Finishing Touches

If courage is grace under pressure, than those that attended the Cabs of Curiosity event in downtown Kitchener last Thursday saw some truly courageous students. For while our MAME-cabinets were built on the first day of class back in January, new puzzle pieces emerged throughout the semester such that none of us were quite sure what was going to be on display come 7pm.

Some students realized early on in the process the picture they wanted to assemble by interlocking pieces of theory, game design, and technical interfaces. Other groups, such as ours, took more of a Rorschach route–we had this notion of an assembly line, connected with cybernetics and a straight-forward game mechanic that didn’t quite look like anything anyone would want to play. The image became clearer however, as Dani mentioned in an earlier post, when we let go of our animal rendering ‘angle’ and embraced the notion of artistic production instead. The result was a factory worker employed in the business of painting pixels. This just so happens to coincide with what McLuhan saw as the emergence of art: “[The Greeks] began to entertain the idea of a job as a repetitious assembly-line method of making goods, which is undoubtedly the source for the Greek word techné, art, or made-by-hand” (The Global Village 96).

As the the big event neared we worked diligently to assemble the last components of  our cabinet. Here we can be seen using the ancient technique of teamwork to assemble the supports for the MAME monitor platform:


'Screw goes here.'

Once the monitor was installed, we could then test the arcade controls that connected to a dedicated PC running our game. It was an interesting learning curve in terms of the technical details but I think, in the end, it produced a spiffy looking cabinet, if I do say so myself:

So, you may be asking yourself ‘But how did the game actually run?’ Fortunately we had the opportunity to engage some of the best beta-testers in the world: children.

During the event our station was quite popular with the kids in attendance and boy did they get straight to work. Well over a dozen digits started pressing multiple buttons trying to figure out what, if anything, this thing did. The kids skipped past the tutorial with brazen disregard for the proper rules and codes of conduct. As I watched over their shoulders, I felt that I understood the phrase ‘stress test’ on a whole different level. In fact, the first player managed (and we’re still not sure how) to essentially ‘break’ the game–at least insofar as ‘breaking’ means producing unexpected results. As you can see below in the sample output, our project outputs (via a printer) a mosaic of the pixels the player has painted. Each primary colour has a fixed code that is repeated twice. Players can combine colours by mixing the primary colour codes. They can also lighten or darken any colour by holding down the corresponding buttons:

One potential printout using all the colours in the game

What our young beta-tester managed was a ‘half-pixel’ in his print out. Oddly enough, the surrounding pixels appeared to compensate, filling in the gap and breaking the rigid grid structure. This came about on the first try! And it has to be one of the most positive software glitches ever discovered.

Quite a few visitors followed that opening trial–most skipped the tutorial but those that took the time to read through the list of 3 colour patterns were rewarded with a vibrant pixelated printout. Others talked about their strong/weak short term memories  that they needed to retain those colour codes. Some found it too easy. Others still boasted of their prowess only to discover that their printout couldn’t back up their words.

It was interesting and highly rewarding to see all the different kinds of play styles and approaches to the game. Certain assumptions were made by nearly all players looking for different colour codes and combinations. For example, one recurring line of thought seemed to be that “if ‘right, right, right’ produces a colour, then surely ‘left, left, left’ will produce one too!”). Some took the tandem approach, working in pairs. One mother watched while her son sat on her lap pounding away on the buttons.

I must say that I intervened every now and again, muttering a colour code or two over someone’s shoulder after they’d pumped out white pixel after white pixel (a result of a failed or nonexistent colour combo).

In a way, the game itself has its own language and each colour (say red) and each combo (purple) slowly produced a kind of impromptu literacy. The codes were largely arbitrary and, practically speaking, useless. That is, except perhaps to demonstrate how quickly we can grasp new patterns and manipulate them to produce new forms. And that is one area where our pixel-project really excelled.

That said, our project was but one of many on display in what can only be referred to as  an impressive turn out. Our shutterbug of a classmate snapped the following pics of the event, which show the other games on display, as well as a fraction of the attendees:

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The Final Countdown…

Many moons ago...

