Getting to Grips with Video Gaming’s Past, Present and Future: Exploring “Platform Studies”

A version of this essay originally appeared at on February 9, 2010.

>maximum verbosity.

The  concept of the “platform” has been around for as long as computing, and computer gaming, has existed, underneath, and underpinning, our video games, digital art, electronic literature, and other forms of expressive computing. Int he recent past, digital media researchers and scholars have begun to approach computer language, or “code,”  as a theoretical starting point to situate computers and computing in the culture, but there have been fewer attempts to go even deeper, to investigate the basic hardware and software systems upon which programming takes place, that are the foundation for computational expression and that define our interaction in digital contexts (2).

Just as Alex Galloway has made a call to study the meaning and import of decisions made around protocol (2009), platform studies is proposing similar inquiries to be made around the hardware, on its own and as it interacts with operating systems, as the foundational environments in which we engage with digital media and particularly with games, for it is these constructs and systems that dictate our interactions with the machines and the words they propose to us. This encompasses the worlds the games invite us into, as well as their physical form. When examined from this perspective it becomes clear that there is much to be (un)covered, discovered, and included in under the rubric of “platform studies.”

Contemporary 3D virtual worlds are expansive, taking up the equivalent of thousands and thousands of miles of real-world space. The worlds they render on our screens are highly detailed, with every last shadow, ambient sound, ray of light and potential player interaction calculated and accounted for. Worlds are open to exploration; movement can take place on any vertex.


Actual screenshot of gameplay in “Assassin’s Creed 2,” XBox 360, 2009

As for me, I am old enough to remember what we called the Atari 2600 or, more simply, the Atari, in its first iteration (actually, I remember Pong, too, although I admittedly had access to a 2600 first). When I played Space Invaders or Tank, or any other of the earliest Atari games, I was captivated by my ability to affect movement and interaction with the TV screen for the Atari was hooked to the family TV screen as its video output device. My physical movements with what now seems like absolutely primitive joysticks and paddles took on a mystical, magical and very powerful aura to my child self. Locating the joystick properly in real physical space directly impacted the pixilated battle on the screen; agility and speed were key. I often struggled to direct the missiles to their proper targets, but I was nonetheless entranced by the 4-bit sound and the rich colors displayed on the screen.

The iconic Atari 2600 joystick, a cultural phenomenon in and of itself.

By the early 80s, another type of platform emerged for gaming. Taking their lineage from the mainframe computers Adventure-style dungeon crawl games (45) and traditional tabletop pencil and dice RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, the Infocom text-based games, starting with Zork, allowed me to enter a world completely of my own imagination, interacting with the Commodore 64 computer platform, and its BASIC coding language, to play (you can play Infocom games for yourself online at this URL: Typing code to execute simple BASIC programs, and typing code to execute moves in the game, blended seamlessly for me into the same activity.

The author, circa 1982.The game being played is Infocom’s “Deadline,” as evidenced by the cluebook folded open to the left. While the Commodore 64 accepted cartridges in its main body, this game is being played via a 5 1/4″ floppy drive. It appears that I am staring at a scrolling screen of the game’s underlying BASIC code, in which the game was written, rather than playing the game itself. The C64 platform allowed for this behavior, whereas almost no contemporary gaming platform would dream of providing such a feature.

Graphical gaming still made its way to the C64 platform, although in a guise that would be unrecognizable to gamers of today. Much like the traditional tabletop (analog) RPG games of yore and of today, adventure gaming on a platform like the Atari 2600, but particularly on the Commodore 64, required imagination. Just compare the exciting world the cover of Epyx’s classic Temple of Apshai promised:

versus what it actually delivered:

This dissonance was not unlike what it was like to experience the transition from the promise on the packaging of early RPG boxed sets, versus what the game play experience looks like:

The Dungeons and Dragons basic box set, from TSR, circa 1980-1982 and the game experience inside (representation)

Yet to a gamer in the early to mid-80s, this world was rich, expansive and thrilling, and offered seemingly unending interactivity and possibility. View this video of the Apshai/Commodore 64 experience, on YouTube here: . Many games existed for multiple platforms, and the hardware and OS parameters of the equipment dictated the game experience (69), which differed from platform to platform, and from arcade to home console. Clearly, the nostalgia factor and good memories from these experiences is high, spawning academic gaming disciplines on the one hand, and these sorts of fan videos, on the other. My own reaction to this video is almost Pavlovian; the tones of the singular notes striking throughout the character generation process transported me instantly to the experience of interacting with the game through my C64 keyboard.

We took a break tonight to experience the latest in home gaming platforms, the Wii which, from quick perusal, it looks as though many others have been prompted to blog about and exemplifies the state of the art in what Jesper Juul calls “mimetic interfaces.” My Wii experience has thus far been limited, but I was shocked at both the amazing complexity of the platform, on the one hand (with all the latest features such as wireless controls, expansive games, extensive customizeability, physical feedback for players from the controls and the ability to affect movement within the game in real space), and its ease of use for a(n almost) first-time player like me.

The results speak for themselves:

My newly-generated Mii avatar, looking remarkably like me. I note with amusement that both my colleague and I apparently suffer from less-than-perfect eyesight in the virtual world, as well as in the real one.

Bowling, or “the most exercise I’ve had since school started up again.”

Thirty years ago, video games captured the imagination and the attention of a society. They served as a touchstone for both promise and anxiety about our identity, both individual and as a whole. They forced us to ask hard questions about youth culture, about attitudes regarding leisure and work. They challenged educators to rethink their means of engaging young people in learning. They provided new tools for the forward-thinking and they were an obvious target of those looking to score easy political points, too. Video games have been shape-shifters, and they will continue to be, changing in meaning and importance based on their beholder, their utility, their dollar value. But the essence of video games, with their reliance on novelty in both the cultural representations that make up their content and in the technological power they need to run, places them irrevocably at the fore of the new, and of the future.

To me, that future will always be this past: a darkened room. The smell of stale sweat indelible in a shag carpet, color indiscernible in the darkness of the arcade. The electronic chorus of blips and beeps from nearby machines; the button-mashing of other players. The sound of a quarter as it drops through the slot. The screen coming to light, as I manipulate the once-white, now grimy trackball. I am nine years old. The future is Centipede.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. The MIT Press, 2006.

Juul, Jesper. Return to Player Space: The Success of Mimetic Interface Games. In A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. The MIT Press, 2009.

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