This year the Society for Cinema and Media Studies descends upon my new home turf of Atlanta, GA. I'm happy to be coming together with friends/colleagues Jacob Gaboury and Patrick LeMieux for a media history panel Patrick organized around the concept of the "lossy" and the "lossless." We'll be speaking Thursday, 5:00-6:45pm.
As Patrick wrote in the panel proposal:
"Increasingly digital media are stored and compressed in ways such that no data is lost. Such files are called lossless, an evocative term that points to the fantasies of total preservation and perfect reconstruction that reach back to the earliest days of 'new media.' [...] Indeed one might argue that losslessness is the principal fantasy of historical production, that is, the notion that we might reconstruct a perfect representation of the past through those objects that remain."
Henry Lowood will be serving as our respondent. We are also honored to be sponsored by the Media, Science & Technology Scholarly Interest Group.
Panel Title: Technologies of Losslessness Media History in Perpetuity
Panel Number: J14 | Thursday, 5:00-6:45pm
Chair: Patrick LeMieux • University of California, Davis
Jacob Gaboury | Stony Brook University
A Voice Uncoiled: Noise, Loss, and the Origins of Digital Sound
Patrick LeMieux | University of California, Davis
Losing Time: Microtemporal Histories of Speedrunning
Laine Nooney | Georgia Institute of Technology
What the Engine Can’t Reveal: The Other Lives of Sierra On-Line’s AGI Development Software
A Voice Uncoiled: Noise, Loss, and the Origins of Digital Sound (Jacob Gaboury)
According to the 2014 Nielsen Music Report last year in the United States over 9.2 million vinyl records were sold, a growth of 52% over the previous year. This trend is part of a growing interest in and preference for analog media over their digital counterparts. We might interpret this alternately as an investment in those sensible and material traces inscribed into physical media by analog signals, or as nostalgia for what we perceive as a more authentic form of mediation. Yet in the early-1970s when digital audio was first being developed and commercialized it was precisely these traces that engineers and computer scientists sought to silence or otherwise erase. Digital audio allowed for the fantasy of total abstraction, of a recording divorced from the medium or context in which it was produced. While analog media often leave traces of their material specificity in the signal they capture or record, digitization allows for the transformation of sound into information, uncoiled into its constitutive parts. In the 1970s this was cutting edge technology, yet its origins lie in an act of preservation and restoration, an attempt to recapture the past through digitization.
This paper traces the origins of digital audio in the 1960s and 70s with particular focus on the work of Thomas G. Stockham and his Salt Lake City-based company Soundstream Inc., the first digital audio recording studio in the United States. Its primary case study is the Caruso Project, an early attempt by Stockham to digitally restore a series of gramophone recordings made by opera singer Enrico Caruso for the Edison Company from 1902 to 1920. Developing a process known as “blind deconvolution,” Stockham was able to digitally clean the recordings of the noise of the acoustic horn that funneled the sound of Caruso’s voice to the recording mechanism. This work had wide reaching implications, as it allowed for the restoration of any signal without knowledge of the original conditions of its production. The Caruso Project would subsequently lead to the commercial development of digital audio and sound recording, real time digital editing, and the production and standardization of the compact disc format. Through an investigation of this early history this presentation looks at what is lost through the dual processes of restoration and digitization, and asks what place those messy artifacts that characterize analog media have in the history of technology.
