last week.

As I’ve continued with Dwarf Fortress, I have done my best to understand how people enjoy this game. The horrific user interface is certainly part of it; after 12 hours, I’m still shaky at the basic mechanics of managing my fortress. But I’m convinced that there’s something deeper to DF’s repellency: a challenge that prettier graphics and simpler controls wouldn’t be able to rectify. I’m not 100% confident what that is yet, but I think the answer lies in DF’s procedural rhetoric. What is this game’s argument? Surely something less banal than ‘death comes for us all’, right?

To solve this puzzle, I think it’s useful to consider how DF engages in Bakhtinian dialogues with its context. There are, of course, many layers of intertextuality here: the ASCII graphics allude to early videogames and position DF as ‘retro’. It parodies fantasy narratives, historical chronicles (per the Boluk and LeMieux reading two weeks ago), and even virtual pets*. It subverts the expectations that players have developed from playing other, ostensibly similar, world-building games like SimCity and Civilization. We could even go so far as to say that it dialogues with the wiki and the fan community, given that everyone seems to rely on the wiki to interpret and navigate the game.

Perhaps the really challenging aspect of DF is its hyperconnectivity with other texts and media. To get meaning out of the game, you not only have to know how to use a computer and be familiar with basic UI conventions; you also have to be fluent in nerd/gaming culture to spot the references and catch on to the game’s playful aesthetic. You must be familiar enough with the conventions of mainstream sim games to appreciate how DF subverts them, and unless you’re an incomparable genius, you probably need to access the wiki, navigate it, and internalize its wisdom. This is a high barrier to entry for would-be players; perhaps there’s a comparison to be made with big fat ‘difficult’ postmodern novels by Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace, &c., which also tend to be hyper-referential. If you want to have an easy time with Infinite Jest, at the very least you’ll need a dictionary, a working knowledge of Hamlet, and a semester of French. In fact, the novel has inspired a fan community that has a lot in common with DF’s. Perhaps the true challenge of DF is that it demands networked thinking, as opposed to the immersive, solitary experience that we usually expect from sim games.

What do you guys think? Does intertextuality necessarily equate to difficulty? If not, is there a particular kind of intertextuality that makes texts difficult/repellent? Am I totally off base here? To what extent is it necessary to catch DF’s references in order to enjoy it? Could a Martian play it? Would the Martian be better at it than a human?

OK, enough questions for one day. See you all Thursday–


* Did anyone else who played with Tamagotchis as a kid get a kick of déjà vu as your dwarves starved? And am I the only one who always loses from starvation, and never any of the more colorful endings?

God is dead, long live procedurality?

I’m glad that Amiga pointed out the statement on the wiki about DF’s worlds being generated randomly and procedurally. It seems like a simple idea, but in fact, DF’s approach to generating worlds raises a lot of complicated questions about authorship.

Before going further, I’d like to compare DF to the Civilization series, a country simulator that is very similar in many respects, except that it’s winnable and much more polished, graphically and structurally. In Civ, you role-play a real civilization from history (e.g., the Maya or the French), and try to guide it to scientific/military dominance. In Civ as in DF, “the world that your game takes place in will always be procedurally randomly generated by you or someone else.” However, unlike DF, Civ also comes with a set of premade worlds and scenarios that are based on real geography and historical situations (e.g., Alexander the Great’s conquests or the settlement of North America). Scenario play is considered an ancillary way to play Civ, and most casual players don’t seem to mess around much with the scenarios. That said, each scenario comes with a clear author—usually the developer, Firaxis, but sometimes a fan who has modded the game and sold their mod to Firaxis, who ships it as part of an update or expansion pack. In a Civ scenario, you always start out in the same world. If I play as Churchill, my cities will always be in the same places, my NPC opponent will always use the same strategies, and I’ll always have 3 fewer submarines than I need to beat Hitler. A Civ scenario has a clear stamp of authorship, in that it reflects one developer’s approach to representing a historical narrative within a playable simulation.

On the other hand, DF’s user-made challenges (which I haven’t gotten around to trying yet) seem to defy the conventional understanding of authorship. A creator might define some parameters for her challenge, but the actual world the user plays in is different each time, thanks to DF’s insistence on always generating the world randomly and procedurally. (Civ’s default mode also uses random world generation, but the user has the option to override it. DF has no such option.) Who, then, is the author of the world the user is given to play in? The developer? The game? The user who sets the parameters? Some combination thereof? This is a great case study for some of the thorny authorship problems in Brown and Maher’s articles from two weeks ago.

