#SCMS15 — Post-Cinema, Digital Seriality, and a Book Giveaway!

2015-03-10 06.03.52 pm

Only two weeks until the 2015 Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference (March 25-29 in Montreal)! In case you haven’t seen it already, the official program is now up here (warning: opens as a PDF).

As I have posted before, I will be participating in two panels this year:

First, I will be serving as chair on the “Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory” panel (Session K7: Friday, March 27, 9:00 – 10:45am), for which I feel extremely lucky to have secured an all-star lineup of panelists: Steven Shaviro, Patricia Pisters, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Mark B. N. Hansen (click on each name to read the panelists’ abstracts). I also feel very honored that the Media and the Environment Special Interest Group has chosen this panel for official sponsorship!

Second, I will be co-presenting a paper on “Hardware Seriality” with my colleague Andreas Jahn-Sudmann in the “Digital Seriality” panel (Session Q20: Saturday, March 28, 3:00 – 4:45pm). Other panelists include Scott Higgins and Dominik Maeder (click for their abstracts). (Unfortunately, Daniela Wentz will not be able to attend the conference.)

Finally, just for fun: A BOOK GIVEAWAY! The first person to ask me (in person, during the conference) about my book Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface (excerpt here) will get a free copy! So be on the lookout!

Mario Modding Madness

2015-02-03 09.24.30 pm

In case you missed it: you can watch a split-screen video presentation of my digital humanities-oriented talk, “Visualizing Digital Seriality,” which I gave last Friday, January 30, 2015, at Duke University — here (or click the image above).

More about the project can be found here.

Livestream: Visualizing Digital Seriality

2015-01-28 02.54.54 pm

According to the Duke Visualization Friday Forum website, my talk this Friday — “Visualizing Digital Seriality: Correlating Code and Community in the Super Mario Modding Scene” — will be streamed live: here.

The talk will take place at 12:00 Eastern time, Jan. 30, 2015.

SCMS 2015 Preliminary Schedule Online — #SCMS15

montreat2015

The preliminary schedule for the Society of Cinema and Media Studies 2015 conference in Montreal is now online (here). As I posted recently, I will be involved in two separate panels:

First, I will be chairing the panel on “Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory” (panel K7, Friday, March 27, 2015, 9:00-10:45am) — with presenters Steven Shaviro, Patricia Pisters, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Mark B. N. Hansen. You can find the complete panel description, as well as individual abstracts, here. Note also that all participants on this panel are contributors to the forthcoming Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, which I am co-editing with Julia Leyda.

Second, I will be participating in a panel on “Digital Seriality” (panel Q20, Saturday, March 28, 2015, 3:00-4:45pm) — along with Andreas Jahn-Sudmann, Scott Higgins, Dominik Maeder, and Daniela Wentz. Panel description and abstracts can be found here. And, as with the other panel, this one too has a tie-in with a publication: all the participants on this panel were contributors to the special issue of Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture that Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and I edited on the topic of “Digital Seriality.”

Out Now: Digital Seriality — Special Issue of Eludamos

eludamos-digital-seriality-cover

The latest issue of Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture, a special issue devoted to the topic of “Digital Seriality” — edited by yours truly, together with Andreas Jahn-Sudmann — is now out! Weighing in at 198 pages, this is one of the fattest issues yet of the open-access journal, and it’s jam-packed with great stuff like:

  • Patrick LeMieux on the culture and technology of tool-assisted speedrunning
  • Jens Bonk on the serial structure of Halo
  • Scott Higgins on the ludic pre-history of gaming in serial films
  • Lisa Gotto on ludic seriality and digital typography
  • Tobias Winnerling on the serialization of history in “historical” games
  • Till Heilmann on Flappy Bird and the seriality of digits
  • David B. Nieborg on the political economy of blockbuster games
  • Rikke Toft Nørgård and Claus Toft-Nielsen on LEGO as an environment for serial play
  • Dominik Maeder and Daniela Wentz on serial interfaces and memes
  • Maria Sulimma on cross-medium serialities in The Walking Dead!

So what are you waiting for? Do yourself a favor and check out this issue now!

Visualizing Digital Seriality, Or: All Your Mods Are Belong to Us!

