In my recent absence from posting on this blog, I was busy running Vector: Game and Art Convergence, A multi-venue, 5 day festival and symposium centred on the intersections of gaming and contemporary art practices. I am pleased to say that festival went off better than I possibly could have imagined. Between the artists, curators, and academics who participated, I consider them all to be new friends and allies, who helped us raise the bar in terms of critical conversations around gaming, and game art. Since the festival, I’ve been working hard on getting all the documentation done with my colleagues in Team Vector. And will write more about that soon.
What I am about to share with you are some thoughts over something that I have been thinking about for quite some time. Something that I felt I needed to articulate, but needed the time to do so. With all the recent troubling messages around rape apologists, and a general permissiveness of a rampant culture of misogyny, I wanted to speak directly to what’s been happening in gaming culture, talk about the problems, and offer my perspective on how members of the community are working towards change… so, dear friends, read on….
I’ve been thinking about Anita Sarkeesian’s work on raising funds for her webseries Tropes Vs. Women,the subsequent release of its first episode, and the venomous backlash gaming culture directed at her. Threats of violence, death, rape, hacking of her email accounts, trolling at its worst across all of her digital presence online. All for pointing out the troubling history gaming has had with its representations of women.
I see all of this toxic, closed minded behaviour and I’m disgusted, disgusted by a culture that I partake in, disgusted because others like me (and by like me, I mean generally white men and young white men), are either the perpetrators of these terrible activities, or are least in some way permissive of it. If games are the medium of our time, and contained within this media are the ideological messages of our hegemonic regime, then I’m doubly concerned. The games, their makers and their consumers and the media that covers them, en masse are subscribing to and re-broadcasting these problematic messages. I recently came across old episodes of G4′s Icons, a show about the “greats” in video gaming history, which only ever showed women as the proverbial “women behind the great men”, save for a single episode highlighting women’s contributions to gaming’s larger history. Let me say this again, one SINGLE episode over FOUR seasons.
I see all of this, and I think to myself that I’ve done something wrong. I think that I’m somehow culpable for these acts. Not because I’ve actively participated in anything so disrespectful, but because I’ve spent my life playing these games, and for some time, had never considered the implications of the underlying ideological messages of what I was consuming. Now I realize that being a white male in this culture doesn’t do much for my concerned position in some ways. Try as I might, I can reasonably say that I can never truly empathize with those who’ve been oppressed or marginalized because of race, gender or ability. I don’t say this to be dismissive, I say this to mean that while I think it’s deplorable, that I can never really feel the brunt effect of these behaviours, omissions and messages. I say this to mean that I feel incredibly inadequate and unqualified to address these concerns with the same first hand knowledge that others possess. I say this to mean that I come from a privileged position in this culture and that I (for years as the prime demographic for these games) feel incredibly guilty for consuming it’s messages in my younger years. I also say this because I feel that what may sound like an apology is something I also believe to be horribly inadequate given the vitriol that has sought to marginalize and silence the discussion of representations in gaming.
In spite of what seems to be the bleak picture I’m painting here. I can also say to you that I’ve been very hopeful about the future of the medium and it’s culture. Being in Toronto in the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing the rise of a community committed to gender parity in both making games and creating more positive messaging in the medium. Shortly after I moved to Toronto to begin my Master’s Degree (centred around the intersections between gaming, hacking and artistic practice) I had the pleasure of meeting Cecily Carver and Zoe Quinn, and Jennie Faber who co-founded an initiative called Dames Making Games (DMG for short). Their commitment to a greater inclusion of women in gaming was borne of their shared experiences at an incubator run by Toronto’s Hand Eye Society called the Difference Engine, which was designed to get first time female game makers on their way.
DMG picked up where the Difference Engine left off. And picked up they did. In a little over a year, DMG has found a permanent home at Toronto’s collaborative web/ game workspace, Bento Miso, has held a large number of workshops, jams and socials, all designed to keep an inclusive conversation moving centred around women in games. With their first year under their belt, and their ranks constantly growing with new members, DMG has a bright future moving forward. I am honoured to be an ally of this organization and have done what I can to support them, whether it’s through attending their events or showcasing their works at events I’ve programmed. It’s not enough anymore to claim to be an ally of such initiatives, it’s important to proactively show them support and encouragement.
