Posted on 2017/11/22 by

The leaky life & times of the AA battery inside the Residual Media Depot: A snapshot of battery life & faded battery power

AA batteries

The area of concern I am focused on is e-waste and specifically, dead batteries. What do dead batteries have to do with degradation and loss of materials within a literary archive, within a museum collection, or in this case, within the Residual Media Depot (RMD)? Before I answer that question, I will orient you the space within the RMD dead batteries are drawn from.

RMD floor plan + battery site

RMD floor plan (initial)


As is described on the RMD website and as Professor Wershler has mentioned, “the physical space of the RMD is a former depot for photography equipment.”

Peripherals up close

As we have seen, the RMD collection includes: game consoles, game boxes, a work bench, hardware, tools, cables, file cabinets, TVs and other monitors and seating. Below eye-level and beneath the work bench, as indicated in the floor plan above, there are storage boxes containing cords, power bars, rubber gloves, nylon cable ties, Q-Tips and so on. The golden nugget for this probe? A single blue recycling box which keeps used batteries. While you can’t make the batteries out in the image here, the box itself and some (or many) of the batteries within it was inherited from the aforementioned photography depot.

Battery life

So, what do dead batteries have to do with degradation and loss of materials within a literary archive, a museum collection, the RMD?

The image of a museum collection as being “timeless, without end,” as Lubar et al. discuss in “Lost Museums,” typically does not foster thinking on the nuts and bolts of production nor specifically on batteries. A battery is a “helping” consumer product. No matter how far in the background batteries and dead batteries may be in view of a museum or of research collections, they have an important place in helping to make parts of collections and the tools of collection maintenance to simply work. Yet, batteries (and other power sources) are crucial to making the media devices and tools we use actually work.

There is an element of language use and speaking I wish to consider. How can we speak about collections and management of them in a way that includes all of the “moving parts” so as to make visible their presence when alive (or working,) or dead? As I mentioned in an earlier probe, I am interested in design (and therefore, in ways of speaking) that considers media devices, peripheral items and power sources from “cradle to cradle” rather than from “cradle to grave.” (McDonough & Braungart.)

Charles Acland breaks into within his discussion of Harold Innis’ identification as a “dirt economist.” He writes:

At one level, media commodities are but a surface manifestation of a deep structure of materials and their movement. Our analytical capabilities would be impoverished if they only charted the topsoil and ignored the geological layers beneath. Pursuing the dirt and depth of cultural economies should not dissolve medium specificity, but should help us conceptualize and understand the full systemic entwinement of our media objects with resource economies. (Acland, 9)

Museum life

Museums might bend, rather than break” (Lubar et al., 8)

Lubar et al. address the perceived monolithic yet fragile existence of museums and assert that looking ahead, “museums might bend, rather than break,” – a salient proposal. They quote Sheila Brennan, who “urges us to ‘think radically’ about collections, using them rather than storing them,” (Lubar et al., 10) in her blog article, “Making room by letting go: A  look at the ephemerality of collections.” The recommendations Brennan makes are so important to community building and museum sustainability. In reading them, I couldn’t help but to imagine the environment also fitting into this vision. Building on Lubar et al’s work, I would assert that museums are not only smooth bendable surfaces, but they are also porous with human interaction and traffic. They are located on soil or concrete and are susceptible to weather conditions, to nature. Museum structures also flex with air, crack with the cold and require heating, power and people to turn the lights on and off each day.

Nam June Paik, Zen for Film (1985)

Still from Zen for Film, Nam June Paik

Lubar et al. make reference to Nam June Paik’s Zen For Film (10) as being a guiding conceptual inspiration when it comes to thinking on new possibilities for the museum. For any cultural collection, I propose we consider not just the surface area of the white box as seen in Zen for Film to re-envision how collections function, but also that we consider and imagine “invisible” parts of this silent film as inspiration. Some of those “invisible” parts can include the small gritty pops of dust in the light passing through the film projector, the sound of one’s own breath and other sounds as the film plays, and the tools and materials that helped to make the film a reality.

Battery life includes dust, clumps, dumps

Recycling box with leage from batteries

In his presentation to us about the Richler Reading Room, Professor Jason Camlot talked about getting to understand Richler’s library and an author’s library in general. He asked, “what is the mess of it? How does it relate to other things?” The dead batteries found within the RMD are the literal mess and a retired power source from within the collection. A somewhat uncontainable (for they are gathered in a box), unruly assemblage, as John Law might suggest.

As a function of the concept of “mess”, dead batteries are items that are not a central focus in the everyday. They are by their nature, “peripheral” (but not peripheral) to various electronic tool functions.

Otherness is absence that is not acknowledged.” (Law)

…Some of the possible styles of Othering:
There is the invisible work that that helps to make a research report.
There is the uninteresting, everything that seems to be not worth telling.
There is the obvious, things that that everyone is taken to know.
And then, to ratchet up the metaphor and what is at stake, there is everything that is being repressed for one reason or another. (Law, 8)

Otherness is absence that is not acknowledged,” says John Law (8.) The dead batteries from the RMD do undergo a kind of “othering” as Law describes in the paper “Making mess with method.” To echo Law’s possible styles of othering:

  • There is the invisible work batteries carry out that helps make tools and devices function.
  • There is the uninteresting in batteries. When they work, everything seems to be not worth telling.
  • There is the obvious, things that everyone is taken to know about batteries.
  • And then, to ratchet up the metaphor and what is at stake, there is everything that is being repressed when we speak about batteries for one reason or another.

The leaky life & times of the AA battery inside the RMD…

Leaky, dead batteries have everything to do with degradation and loss of materials within a literary archive, a museum collection, and the Residual Media Depot. While there are various drop-off points on the Concordia University downtown campus for dead batteries and e-waste, to deal with dead batteries in the everyday, (whether in a university research collection, museum, business or home setting) carries a less than urgent quality. Yet, is there any way we can we find a way to make visible the presence of tools we typically invisiblize or “other”? Can we find a way to speak of dead batteries and other forms of e-waste in a way that imbues not only their commercial and function value, but also their environmental impact and cost in a way that makes our academic, creative, curatorial efforts at the forefront of an expanded preservation and vitality? That acknowledges that they are drawn from and will ultimately be returned to the ground and the air?

Works cited

Acland, Charles R. “Dirt Research for Media Industries.” Media Industries Journal, 1.1, 2014. pp 6-10. Brennan, Sheila A. “Making Room by Letting Go: A look at the Ephemerality of Collections.” Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/special-contributor/2014/08/12/making-room-by-letting-go-a-look-at-the-ephemerality-of-collections. August 12, 2014. 

Camlot, Dr. Jason. Presentation to ENGL-645, September 12, 2017.

Law, John. “Making a Mess with Method.” Lancaster: The Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University, 2003.

Lubar, Steven, Lukas Rieppel, Ann Daly, Katherine Duffy. “Lost Museums,” Museum History Journal, 10:1, 2017.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. NorthPoint Press, a Division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York. 2002.

Wershler, Dr. Darren. “What’s In A Name? This is not a media archaeology lab. This is not an archive. This is a research collection.” Residual Media Depot website: residualmedia.net/whats-in-a-name. July 21, 2016.