After three months of pondering over this project and working to bring our ideas (mostly) to fruition, presentation day is finally here. This evening, we’ll be sharing our work alongside an excitingly diverse range of other MAME cabinet projects created by our peers and some students from the English department’s Intro to Digital Media undergraduate class. (For more info on the event, see the UW Critical Media Lab site.)

While we’ve worked out most of the kinks in the Flash game, itself, our main obstacle as of earlier this week was the printer component. Central to our concept is the idea that users don’t actually see an on-screen version of the image they create, but instead receive a physical printed copy of their pixels-a-plenty. This reinforces the mechanical, repetitious nature of contemporary office work (modeling that of a factory assembly line), as well as the notion that users are contributing to something greater, the actual substance of which they are alienated from (a result of modern-day global capitalism). Further, we hope that the printer component reinforces the sense that human subjects have, in relation to digital media, that there is something unknown or “magical” happening inside the computer; that certain actions are linked to certain results, but the actual processes that connect them seem ubiquitous.

After tons of research, Steve has figured out a way to bypass the printer prompt to essentially automate the printing process. We’ll be testing this afternoon and hoping and praying–as Norbert Wiener would say, “bowing down before the brass calf, the idol, which is the gadget”–that everything works like it should. Even in this exercise, there’s an element of “we did what we were supposed to, now let’s just hope the computer likes it…”

Hope to see you at the CABS OF CURIOSITY event tonight, from 7-11 at the UW Critical Media Lab, 158 King St. W in Kitchener. Wish us luck!

(Sorry, couldn’t resist…)

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Fumbling Fingers: The Physicality of Digital Production

The physical "set" of the game

As we near the culmination of our project, with our Flash programming (almost) finalized, the MAME cabinet (just about) fully constructed, the controllers (for the second time) wired and mapped, and the game (essentially) glitch-free, I thought it might be appropriate to reflect on the various processes that brought the project to its current state.

The most challenging, confusing, and perhaps theoretically useful part of the process for me was preparing to create the game in Flash. Before the programming even began–a task intimidating enough for two humanities nerds with very little exposure to creating anything in Flash (or, for me, programming in general)–we had to capture and edit the images that would form the basis of the game’s visuals. Fortunately, our experience shooting and editing video earlier in the term prepared us fairly well for this component. It should be noted, however, that in order to retain our stop-motion theme, we chose to use still images to create the Flash video. Despite our previous experience, we were both struck (once again) by the extremely frustrating experience of manipulating the physical objects within the frame of our scene.

As the image above reveals, and as you can see in the screen shots of our game interface in previous posts, the central image is that of a small avatar-figure controlled by the player’s use of the cabinet controls to apply primer and colour to pixels on a conveyor belt. In the game, the avatar’s movement conveys a stop-motion aesthetic whereby he jerkily, perhaps robotically, operates a spray paint nozzle. In order to create these visuals, we had to manipulate the action figure/avatar into various positions while maintaining his consistent positioning in front of the screen, as well as ensuring the continuity of factors like light and shadow. Here, the physical limitations of our fine motor skills became glaringly obvious. Working to manipulate such a small object was challenging for our clumsy adult hands, and it’s fair to say that the little avatar man bore the brunt of this frustration. (Fortunately, we weren’t working with live subjects or we’d likely have heard from PETA by now.) Aside from challenging our dexterity, the excessive number of images we snapped of the same scene bear witness to the difficulty we experienced in ensuring that the camera position and zoom were identical to our shots of the other avatar positions.

