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.

5 Responses to “Sweating the Small Stuff”


  1. josh g. Says:

    I think I’d mostly agree with you, Nick. I think there is one difference which doesn’t really come out in either your or Andrew’s views, though. For the most part, the programmers working on these games (and most games today) don’t expect their code to be viewed by an outside audience in any form, aside from the handful of (cr/h)ackers plowing through assembly code to remove copy protection and add cheats. Essentially you’re studying what wasn’t intended to even be seen, and I can imagine a lot of programmers being embarassed at some of the hacks they had to throw into the final product to make it work.

    I don’t think that nullifies the validity of studying code as a part of game studies, but it is an unusual situation. It’s not to say that the mindset of the coder/author has to be one that expected such intense study, but at the same time it’s a study of something which was meant to be, in the end, invisible.

    I’m not sure if analogies to literature or film studies really hold in this case. Perhaps it’s a bit like viewing raw footage before some very heavy editing took place, or finding an author’s notes in which he designed the structure of the final story? There are problems with either idea, and in the end I think that code study is mostly unique to game studies.

  2. nick Says:

    Josh, I think you’re right about the potential embarrassment of programmers – thinking of my own work, certainly – but I don’t think the situation is so unusual.

    First off, I’m just taking about the analysis of a public artifact, the binary code. The design documents for a game and the source code would be more highly guarded, but external analysis of binary code (by competitors, for instance) wouldn’t have been unthinkable even back in the day – once Activision was formed and Atari got some competitors, anyway.

    Also, there are plenty of analogous situations in literary studies. As you mention, notes describing the structure of a story or novel also exist in some cases and are consulted by scholars. It’s also very common for scholars to pore over manuscript and typescript drafts, and to read personal letters that were never intended to be public.

    The humanistic study of code is definitely new; I’d say it was unique to new media (creative computing) rather than being unique to game studies, but I think we basically agree about the novelty of looking at executable programs in this way. Studying something besides the final work, something that wasn’t anticipated by the programmer/author/creator, isn’t entirely unprecedented, though.

  3. andrew Says:

    I take it my comment provoked. First let me say that I meant “charming” is the best possible way, not in a condescending or belittling way, in case it appeared so.

    He uses visual art vocabulary (abstraction/realism) while not mentioning in any way that Combat is a game
    we’re fixed on the surface (“their necessary use of abstraction”) rather than the workings of the game

    Well, actually, I meant abstraction in broader terms than just visuals. The mechanics of operating the tank, and the game itself, are a necessarily abstracted version of real tanks in combat, and more abstract in their mechanics and gameplay than today’s more realistic games.

    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?

    Not that it matters to the historical significance of a work, but yes, I’d bet today’s developers are taking themselves more seriously than the Atari VCS programmers. Besides the order-of-magnitude increase in complexity, there’s just much more discussion these days about games as an art form, comparison to cinema, yada yada yada. I’m sure there’s plenty of un-self-conscious game designers out there today, but I’m sure many think more seriously about their work than they used to — even though I believe all along they could have validly thought so. Just a hunch.

    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.

    Of course! Apologies if I gave the impression you shouldn’t. Without being condescending, I’m just saying it’s fun to think about how the original developers probably didn’t imagine such scholarship would happen, because I’m guessing they thought of their work as simple and even goofy; yet the more we think about it, as you are, we realize it was more than that.

    But rather than continue nitpicking here, your points are well-taken, and I don’t mind my comments being held up as a useful example / reaction point.

  4. andrew Says:

    A different question: Should we refer to the Atari VCS developers as just programmers? From what I understand (I could be wrong), many of these games were solely created by one person, including the game design, graphics and programming. When choosing a single term to refer to them, should these developers be referred to as designer/programmers, or artist/programmers? Or maybe just developers?

  5. josh g. Says:

    Nick, yeah, I do see the similarities to studying notes, drafts, etc. There’s overlap, but it’s still strangely different in that it’s not an incomplete work. The source code is behind the scenes, but it’s not just a partial expression or stage in the making of the final product – it is the product.

    I’m sure that’s not news to you, I guess that’s just what was blocking my mind from finding a strong connection between assembly code analysis and other forms of indirect study.

    Andrew, good point on the terminology. My vote is that “developers” would be the best fit in that case.

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