Since DMG’s launch in Toronto, A similar group called Pixelles has emerged in Montreal, which is where I will be moving for my PhD studies next year. Additionally, other groups are popping up globally, as if to tell the gaming industry and it’s culture: “you’re not doing enough, so we’re going to do it ourselves.” And for those who know me, I keep that spirit of DIY very close to my heart. Collectively and collaboratively, these groups are actively participating as catalysts for change in a culture reticent to do so.
Another group in Toronto doing this work is the Feminist in Games Initiative (FIG), a research group comprised of academics and artists who are actively working to stem the flow of misogynistic discourse embedded in gaming culture. Through a conference, lectures and workshops FIG is also out there working towards change. And while all of these groups do great work, I fear it won’t be enough. Again, I’m not being dismissive, but my point here is a simple one. They need allies, of all genders; to step out from behind their controllers and add their voices to the conversation, to collectively stand up and say that these actions and messages are unacceptable, and that we all demand these changes.
Then I think about Mike Hoye, and Mike Mika and their hacking of Popular Nintendo IPs to be more inclusive of gender. Who did so, because of the lack of strong female protagonists and positive representations of women in gaming culture. Who did so, so that their daughters could have a more inclusive experience when gaming. I wonder though, why did these fathers become the subjects of our collective attention? Likely because these kinds of acts are still rather new to us, and are in some way, rather novel. Hopefully though, their actions act as a catalyst for others to get involved and add their own work to the dialogue. If we’re discussing these issues, then we’re on our way. Then (to paraphrase something a friend of mine recently stated) maybe the story won’t be about the father of young girl hacking a game in the name of inclusiveness, it will be that young girl hacking her own games. With an increasing number of modding tools available, it is only a matter of time before others pick up this practice.
Lastly, I want to address how I feel I’ve contributed to this dialogue, not to placate you, nor to bolster my image in some problematic form of online identity politics, but to tell you, that I’m an ally, and that I’ll do what I can to help this along. In February of 2013, I was the Co-Director of Vector: Game + Art Convergence, a 5 Day game art festival and symposium, programmed by Team Vector (a collective of 4 curators/artists/scholars). When we began planning the festival in August of 2012, it took some time for our collective programming vision to emerge. But when it did so, we found that we had a program rich with discussions on the troubling nature of representations in gaming — A film screening dedicated to gender and indentity in online spaces, an evening of performance dedicated to discussions of gender, feminism and representation in games, a large amount of works by local and international female artists, as well as a panel on feminist practices in games + game art, which featured members of several of the organizations that I’ve written about in this post.
As a group, Team Vector felt that while these discussions were indeed going on outside of the festival, that it was vastly important to include them within as well. As curators, we need to be mindful of all perspectives within the intersecting worlds of gaming and art that we were charting. We also feel that our work in this regard has just begun, and a primary focus of our future curatorial endeavors will seek to address issues of inclusivity (or its lack) whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Talking about these issues is the first step towards change, actively working to change the landscape follows, and that work has already begun. Which is something I am very happy to see. However, even though I feel I can only ever call myself an ally in this struggle, I am still very much proud to do so. Collectively we cannot be silent on these issues, to do so is an act of complicitness, an unspoken statement that the status quo is satisfactory. And it is certainly not that. While I won’t pretend to have any definitive answers on how to effect these changes on a larger scale, I feel that the work that myself and my peers in Team Vector have done as allies of this movement is a positive step.
But it’s just a beginning, it’s a long road ahead, and I wish the people at the forefront of these initiatives stay the course, and I will do what I can to support them. And so should you. Because it really is only through a communal effort that the kinds of changes that are needed can occur.
A while ago, I was sitting down with Bento Miso owner/operator/ amazing community supporter Henry Faber, having a meeting planning out a number of things including Vector (this week we announced our programming for the festival!). During this conversation we were talking about the Miso Game Salon series, which is a series of events that discusses various issues in relation to video games and popular culture. The first of the series was about the relationship between heavy metal and video games. At some point in our chat, Henry and I decided that I would lead the second panel in the MGS series.