Visualizing_Digital_Seriality

In this post, I want to outline some ongoing work in progress that I’ve been pursuing as part of my postdoctoral research project on seriality as an aesthetic form and as a process of collectivization in digital games and gaming communities. The larger context, as readers of this blog will know, is a collaborative project I am conducting with Andreas Jahn-Sudmann of the Freie Universität Berlin, titled “Digital Seriality” — which in turn is part of an even larger research network, the DFG Research Unit “Popular Seriality–Aesthetics and Practice.” I’ll touch on this bigger picture here and there as necessary, but I want to concentrate more specifically in the following on some thoughts and research techniques that I’ve been developing in the context of Victoria Szabo’s “Historical & Cultural Visualization” course, which I audited this semester at Duke University. In this hands-on course, we looked at a number of techniques and technologies for conducting digital humanities-type research, including web-based and cartographic research and presentation, augmented and virtual reality, and data-intensive research and visualization. We engaged with a great variety of tools and applications, approaching them experimentally in order to evaluate their particular affordances and limitations with respect to humanities work. My own engagements were guided by the following questions: How might the tools and methods of digital humanities be adapted for my research on seriality in digital games, and to what end? What, more specifically, can visualization techniques add to the study of digital seriality?

I’ll try to offer some answers to these questions in what follows, but let me indicate briefly why I decided to pursue them in the first place. To begin with, seriality challenges methods of single-author and oeuvre or work-centric approaches, as serialization processes unfold across oftentimes long temporal frames and involve collaborative production processes — including not only team-based authorship in industrial contexts but also feedback loops between producers and their audiences, which can exert considerable influence on the ongoing serial development. Moreover, such tendencies are exacerbated with the advent of digital platforms, in which these feedback loops multiply and and accelerate (e.g. in Internet forums established or monitored by serial content producers and, perhaps more significantly, in real-time algorithmic monitoring of serialized consumption on platforms like Netflix), while the contents of serial media are themselves subject to unprecedented degrees of proliferation, reproduction, and remix under conditions of digitalization. Accordingly, an incredible amount of data is generated, so that it is natural to wonder whether any of the methods developed in the digital humanities might help us to approach phenomena of serialization in the digital era. In the context of digital games and game series, the objects of study — both the games themselves and the online channels of communication around which gaming communities form — are digital from the start, but there is such an overwhelming amount of data to sort through that it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. As a result, visualization techniques in particular seem like a promising route to gaining some perspective, or (to mix metaphors a bit) for establishing a first foothold in order to begin climbing what appears an insurmountable mountain of data. Of particular interest here are: 1) “distant reading” techniques (as famously elaborated by Franco Moretti), which might be adapted to the objects of digital games, and 2) tools for network analysis, which might be applied in order to visualize and investigate social formations that emerge around games and game series.

Inter-Ludic-Seriality

Before elaborating on how I have undertaken to employ these approaches, let me say a bit more about the framework of my project and the theoretical perspective on digital seriality that Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and I have developed at greater length in our jointly authored paper “Digital Seriality.” Our starting point for investigating serial forms and processes in games and gaming communities is what we call “inter-ludic seriality” — that is, the serialization processes that take place between games, establishing series such as Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, 3 etc. or Pokemon Red and Blue, Gold and Silver, Ruby and Sapphire, Black and White etc. For the most part, such inter-ludic series are constituted by fairly standard, commercially motivated practices of serialization, expressed in sequels, spin-offs, and the like; accordingly, they are a familiar part of the popular culture that has developed under capitalist modernity since the time of industrialization. Thus, there is lots of continuity with pre-digital seriality, but there are other forms of seriality involved as well.

Intra-Ludic-Seriality

“Intra-ludic seriality” refers to processes of repetition and variation that take place within games themselves, for example in the 8 “worlds” and 32 “levels” of Super Mario Bros. Here, a general framework is basically repeated while varying and in some cases increasingly difficult tasks and obstacles are introduced as Mario searches for the lost princess. Following cues from Umberto Eco and others, this formula of “repetition + variation” is taken here as the formal core of seriality; games can therefore be seen to involve an operational form of seriality that is in many ways more basic than, while often foundational to, the narrative serialization processes that they also display.

Para-Ludic-Seriality

Indeed, this low-level seriality is matched by higher-level processes that encompass but go beyond the realm of narrative — beyond even the games themselves. What we call “para-ludic seriality” involves tie-ins and cross-overs with other media, including the increasingly dominant trend towards transmedia storytelling, aggressive merchandising, and the like. Clearly, this is part of an expanding commercial realm, but it is also the basis for more.