Between the bending and adjusting, repositioning and calibrating, it became clear to me that the process of digital production (or at least our unique variety of it), from start to finish, comes nowhere near the fantasy of clean, streamlined, unencumbered, pure information. We laboured and toiled to make that scene (fortunately with minimal blood, sweat, or tears), only to arrive at the editing process wherein Steve-of-the-steady-hand employed Photoshop to meticulously trace components of the scene that would be cut and pasted into the Flash video. The production of these digital images, though aimed at the creation of something coded and screen-based, have their origins in an extremely kinesthetic and tactile process. Considering the theme with which this course concerns itself–interactions between the human and technological, relationships between embodiment and information–I found this process (although aggravating) to be extremely pertinent to our conversations this term, not to mention a helpful mode of experiential learning that, I think, makes some rather complex theory much more accessible. You’ll have to read my final paper for more on that…

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People and Pixels

It was in my movie queue for some time but I finally got around to watching Tron Legacy. For the uninitiated, the movie is a sequel to Disney’s 1982 Tron. Both movies feature the complete and utter digitization of the protagonist, flawlessly transporting (transcoding?) the fleshy body into a world of personified programs and brutal combat. This ain’t no Star Trek holodeck or the collective consciousness of The Maxtrix–these people leave this world entirely to appear as themselves, fully mobile, on the circuit board of the computer. This was the original aim of our MAME project but…well, time constraints.

The Tron-experience, if it can be called that, epitomizes the transhumanist dream of a fully immersive digital environment for the disembodied human. What’s more, such a realm is populated by subservient women and Jeff Bridges. Which makes complete sense–the hardware in which this world persists was built in the 80s. The only lingering question is: where are the Solid Gold dancers? (I guess in this case it should be the ‘solid gold 10-pin female socket connectors’).

Tron and its 2010 sequel enter the realm of absurd pop-culture projects that people may actually believe exist at the pinnacle of technological achievement. In fact, that ‘realm’ is quite heavily populated and that means it’s likely time to parody such a body of work.

In a similar manner, as we get inundated with high-definition video and CGI, we’ll likely see ‘retro’ projects retrieving the old techniques and styles. You can see this in recent videogame releases that adopted a low-fi or ‘pixelated’ look–many of which are actually vector images that can be readily scaled, surpassing the limitations of previous mediums (Atari, Gameboy) while tapping into the now nostalgic aesthetic appeal.

The upcoming 'Sword and Sworcery' for the iPad + iPhone adopts an '8-bit' aesthetic combined with other hi-fi techniques

And thus we come to our as-of-yet unnamed MAME project. As detailed in the previous post, in the game the player controls an avatar working in a pixel factory. The worker’s job is to paint the pixels that come down the assembly line using primer and a variety of colour mixtures. As the player, you match and combine a variety of combos in order to create those colour mixtures. Once the pixel is finished it moves down the assembly line and a ‘fresh’ pixel is ready to go. What remains unknown to our labourer is that these pixels are actually forming a larger (5×5 pixel) picture that will be printed upon completing the game.

Unlike the digitized Jeff Bridges, players are simply manipulating an already disembodied individual who gets to perform all the menial labour. Or does he? With the spastic combos, the limited time (8 seconds per pixel) and repetitive nature of the game mechanics, the player is actually the one performing the real-world labour to produce the colour for the in-game avatar. Unlike the factory worker, however, the player gets rewarded with seeing the collective output of their input:

A successfully coloured pixel heads down the factory line after the player entered the blue and yellow colour codes

It’s by no means simple, but once you get a handle on the colour codes it’s possible to build a complete picture–you just need to visualize it in your mind beforehand:


It’s a tree! (In our eco-minded world the tree is the new ‘Hello World!’)

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New Directions

After grappling with the questionable ethics and apparent nihilism of the pig rendering factory, we decided to explore other ways in which we could incorporate the notion of rendering into our game cabinet. The term denotes a range of different, though related, practices that extend beyond the animal waste processing industry to include digital video and image rendering, music/audio rendering, and “traditional” artistic rendering.

We decided we weren’t quite ready to do away with the factory setting and stop-motion aesthetics, so we tested the idea of simply swapping out our unfortunate pig for a painter’s canvas (for us, this called to mind “The Factory” à la Andy Warhol). In our new concept, the factory worker is responsible for applying colour to empty canvasses, each of which represents one pixel in a larger image that the game player is attempting to produce. The role of the game player remains similar in the sense that, in order to fill the pixel with colour, he/she must use the joystick and cabinet buttons to duplicate the pattern that appears on the screen (for example, “2 > >”). In the remaining time, he or she must then select a colour for the pixel by entering the correct colour code. Using primary colours (red, yellow, blue) requires the player to input the corresponding three-digit pattern (for example, adding “< < 3” paints the pixel red), while creating secondary colours demands that the player “mix” two primary colours by entering the codes for each in succession (thereby entering a total of six digits). If the player doesn’t complete the pattern matching and colour attribution task in the allotted time, the pixel does not get painted and appears white in the final image.