For years now, I’ve heard people discuss Howard Scott Warshaw’s infamous E.T. Atari video game as the “worst game of all time”. It was even blamed for causing the videogame console market crash in 1983. While this is obviously essentializing a problem that was far more nuanced, E.T. became emblematic for the hubris of the video game industry in the early 1980s. All sorts of clones, liscensed titles and otherwise bad games began to flood the market, creating a new classification: CRAPWARE. Consumers lost confidence in the industry because they didn’t want to risk paying money for an increasingly number of bad games. E.T was at the front of this, and has remained a target for all kinds of popular criticism. It’s been 30 years, and I say it’s time to re-examine this game. And it’s for this reason that I formed the panel for MGS2: Reclaiming Crapware.
It’s time to talk about these games and once more put them under scrutiny, but this time let’s discuss how some of these games (such as E.T.) were actually far more innovative and forward looking than the industry (and its players) could acknowledge in those early days. As games have evolved, we’ve seen how CrapWare never really went away. While some liscenced properties are simply obvious cashgrabs, there are other games that have been critically panned that deserve another look. Sometimes they were simply failed experiments due to the lack of an audience to embrace them. And these days with more and more Indies experimenting with the medium, we need to look back as we move forward, and we need to recuperate some of this history.
So after talking to Henry about all of this, MGS2: Reclaiming Crapware was born. I have curated a panel, 2 of us study games academically, and 2 who are local indie game developers. I asked everyone to pick a game from any era that could be thematically linked to the concept of Crapware, rather than simply talk about the pre-crash era in the 80s. The Panelists of Reclaiming Crapware will be giving 10 minute presentations on why the game they’ve chosen deserves re-examination. Rather than talking about these as ‘crappy games’, they will have to convince the audience of the unique innovations and design features that make these games great!
JIM MCGINLEY (Big Pants Games/TOJam): will be talking about Power Shovel (Taito, 2000) for the PS1.
RYAN CREIGHTON (Untold Ent.):M.C Kids (Virgin Interactive, 1992) for the NES.
DAVID MURPHY (PhD Candidate, Communications & Culture at Ryerson/York): Night Trap (Digital Pictures, 1992) for the SEGA-CD.
SKOT DEEMING (mrghosty/ ME!!!): E.T. (Howard Scott Warshaw,Atari, 1982) for the Atari VCS (2600).
Hopefully they will. Maybe they won’t. Either way it is going to be a lively conversation about games, design, and culture.
*** just as a post-script here, many people have been saying that I’ve got my work cut out for me. However, I firmly believe that I’ll be able to convince the entire audience of E.T.’s innovative greatness!!! You’ll have to come out and see for yourself!
Here’s a link to the facebook event page with all the info!
These days, I’m spending the bulk of my time sequestered in my house working either on my MA thesis (which thankfully requires playing lots of fan hacked video games), or working on Vector: Game + Art Convergence. With Vector quickly approaching, there has been some great news on that front. Team Vector received a New Media Projects Grant from the Ontario Arts Council, which means that with this funding, we are well on our way to throwing a landmark art festival. It’s very exciting times right now for Vector, our programming is more or less locked in, and our schedule and ticketing structure has been sorted out. If you check the Vector website in the upcoming days and weeks, I will be updating all of our programming information, I think it’s really worth checking out.
So, what does a busy fella, who’s tucked away from the world working on all this stuff do for fun. Well, I get out an walk. And usually on these walks find thrift stores (some might argue that that’s where I was heading anyway), and look for bits and pieces of gaming history. Before I was studying games, I was a collector. Actually, I still very much am a collector, the difference being is that now I call these objects of research, even if they do just sit on shelves for the time being. Gaming culture is kind of huge, there’s lots to account for historically, so when I see weird, ephemera, or things I’ve never seen before (particularly if they’re cheap), I bring them home.
While taking a break from work the other day, I headed out to a nearby Goodwill with a friend of mine and found some interesting objects. It’s a pretty rare thing to happen upon old manuals and catalogues for games at thrift stores these days, but I found two the other day that I thought were pretty interesting.
The first was a big old fashioned gatefold poster/ catalogue from Sega for the Game Gear. It was a pretty interesting system. First colour handheld gaming device, weighed a ton and sucked batteries dry pretty quickly (unless you got the batter pack thing, pictures above). I love the old analog tv tuner as well. This was also the era of those Sony Watchman portable TVs, which used a built in receiver not unlike the one for the Game Gear.