Posted on 2017/11/20 by

Time-Travel or Undead Media – The NecRomantic Modification of Hardware: A Possible Interface Between the Metagame and Platform Studies

Towards the end of the introduction to Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames, Boluk and Lemieux note the messiness of the eponymous term. It is expansive, broadly inclusive. The metagame temporally and spatially encloses, projects from, penetrates, and anchors the game into social, political, and economic structures (Boluk and LeMieux 11). They touch on two variants of Garfield’s definition of the metagame, a published and an unpublished version, from the text of a talk he gave. The published version is: “how a game interfaces beyond itself”.   The unpublished version: “how a game interfaces with life” (Boluk and LeMieux 14, italics in the original). So the key is that the metagame is the way by which a game interfaces in an omnidirectional way.

Now although Boluk and LeMieux do mention modifications to play, such as speed runs, they don’t go the opposite direction, ‘inward’ so to speak, into the hardware. Hardware does not seem to be included in the ‘interface with life’, or they’re sticking to a game design philosophy, and want everything to be centred on the game. They do note and lament the synonymy of the game with hardware warranties, which is interesting in that warranty foreshadows obsolescence, which is something I’ll get to. But I think they’d do themselves a disservice to ignore something like a culture of console modification, which would fit into their notion of metagames as interfacial and characterized by relation. I think this would also converge with Platform Studies nicely, insofar as Platform Studies is concerned with the relations between hardware and software, as Bogost and Montfort describe (5). Metagames and platform studies might converge at relations. The rest of this probe will attempt to examine this convergence alongside the notion of hardware obsolescence vs. update.

Modded Nintendo 64 with UltraHDMI chip

The UltraHDMI chip, seen through the underside of the N64’s translucent chassis.

The photo above is of a modified Nintendo 64, with an UltraHDMI chip installed into it. The chip was created by MarshallH of http://ultrahdmi.retroactive.be/. The chip (shown in the image at right) allows the N64 to be played on contemporary televisions via HDMI, processing the video signal digitally, which depending on the settings you use, will give you less lag and a clearer image than you might otherwise get. Further, the HDMI chip implies and allows for a few interesting relations and mutations. First off, you buy an installation kit from various vendors, and there are different modders offering installation services, and some offering both purchase of the installation kit and installation on your working console. The chip adds an on-screen display, through which one can change various display options. Without going into full detail, there are about 30 different options added by the HDMI chip. That’s just the individual options, not the possible combinations. There’s a “Retro Mode” which, as per MarshallH’s manual: “Applies a set of tweaks to mimic gameplay on a typical 90s television” (Quick Start Guide). If you turn on Retro Mode, you can then tweak those tweaks further, to your liking, to best suit your television. What this ends up doing is to alter the video output on your TV in ways that would have never been possible on an older TV with an unmodded console a couple decades ago. Scanlines wouldn’t have been visible on most televisions when the N64 first came out, but the UltraHDMI chip allows you to apply them. One interesting example noted by Youtuber phonedork: when scanlines are enabled in DOOM, already a dark game where you have to turn up the brightness to really even see at all at some points, the scanlines make this game even DARKER—this nostalgic hallucination darkens the play experience. But if you turn on the Integer setting, you can see the game in a way you never would have on the ‘original,’ on an older TV, and it becomes more playable.

The HDMI chip is a kind of polymorphic implementation for the console’s video display, which allows for a produced nostalgia. A mutant or fictional archaeography perhaps is written. It is an act of preservation, an attempt to avert the inevitable decline into technical obsolescence, and it has all sorts of relations swirling around it.   So the N64 and any games played on it are pulled forward in this altered, haunted kind of way.

Now, back to the messiness of Boluk and LeMieux’s metagame. They note that changing the game mechanics, editing code, changes the game and they seem to discount this from their notion of the metagame (Boluk and LeMieux 9). A hardware mod such as I’ve described above may fall into this. But they seem to want the following:

[…]alternate histories of play defined not by code, commerce, and computation but by the diverse practices and material discontinuities that emerge between the human experience of playing videogames and their nonhuman operations. Metagames transform videogames from a mass medium and cultural commodity into instruments, equipment, tools, and toys for playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, breaking, and ultimately intervening in the sensory and political economies of those technologies responsible for the privatization of play. (Boluk and LeMieux 4)

The modification of the console creates visually mutated forms of any game played with it, an alternate history for the games and the console, and the chip itself allows for the continued existence and graphically altered (polymorphed) play (an(after)life of the console), when this object might otherwise be amputated by the harsh onward march of tele-tech development. The chip marks one of these material discontinuities, and if one were to posit a point of resistance, if one felt that resistance against neoliberal capitalist domination were possible, than the modification of the console might be one.

Platform Studies as defined by Bogost and Montfort would draw this out. They note Marc Andreesen’s description of the platform as able to be altered and adapted in ways unforeseen by the developers, for “countless” new “needs and niches” (Bogost and Montfort 3). They further note:

Platform studies is about the connection between technical specifics and culture[…] how particular aspects of a platform’s design influenced the work done on that platform—for instance, how the presence of a particular graphics mode enabled games of a certain sort to be made[…] at how social, economic, cultural, and other factors led platform designers to put together systems in particular ways. (Bogost and Montfort 4-5)

I think you could add console modders alongside platform designers in this definition as a focus for platforms studies. Further, I think this modified console, or this kind of console modification in general, does sit on a weird spot between platform studies and the metagame and the larger corporate video game space. By Boluk and LeMieux’s definition of what metagames are, this kind of modification and it’s productions and community would need to be examined. It’s unlikely that hardware could be amputated from a study of the metagame. Hardware modification spawns graphical mutations, cultures of review, spectatorship, competition, and economy that in important ways try to step outside of the corporate space and dodge the possibility of obsolescence that an object like an N64 experiences as it’s IP-holder moves on to new products. Platform studies and metagame studies are going to need each other.

 

 

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian, and Nick Montfort. “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers.” Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, 2009 – after media: embodiment and context. UC Irvine, 2009.

Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick LeMieux. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. U of Minnesota P, 2017.

phonedork. “Classic Gaming on a Sony BVM20F1U, Ultra HDMI, and HIDEF NES.” Youtube. https://youtu.be/3yeKMo6mcAo?t=750. Accessed 10 November 2017.

“Quick Start Guide.” Retroactive, http://ultrahdmi.retroactive.be/installer_files/quick_start.pdf. Accessed 10 November 2017.

Posted on 2017/11/17 by

The value and function of objects are not fixed. As time passes, objects circulate in space, degrade, get lost, become obsolete, stagnate in forgotten boxes, end up in a landfill, in a museum or in the Richler’s room… Today, I am looking at three objects I found on Richler’s desk, a match box, a cigar and an obsolete half franc coin and attempt to map the intersection between value, circulation, context and function. The peculiarity of those objects lies in the fact that the performances of their (original/utilitarian) functions entail their losses and/or their slow or immediate degradation. That is to say, if I smoke the cigar, it disappears into smoke; if I light a match, I must throw it out after; if I use the coin, I must exchange it for a commodity. Due to their ephemeral and low exchange value, those objects often escape the logic of commodification. For example, in the world of smokers, cigarettes (less applicable to cigar) are given and taken all the time, among strangers, free of charge. Coins also circulate, out of benevolence, among strangers. Same goes with lighters. They circulate in a mysterious way, constantly appearing and disappearing. There are either 0 or, suddenly, 7 lighters in the environment of the established smoker. I am suggesting here that as long as those objects are not performing their utilitarian functions, they have no definite owner. In the end, the one who owns (exert control over) the cigarette/cigar, lighter/match or coin is not necessarily the one who bought (or earned) it, but the one who ends up using it. However, once those highly shareable and mundane objects get removed from daily circulation and enter the institutional context that is the Richler’s Reading Room, a whole other logic applies in defining their functions and values.