Serial-Superstructure

There is a social superstructure, itself highly serialized, that forms around or atop these serialized media, as fans take to the Internet to discuss (and play) their favorite games. In itself, this type of series-based community-building is nothing new. In fact, it may just be a niche form of a much more general phenomenon that is characteristic for modernity at large. Benedict Anderson and Jean-Paul Sartre before him have described modern forms of collectivity in terms of “seriality,” and they have linked these formations to serialized media consumption and those media’s serial forms — newspapers, novels, photography, and radio have effectively “serialized” community and identity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Infra-Ludic-Seriality

Interestingly, though, in the digital era, this high-level community-building seriality is sometimes folded into an ultra low-level, “infra-ludic” level of seriality — a level that is generally invisible and that takes place at the level of code. (I have discussed this level before, with reference to the BASIC game Super Star Trek, but I have never explicitly identified it as “infra-ludic seriality” before.) This enfolding of community into code, broadly speaking, is what motivates the enterprise of critical code studies, when it is defined (for example, by Mark Marino) as

an approach that applies critical hermeneutics to the interpretation of computer code, program architecture, and documentation within a socio-historical context. CCS holds that lines of code are not value-neutral and can be analyzed using the theoretical approaches applied to other semiotic systems in addition to particular interpretive methods developed particularly for the discussions of programs. Critical Code Studies follows the work of Critical Legal Studies, in that it practitioners apply critical theory to a functional document (legal document or computer program) to explicate meaning in excess of the document’s functionality, critiquing more than merely aesthetics and efficiency. Meaning grows out of the functioning of the code but is not limited to the literal processes the code enacts. Through CCS, practitioners may critique the larger human and computer systems, from the level of the computer to the level of the society in which these code objects circulate and exert influence.

Basically, then, the questions that I am here pursuing are concerned with the possibilities of crossing CCS with DH — and with observing the consequences for a critical investigation of digital game-based seriality. My goal in this undertaking is to find a means of correlating formations in the high-level superstructure with the infra-ludic serialization at the level of code — not only through close readings of individual texts but by way of large collections of data produced by online collectives.

Romhacking

As a case study, I have been looking at ROMhacking.net, a website devoted to the community of hackers and modders of games for (mostly) older platforms and consoles. “Community” is an important notion in the site’s conception of itself and its relation to its users, as evidenced in the site’s “about” page:

ROMhacking.net is the innovative new community site that aggressively aims to bring several different areas of the community together. First, it serves as a successor to, and merges content from, ROMhacking.com and The Whirlpool. Besides being a simple archive site, ROMhacking.net’s purpose is to bring the ROMhacking Community to the next level. We want to put the word ‘community’ back into the ROMhacking community.

The ROMhacking community in recent years has been scattered and stagnant. It is our goal and hope to bring people back together and breathe some new life into the community. We want to encourage new people to join the hobby and make it easier than ever for them to do so.

Among other things, the site includes a vast collection of Super Mario Bros. mods (at the time of writing, 205 different hacks, some of which include several variations). These are fan-based modifications of Nintendo’s iconic game from 1985, which substitute different characters, add new levels, change the game’s graphics, sound, or thematic elements, etc. — hence perpetuating an unofficial serialization process that runs parallel to Nintendo’s own official game series, and forming the basis of communal formations through more or less direct manipulation of computer code (in the form of assembly language, hex code, or mediated through specialized software platforms, including emulators and tools for altering the game). In other words, the social superstructure of serial collectivity gets inscribed directly into the infra-ludic level of code, leaving traces that can be studied for a better understanding of digital seriality.

But how should we study them? Even this relatively small sample is still quite large by the standards of a traditional, close reading-based criticism. What would we be looking for anyway? The various mods are distributed as patches (.ips files) which have to be applied to a ROM file of the original game; the patches are just instruction files indicating how the game’s code is to be modified by the computer. As such, the patch files can be seen, rather abstractly, as crystallizations of the serialization process: if repetition + variation is the formal core of seriality, the patches are the records of pure variation, waiting to be plugged back into the framework of the game (the repeating element). But when we do plug it back in, then what? We can play the game in an emulator, and certainly it would be interesting — but extremely time-consuming — to compare them all in terms of visual appearance, gameplay, and interface. Or we can open the modified game file in a hex editor, in which case we might get lucky and find an interesting trace of the serialization process, such as the following:

2014-12-02 12.23.19 pm

Similar to Super Star Trek with its REM comments documenting its own serial and collective genesis, here we find an embedded infratext in the hexcode of “Millennium Mario,” a mod by an unknown hacker reportedly dating back to January 1, 2000. Note, in particular, the reference to a fellow modder, “toma,” the self-glorifying “1337” comment, and the skewed ASCII art — all signs of a community of serialization operating at a level subterranean to gameplay. But this example also demonstrates the need for a more systematic approach — as well as the obstacles to systematicity, for at stake here is not just code but also the software we use to access it and other “parergodic” elements, including even the display window size or “view” settings of the hex editor:

Millennium-Resize-Infratext

In a sense, this might be seen as a first demonstration of the importance of visualization not only in the communication of results but in the constitution of research objects! In any case, it clearly establishes the need to think carefully about what it is, precisely, that we are studying: serialization is not imprinted clearly and legibly in the code, but is distributed in the interfaces of software and hardware, gameplay and modification, code and community.

Again, I follow Mark Marino’s conception of critical code studies, particularly with respect to his broad understanding of the object of study:

What can be interpreted?

Everything. The code, the documentation, the comments, the structures — all will be open to interpretation. Greater understanding of (and access to) these elements will help critics build complex readings. In “A Box Darkly,” discussed below, Nick Montfort and Michael Mateas counter Cayley’s claim of the necessity for executability, by acknowledging that code can be written for programs that will never be executed. Within CCS, if code is part of the program or a paratext (understood broadly), it contributes to meaning. I would also include interpretations of markup languages and scripts, as extensions of code. Within the code, there will be the actual symbols but also, more broadly, procedures, structures, and gestures. There will be paradigmatic choices made in the construction of the program, methods chosen over others and connotations.

In addition to symbols and characters in the program files themselves, paratextual features will also be important for informed readers. The history of the program, the author, the programming language, the genre, the funding source for the research and development (be it military, industrial, entertainment, or other), all shape meaning, although any one reading might emphasize just a few of these aspects. The goal need not be code analysis for code’s sake, but analyzing code to better understand programs and the networks of other programs and humans they interact with, organize, represent, manipulate, transform, and otherwise engage.

But, especially when we’re dealing with a large set of serialized texts and paratexts, this expansion of code and the attendant proliferation of data exacerbates our methodological problems. How are we to conduct a “critical hermeneutics” of the binary files, their accompanying README files, the ROMhacking website, and its extensive database — all of which contain information relevant to an assessment of the multi-layered processes of digital seriality? It is here, I suggest, that CCS can profit from combination with DH methods.

2014-12-08 03.44.57 pm

The first step in my attempt to do so was to mine data from the ROMhacking website and paratexts distributed with the patches and to create a spreadsheet with relevant metadata (you can download the Excel file here: SMB-Hacks-Dec1). On this basis, I began trying to analyze and visualize the data with Tableau. But while this yielded some basic information that might be relevant for assessing the serial community (e.g. the number of mods produced each year, including upward and downward trends; a list of the top modders in the community; and a look at trends in the types of mods/hacks being produced), the visualizations themselves were not very interesting or informative on their own (click on the image below for an interactive version):

2014-12-08 04.02.56 pm

How could this high-level metadata be coordinated with and brought to bear on the code-level serialization processes that we saw in the hexcode above? In looking for an answer, it became clear that I would have to find a way to collect some data about the code. The mods, themselves basically just “diff” files, could be opened and compared with the “diff” function that powers a lot of DH-based textual analysis (for example, with juxta), but the hexadecimal code that we can access here — and the sheer amount of it in each modded game, which consists of over 42000 bytes — is not particularly conducive to analysis with such tools. Many existing hex editors also include a “diff” analysis, but it occurred to me that it would be more desirable to have a graphical display of differences between the files in order to see the changes at a glance. My thinking here was inspired by hexcompare, a Linux-based visual diff program for quickly visualizing the differences between two binary programs:

hexcompare

However, the comparison here is restricted to local use on a Linux machine, and it only considers two files at a time. If this type of analysis is to be of any use for seriality studies, it will have to assess a much larger set of files and/or automate the comparison process. This is where Eric Monson and Angela Zoss from Visualization & Information Services at Duke University came in and helped me to develop an alternative approach. Eric Monson wrote a script that analyzes the mod patch files and records the basic “diff” information they contain: the address or offset at which they instruct the computer to modify the game file, as well as the number of bytes that they instruct it to write. With this information (also recorded in the Excel file linked to above), a much more useful and interactive visualization can be created with Tableau (click for an interactive version):