The other was this Sega clothing catalog. T-shirts, hats, even a sleeveless Denim jacket with the Sonic & Knuckles logo adorning the back of it. I was going to scan it, but I have to get back to other work and wanted to get to the other piece I found, which I think it far more interesting than these.
Anyone who knows their game history knows that REZ (for Dreamcast or PS2) was a notable game in the history of rhythm based games. Players flew about a digital landscape as a human like avatar, shooting strange creatures and objects to the beat of the electronic soundtrack. Moreso, their actions modified the soundtrack, adding richer layers to the music. The rumble enabled controllers would also pulse to the beat. But to further the synaesthetic experience, the REZ entrancer was introduced. Four vibrating sensor/ motors that you could strap to your arms and legs to feel the beat in your body while you played. I thought that this was the only example of this kind of body-centered ‘rumble’ interface for games, and then I found this:
Made by “TopWay” for the PS1, the space vest is essentially a vibrating vest with two large rumblr motors on each side of the front of the vest. The control box for the vest acts as a sort of intermediary device between the PS1 and the controller, with the rumble signal being sent to the vest via an 1/8″ jack and cable.
While I haven’t dug out the PS1 to give this a try yet, I’m kind of eager to. Also going to try it with a PS2 version of RES to see if I’ve got some kind of knock off device that will work like the entrancer does. Also I kind of want to just plug it in, because in addition to being a rumble vest, it has a non gaming application: massage mode.
Although I can’t see the value in having your upper abdomen massaged with this device, maybe if it was worn in reverse so that the rumble motors massaged the back… that’s something I can see as being useful.
I bought the Space Vest though, because of it’s ephemeral status more than the possibility of it being useful to me while I play games. Often gaming history focuses on the big names and institutions in accounting for the history of the culture, and many devices such as the Space Vest end up being forgotten. In the same way that people remember the games and hardware by gaming companies, they forget to examine all the paratextual elements (such as these Sega catalogs) that influence player buying practices, and therefor modify the player experience in some way.
It’s my hope that over time that we can create more documented accounts of these lesser known aspects in the history of gaming culture.
And with that, I have to get back to work … remember to stay out of hot, humid places and direct sunlight when you play, that’s good advice anytime.
With the completion of this year’s DPAD series at Interaccess, I am free and clear to start talking about the next major exhibition/ project/ thing I’m working on. In late summer of 2012, I banded together a group of artists, programmers, and curators to join me in planning Canada’s first Game Art Festival + Symposium. Called Vector (for the myriad of directions Game Art is already moving in), it’s happening in Toronto Canada from Feb 22nd-24th. Over these four days, Vector will feature 3 exhibitions, 4 screenings, 3 evenings of performance, workshops and panels all situating games as the tools and inspirations for contemporary art making.
One of the key aspects of Vector that makes it so unique are the galleries/ venues that have come on board to support Vector by becomming programming partners and making their spaces available for the duration of the event. Interaccess Electronic Media Arts Centre, Propeller Center for the Visual Arts and Bento Miso have all signed on to house Vector and its various activities. All located within short walking distance from one another, this configuration allows us to have concurrent and staggered events that visitors and audiences members can move between, effectively turning vector into a 4 day ad hoc game art crawl.
As part of our mandate to show works by artists from all levels of experience, we have issued an open call for works, with a deadline of December 10th 2012. We’re looking for works in all media that critically address games and game art, as well as their orbiting cultures. One of the features of the festival that I’m very excited about is the Vector Annual. Part Catalogue, Part Journal, the Vector Annual will be a print companion featuring curatorial and artist statements, printed works as well as essays and articles. It will also be available as a free and open access digital download shortly after the festival.
In the next few weeks, Team Vector will be making some early programming announcements for some of the work we have already chosen to be a part of Vector. In addition we will be hosting a preview night at Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts in Toronto’s Queen West District on December 14th. More info will be made available on the Vector Website in the next few days.
Needless to say as a curator and event programmer, I have never been as excited about any project I’ve undertaken as this.
For more updates you can follow Vector on twitter @vectorgameart
With 5 short days until DPAD3, figured it was time to announce the final list of games that will be playable at the event.