In the article “Lost Museum,” Lubar et al. mention that “objects still in museums can be lost” and once “objects [are] separated from the information about them — their stories, their metadata — [they] lose much of their value” (2). In the context of the Richler’s Reading Room, those three objects derive value from their history and maintain their values by not performing their original functions. If I would light the cigar (something that has crossed my mind before) its value would be lost because it wouldn’t be Richer’s anymore (as we suppose it is). This logic does not necessarily apply to his chair for example, as it can perform its original function, to support someone, without compromising its association with Richler. The value of the cigar no longer reside in its potential smokability. In fact, from the way it is preserved (or rather, not preserved), the tobacco has dried up and it would most likely hurt the throat to smoke the cigar. Nevertheless, it still has more value than a fresh cigar because it performs its new defined function: to recreate Richler’s aura. The value that those three objects gain from performing this function is not definitive as it depends on the ever-changing cultural context. This function (of recreating Richler’s aura) remains legitimate as long as the value of Richler, as a writer, is maintained. Non-useable objects must relate to a larger history and people working in cultural institutions must make the history to which objects relate to significant. It is an on-going and dynamic process. In the essay “Contingencies of Values,” Smith explains how objects maintain and increase their values by circulating:

“An object or artifact that performs certain desired/able functions particularly well at a given time for some community of subjects, being perhaps not only “fit” but exemplary-that is, “the best of its kind”-under those conditions, will have an immediate survival advantage; […] it will not only be better protected from physical deterioration but will also be more frequently used or widely exhibited and, if it is a text or verbal artifact, more frequently read or recited, copied or reprinted, translated, imitated, cited, and commented upon- in short, culturally re-produced-and thus will be more readily available to perform those or other functions for other subjects at a subsequent time” (1814).

It is not only the objects that gain value by being related to Richer. Richler reciprocally gains value from having his objects inside the institutional context. But the questions is, how long are we going to care about a cigar that will never be smoked or about a coin that cannot be exchange for a commodity? Those objects will, at some point, be removed or thrown out but not now- in 2017, at Concordia. Within this context, Richler is a significant literary figure. Such a room allows the name of Mordecai Richler “not merely to survive within but to shape and create the culture in which its value is produced and transmitted and, for that very reason, to perpetuate the conditions of its own flourishing. Nothing endures like endurance” (Smith 1815).

Lubar et al. quotes Michael Mares, former director of the Nebraska States Museum. Mares claims: “It is the moral obligation of administrators to maintain their museums at whatever cost … . Museums are forever, and no one ever said that the road to ‘Forever’ would be easy’” (1). Some museums, as described in the article, will go great length to preserve objects even if they are unlikely to ever be used, In this case, what is preserved is not the physical object but rather the historical status quo of valuable art. Noah Baumbach’s latest movie “The Meyerowitz Stories” illustrates the value artifacts gains by entering institutions. The story presents Harold Meyerowitz, a sculptor who dwells on his past and ephemeral success and who struggles to gain recognition at the end of his life. The Whitney museum bought one of his pieces and seems to have lost it. The last scene of the movie shows his granddaughter walking in the Whitney’s ‘deep storage,’ finding the box which contains the piece.

The fact that we don’t see the sculpture is significant because it implies that the object is of secondary importance. What is significant and makes his granddaughter proud is that the piece is inside the prestigious cultural institution that is the Whitney Museum.

Works Cited

Lubar, Steven, et al. “Lost Museum.” Museum History Journal. 10, 1, 2017, pp. 1-14.

Smith, Barbara Herrstein. “From Contingencies of Value.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Edited by Vincent B .Leitch. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2010. 1798-1818.

The Meyerowitz Stories. Directed by Noah Baumbach, performance by Adam Sandler, Grace Van Patten, Dusting Hoffman. 2017. Netflix.

Posted on 2017/11/15 by

Reflections on Lost and Gained in the Richler Collection

Steven Lubar observes how some museum collections stay alive and relevant and some do not (Lubar 9). He suggests that to keep their meaning, the collections need to embrace change. You can see this an example of this in the Pavilion for Peace, the Hornstein’s 2012 seventy-five-million-dollar donation to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, designed to shed exclusivity and combat museum fatigue:

Lubar is incorrect to say that the founder’s will might prevent museums from hosting new exhibits and attracting researchers. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford was founded in 1884 with 18,000 artifacts, now has about 300,000 and hosts over 100 research visits a year:

How do the Richler rooms fare under Lubar’s scrutiny? They are not open to the public, and they are a static collection of what Professor Camlot described to us as books that we could mostly buy for less than five dollars each at a second-hand book store. The collection does not travel, it does not transfer anything to other collections and it has the specialist focus only of preserving the bookshelves of a well-known writer and it has no endowment. How connected to Mordecai Richler is the collection? The writer annotated his books sparingly; then he usually only made his own index of noteworthy page numbers in the flyleaf. The Richler Collection looks permanent; is it an endangered life-form, as Lubar hints? (5) It is already connected to loss, since Professor Camlot admitted that some volumes have disappeared.

My example this week illustrates a parallel loss, a loss of a book and a loss of humanity. It is a volume that exists in the Richler Room database, but has been lost from the collection over the past year, Ronald Searle’s To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. This was an 8 ½ x 11” volume published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in Boston in 1986:

Searle describes this pictorial record as he felt when he worked on the Siam Death Railway as a prisoner of the Japanese, as the graffiti of a condemned or lost man (Searle 10). ‘My mission…to emerge with a ‘significant’ pictorial record that would reveal to the world something of what happened during those lost and more or less unphotographed years’ (9). It is not surprising, in Searle’s biographical notes, that this led to black humour and themes of torture, confinement and forced labour in his St.Trinian’s series (28):

Why was this book in Richler’s collection? Perhaps connected to his two anthologies, The Best of Modern Humour (1986) and Writers on World War II (1991). Richler published plenty of literary graffiti as a journalist since 1960 and throughout his career, from Macleans to the Manchester Guardian, Vogue and the New Yorker (Foran 265, 311,324, 605). Both Searle and Richler were non-conformists.

Searle expected to die while he drew this account of the loss of humanity. Can we gain anything from the account of war?

One of the oral history writers from Richler’s anthology of World War II writers suggests that it is possible to acquire humanity during conflict:

‘I think of the nineteen year old rifleman…”It was sunshine and quiet. We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. They were no longer the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us” ’ (Terkel 5).