As before, the display shows an image of the avatar-worker standing (back to the player) at the conveyer belt. Alongside the pattern that appears, the player also sees a gridded representation of the image that he/she is creating that allows the player to track his/her progress in the game (each square in the grid corresponds to a pixel; this is a simplified representation of the image being produced. Ideally, the player never sees the image they are creating on the screen.). There will be some reward for fast performance, such as the opportunity to obtain codes for new colours or to mix different colours together (we’re still working on this component).

Pixelated panorama

Once the player has attempted to fill each pixel, the image is “complete” and the game ends with the output of the player’s performance being sent to a printer. The printed image reveals, not the small grid that displays on the screen, but the actual pixel-image that the player has generated. This image is only ever displayed in the form of a printed “art object” and never on the cabinet screen, itself. “Success” in the game can be measured by the infrequency of white space, which denotes successful matching of the displayed patterns and inputting of colour codes. The less white space, the better the player has fared in the game. However, this element may also be subverted in the sense that, as the player learns the game, he/she may intentionally white-out pixels in order to create a desired effect in the final output.

The role of the player is different from the pig rendering factory in the sense that her/his actions, though in some senses scripted, are much more autonomous. While the game may dictate certain expectations and the player may be rewarded for meeting these, the player also has the freedom to act against these expectations and to explore other possible outcomes without experiencing negative repercussions in the game.

This concept allows us to explore notions of information and materiality, the technics of art and digital production, the codification of knowledge/the arbitrary nature of code, the potential for new media to be subversive, the politics of rendering… etc.

Our challenges will be finding ways to keep the player engaged in what could potentially become a tedious or monotonous game, as well as determining what the printed image will look like and what size it will be. We’ve also considered providing players with a “code image” alongside the printed image that reproduces the patterns they used to generate the output. We have some decisions to make and a lot of Flash experimenting to do, but we’re confident that this idea will provide us with significantly more room for exploration of the course concepts and a more open-ended, nuanced experience for game players.

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Into the Fold

The quest for control

In perhaps its broadest sense, our MAME cabinet intends to explore how humans and technology act on one another. With this general idea come a variety of difficult, sometimes over-worn, perhaps unimportant, and even unanswerable questions, the most obtuse (for me) being “who controls whom?” Our interactions with technology have tangled into such a complex web, but then again, have these not always been complex, at least relatively speaking? As we explored during our reading of Hansen’s Bodies in Code, humans have coevolved with their technical implements in a process of epiphylogenesis in such a way that the physical body has altered in relation to changing technics, perhaps as much as the implements, themselves, have evolved in relation to changes in human activity.

Last week’s seminar focused on embodiment, materiality, and information as elucidated in Anna Munster’s Materializing New Media. Covering similar terrain to Hansen, Munster attempts to defend the complexity of embodiment through a reading of Descartes that reveals his significant departure from the dualistic tenets of Cartesianism. Instead, Munster argues that Descartes, through his work on the passions, maintains a complex understanding of embodiment as consisting of a synthesis between mind and body. This analysis of Descartes becomes the foundation upon which Munster builds the concept of the fold as a useful and compelling structure for challenging binary ways of thinking about embodiment and envisioning the confluences and dissonances, continuities and discontinuities that emerge when we think about relationships between mind and body.