Let me preface this by saying that it was really difficult choosing the games for this event. I know colleagues who have already said “Yeah, but that’s not a horror game, at least not a REAL horror game”. And in some of these cases they might be right about that. While I could have had a number of survival horror games from a variety of platforms (many of which I own) such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill or Fatal Frame, the problem is that these games simply aren’t playable faire for a large social event like DPAD3. These games are meant to be played alone, in quietude, and in the dark.
Instead I’ve chosen a mix of games that could be considered horror-based // inspired. While I’ve announced some, I have made a few ammendments to the program since then.. but instead of rambling on I’ll just get to it.
Indie Games :
3 Indies that have already been announced will be profiled heavily at the show.
They Bleed Pixels by Spooky Squid. (makes SuperMeatBoy Look easy!)
HOME by Ben Rivers(Dark moody horror inspired by old DOS horror)
Left4Dead NES by Eric Ruth.(8bit demake of Left4Dead).
Haunted House (1977) – playable on an original Atari VCS.(the original survival horror!)
CastleVania (1986) – NES. – Classic Platformer!
Zombies Ate My Neighbours (1993) – SNES. Top down zombie shooter!
Corpse Killer (1994) – Sega CD. FMV zombie shooter!
NiteMare (1994) – DOS. First Person Shooter – Based on the Hugo’s House of Horrors franchise.
Resident Evil Gaiden (2002) – GameBoy Colour. The only handheld RE adventure!
Current Gen/ Contemporary:
Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles.(2007) – Nintendo Wii – Rail Shooter Based on the RE franchise.
Left4Dead 2 (with all DLC levels). (2009) -Xbox 360. First Person Zombie Shooter. Perhaps the greatest first person zombie shooter.
Touch the Dead (2007). -Nintendo DS. Perhaps the worst named game of all time. Tap your way through a zombie horde!
Homebrew Games / Applications.
Creepy Black ReTold. (2010)- Nintendo DS. A visual novel retelling the mythical story of the mythical haunted Pokemon cartridge – Creepy Black.
Zombie Crisis (2009) – Sony PSP. A mod of the DukeNukem engine for PSP. First person zombie shooter.
So there you have it! And as if this wasn’t enough there’s 7 musical acts! .exe, DualRyan, BlipNoir, Bossfyte, Tom Danks, mrghosty, jefftheworld! plus 2 screens of video game horror visuals!! Free Candy! Costume prizes supplied by C&G magazine including Steam downloads of Ben Rivers’ home and the Walking Dead Game. and buttons featuring ghostys from different horror games!!!
See you there!
I just realized that those of you who read this blog regularly may not know that for several years now, I’ve been Broken Pencil Magazine‘s DIY tech columnist. Every issue I dedicate 500 words to the practice of DIY technology, in a piece called Error State. Much of what I’ve been writing about there are intersections between DIY (hacker) and gamer cultures. So when BP’s editor and I began a discussion about Canzine (Canada’s Largest Zine and Indie Culture Fair) we figured it was about time that we brought some of the work that I had been talking about to Canzine to show roken Pencil readers some of the work by local game makers in an environment where they could sit, play and chat with game creators.
And the Toronto DIY Games Room @ Canzine was borne.
We put out an open call to digital and non-digital game makers alike and now have a nice programme for visitors to experience. And a more recent development brings to us one of DIY gaming’s most luminous figures, whose games will be playable and who will be there in person to meet players and sign copies of her book.
That’s right! Anna Anthropy is going to be at The DIY games room selling copies of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters and signing them! TO celebrate her attendance, we will be featuring a few of her games for you to play: Keep Me Occupied, Dys4ia and Lesbian Spider Queens. A big thanks goes out to Toronto’s feminist game making collective Dames Making Games, Bento Miso and Digifest for sharing Anna with us. Anna will be Teaching a workshop at Bento Miso on OCt 19th, and speaking on a panel at Digfest on Oct 20th. This is a great chance to meet one of DIY games’ greatest champion. Rise of the VideoGame ZInester is a fantastic book that charts the history of contemporary DIY games and their makers, while featuring a wealth of information on those interested in making their own games. I highly recommend it.
In addition to Anna, we’ve got a great deal of other games coming in! Toronto’s Game Culture Non-Profit, the Hand Eye Society will be loaning us two of their handmade Indie game cabinets: The High Roller and the Twin Stick. Each cabinet has a half dozen games by local game maker, harkening back to our arcade pasts with vintage style roller ball and twin stick controls! Both are free to play!!