In another oral retelling of the war we meet Searle’s adversaries:

‘Our first operation was in Guam. That was the first time I saw a dead Japanese. He looked pitiful, with his thick glasses. He had a sheaf of letters in his pocket. He looked like an awkward kid who’d been taken right out of his home to this miserable place’ (66).

And there are signs of gain too for the Richler rooms. The website search engine will be improved, and the collection is open to anyone who comes to Concordia on its open days. The collection draws conferences and academic get-togethers from across Canada. The University employs the rooms as a resource for classes that have Mordecai Richler as part of their coursework, uses the rooms for seminars on other topics (I was here for a post-colonialism course last year), and is now using them to instruct us about research and collections in general. It is accessible to members of the public on application to Professor Camlot, and it has the advantage of continuous funding. We also know that archival work continues with the help of Sean and Chasley.

The Richler collection is not lost because of some missing books. It continues to survive, reflecting most of Lubar’s arguments, because it provides an effective resource for teaching and researching in an interesting and eclectic way.

Works Cited and Consulted

“Pavilion for Peace.” Web. Accessed 21 Oct. 2017<https://www.google.ca/search?q=pavilion+for+peace%2Bphotos&rlz=1C1CHBF_enCA708CA708&tbm=isch&source=iu&pf=m&ictx=1&fir=SN9Alug9IyrCXM%253A%252Cm4c-gwQnoQ8BLM%252C_&usg=__i2rNEZYi3GBzw0URLuJZqLWx9Sc%3D&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiglsWL8YHXAhXJRSYKHa_3CXoQ9QEIPTAI#imgrc=n0atMCg-Nq4t5M:>.

“Pitt Rivers Museum.” Web. Accessed 21 Oct 2017.<https://www.google.ca/search?q=pitt+rivers+museum%2Bphotos&rlz=1C1CHBF_enCA708CA708&tbm=isch&source=iu&pf=m&ictx=1&fir=y6wQ0qNbktzr-M%253A%252Cp0zZbWbamuGDGM%252C_&usg=__2G_rmeELZlw1bnKVHEZx8fbP6Qo%3D&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjhoavS8oHXAhUCeSYKHbYRD2sQ9QEIKjAA#imgrc=y6wQ0qNbktzr-M:>.

Foran, Charles. Mordecai: The Life & Times. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2010. Print.

Lubar, Steven. “Lost Museums.” Museum History Journal 10.1 (2017): 1-14. Print.

Richler, Mordecai. The Best of Modern Humour. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983. Print.

—. Writers on World War II: An Anthology. Toronto: Viking, 1991. Print.

Searle, Ronald. To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986. Print.

Searle, Ronald, and Henning Bock. Ronald Searle. New York: André Deutsch, 1979. Print.

Searle, Ronald. Ronald Searle in Perspective.  Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1984. Print.

Terkel, Studs. “the Good War”: An Oral History of World War Two. New York: New Press, 1997; 1984. Print.

Posted on 2017/11/11 by

Unveiling Lived Experiences through Metagames in the Universe of Tiny Toon Adventures

“Before a videogame can ever be played […] there must be a metagame.”

Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Lobuk

In my experience with playing games, I realize I was always a player. I allowed myself to be deluded, I thought I was an active actor deciding what step to do next. All lies! Without realizing it, I assented to become a player, a follower, who only understands the rules and mechanics of a game through somebody else’s perspective and constraints. Herein, Catherine Malabou’s claim comes in handy “humans make their own brain, but they do not know that they make it.” Malabou appeals not only to active observation, but also to awareness.  I would like to share with you today how metagames “reveal alternate histories of play” (Garfield) through three attributes as proposed by Patrick Lemiux and Stephanie Boluk in Metagaming and the Practices of Play: (1) contextual, (2) site-specific, and (3) historical attributes of and both human and (nonhuman) play. To exemplify the path I am drawing, I will make use of “Tiny Toon Adventures 2 Montana’s Movie Madness” (for GB) and Super Mario Bros (for NES.).

The first attribute that reveals lived experiences, also known as histories of play is “contextual.” Henry Jenkins defines transmedia storytelling as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”

Now, have a look at the following assemblage, do you relate to any of the characters you notice in this picture? If so, perhaps you hold a memory of one or many situations in which one or several of these characters appeared in your life. (Please, hold on to your chosen memory throughout the presentation) On my side, Tiny Toon Adventures is a T.V. series I closely relate to from my childhood. I used to watch it on T.V. in the evenings. In fact, when I got my GB Tiny Toon was the first video game I played.

Here’s a sneak peak  of the storyline:

The series revolves around the school life of young characters who attend Acme Looneyversity, so that they can become the next generation of Looney Toons characters. Two human characters, Elmyra Duff and Montana Max, are the main villains.

What’s so remarkable about this game is that, to me, it was a mini-universe of the T.V. show I used to watch on T.V. Furthermore, while playing it I felt as if I were, for an instant, the central character, the one who defeats the bully Montana Max. I was a part of that mini-universe.

Which brings me to the second and third attributes, which are site-specific and historical. While dissecting the meaning and ideas surrounded by the prefix meta and the meaning of metagames, Lemieux and Boluk explain that “the metagame anchors the game in time and space.”

(Now, remember the time and place in which your memory sets in in your mind) Given that the memory allocated in the human mind can be played repeatedly, the moment the memory sets in a specific timeframe, it leads to leads to, what I call decoding. The memory in question which anchors the game can also serve as a key or an access point to unveil and play before our inner mind other memories that relate to that timeframe. Because lived experiences are individual in nature, everyone can potentially and exponentially create their “own metagame” (Lemieux). I would suggest herein that right now we are making visible a part of a larger metagame, for we are selecting the memory fragments that we wish to take back into the present. In other words, the environment becomes visible.

(Introduce metagame sample)

“The metagame ruptures the logic of the game, escaping the formal autonomy of both ideal rules and utopian play via those practical and material factors not immediately enclosed within the game as we know it.”

(Play John Riggs’s video sample on “How to Edit Levels in SMB for NES)

(Play 99 Exercises in Play Video)

To repeat the highlights, I spoke about how metagames can “reveal alternate histories of play.” I made the following points, (1) metagames are contextual because they are part of a larger metagame; (2) metagames anchor games in time and space because they bring into play other memories that were shaped around the same time framework; (3) metagames empower players to become game designers and creators of their own experience on their own terms. In conclusion, metagames are, in part, “about the history of play” in the player’s mind.

Works Cited

Boluk, Stephanie and Patrick Lemieux. “Introduction: Metagaming, Video Games and the Practice of Play.” Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. Manifold Edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Boluk, Stephanie and Patrick Lemieux. “99 Exercises in Play Video.” Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. Manifold Edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101” Confessions of an ACA-Fan – The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Riggs, John. “How to Edit Levels in SMB for NES” John Riggs: RIGG’d Games https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTUeazaKWcQ&t=300s

 

Posted on 2017/11/11 by

Boluk, Lemieux, and Richler

In Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux’s Metagaming, the title term is defined not as “games about games,” but as “the only kinds of games we play” (Boluk and Lemieux). The decision to buy the game, to play it, and to play with a friend are all metagames that we take part in. What struck me most about this introduction was their description of the commodification of games and then how this related to the Richler Reading Room: “After all, not only is a game easier to package and sell if it can be neatly reduced to its physical equipment, but any play that occurs in, on, around, or through videogames instantly becomes advertising for a product” (Boluk and Lemieux). If we view collecting as a metagame, Concordia University as a player, and Richler as a brand then the Richler Reading Room can be seen as a metagame being put on by the university. Similarly, any class, tour, or public event in the room can understood as a chance to sell and profit from the Richler brand.