This fuzziness around authorship seems to manifest in DF fan culture. In the most comprehensive list of challenges that I’ve found, none of the challenges are associated with authors. On the other hand, people who make good Civ mods become celebrities within this very niche subculture. Modders develop distinctive styles and become auteurs, to borrow a term from film studies. However, I have a lot of trouble applying auteur theory to DF, because it seems impossible for a developer to have a distinct style or identity when the gameplay’s rhetoric is so aggressively procedural. What do you guys think – who is the auteur of the aquifier-infested world that I’m grappling with in DF?

Drowning in Spam

Like Modulus, I was fascinated with the question of what Twitterbots are for. I also had trouble making my bot functional (although I did have it posting snippets from a body of text by the end of the workshop)! I blame that on my own failure to grasp everything in Codecademy (…or finish it, to be honest), not Matt’s awesome teaching. That said, I’ve learned enough about code to perceive that making a Twitterbot is a relatively easy task for those with basic coding knowledge (or just a lot of patience). Constrained by our fluency with Python, our Twitterbots were pretty simple—we were tweeting from preexisting text files or responding to hashtags, primarily. We were spammers, albeit ones with a sense of humor.

I’d like to think more about how bot-generated spam text drives and circumscribes online communication. I recently read a pretty good book by Sarah Jeong called The Internet of Garbage. She explained that spam text is as old as the Internet; people would troll the early IRC chat rooms by pasting in endless lines from Monty Python’s Spam sketch. Since screens could only show a few lines of the chat at once, this would effectively shut down conversation. Since then, meaningless “garbage text” has proliferated all over the Internet, and any web company has to devote considerable resources to getting rid of it so they can provide a functional service.

I’m not sure exactly how Twitter polices bots, but it’s easy to see how a determined team of programmers could completely shut down conversation around a particular term by overwhelming Twitter with bot-generated responses. Spam also has a chilling effect on human conversations—e.g., I avoid mentioning Viagra or Xanax in emails because those words automatically get it relegated to the recipient’s spam folder. Right now, our anti-spambots are just as unsophisticated as our spambots. But I can completely understand why! Essentially, they fight spam by using very rudimentary strategies to conduct a reverse Turing test. This makes me wonder what a perfect anti-spambot might look like. Is it possible to use computation to tell whether text comes from a bot? For that matter, is it always possible for humans to tell? What do you guys think?

Bogost Plays The Sims: Procedural Rhetoric, Object-Oriented Gameplay, and Consumerist Learning

Hello class,

I can’t wait to discuss the Bogost reading in class, but until then, I’d like to think a bit about the relationship between consumerism and rule-based representations. In the section on advertising—and to a lesser extent, the rest of the book—Bogost discusses how procedural rhetoric has been used to persuade players to consume particular products. However, I wish he had gone into more depth on how videogames’ procedural rhetoric can be used not just to sell individual products, but to inculcate a more general consumerist ethic. In fact, I would argue that the procedural rhetoric of today’s open-world videogames is inherently consumerist, and escaping from that state would require designers to radically rethink game mechanics.

At the risk of choosing an obvious example, I’m going to focus on how this works in one particular videogame—The Sims. This is because as the bestselling PC game in history, I’m assuming that many of you have played it before, or are at least familiar with its premise. (Also, it’s one of the few videogames I’ve played enough to feel comfortable critiquing.) The Sims is a ‘sandbox’-style game that markets itself as a ‘life simulator’ or a ‘people simulator.’ It’s been released in 4 versions since 2000, and the creator, Electronic Arts (EA) supplements the game’s content every few months with ‘expansion’ or ‘stuff’ packs that include new game mechanics and objects. (Fun fact: EA has released more than 50 of these ancillary expansion/stuff packs, in addition to the base games. At $20-$50 a pop, it’s not uncommon for enthusiasts to spend hundreds of dollars augmenting their games. It should be no surprise, then, that EA’s procedural rhetoric promotes voracious consumption of material products.)

Representing human life in a video game is no easy task, and although The Sims was hailed as revolutionary when it was released, its procedural rhetoric is very similar to that of early open-world games like Myst. In both Myst and The Sims, players can navigate the game world with nearly complete freedom, but the actual gameplay happens only through interacting with objects. Your Sim is hungry? Click on the fridge to feed her, or the phone to order a pizza. Is she tired? Click on a bed or sofa to put her to sleep. With the exception of interpersonal interactions, it is only possible to command your Sims through objects, and the cost of an object matters a great deal if you want your gameplay to be efficient. Your Sim will finish her business faster on an expensive toilet (no, I’m not kidding), and become more fit by running on a treadmill than she will by jogging outside. Although it purports to be a sandbox, The Sims’ procedural rhetoric forcefully pushes the player toward a particular type of play that focuses on earning money to buy the best objects.