On the digital side we’ve got a few more game makers rounding out the programme.
Toronto’s Asteroid Base (Jamie Tucker and Matt Hammill-some of you may know Matt’s game Gesundheit) will be showcasing their game Lovers in a Dangerous Space Time. Originally made for the 2012 Global Game Jam, it’s a 2-player co-op micro-platformer set inside a pink Death Star locked in battle with hordes of space baddies. Players work together running back and forth between ship control rooms, manning turrets, lasers, shields and thrusters to rack up points and stave off a vacuumy demise. In mish-mash terms you could describe it as Jumpman meets Asteroids meets Han saying “Don’t get cocky.”
And finally on the digital side of things, we’ve got the work of one of my favorite Toronto game makers, Damian Sommer. Damian’s work often defies genre as he plays with game mechanics and our expectations. For the game room, he’ll be bringing 3 of his games: Friendship in 4 Colours: Friendships will be forged. Friendships will be tested. Friendships will be broken. The Clown Who Wanted Everything: The essence of platforming and item collecting boiled down to its raw core, then dressed back up as a clown. The Yawhg: There are six weeks before the dreaded Yawhg comes to destroy everything you know. What will you do while you await your doom?
AND with all these we’ve still got the NON-DIGITAL games.
Eric Avery will be bringing his game Catastrophe! A board game where each player take on the role of a house cat. The human has left for work and won’t be back for eight hours. It’s time to cause as much trouble as possible! Each cat must race through various rooms of the house and ruin as many objects as possible to earn points and the title of top cat!
Halifax’s Grow Giant Games will be sending us a copy of their storytelling card game SkullDuggery, where the players break into buildings, defeat traps using special Gear cards, then steal Loot. Players describe their clever plans, exactly how they use their equipment to get past the traps, to the the other players, and they then vote to determine the success or failure of the plan. A few lucky players will draw a blank wild card which they can use to create any item they wish.
Toronto’s Christopher Chung will be bringing his Card Game Tribal Clash. Fantasy elements are strewn into this game as you control Swordsmen, Archers, and Mages from various Clans and use strategy and luck to defeat your opponents! With three determinants of combat, it’s not so easy to win as you must utilize the cards effectively and read your opponents’ strategies to amass seven cards in your Dungeon; the one with the most points after all combat has concluded is determined the winner!
And lastly, I will be bringing an updated version of We Are Legion, the co-op board game where you play as Anonymous hacking corporate servers and making information free again! We Are Legion was made by myself and Alison Pattern for the 2012 Toronto Board Game Jam and took home the Best of the Jam grand prize. We’re currently labouring to get a final version out which will be available for free online in the near future.
Canzine is happening on Sunday October 21st from 1pm-7pm at the 918 Bathurst Centre, just north of Bathurst and Bloor in Toronto. See you there!
As the child of a freelance computer programmer in the 1980s, I was exposed to all kinds of computer technology from a young age. My weekends used to be spent going to the various offices of my father’s clients; while he worked coding at a terminal, I would play ascii renditions of pac-man, or traverse caves in text adventures such as Zork or Adventure. All displayed on a green and black monochrome screen. Sometimes I would print off ascii snoopy calendars on giant dot matrix printers. In those days, these printers were so large and so noisy that they had to be housed in special sound proofed rooms.
As I became a bit older, and the technology became cheaper, my father set up a home office with some high end business computing machines, over priced laser jet printers (still huge but not nearly the beasts that their dotmatrix cousins were), and COLOUR monitors! It was then that I really learned how to use computers, not simply as a user, but as a ‘programmer’. I use the term loosely of course because for some time my programming skills were nothing more than having a monitor display repeating rows of text in the old 10 Print “put text on screen”, 20 goto 1o, RUN. Not very advanced, but it opened a door.
It was around this time that my classroom ended up getting a C64 or Vic 20 installed on a desk at the back of the room. Our teacher would give us language and math puzzles to solve, and the students who did so first got access to the machine at recess. I’d play the old famous Bruce Lee game most of the time, but the rest was spent fiddling with BASIC. Learning how to load games from tape and floppy, or playing with PETscii to draw weird abstract images.