2014-12-08 04.38.04 pm

Here, Gannt charts are used to represent the size and location of changes that a given mod makes to the original Mario game; it is possible to see a large number of these mods at a single glance, to filter them by year, by modder, by title, or even size (some mods expand the original code), etc., and in this way we can begin to see patterns emerging. Thus, we bring a sort of “distant reading” to the level of code, combining DH and CCS. (Contrast this approach with Marino’s 2006 call to “make the code the text,” which despite his broad understanding of code and acknowledgement that software/hardware and text/paratext distinctions are non-absolute, was still basically geared towards a conception of CCS that encouraged critical engagements of the “close-reading” type. As I have argued, however, researching seriality in particular requires that we oscillate between big-picture and micro-level analyses, between distant readings of larger trends and developments and detailed comparisons between individual elements or episodes in the serial chain.)

But to complete this approach, we still need to correlate this code-based data with the social level of online modding communities. For this purpose, I used Palladio (a tool explicitly designed for DH work by the Humanities + Design lab at Stanford) to graph networks on the basis of metadata contained in Readme.txt files.

shout-outs

Here, I have mapped the references (“shout-outs,” etc) that modders made to one another in these paratexts, thus revealing a picture of digital seriality as an imagined community of modders.

community-references

Here, on the other hand, I have mapped references from paratextual materials associated with individual mods to various online communities that have come and gone over the years. We see early references to the defunct TEKhacks, by way of Zophar’s Domain, Acmlm’s and Insectduel’s boards, with more recent references to Romhacking.net, the most recent community site and the one that I am studying here.

smb3-references

As an example of how the social network and code-level analyses might be correlated, here I’ve filtered the network graph to show only those modders who refer in their paratexts to Super Mario Bros. 3 (hence bringing inter-ludic seriality to bear on their para- and infra-ludic interventions). The resulting graph reveals a small network of actors whose serializing activity involves mixing and referencing between SMB1 and SMB3, as well as between each other. The Tableau screenshot on the right then selects just these modders and reveals possible similarities and sites of serialization (for closer scrutiny with hexcompare or tools derived from the modding community itself). For example, we find that the modder AP’s SMB3-inspired patches from September 2005 and flamepanther’s SMB DX patches from Oct 2005 exhibit traces of possible overlap that deserve to be looked at in detail. The modder insectduel’s After World 8 (a mod that is referenced by many in the scene) from February 2006 shares large blocks around 31000-32000 bytes with many of the prolific modder Googie’s mods (which themselves seem to exhibit a characteristic signature) from 2004-2006. Of course, recognizing these patterns is just the beginning of inquiry, but at least it is a beginning. From here, we still have to resort to “close reading” techniques and to tools that are not conducive to a broad view; more integrated toolsets remain to be developed. Nevertheless, these methods do seem promising as a way of directing research, showing us where to look in greater depth, and revealing trends and points of contact that would otherwise remain invisible.

Finally, by way of conclusion and to demonstrate what some of this more detailed work looks like, I’d like to return to the “Millennium Mario” mod I considered briefly above. As we saw, there was an interesting infratextual shoutout and some ASCII art in the opening section of the hexcode. With Tableau, we can filter the “diff” view to display only those mods that exhibit changes in the first 500 bytes of code, and to map that section of code in greater resolution (this is done with the slider in the bottom right corner, marked “Start” — referring to the byte count at which a change in the game starts):

Millennium-and-other-earlybytemods1

Here we find two distinctive (visual) matches: viz. between “Millennium Mario” and Raysyde’s “Super Mario Bros. – Remix 2” from 1999, and between ATA’s “Super Mario Bros. – Yoshi’s Quest” and Krillian’s “Mario Adventure 2,” both from 2000. The latter two mods, while clearly different from the former two, also exhibit some overlap in the changes made to the first 20 or so bytes, so it will be interesting to compare them as well.

hexcompare-SMBRemix2-Millennium-b

Now we can use hexcompare for finer analysis — i.e. to determine if the content of the changed addresses is also identical (the visual match only tells us that something has been changed in the same place, not whether the same change has been made there).

hexcompare-SMBRemix2-Millennium

Here we find that Raysyde’s “Super Mario Bros. – Remix 2” does in fact display the same changes in the opening bytes, including the reference to “toma” and the ASCII art. This then is a clear indication of infra-ludic serialization: the borrowing, repetition, and variation of code-level work between members of the modding community. This essentially serial connection (an infra-serial link) would hardly be apparent from the level of the mods’ respective interfaces, though:

2000-01-01-Millennium1999-01-01-SMBRemix2

When we compare “Millennium Mario” with ATA’s “Super Mario Bros. – Yoshi’s Quest,” we find the ASCII art gone, despite the visual match in Tableau’s mapping of their “diff” indications for the opening bytes:

hexcompare-Millennium-YoshisQuest

“Yoshi’s Quest” corresponds in this respect to Krillian’s “Mario Adventure 2”:

hexcompare-YoshisQuest-MarioAdv2

Thus we have another clear indication of infra-ludic serialization, which would hardly have been evident other than by means of a directed filtering of the large dataset, in conjunction with a close analysis of the underlying code.

Again, however, this is just the beginning of the analysis — or more broadly of an encounter between DH and CCS. Ideally, the dataset would be expanded beyond ROMhacking.net’s database; other online communities would be mined for data; and, above all, more integrative tools would be developed for correlating social network graphs and diff-maps, for correlating community and code. Perhaps a crowdsourced approach to some of this would be appropriate; for what it’s worth, and in case anyone is inclined to contribute, my data and the interactive Tableau charts are linked above. But the real work, I suspect, lies in building the right tools for the job, and this will clearly not be an easy task. Alas, like digital seriality itself, this is work in progress, and thus it remains work “to be continued”…

Thanks finally to Eric Monson, Angela Zoss, Victoria Szabo, Patrick LeMieux, Max Symuleski, and the participants in the Fall 2014 “Historical & Cultural Visualization Proseminar 1” at Duke University for the various sorts of help, feedback, and useful tips they offered on this project!

“Digital Seriality” — Panel at #SCMS15 in Montreal

giphy-digital-seriality

At the upcoming conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (March 25-29, 2015 in Montréal), I will be participating in a panel on “Digital Seriality,” co-chaired by Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Scott Higgins, along with Dominik Maeder and Daniela Wentz.

Here is our panel description, along with links (below) to the abstracts for the various papers:

Digital Seriality

Seriality and the digital are key concepts for an understanding of many current forms, texts, and technologies of media, and they are implicated in much broader media-historical trajectories as well. Beyond the forms and functions of specific cultural artifacts, they are central to our global media ecology. Surprisingly, though, relatively few attempts have been made at thinking the digital and the serial together, as intimately connected perspectives on media. This is precisely the task of the present panel. On the one hand, the papers interrogate the serial conditions, forms, and effects of digital culture; on the other hand, they question the role of the digital as technocultural embodiment, determinant, or matrix for serialized media aesthetics and practices. The panel thus brings together heretofore isolated perspectives from studies of new media culture (cf. Manovich 2001, Jenkins 2006) and emerging scholarship on seriality (cf. Kelleter 2012, Allen and van den Berg 2014).

Seriality and digitality are understood here in terms not only of their narrative/representational manifestations but also their technical-operational impacts on our media environments. Accordingly, Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann’s paper looks to the case of the Xbox One in order to show how computational platforms affect the serial forms and practices emerging within, among, and around digital games (“intra-,” “inter-,” and “para-ludic” serialities; cf. Denson and Jahn-Sudmann 2013), but also how these platforms inscribe themselves – as a serialized factor in their own right – into the parameters of computational expression. Whereas video games serve here to highlight the differences between digital and pre-digital serial forms, Dominik Maeder approaches things from the opposite direction, arguing that the interfaces of Netflix, Hulu, and other digital streaming services embody a form of spatio-temporal serialization that, already anticipated by TV series, is closely related to (pre-digital) televisual seriality. As a complementary perspective, Daniela Wentz’s paper shows how certain TV series anticipate their own digital afterlives in the form of fan-made gifs and memes. Finally, Scott Higgins provides an “archeological” perspective, exploring the ludic dimensions of the operational aesthetic, which anticipates computer games in pre-digital forms, thus offering a fruitful case for rethinking digital seriality from a media-comparative perspective.

Bibliography

Allen, Robert, and Thijs van den Berg, eds. Serialization in Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 2014.

Denson, Shane, and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann. “Digital Seriality: On the Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games.” Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 7.1 (2013): 1-32.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York UP, 2006.

