Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort, inaugurated the Platform Studies series at MIT Press in 2009. We’ve coauthored a new book in the series (currently under contract and final review, MIT Press), Codename: Revolution: the Nintendo Wii Video Game Console. Platform studies is a quintessentially Digital-Humanities approach, since it’s explicitly focused on the interrelationship of computing and cultural expression. According to the series preface, the goal of platform studies is “to consider the lowest level of computing systems and to understand how these systems relate to culture and creativity.” In practice, this involves paying close attention to specific hardware and software interactions--to the vertical relationships between a platform’s multilayered materialities (Hayles; Kirschenbaum), from transistors to code to cultural reception. Any given act of platform-studies analysis may focus for example on the relationship between the chipset and the OS, or between the graphics processor and display parameters or game developers’ designs. In computing terms, platform is an abstraction (Bogost and Montfort), a pragmatic frame placed around whatever hardware-and-software configuration is required in order to build or run certain specific applications (including creative works). The object of platform studies is thus a shifting series of possibility spaces, any number of dynamic thresholds between discrete levels of a system. As with the “text” in recent textual studies (McKenzie; McGann), the “platform” in platform studies is actually observed in action, as one or more transactional events, defined in the act of observation or performance. In this sense, platform studies examines the ways in which material conditions of computing systems determine (by constraining and affording) the experience of creative or expressive works.
Although there are now competing systems coming on to the market from Microsoft (Kinect) and Sony (Move), Nintendo’s Wii (2006) was the first major video game console to be based on motion control, to make use of what Jesper Juul has called a mimetic interface to capture player movements in physical space and represent those movements in the game world. This paper will explain and demonstrate in precise terms how that’s made possible through the use of a relatively off-the-shelf multichannel system of infrared (IR) and Bluetooth communications, along with data collected dynamically by the Analog Devices ADXL330 triple-axis accelerometer, a MEMS (Micro Electronic Mechanical Systems) device, a chip inside the wand-like Wii Remote--a tiny machine, with moving parts that measures motion along X, Y, and Z axes in relation to gravity. In this paper we’ll show how this piece of hardware with accompanying code is used to design new software for the Wii, and we’ll illustrate some of the specific constraints and affordances of the accelerometer by tracing the particular case study of third-party software developer Ubisoft’s Samurai-Western FPS games, Red Steel I and II. The two games in this franchise mark points on a brief timeline, starting with the release of the first realistic action adventure game in 2006, as an exclusive title for the original Wii platform, followed by its relative critical failure, and then, four years later, the subsequent introduction of a “reboot” sequel, with completely revamped, cel-shaded, manga-style aesthetics, and all-new swordplay mechanics. This second game was timed to coincide with Nintendo’s release of the controller add-on, Wii MotionPlus, a second MEMS device that plugs into the base of the Wii Remote and contains a “tuning-fork” gyroscope (the Invensense IDG-600), and thus adds more measurable dimensions to the system, giving the controller pseudo-global sensitivity and something closer to 1:1 mapping of player motions with in-game events. (This retrofit solution has now been superseded with the release of a new Wii Remote that ships with integrated versions of the two MEMS devices combined in one controller.)
That timeline, from 2006-2010, clearly marked a learning curve for Ubisoft’s developers (including moving to the LyN 3D game engine, designed for the Wii, to make the second game), and the radical changes they made over the intervening four years serve as a vivid example of creative works being shaped in response to (and anticipation of) the constraints and affordances of a specific platform. The story of the two Red Steels highlights an important fact--that a video game console is in effect a platform for production, transmission, publishing, and player reception, all in one system. In this way, a game platform--even at the lowest level--is an inherently social phenomenon, determined by developer as well as consumer and player expectations. Drawing from textual studies’ idea of the social text, we’ll argue that the “social platform” that is the object of platform studies is “social” in a particular sense: it’s based on the relational materialities that both constrain and afford the production, transmission, and reception of creative works, the whole process that links hardware and software design to the player and the wider culture. This paper will illustrate this larger theoretical point by explaining one chain of concrete materialities on multiple levels in the case of Red Steel for the Wii--from tiny MEMS devices to in-game graphics, programming to marketing, transistors to cultural contexts.
Bogost, Ian and Nick Montfort 2009 Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System., MIT Press Cambridge, MA
Hayles, N. Katherine 2008 Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, University of Notre Dame Notre Dame, IN
Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. 2008 Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, MIT Press Cambridge, MA
McGann, Jerome J. 1985 Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, University of Chicago Press Chicago
McKenzie, D. F. 1986 Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. The Panizzi Lectures, 1985., The British Library London