In much the same way that our bodies’ component parts fold into one another in inextricable ways, our bodes also fold into the systems and environments they inhabit. In class, we discussed the concept of “unlimited finity,” which denotes the openness of the body in the context of outside systems and the resulting infinitude of possible transformations and hybridizations. While Munster does not discuss this concept directly, much of her writing points to infinite possibilities for human embodiment. She notes:

Although a surface appraisal of phenomena such as VR or telepresent artworks may tender proof that we are gaining a distance from both the material of our bodies and the ability of art to directly affect the senses, I believe this appraisal rests upon an impoverished view of materiality and an unimaginative evaluation of new media art. Instead, I think that the incorporeal vectors of digital information draw out the capacities of our bodies to become other than matter conceived of as a mere vessel for consciousness or a substrate for signal.In particular, we might point to the odd kinaesthetic and proprioceptive arrangements for bodies in many information interfaces, where the embodied self is forced into close proximity with itself as a dematerialized representation via the cursor, the feedback and sensory compression in online interaction… [We may] conceive of these experiences as a new territory made possible by the fact that our bodies are immanently open to these kinds of technically symbiotic transformations (Munster 19, emphasis mine).

The notion of “unlimited finity” also extends Hansen’s (and Merleau-Ponty’s) theory of body schema, whereby the inseparability of physical embodiment in the technical world from neural activity results in feedback loops that place materiality and information in constant coevolution. We may also recall Hayles’ notion in How We Became Posthuman of the posthuman subject as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (3).

In working with concepts for our MAME cabinet project, it’s been rather difficult entertaining the complexities that I’ve been discussing here. The game requirement forces us to think quite seriously about how the teleology of our narrative reflects a particular theoretical inclination. We’ve struggled with concepts that seemed either too heavy-handed or not definitive enough. In placing the user into direct interaction with this installation piece/object-to-think-with/game cabinet, our project has the power to frame the user’s experience of technological interaction, even if it cannot prescribe exactly what the user will take away or how she will understand the experience. It will be crucial for us to think about how our constructed game scenario (including the user’s physical interaction with the cabinet) reflects a particular understanding of the technological interface, as much as it will be imperative to avoid reducing the complex folds of bodies, minds, and systems to a question of control.

Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Hanover (NH): University Press of New England, 2006.

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Concept Art for a Game Concept

A mock-up of an in-game screenshot

If you’ve been following our blog the above image should seem vaguely familiar to you. It continues the rough ideas depicted in our concept video; namely, of a pig rendering facility operated by a lone worker. You can see in the upper-corners the stats for quotas and cash earned per-render. At first this idea may seem rather crude and not altogether animal-friendly but what we hope to explore and dramatize are the unseen aspects of not only food production, but the pervasive exhaustion of the animal by-products that follow there from. What’s more, the game mechanics exhibit a mechanizing of both the in-game avatar (as he/she becomes further invested and integrated with the facility) and the player (who, throughout the game, hones their pattern matching skills via joysticks and buttons, similar to those used by the in-game character). We’ll delve more into the ethics of the project in a later post, but for now I’ll just be covering the concept art.

In the above image, each ‘item’ (i.e. glue bottle, pig, worker, rendering-hood, etc) exists as a distinct layer. Once imported into a program like Adobe Flash those items can be set into motion along the conveyor belt. The images themselves were created in a two-step process.

1. First, the rendering facility was created using the Unreal Engine and UnrealEd. This 10-year-old videogame Software Development Kit (SDK) was selected for its simplicity in terms of level design and texture set (indeed, low-fidelity is preferable here given what takes place in step 2). The conveyor belt and surrounding factory were built and textured before adding an in-game Non-Player Character (NPC) to stand in for our worker. The level was then built and run, allowing us to take in-game screenshots.

2. Those screenshots were then imported into Adobe Photoshop. The movable components were isolated by essentially cutting them out of the image and re-inserting them as superimposed layers. Then the images had a filter applied to them that provided a more abstract and uniform artistic appeal. This is important, as it allows us to import commons-images and apply the same filter to attain a uniform art direction in the final product.

Another crucial aspect of the game is the ‘Progress Report’ screen. The image below presents what the report may look like in-game, detailing in a morbidly abstract manner the ‘progress’ of the factory.

Concept art of the Progress Report screen

With these images in mind, we can move forward with Flash as we implement the pattern-matching game mechanics and set the factory in motion. Look for a post on that process in the coming weeks.

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