If we take a moment to consider what the Richler room is meant to do according to the articles that covered its opening then it becomes even more evident that Concordia as an institution is playing a carefully orchestrated metagame. In Léo Charbanneau’s “Concordia Gives Mordecai Richler a Room of His Own,” as well as several other articles, Alan Shephard is quoted as saying that “the creation of the Richler Reading Room ‘will ensure that his works continue to be analyzed, celebrated and critiqued for generations to come.’” The president of the university is stating that this reading room will keep Richler’s legacy alive in ways that it might not have prospered without it. Further, Richler’s wife, Florence, is also quoted in Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins’ “Concordia honours literary icon” as saying that her husband’s “legacy will be immeasurably strengthened” by the room. As Walter Benjamin puts it, a collector wishes to “renew the old world” (Benjamin 61) with their collection. Concordia is renewing Richler’s legacy with the creation of this room. In the Desjardins article, Jason Camlot makes a comment that adds to the idea that Concordia is strengthening Richler’s legacy so as to benefit from this man’s celebrity. Camlot is quoted as saying, “From now on, every creative writing student will be able to say ‘I studied in the Mordecai Richler Reading Room.’” One can suppose that the ability to study in this famous author’s reading room might appeal to those who hope to have greatness rubbed off on them by being within proximity of Richler’s possessions. It is very possible that choosing Concordia as a place of study may be swayed by this possibility; Concordia may be counting on that.

I am inclined to believe that Benjamin is correct when he posits that a collection loses its original meaning when the owner is lost (Benjamin 67). The Richler Room is no longer Richler’s collection, but Concordia’s collection of Richler’s things. We can no longer experience the collection as Jacob Richler describes it in his article entitled “Mordecai Richler’s 5,000 Books.” We are not privy to the sprawling book cases in the family cottage that have taken over every room in the house nor can we laugh at the way in which leaving for “an ill timed trip” meant losing your room to Richler’s book collection (Richler). It is not Mordecai Richler that is coming alive in his possessions in this university setting (Benjamin 67), it is Concordia as an institution while they play a metagame. The room is being presented as Richler’s and his “booklike creations” are on display to validate this room as a personal collection (Benjamin 66). This presentation is part of Concordia’s metagame and upholds their creation of the reading room as a “magic circle” (Boluk and Lemieux).

There are many ways that we could view the Richler Room. We could see it as the University wants us to in their metagame. It is also possible to view the room in a way that is informed by Boluk and Lemieux. They write in their introduction of Richard Garfield, that

After treating each game as an individual, autonomous conflict (and losing more and more), Garfield (1995, 87) realized that his relationship to other players, to the larger social structure in which games are embedded, and even to the physical or economic constraints of certain rules functioned “not as ends unto themselves but as parts of a larger game” or ‘metagame.’ (Boluk and Lemieux)

Thus, we can understand the institutional influences at play in the room and continue to participate in the metagame. This knowledge would allow us to use the room and play the metagame, and potentially “win.” Our interactions with the room would allow us to appreciate it as the metagame wishes us to, but also in a subversive and productive way that would allow us to ask questions about power, institutional influence, and much more.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Unpacking My Library.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 59-67.

Boluk, Stephanie and Patrick Lemieux. “Introduction: Metagaming, Video Games and the Practice of Play.” Metagaming:                          Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. Manifold Edition. University of                  Minnesota Press, 2017.

Charbanneau, Léo. “Concordia gives Mordecai Richler a room of his own.” University Affairs, 15, Jan. 2015.                                                        www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/concordia-gives-mordecai-richler-a-room-of-his-own/.

Desjardins, Sylvain-Jacques. “Concordia Honours Literary Icon.” 28, Nov. 2013.                                                                                               https://www.concordia.ca/cunews/offices/vpaer/aar/2013/11/28/concordia-honours-literary-icon.html

Richler, Jacob. “Mordecai Richler’s 5,000 Books.” Maclean’s.ca, 23, Nov. 2013. http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/my-                      dads-5000-books/.

Posted on 2017/11/10 by

Playing the OED

OED at bottom right

Mordecai Richler’s Oxford English Dictionary holds no place of prominence in Concordia’s Richler Rooms. Its location is humbling. It sits below a big, reflective, flat-screen TV; on a squat bookshelf that looks like but is not a TV stand; on two shelves below knee-level when the top shelf is bare; squeezed behind edgy plastic and metal chairs. One has to scrounge to get there. The dictionary’s twelve volumes and three supplements (this is a 1961 reprint of the first complete OED of 1933) belong to a mix of other books. If this mix were a cocktail, it would not taste good. Flanked left, the lot appears random and even a little grotesque, including a Francis Bacon biography with a face and a half of distorted flesh on the its cover, and a MAD comic book with MAD’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman, stewing himself in a witch’s boiling pot. This is all taking place in the auxillary Richler Room, supplementary to the shrine Richler Room, where the author’s writing desk and chair face a wall where a collection of other dictionaries lives at a height not inappropriate to hang paintings.

The OED has been relegated to a non-place where no one can loiter long. Each volume is 9” x 12” x 2 and 3/8,” and weighs nearly 10 lbs, the same weight as an average one-month-old baby (confirmed separately by myself and Olivia Wood in a test that involved rocking a volume cradled in arms). The second edition (1989) in twenty volumes matches my fight-weight at 137 pounds. “Weight signifies significance,” Professor Wershler told us this semester, and this was true for the OED through the twentieth century, before its primary form became digital. It signified value with its huge individual volumes, its multiple volumes, and the total volume they occupied, and with the muscle you had to exert in looking up a single word. In form, the closest relative to a volume of the OED is a big heavy Bible, with its high-quality, translucent, thin pages and its presumption to totality.

The OED signifies wealth in a variety of ways. As noted, it takes up real estate. It also signifies with its gold-foil stamp on its tight-weave navy-blue cloth spine. This is gold signifying riches, and this is not the blue of poetry, but a class-statement blue—the blue of a businessman’s suit, the blue in a fraternity’s signature patterned tie. It is, Oxford Blue. Evidently, the books were delivered with cream-colored dusk jackets, three of which remain in Richler’s collection, a sign of the books’ limited use. Are these jackets not disposable packaging meant to be shed and thrown away or burned once they reach the owner’s library? Their perseverance here makes the OED’s status as commodity surface. These are like snakeskins that need to be shed so the books can get on with their lives and acclimate.

Le Corbusier pilotis (wikicommons)

The meaning of heft changes depending on how we curate it. If these books were positioned up high, the message would be that we should see them, that they are more important. They might also seem lighter. They could even appear to uncannily float like one of Le Corbusier’s massive rectangular building blocks set on pilotis. The lower something is, the heavier it appears, and the heavier it is—the harder it is to pick up without hurting your back. So, heft is prestigious, but heft is also a pain and inconvenience. But that can be prestigious too, I guess. In one way, owning a hardcopy of the OED in 12 or 20 volumes is a performance of martyrdom.