Kelleter, Frank, ed. Populäre Serialität: Narration – Evolution – Distinktion. Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2012.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MIT, 2001.

Finally, here are links to the individual abstracts:

Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann, “The Xbox One as Serial Hardware: A Technocultural Approach to the Seriality of Computational Platforms”

Dominik Maeder, “Serial Interfaces: Publishing and Programming Television on Digital Platforms”

Daniela Wentz, “The Infinite Gesture: The Serial Culture of the Gif”

Scott Higgins, “Ludic Operations: Play and the Serial Action Sequence”

Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann, “The Xbox One as Serial Hardware: A Technocultural Approach to the Seriality of Computational Platforms” #SCMS15

giphy-xbox-one

Here is the abstract for Shane Denson and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann’s paper on the panel “Digital Seriality” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:

The Xbox One as Serial Hardware: A Technocultural Approach to the Seriality of Computational Platforms

Shane Denson (Duke University) and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann (Free University Berlin)

In order to fully understand the serial aesthetics and practices of digital game culture, seriality must be addressed not only on the level of software or gameplay, but also as a hardware phenomenon. The (un)official numbering of console generations serves to mark innovations serially (e.g. PlayStation, PS2, PS3, PS4), and this accords generally with the way in which the technical, aesthetic, and economic evolution of game software and hardware follows a serial logic of “one-upmanship” (cf. Jahn-Sudmann and Kelleter 2012). However, some systems like the new Xbox One ostensibly refuse the additive logic of innovation (the would-be “Xbox 720”) and perform a symbolic reboot instead (cf. Denson and Jahn-Sudmann 2013). Yet this revolutionary rhetoric, along with its connotation of exclusivity, seems hardly compatible with the serial remake-logic of game engines, for instance. These engines function not only to allow games to be run on various platforms (PC, consoles, etc.) with only minor changes to their source code, but also serve to make the reusability of core software components easier and faster, thus increasing the economic viability of game series. Already against this backdrop, the technical development of consoles has to be conceptualized, almost inevitably, as a process of media evolution rather than of media revolution.

In our paper, we seek to explore how game consoles like the Xbox One not only enable and constrain aesthetic forms and practices of ludic seriality, but also how these platforms themselves emerge as serial factors of technocultural expression. The presentation focuses particularly on two questions: First, and more generally, how can the theoretical and historical perspective of “platform studies” (as advocated by Montfort and Bogost 2009) contribute to the study of digital seriality? Second, in how far can we think of the game console as a computational platform that mediates different levels of ludic seriality (forms of serialization within the game, between games, and “outside” the game) while also shaping the cultural forms of what we call “collective serialization” (i.e. processes of community-formation in connection with the consumption of serialized media) and “serial interfacing” (i.e. the temporal-serial experiences that transpire at the interface between humans and digital technologies) (Denson and Jahn-Sudmann 2013)?

Bibliography

Denson, Shane, and Andreas Jahn-Sudmann. “Digital Seriality: On the Serial Aesthetics and Practices of Digital Games.” Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 7.1 (2013): 1-32.

Jahn-Sudmann, Andreas, and Frank Kelleter. “Die Dynamik serieller Überbietung: Amerikanische Fernsehserien und das Konzept des Quality TV.” Populäre Serialität: Narration-Evolution-Distinktion. Zum seriellen Erzählen seit dem 19. Jahrhundert. Ed. Frank Kelleter. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2012. 205-224.

Montfort, Nick, and Ian Bogost. Racing the Beam. The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge; London: The MIT Press, 2009.

 

Author Bios:

Shane Denson is a DAAD postdoctoral fellow at Duke University and a member of the research unit “Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice.” He is the author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface (Transcript 2014) and co-editor of several collections: Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives (Bloomsbury, 2013), Digital Seriality (special issue of Eludamos, forthcoming), and Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st Century Film (REFRAME, forthcoming).

Andreas Jahn-Sudmann is assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies (Freie Universität Berlin) and a member of the research unit “Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice,” in which he co-directs the project “Digital Seriality.” He is the author of a book on American independent film, Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung? (Transcript, 2006), and co-editor of several anthologies, among them: Computer Games as a Sociocultural Phenomenon (Palgrave, 2008).

