Game Internals

I recently came across a brand new blog that may be of interest to SIGCISers, Game Internals, by programmer Chad Birch. His first post describes the algorithm used to control the ghosts in Pac-Man (including an interesting bug). Along with the "Pac-Man Dossier" that he links to, it would be a great primary source for a study of the history of video game software. Hopefully Birch will keep the interesting material coming.

Birch's blog reminds me of probably the best book I've read on video games, Racing the Beam, released last year by media scholars Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost. Here are a couple reviews from Digital Culture and Education and Slate.

Montfort and Bogost describe how Atari Video Computer System (VCS, a.k.a. 2600) games were produced at the intersection of programmer creativity and the affordances offered by the hardware platform. Sometimes the result fell flat, as in the attempt to faithfully recreate Pac-Man on the 2600 system. The dire failure of the home version to live up to the arcade origina contributed to the video game "crash" of 1983. Other efforts, however, laid the seeds for an entire video game genre, as with Pitfall! and the side-scrolling platformer.

My favorite example from the book is the shimmering band of color that represents the "neutral zone" from the game Yar's Revenge, which features on the cover. Squeezed for cartridge space, programmer Howard Warshaw used the code itself as a pseudo-random number generator to generate the pattern.

Racing the Beam is one of very few studies that examine the technical labor involved in programming in any detail. (Dreaming in Code also comes to mind, though it is rather less technically detailed.) If this kind of study were coupled with examinations of the social and political aspects of that labor, one might imagine a sort of Harper's Ferry Armory of video game programming as the result.

Montfort and Bogost intend their book to be the launching point for a Platform Studies Series with MIT Press, whose core question is how particular digital platforms affect the media that is created upon them. The implicit argument is that, while the medium may not be the message, the former cannot but shape the latter. The series is open for applications, if you have a relevant manuscript on the way...