^image by Max Capacity^
It was also around this time when Scholastic (a Canadian book publisher) used to distribute sales flyers once a month in my class. It was called the Arrow Book Club, and kids had an opportunity to take these flyers home, beg their parents for a little money (or use their allowance) to buy books published by the company at discounted prices. I used to look forward so much to these flyers, so much so i would often save my allowance every month just to buy books from them.
It through the Arrow Book Club that I discovered the joys of making my ‘own’ games. Scholastic had a series of books full of BASIC computer programs which children could copy BASIC programing code from the book into the machine (usually done by having a ruler handy and going through the book line by line, typing into the computer, double checking every character to ensure it was copied correctly). After hitting RUN, I’d be subject to all kinds of animations, games, and more depending on the program I chose to input. It was a great deal of fun and gave me a sense of agency with the computer that I had never felt before. The books I recall the most are the Computer “X” series: Computer Craziness, Computer Monsters, Computer Space Adventures, and Computer Olympics (the latter being the one I remember most, rendering an ascii olympic torch whose flames flicked and waved back and forth).
These books introduced me to the concept of code literacy. As I copied and typed, I worked to understand the how’s and why of the code, what it was doing, what each character and line meant as part of the greater whole. It helped me understand that the computer wasn’t simply some mystical box, but a tool for creation. It was more than a machine meant for consumption of things, it enabled me to make things. A few years after I had been playing with computers in my leisure time, my parents divorced. My father moved himself and his home office, computers and all out of the house. I’m sad to report that it would be nearly half a decade again before I would have access to a computer at home. Due to the nature of my father’s business, and my mother’s association of computers with him, she pretty much forbade computers in the house. Unfortunately this meant that all I had learned began to wane. It was until years later that I started to learn DOS on a computer at school, but I never quite got into it in the same way again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Flash foward some 25 years or so from the time I stopped playing with BASIC. I work as an artist/ modder using video game technologies. I am a collector of vintage computers/ consoles/ paratext such as magazines and manuals. I curate game based art; art that uses game technologies and cultures as the tools and inspiration of contemporary art making.I learned a little bit about html code over the years, but never anything significant. Sometimes I think had my parents not divorced I would have continued down that path. Though quite recently, I’ve become very interested in revisiting my BASIC past and playing around with it again.
Part of the reason why I became re-interested was my discovery of a couple of vintage micro computers at junk stores and flea markets. Another was finding a bunch of old BASIC programming books, including Computer Monsters. I find myself wanting to crack open these books from my childhood and play with them like I used to. One of the key difficulties is having all the pieces to do so. Micro Computers which connect to TVs, require RF switchers, thankfully I found a couple, but I lack a CRT television. The whole thing feels like a bit of a production, and with working on a Master’s thesis and other projects I haven’t found the time / energy to do so.
I know I could use an emulator and play with them on my current computer, but for some reason that just hasn’t happened yet. But something I found last week has served as a catalyst to get me going. I was browsing the Eshop on my Nintendo 3DS for some new games to purchase (I spend the bulk of my time gaming these days on the go between school/home), and I happened upon a new piece of software on the Eshop called Petit Computer. Created by Japanese developer Smile Boom, Petit Computer is the exact tool I’ve been looking for. It’s a Basic Computer emulator / program for the DS/3DS! It has a sprite editor and a music sequencer. Thanks to this little piece of software I can now engage in my old creative tendencies while on the subway or streetcar.
What’s old is new again, and retro computing culture opens up to a whole new generation of would be game makers and coders. One of the features of Petit Computer never existed when I was a kid. The ability to share programs online with other tinkerers is built in to Petit Computer either online, or through the creation of QR codes, which contain whole programs! This kind collapsing of the old with the new is something I find very intriguing and engaging.
Speaking of old meeting new, below you’ll see a screenshot from a game called TINY Trek, which is a remake of an old ascii based Star Trek strategy sim that I also used to play back in the days when I would have access to those monochrome terminals as a kid. Seeing this makes me excited about the possibilities of play on Petit Computer, even if typing in code one character at a time on a DS touch screen seems a little tedious, I am eager to get going on it.
As my adventures in getting back to BASIC unfold, I’m going to endeavor to post the results here, although with so many plates spinning at the moment, it might be a while.