Losing Time: Microtemporal Histories of Speedrunning (Patrick LeMieux)
Sitting alone in the bedroom of his childhood home in Quincy, Massachusetts and livestreaming Super Mario Bros. (1985) to a modest audience on Twitch TV in the middle of the night on July 1, 2013 Andrew Gardikis shouted, “Oh my gosh! I don’t even know! Oh my gosh. It’s gonna be like, it’s gonna be like 4:58.03 or something!” After all this time, could it actually be a 4:57? Gardikis does not know because, in that moment, he cannot know. The temporal precision of speedrunning far outpaces the manual dexterity necessary to accurately hit a split or stop a watch. Speedrunning is the practice of playing video games as quickly as possible. Super Mario Bros. - the 1985 platformer hit from Nintendo - is one of the earliest and perhaps most competitive games to speedrun. Between 2007 and 2014 the world record for Nintendo’s classic game dipped from 5:00.60 to 4:58.09, and with these incremental losses the figure 4:57 became the almost mythical horizon of possibility for human play and Gardikis’ ultimate goal--what he calls his “gaming masterpiece.” After each attempt to beat the world record Gardikis must decode and time his DVR recording frame by frame in order to uncover his time in retrospect. At this very moment when time is most important, it is simultaneously lost. Likewise, when the frames are finally counted, the act of play is lost.
The problem of loss--of the inability of record times to adequately represent the complex material practices of speedrunners--is highlighted by Gardikis’ plight and by speedrunning more generally. Related to both Henry Lowood’s (2006, 26) “high-performance play” (i.e., “play as performance, modification of content, and community-based tools and content development”) and James Newman’s (2008, 124) “superplay” (i.e., “the use of the knowledge and techniques uncovered and laid out in Game Guides, the exploitation of the structures, [non-] linearity and limitations of videogames as designs as well as the harnessing of glitches in game code”), speedrunning encourages players to adopt temporal constraints in order to convert single-player games into massively-multiplayer metagames in which time becomes the central rule governing play. As a result, a popular history of speedrunning is almost always represented as a series of numbers—an asymptotically plunging line graph reducing years of community research, races, and records to a single set of digits. This presentation details the microtemporal history of speedrunning Super Mario Bros. and theorizes the desire for and difficulty of reducing kinetic play to abstract numeral--what could be called a “lossy ideology.”
What the Engine Can’t Reveal: The Other Lives of Sierra On-Line’s AGI Development Software (Laine Nooney)
This paper is an archival and theoretical analysis of the Adventure Game Interpreter [AGI], a proprietary 1980s in-house game engine created by home entertainment software producer Sierra On-Line. The AGI engine was developed from 1982-1984 and was implemented as the company's standard game development platform throughout the 1980s. Accounts of this transition document the engine's significance as largely graphical and intrinsically progressive: it afforded the move from static image adventure games to an exploratory, interactive “2.5-D” game space. However, as this paper argues, adoption of the AGI engine was not simply an elegant programming maneuver; it was a critical infrastructure bound up in three specific realms beyond the immersive experience of the games themselves. First, the AGI engine fundamentally altered puzzle design; graphical space became a constitutive feature of an adventure game, and thus design practice itself at Sierra changed. Second, the engine became the backbone of financial strategy at Sierra On-Line, proprietary software allowing the company to limit development costs while increasing output. And third, it inadvertently unshackled programming from the necessity of mastery within the company's programming department, permitting “levels” of expertise to emerge and formalize.
In the context of this research, AGI is a case study challenging the reigning presumption within media archaeology and materialist media studies that code is the defining condition of a game object’s ontological status. Embedded in this analysis of the AGI engine is a methodological rejection of the theoretical fantasy of code and platform as inherently lossless, prior to and more material than the environment of its arrival. Underpinned by work in feminist science studies and feminist media archaeology, this presentation offers a case that critiques the concept of the supposedly self-evident programmatic layer of an artifact like a game engine, instead emphasizing the co-relational character of the engine. As I argue, code is often privileged precisely because it is merely a materiality problem; for all the unique preservation issues it creates, it is simpler to identify than the messier, entangled phenomena of people, affects and practices bound up within the engine’s own existence. Thus, this paper contributes both original archival research on game history and a methodological provocation concerning the status and boundary of a media object.