You buy them, then you have to make room for them and keep making room all your life. You move them when you move, carrying their weight, a match for your own body’s weight and your body’s strength. Owning the OED is a feat, like a marathon or a hotdog-eating competition, which offers glory from self-punishment. Of course, it also used to position you as one of the keepers of the English language, which is problematic. Online today, there are still many barriers to access, so if you use the OED, you are still a keeper. I wish this dictionary did not pretend to be free with a taster online edition called the “Free OED.” All in all, it is a machine that inscribes an elite secret society, which is not good for the English language.

The OED acronym is not just a short-form but a brand that reinforces a mythology about the Oxford English Dictionary as a kind of oracle—a medium between us and the divine, or us and the void, depending on your religion—which transmits otherwise inaccessible, pure knowledge about the English language. The acronym is a sign of what John Law might call “the punctualization” of the project. It performs a literal and symbolic simplification that contributes to the myth. This helps conceal the mechanics of what is, in fact, not just a dictionary but a complex network of actors that controls a body of knowledge made precious, which exercises all kinds of social, cultural, and political power over everything from individuals to universities to the law. “Ah yes! The OED. The gold-standard arbiter of English,” I mutter to myself. Or, as the OED website insists on its banner image: “The definitive record of the English language.” Better yet, in “A Short History” blog post on the same website, the OED is said to have “the last word on words.” Under the “About” tab, it is “widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language.”

OED aura (press photo)

The auratic delirium of the OED should not be taken for granted but interrogated and played with. Acronyms are sleights of hand with soft power. They have sprezzatura. Like nicknames, they intervene in our everyday discourse by drawing a line of inclusion and exclusion. In English departments, knowing what “OED” means is a rite of passage. It is a secret code that purports to let you in to the society of keepers of the history of the English language. If you know what it means, it sweats for you and affords you a kind of social power over those who don’t know; it also affords a power of access, because this resource is rich and a huge help to writers conducting research and honing the terms they will use to build arguments and careers.

OED metagame (from drawception.com)

I always felt, growing up, that I was not using the OED properly, and that, since it was so important and I was so incompetent, I was committing a kind of spiritual crime every time I touched it, which I could not stop doing. My family owned the Compact 2-Volume Edition (1971) that came with a magnifying glass. I tried hard but could never work the magnifying glass—I didn’t hold it in the right orientation, at the right distance, or something—nor could I understand any of the shorthand notation that I half perceived and half guessed through the glass darkly. My only obvious success was stealing the magnifying glass from my father’s library to go into the yard and burn ants. So I played God with the OED. I also burned bits of paper and played Prometheus.

Reading Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux’s philosophy of the metagame, a term they hone using the OED (it gets four references on page 10 alone), I now see my early relationship with the OED as legitimate. I was “reading” the OED, just not its printed text. Extending Boluk and Lemieux’s philosophy from videogames to books raises a crucial question: Not what is playing? But what is reading? Do I know what you or what anyone means by reading? Are there rules? My early “reading” of the OED meant pulling it off the shelf and dragging it around the floor, smelling it, wielding the magnifying glass like a hot sword, “reading” nothing. I did not read the introduction, so I did not know the rules. There was no “utopian play” for me; it was all bootleg. At least I never reduced the OED to a product; it was always something other than what it was intended to be. Boluk and Lemieux argue that metagaming can help us from swallowing capitalism whole, and to this end I see that ineptitude and error breed metagames that are not wrong but complete in themselves, and that offer insight into the mechanics of power and knowledge.

Looking at the OED this way, I am now most interested in the barriers to its use. As Boluk and Lemieux argue, there is no magic circle, ever, only a messy circle (15) of play, and this is a positive theory for both reading and writing. It echoes Law’s argument that we cannot oversimplify messy situations without torquing them. It suggests that everything we do “in, on, around, and beyond” (11) these activities counts; it is not discounted because it falls out of the bounds others have inscribed for us—bounds that have all kinds of arbitrary power to limit our range of experience.

Works Cited

Boluk, Stephanie and Patrick Lemieux. “Introduction: Metagaming, Video Games and the Practice of Play.” Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. Manifold Edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Law, John. “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity.” Systems Practice, vol. 5, 1992, pp. 379-93, www.heterogeneities.net/publications.

Martin, Reinhold. The Organizational Complex. MIT Press, 2003.

 

Posted on 2017/11/09 by

Tracing The Magic Circle: Metagames and Material Agency

In Metagaming, Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux argue that video games can serve as a site of critical engagement with the dominant systems of power in contemporary society. Their argument can be broken down into two basic moves: First, they suggest that video games themselves are perhaps best understood not as “games” in the traditional sense, but rather as a rigorously structured platform for having a very specific kind of “fun.” As they describe, video games “operate as the ideological avatar of play: a widely held, naturalized system of beliefs that conflates the fantasy of escapism with the commodity form and encloses play within the magic circle of neoliberal capital… Games have been replaced by video games and play has been replaced by fun.” With this conception of video games in mind, Boluk and Lemieux introduce their own technical definition of the term “metagame,” which they argue “transform[s] video games from a mass medium and cultural commodity into instruments, equipment, tools, and toys for playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, breaking and ultimately intervening in the sensory and political economies of those technologies responsible for the privatization of play.” This is to say, if video games function within the “the magic circle of neoliberal capital,” then the “metagame” describes the indeterminate (or at least, not-yet-entirely determinate) conditions through which subjects (both individually and collectively) integrate video games into the broad assemblage of (social, political, economic, etc.) phenomena that constitute the world.

So the focus, for Boluk and Lemieux, is not just the metagame itself, but rather how subjects engage with (and, importantly, actively create) their own metagames. In this sense, the set of metagames that emerge alongside any given video game serve as a site of tension, wherein both player and game traverse a narrow threshold between the “magic circle” of neoliberal logic and a not-yet-wholly-determined world. As Boluk and Lemieux describe, there is a lot at stake: “Entangled with video games as a mass medium and as a digital technology, play’s avatar incorporates the fantasies and fallacies of the twenty-first-century technical imaginary. As a result, the standard metagame reinforces the techno-utopian belief in the progressivist and teleological upgrade path, the escapist fantasy of sensory and cognitive immersion within virtual realities…the libertarian dream that the market is not only free but just and that ‘voting with your wallet’ is democratic, and the nostalgia for a collective identity based on consuming video games (rather than making metagames)”. In short, if we’re not conscious and deliberate in how we engage with video games (i.e., if we don’t participate actively in the production of our own metagames) we risk simply replicating the “standard” or normative apparatus imposed by the dominant centres of power.

With this in mind, I’d like to consider some ways in which the act and process of collecting video games constitutes a set of metagames that both replicate and subvert these normative power dynamics, and suggest how one might actively intervene and participate in the metagame of collection. To do this, I’d like to talk about styrofoam: specifically, the styrofoam packaging currently entombing R.O.B. the Robot and the Nintendo Entertainment System housed in the Residual Media Depot.