Dominik Maeder, “Serial Interfaces: Publishing and Programming Television on Digital Platforms” #SCMS15

giphy-netflix

Here is the abstract for Dominik Maeder’s paper on the panel “Digital Seriality” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:

Serial Interfaces: Publishing and Programming Television on Digital Platforms

Dominik Maeder (University of Siegen)

Digital streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and Watchever are frequently dubbed “the future of television” due to their technical features of increased selectability, flexibility, and user-centred generation of programming flows. Few scholars, however, have actually analyzed and theorized the aesthetic forms through which these platforms arrange and organize their “content” or the operations that the websites’ interfaces enable with respect to well-established accounts of television programming.

In this paper I shall argue that digital streaming platforms not only host and influence the production processes and aesthetic forms of television series, but that these platforms themselves perform a specific kind of spatio-temporal seriality on the level of their interfaces. This seriality of interfaces can be described, following Manovich (2001), as a conceptual form that is located between narrative and database logics and that permits databases themselves to appear as potential narratives. In so far as the arrangement of content in digital platforms is also a screening of meta-data (cf. Chamberlain 2011), we may more specifically locate the interfaces’ seriality as a result of the automated observation and algorithmic organization of media consumption (cf. Adelmann 2012). This algorithmic automatization, as will be demonstrated with regard to Netflix’s House of Cards, lends itself to a phantasm of the non-human production of the “new” and thereby closely connects to a very modernistic conception of industrial seriality.

Bibliography:

Adelmann, Ralf. “‘There is no correct way to use the system.’ Das doppelte Subjekt in Datenbanklogiken.” Sortieren, Sammeln, Suchen, Spielen. Die Datenbank als mediale Praxis. Eds. Stefan Böhme, Rolf F. Nohr, and Serjoscha Wiemer. Münster: LIT, 2012. 253-268.

Chamberlain, Daniel. “Scripted Spaces: Television Interfaces and the Non-Places of Asynchronous Entertainment.” Television as Digital Media. Eds. James Bennett and Niki Strange. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011. 230-254.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT, 2001.

 

Author Bio:

Dominik Maeder (M.A.) is a research assistant in Media Studies at the University of Siegen (Germany). He is writing a PhD thesis on Televisual Governmentality and has published several papers on the aesthetics of TV series, reality TV, and transmedia television.

Daniela Wentz, “The Infinite Gesture: The Serial Culture of the Gif” #SCMS15

giphy-brando

Here is the abstract for Daniela Wentz’s paper on the panel “Digital Seriality” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:

The Infinite Gesture: The Serial Culture of the Gif

Daniela Wentz (Bauhaus University)

The looping digital moving image format of the animated gif enjoys an extremely high level of popularity at present within (digital) media culture. Although gifs are one of the oldest image formats on the web, they have established themselves as a dominant part of the aesthetics and image practices of today’s networked media. At the same time, these images challenge the conceptual frameworks within which we understand moving images, demanding in particular that they be accounted for in terms of a robust and multifacted notion of seriality.

This paper addresses the multiple dimensions in which seriality is crucial for the logics and functions of animated gifs: firstly, their occurrence as loops, repeating the same gesture or facial expression ad infinitum; secondly, the part they play in the production and spread of memes, which circulate on social networks and other platforms; and thirdly, their assemblage into “supercut” videos, fan-produced compilation videos that strive to collect a comprehensive set of recurring actions, phrases, camera angles, or other elements into a single montage. Memes are themselves processes which are based in a thoroughly serial processuality, in processes of coupling, doubling, replication, repetition, imitation, and more or less independent distribution (Shifman 2014). Supercut videos, for their part, can be understood as analytical tools to reveal patterns and notorious clichés also far beyond the borders of Internet culture. Serial repetition thus represents the heart of the aesthetic and analytical potential of the animated gif, as well as the larger media ecology of which it is a part; accordingly, these mechanisms of serialization must be taken into account in any analysis of the basic characteristics of networked, digital media.

Bibliography:

Fuller, Matthew: Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2007.

Hagman, Hampus: “The Digital Gesture: Rediscovering Cinematic Movement through Gifs.” Refractory 21 (2012), Special Issue on “Digital Cartography: Screening Space”: http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2012/12/29/hagman/ 6/9, 2012.

Shifman, Limor: Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, 2014.

 

Author Bio:

Daniela Wentz is a researcher and lecturer at the “Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM), Bauhaus-University Weimar. Her main fields of research are media philosophy, seriality, diagrammatics, and television studies. She is the author of Bilderfolgen: Diagrammatologie der Fernsehserie (Fink, forthcoming 2015) and co-editor of a special issue of Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft on “The Series.”