To celebrate the submission of my dissertation to my committee, I am posting an excerpt from the first chapter. I hope those of you who have followed my progress on social media or IRL enjoy this teaser for the project. I look forward to sharing more of it in the future. -Laine
Chapter One: Emergences
“In some adventures you are limited by the number of objects you can carry at one time. When it comes to a decision as to whether you should keep carrying an object that you already used, or drop it so you can get a new one, I would be inclined to drop it in order to be able to carry a new one.”
“Winning Strategies for Adventures”
The On-Line Letter, June 1981
Late in the summer of 2013, I traveled to Coarsegold and Oakhurst, California, a pair of towns separated by a seven-mile band of asphalt marked State Route 41, tucked away in the foothills of Madera County along the southern border of Yosemite National Park. On the last day of my trip, I drove out to Oakhurst's Fresno Flats Historic Park, a community heritage site established in 1975 in homage to the area's nineteenth-century Gold Rush roots. In a landscape rife with salt-of-the-earth history, these sorts of regional memorials dot and fleck every one-stoplight town along the highway. Most of them were founded in the 1970s and '80s, the boom years of civic pride in Madera County, when the middle-aged grandchildren of gold panners and loggers began gathering oral histories and commemorating landmarks.
Yet, by 2013, these locales were mostly forgotten, the stuff of grade-school field trips and the occasional wedding reception. Those who had long served as the guardians of small-town memory, the founders of these dusty parks and ramshackle museums, were all thirty or forty years older now, their bodies too broken down to continue necessary repairs, their hands shaking and shivering as they leafed through archival documents, their memories shot through with forgetting. The Fresno Flats Historic Park's docents and guided tours had long since dried up; only a “caretaker” resided on premises during daylight hours, an old-timer sitting in an air-conditioned cabin who could hand you a pamphlet or give you directions. Mostly, I just saw people stop by to use the park's unlocked bathrooms.
But if there was no docent to play warder to this park, to ensure I wasn't trying to jimmy my way across every locked door and sagging chain-link fence (which I certainly was), I did have to confront a very different kind of gatekeeper. A centennial plaque held empty court on the central axis of the park's sunburnt grassy entrance—what I suspected was faux marble mounted on faux wood. Dedicated by E Clampus Vitus, a regional fraternal order once founded to care for miners' widows, the plaque iterated Oakhurst, California's most defining testaments to national significance over the past hundred years.
Most prominently, the town held a key location on the supply trails that once siphoned tools, liquor, and mules up to the northern gold mines and lumber sites leading in and out of Yosemite; second, Oakhurst was the founding location of Pizza Factory, a restaurant franchise boasting over one hundred establishments in five Western states; and lastly, the plaque dubbed Oakhurst “the birthplace of computer gaming.” Through the 1980s and '90s, Oakhurst and the smaller town Coarsegold had been home to Sierra On-Line, one of the most iconic and successful home computer entertainment software producers in the world. Co-founded by a curious husband-and-wife pair, Ken and Roberta Williams, Sierra found its fortune mostly in designing and distributing graphical adventure game software for the home computer market.
Sierra would become one of the town's largest employers, alongside the Sierra-Tel telephone company and the county government. Up until the early 1990s, every box, every disk, every package was printed, formatted, and shrink-wrapped right in Oakhurst by the hands of self-declared “mountain folk.” Sierra On-Line was the reason I had traveled three thousand miles from New York City to get sunburnt and dehydrated twenty-two hundred feet above sea level. I'd come to this countryside to ask a question: what is video game history?
Answers shift. In Coarsegold and Oakhurst, it seemed something best forgotten. There had been a soft promise, nearly thirty-five years ago, that a company like Sierra On-Line could turn the economic sinkhole of Madera County into a “Little Silicon Valley.”
When Sierra moved most of its corporate operations to Bellevue, Washington in 1993, it left behind disgruntled memory and boundless rumor: Sierra had left because corporate taxes were too high, because they couldn't get a T1 line strung into Oakhurst, because relations were amiss at the top of the company chain. Double damage came in the late 1990s when the company was shuttered for good, closing up its remaining Oakhurst offices. After that, Sierra On-Line was just someone’s last paycheck.