 

R.O.B.’s styrofoam might serve as an useful point of departure for a consideration of collecting as a metagame, because it raises certain basic questions about what, exactly, is being collected. Is styrofoam part of a video game collection itself? Or is it a kind of para-artifact, contributing to what Henry Lowood might call a “historically valid experience” (5) of one’s engagement with R.O.B. And if that’s the case, what kind of history are we validating? Is the metagame of video game collection under neoliberalism simply another way to fetishize consumer goods as such? Or does a consideration of collecting as an active and participatory metagame provide a vantage from which we can parse out the tension between the act of collecting and the “magic circle” of neoliberalism?

As Philip Mirowski observes, this sense of tension is also one of the basic ideological features of neoliberalism itself: “Even through there has not existed full consensus on just what sort of animal the market ‘really’ is, the neoliberals did agree that, for purposes of public understanding and sloganeering, neoliberal market society must be treated as a ‘natural’ and inexorable state of mankind. Neoliberal thought therefore spawns a strange hybrid of the ‘constructed’ and the ‘natural,” where the market can be made manifest in many guises” (55). This schizophrenic conflation of “natural” and “constructed” is weirdly captured in styrofoam packaging, which, while obviously not “natural,” has certainly become naturalized as an omnipresent filler-of-space, or a looming and uninvited guest at the office party of late consumer capitalism. As Nathan Brown observes in his examination of Alexi Kukuljevic’s styrofoam sculptures, styrofoam is “a commodity whose use value is to protect commodities as they circulate. A consumer buys something else, and some styrofoam comes with it… a material byproduct of circulation, expanded polystyrene packaging is both invisible at the point of sale and already waste at the point of consumption.” This definition is helpful, as it points to styrofoam’s incidental circumscription within the assemblage of consumer goods, but it’s also incomplete: for the collector, R.O.B.’s styrofoam packaging obviously retains a kind of value, but it’s a value that is indeterminate and only ever partially circumscribed within the logic of a “marketplace.”

But we can get a sense of what else R.O.B.’s styrofoam is doing by addressing it directly: Not as a commodity already inscribed within the “magic circle of neoliberal capital,” but as a weird and never-wholly-knowable thing, an elusive and material form of agency. In the most literal sense, the styrofoam directs the collector on how R.O.B. is to be arranged. Its compartmental design produces an organizational structure that implicitly signals R.O.B.’s “completeness” as an object of collection. R.O.B.’s styrofoam produces its own internal logic, and in so doing actively orients the composition of the collection itself. To participate actively in collection, then, is to participate alongside one’s styrofoam in a metagame of human and non-human actors.

In this sense, the metagame of collection can be understood not only as a gamified mode of consumerism, but also as a site of radical interface between a human subject and the non-human other that not only challenges but productively intervenes in the normative structures of neoliberal capital. In approaching R.O.B.’s styrofoam as both a commodity and a force of material agency, the collector confronts his own entangled participation within an agential assemblage: he traces the porous membrane of neoliberalism’s “magic circle” to face the lively materiality through which the subject emerges in the world.

Work Cited

Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick LeMieux. Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames. U of Minnesota P, 2017.

Brown, Nathan. “The Logic of Disintegration: On the Art Practice of Alexi Kukuljevic.” Boundary2, Jan. 2017.

Lowood, Henry. “Playing History with Games: Steps towards Historical Archives of Computer Gaming.” Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, June 2014, Portland.

Mirowski, Philip. Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. Verso, 2013.

Posted on 2017/11/05 by

Embodiment, Emulation, and Nostalgic Experience: The (After)Lives of the Game Boy Advance

In November 2006 and then in April 2013, Nintendo launched the Virtual Console for the Wii and WiiU respectively, a dedicated section of the Wii Shop Channel and Nintendo eShop that, according to their website, allows players to “experience some of the top titles from the NES, Super NES and Game Boy Advance eras.” The licenced re-releasing of classic games through the Virtual Console is in large part Nintendo’s riposte to video game piracy and an attempt to retain control over copyright; the platform provides access to content presently unavailable through traditional retail networks even as it admits to the ubiquity of proprietary software emulation.

Indeed, emulation has historically been an attractive alternative to using video game hardware not only owing to its ostensible costlessness but also due to its access(ibility), ease of use, role in software preservation, and its facilitation of gameplay or data modification. In contextualizing the use of emulators in the preservationist context of museums, Raiford Guins argues that the goal of video game emulation is:

to simulate a reliable and easily distributable copy (copies of copies like game software) so that the working program, the experience of game play, can persist in the present (and hopefully for the future) even if experienced on different machines and within different social contexts from those still resonating in the not-so-distant past. (36)

Guins is careful to communicate the fact that, despite public opinion, “emulation does not purport to ‘be’ the original game it simulates” (36), and he articulates his doubts that, even in the archival context of a museum, emulation can “reactivate the object reproduced” (29). Yet what about the authority of the emulator insofar as it exists indebted to and in close conversation with the original platform? I would go as far as to say that it is short-sighted to study the game without accounting for its emulators, which are inextricably linked to the production and circulation of the original object. Software and hardware emulation—sanctioned or otherwise—arguably allows us to obtain a fuller account of the game both as artifact and cultural object. In this probe, I focus specifically on the Game Boy Advance and the various platforms and emulators that have been developed and designed to play Game Boy Advance games: the Game Boy Player add-on for GameCube, the DS Lite, the VisualBoyAdvance GX emulator on a softmodded Wii, the WiiU, the VisualBoy Advance emulator on a Windows laptop, the MyBoy! Free app on Android, and VisualBoy Advance again on a Raspberry Pi arcade table.[1]

Data collected on the Game Boy Advance and the seven afterlives studied for this probe. (Click image to download legible PDF image.)

Despite Wolfgang Ernst’s proposal for “an epistemologically alternative approach to the supremacy of media-historical narratives” (55), to elide the sociocultural significance of Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance as well as the historical circumstances that conditioned its release results in a failure to preserve and articulate a complete historiography of the object. The Game Boy Advance exists as a testament to the lessons Nintendo learned in the production of the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color, its reception informs the direction of the Nintendo DS, and, along with the Game Boy and Game Boy Color, it anticipates the casual gaming, smartphone-centred era we presently find ourselves in. The isolation of either hardware or software from its afterlives runs the risk of invisiblizing certain relationships between the media platform, their cultural contexts, and the embodied experiences of their users.

Video games technologies are necessarily embodied, requiring players’ active interaction with the platform in order access the internal workings of the game. As a result, technologies are constrained by and designed for the bodies intended to use them. The original Game Boy Advance is a portable console, weighing approximately 136 grams, 201 grams with the two AA batteries, and measuring approximately 5.7 x 1 x 3.2 inches—for comparison, a MotoX Play phone weighs 170 grams, measures approximately 5.8 x 0.4 x 3.0 inches and seldom fits in the pockets of most women’s clothing. Unlike its predecessors, the Game Boy Advance is horizontally oriented with the eight-direction joypad, start, select buttons to the left of the screen and the A and B buttons to the right. Left and right shoulder buttons are located on their respective sides of the top of the console. It also features a GBA Game Link port at the top, and the power switch, stereo headphone jack, and analog volume dial control on the bottom. The thin-film transistor screen measures 2.9 inches diagonally with a resolution of 240 by 160 pixels for an aspect ratio of 3:2

What do these technical specifications mean and what do emulators have to do with any of this? When analysing video game platforms, it is worth considering the idealized bodies they suggest, and the affordances and constraints imposed upon them. A portable console must be light enough to hold for a significant amount of time and small enough to transport and play on the go. Its chassis must be both durable and ergonomic. The technical specifications of the Game Boy Advance locate it as an immensely portable console for its time, but the cost of carrying the entire platform from processor to battery in one small object is the sacrifice in processing power and display quality.