Try to live off the land or play as a homeless Sim, and you quickly run into the sandbox’s walls. Your character will collapse from fatigue at inconvenient times, effectively freezing the game, because it is impossible to sleep without a bed. If her ‘fun’ metric (which can only be boosted by interacting with objects—the pricier, the better) falls below a certain level, she’ll throw a tantrum and refuse to obey the player’s commands. This critique of The Sims is in no way new, either in academia or in the popular media.

Despite my earlier dig at EA, I don’t believe this is a conspiracy to brainwash people into buying more expansion packs. Videogames need to be programmed, and programming requires rules. Object-oriented game mechanics (NOT to be confused with object-oriented programming) are an easy way to create a cohesive set of rules while giving players the impression of a truly open world. Selecting an object opens a menu; the player chooses an option, the game responds. The Sims makes players think they’re in an open world by offering them an apparently limitless array of objects and interactions*.

I’d like to extrapolate Bogost’s argument about procedural rhetoric in advertising to propose that object-oriented game mechanics are inherently materialist and consumerist. The Sims’ consumerist ethic, then, is primarily a product of its mechanics, not American culture or its programmers’ ideology. Given the limitations of current technology, it is not surprising that programmers gravitate toward object-oriented mechanics; as discussed above, they provide an illusion of depth for the player while keeping the programming work manageable. However, when it is only possible to play the game by interacting with objects, material consumption becomes the most fundamental driver for both the player and her character. This is a little frustrating for me because open-world simulations are often heralded as a more benign alternative to violent fighting-based games. But just as first-person shooters generally don’t allow the player to put her hands up and sing kum-ba-ya with her adversary, open worlds confine the player to an existence where her only agency is in how she interacts with material objects.

So, back to the Bogost reading – hopefully that wasn’t too much of a digression! The object-oriented mechanics I’ve described above don’t fit easily into any single part of Bogost’s taxonomy of advertising. The Sims instructs players on how to use objects, but it also associates more expensive objects with greater happiness. In this sense, the procedural rhetoric combines Bogost’s different types of advertising, in order to persuade users to adopt broad consumption paradigms. I believe that games like Myst, which are less overtly consumerist, inculcate the same values because the only way the player can assume agency is through ‘stuff.’

What, then, might a non-materialistic, open-world game look like? Perhaps the gameplay would be driven more by characters than objects. (To be fair, character interactions are a component of The Sims, Myst, and many other open-world games, but they generally aren’t the main mechanic by which the player interacts with the world). A less materialistic open-world game might rely more on logic and puzzle solving—think Civilization or other strategy games, but without the rigid victory conditions. What do you guys think?



* Although the array is actually quite limited – e.g., the game offers several different fridges in various price ranges, but they all come with the same set of possible interactions. You can get a snack, cook dinner for your family, or put away your leftovers, but you can’t rearrange the shelves or destroy the fridge with a sledgehammer. The only difference between fridge skins is how efficiently they fulfill the Sim’s needs, and this is what I mean when I say that the vast range of options is an illusion.

Coding pedagogy

One thing I appreciate about coding is that when you make mistakes, you have to tinker around until you identify the bug and fix it. For example, at the end of the first Python module, I forgot to capitalize “true”, so the interpreter didn’t recognize that line as a Boolean variable. I clicked the hint button, but apparently this isn’t a common error, because all of the tutorial’s hints were about other kinds of mistakes. I was forced to figure out the mistake on my own, and it was much more liberating and empowering than simply referring to a troubleshooting manual. (Frankly, I believe tinkering is the best way to learn anything, whether it’s cooking, a board game, or the aggressively mediocre my.pitt interface.) I think this self-directed aspect of coding helps account for the addictive mindset it seems to inspire in its programmers.

I’m curious whether English pedagogy could do more to encourage this type of learning. I was an English major in college, and while it was a wonderful experience, most of my instructors coddled their students more than I believe was desirable. As I wrote my senior thesis, my advisors would identify any flaws for me and give me clear, simple instructions about how to fix them. “Include these two sources.” “Add a paragraph break here.” I remember that one very eager graduate student would even rewrite entire sentences for me, which, looking back, I’m pretty sure wasn’t kosher. I’m not saying that we should only correct our students’ papers in inscrutable koans—clear communication is important, especially when they’re working on a deadline and juggling other commitments. However, I wonder if a bit less hand-holding and a pinch more self-direction might leave them more confident and self-reliant in the long run.