Yet, to the now-adult fans who teethed on Sierra's software in the 1980s and '90s, the company's material remnants—folded and boxed and sleeved by local labor but shipped to an audience worldwide—are objects to save, collect, cherish. These childhood memories are for sharing and endless reiteration. And there are other bodies, spaces, things. To the women of today's indie game scene, there's the hope of finding a history in Roberta Williams that reflects the history they lived but no one seems aware of—that, yes, women have always played games, and made them too. In the archives of the Strong Museum of Play, video game history is the mundane artefacts that clutter acid-free boxes: nameplates and buttons and broken awards. To the designers and employees I interview, it's a curiosity about why I care. It's a question of how long a floppy disk can hold its data before bit rot eradicates magnetic trace, and about how long Yosemite’s Half Dome will stand, a reminder of the thick temporality of stone. While the realm of armchair historians and amateur preservationists may swear to a video game history circumscribed by a heroic chronology of hacker heroes and coding wizards, “seminal games” and groundbreaking companies, tracking and tracing Sierra 'cross fields archival and literal has only confirmed to me the articulate queerness of our historical desires, of what we want history to do for us.
The question of “what game history is” finds its answer in the doing, as this project is one that will take shape in the cluttered valley between history and historiography. The writing of video game history, despite its many participants, has been a fairly narrow field of action landmarked by a handful of monuments: Pong and the Magnavox Odyssey, Mario and Pac-Man, the alien death romps of Doom, the mesmerizing landscapes of Myst. Goldeneye, Grand Theft Auto, Wii Tennis. The ruins are real, and their importance inestimable—but they also cast shadows. In marking the map, they make it, they become what game history has been organized to show us. No book of video game history ever told me that Oakhurst, California was the “birthplace of computer gaming.” It probably is not. But what does that physical memorial make available to me, which I otherwise might not notice?
I believe: Sierra On-Line is the case that makes a mess of video game history. It makes good on Foucault's promise that “what is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things. It is disparity.” My work herein is a media archaeological pressuring of several historiographic devices governing the structure and arc of what is taken as video game history. Articulating sites of disparity is a critically overdue maneuver in the unfolding historiography of the video game, a gesture countering the obviously problematic teleologics of much writing in the field.
And it is a move that scales nicely beyond itself, to all the reasons video games are not just one component of a digital media landscape, but a condensation of digital media's most significant cultural and theoretical properties, from labor to materiality to transnationalist flows, global economics and mobile ubiquity to representation and virtual identity, down to design, distribution, the evils of e-waste. These are all part of a use-cycle of the global video game industry, a multiplicity which has no monolithic center, no representative feature, especially not once we formulate on planet-wide scales. Gaming is the first form of computational technology most of us ever handled—the first time, in many cases, a computer was ever “in our hands.” The level of convergence games enact with other media is a phenomena unto itself: games are constrained by no essential medium of transmission or reception, and can operate across digital and analog substrates. Games are neither experimental novelties nor thin amusements: they are definitive modes of mediation in the twenty-first century. The value of studying video game history should not be that it leads us back to games, but that it leads us somewhere else.
Back in May, Babycastles Gallery was generous enough to host a book launch I organized for Raiford Guins' Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. After a warm welcome from Babycastle co-founder Kunal Gupta, Raiford gave a short reading followed by a presentation of his experience on-site at the Atari Landfill excavation this past April. He really, really loved that hard hat.
Ray gave a great talk to a diverse audience of game designers, scholars, students and games enthusiasts. We enjoyed refreshments, music and an indie games installation in Babycastles gritty and beautiful DIY space.
I've also learned that many major life events can benefit from customized balloons.
Many thanks to the Babycastles team for pulling together (especially Syed and Kunal), and thank you to everyone who came! Props to the Stony Brook University Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory for funding the balloons. Enjoy these photos by Emi Spicer.