The various controls used to play Game Boy Advance games. In order: Game Boy Player, DS Lite, WiiU (3 and 4), Game Boy Advance, Laptop, Android (7 & 8, portrait and landscape mode respectively), and the arcade table in the Residual Media Depot.

The release of the Game Boy Player two years after the Game Boy Advance gestures towards these constraints that the Game Boy Advance places on the bodies of its consumers. The Player uses near-identical hardware as the Game Boy Player but uses the GameCube as a conduit to output video and audio signals to a television and outsource its power supply to an electrical outlet. Placed side-by-side, these two technologies highlight the affordances of each, namely portability at the cost of accessibility. Despite the kitschy, Game Boy Advance-inspired border that frames playback on the Player, the ability to access the content in almost any light environment and to see the screen from a healthy distance permits a player to experience a game they might not otherwise be able to. Similarly, the decision to release the first two models of the DS as a backwards compatible handheld allows Game Boy Advance games to continue to be portable even as they are now displayed on a backlit screen, the MyBoy! emulator on Android permits the games to be played with one hand, and a softmodded Wii uses software emulation to play games on the television at a faster speed and with less hardware than the GameCube, while also removing the distracting purple frame.

The delight that is the Game Boy Player frame and the difficulty of seeing anything on the Game Boy Advance display in a well-lit room.

A comparative approach to the afterlives of Game Boy Advance games offers insight into the complex interactions between, platform, game, and embodied player. Why do people want to play these games on various platforms? What are the affordances of each platform? What is the significance of nostalgia, habitus, and the idea of a video game’s aura in the construction of the Game Boy Advance as an object? These questions raise issues of geography, temporality, and cultural contexts. Who can afford the nostalgia that comes from playing on these platforms? How much knowledge is embodied?

The timing of the release of Game Boy Advance games on the Virtual Store in 2013 is strategic not only in providing an alternative to emulation that allows Nintendo to capitalize on their intellectual property but also because physical Game Boy Advance games have a built-in life expectancy of between ten and twenty years. Like most pre-solid state cartridges, Game Boy Advance games contain small CR2025 batteries that allow players to save data. These batteries, while fairly cheap and easy to replace with basic soldering skills, have a lifespan between ten and twenty years depending on use. Without a functioning battery, games will continue to run, but save data will be lost each time the console is powered down. Nintendo’s preservation of the games and their save data in digital form on the WiiU acknowledges the obsolescence of their own game cartridges. It might be worth considering what it means to interfere in the life of the object to replace the batteries. Are we preserving the object by replacing the battery or are we, in fact, creating a new object in its stead? In “Signal Traffic,” Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski argue that moments of failure can bring to light perceptions and preconceptions that are elided when the technology or infrastructure functions the way it should:

“Infrastructural breakdowns and acts of repair should be thought about as a ‘normal’ part of technological processes and as opportunities for retooling social relations.” (13)

The increasing obsolescence of the Game Boy Advance when placed against more ergonomic, cost-efficient, sustainable alternatives provides an occasion for thinking through materiality, infrastructure, embodiment, and nostalgic experience. In “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” Susan Leigh Star argues that “the normally invisible quality of infrastructure becomes invisible when it breaks” (382) as well as, I have argued, when it is replaced. A comparative analysis demonstrates how technology shifts incrementally to adapt to various social, cultural, and economic factors, allowing us to encounter a much larger network than is visible if we study the Game Boy Advance as an isolated object.

The data I collected above opens the floor to further questions about the ways Game Boy Advance technologies are embedded into other structures, social arrangements, and technologies. What is the scope of the Game Boy Advance’s influence? What infrastructural changes become visible after a study of its emulation? What aspects of gameplay on the Game Boy Advance are taken for granted through familiarity with the object? What strengths and limitations of the Game Boy Advance are transferable across platforms?

Fire Emblem emulated on a softmodded Wii, the VisualBoyAdvance Emulator for a Windows laptop, and MyBoy!Free on an Android phone.

We can also consider questions specific to the preservation and archiving of these technologies. What legal issues come into play with respect to digital rights management, and in which ways does an academic or museum context influence the outcome? Do consumers have the right to displace media they have purchased onto a device of their choosing for archival or accessibility purposes? Does it make a difference if one places their defunct ROM cartridge beside their softmodded Wii or laptop running VisualBoy Advance? Moreover, if the emulator is intended to answer a specific problem related to preservation, what preservation does the emulator itself need as technology continues to evolve at an unprecedented pace? A softmodded Wii, for instance, prefers USB 2.0 and non-SDHC SD cards, both of which become increasingly rare as portable storage becomes increasingly refined.

Quoting Henry Lowood, Raiford Guins states:

“in the archives or museums, preservation of emulators, restored machines, and software objects alone will not take us very far. Careful attention to the relationship between hardware, code, use and context for use is necessary and can only benefit the application of technical solutions as emulation and bit-perfect replication of software.” (33)

Unlike Guins, whose interest in emulation is restricted to its use in museum exhibits, and Lowood, whose “How They Got Game” project has avoided emulators, meta-data packaging and hardware preservation (Lowood 19), I have tried here to argue for emulators’ importance in the construction of the object and in understanding its cultural context. At the same time, I am cautious of affording too much authority to derivative objects; this probe is therefore meant to reflect some preliminary thoughts on studying the Game Boy Advance as a network, and does not proport to elide the significance of the original object itself.

[1] The research I undertook for this probe combines a practical analysis of objects in the Residual Media Depot (Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Player, Wii, Raspberry Pi Arcade Table) and in my own collection (DS Lite, Laptop, Android Phone), as well as online research for the Virtual Console on the WiiU. The Kingdom Hearts cartridge is property of the Depot, while the Fire Emblem .ROM file is an archival copy of a game in my personal collection.

 

Works Cited

Ernst, Wolfgang. “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine Versus History and Narrative of Media.” Digital Memory and the Archive, edited by Jussi Parikka, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, pp.55-80.

Guins, Raiford. “Museified.” Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. MIT Press, 2004, pp. 31-73.

Lowood, Henry. “The Hard Work of Software History.”  RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, vol. 2. no. 2, 2001, pp. 141-160.

Parks, Lisa and Nicole Starosielski. “Signal Traffic.” Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, University of Illinois Press, 2015, pp. 1-27.

Star, Susan Leigh. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 43, 1999, pp. 377-391, Doi: 10.1177/00027649921955326. Accessed 20 May 2017.

“Virtual Console Games.” Nintendo. Accessed 26 Oct. 2017.

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