National Endowment for the Humanities

Last April I, along with Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Christy Caldwell at University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and Henry Lowood at Stanford, received a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start Up Grant. Our project proposal (online here) is a first pass on an archival and appraisal strategy for academically produced computer games. The focus of the research is on the process of creating computer games in an academic context. We are looking deeply at a game produced by UCSC graduate students and divining the trajectory of development and all the types of artifacts produced by such an effort. There is a general lack of knowledge about how game production functions in an academic research project and our goal is to shed some light on it, both through a technical dive into the development process and an archival narrative of object production.

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The game we chose is Prom Week, a social simulation game produced by my lab (the Expressive Intelligence Studio) at UCSC. Although its selection is slightly self-serving we needed full access to a development process and its resulting game. If we want to understand how the development process worked and aggregate all the different outputs it produced then we had to choose something close to home. Private software development is notoriously insular and shielded, an effort to protect IP issues and development talent. Therefore we figured an academic game would provide more open tools and access, especially one in which I could just ask the developers questions if I ran into them at lab meetings, in the hallway or at the food truck.

Given that this type of work is new, we needed to find helpful examples to provide some initial guidance. The two major sources of inspiration are the 1983 Joint Committee on the Archives of Science and Technology (JCAST) report on scientific process(Elliott, 1983), and the Preserving Virtual Worlds Report on game preservation issues(McDonough, 2010). The JCAST report is essentially a detailed description of the problems inherent in the records management and archiving of the scientific process. There is less interest in the official publications, since those are generally clean and organized documents representing the output of a messy research process. JCAST is concerned with archiving the mess, specifically how research institutions should handle and evaluate the myriad artifacts incumbent to scientific research. This type of investigation seemed applicable to the archival treatment of video game development processes and has provided nice guidance so far. The other source, Preserving Virtual Worlds, was the first major government research into the issue of game preservation specifically, and while not concerned with game development process, it still highlights numerous types of documents and extensive technical warnings about the issues inherent in reproducing digital documents.

The process of my current work on Prom Week is informed by both reports and seeks a middle path to explain how the development process works in an academic context, what types of documents are produced and what technical issues one would face if they were crazy enough to actually archive it all.

A final note here. The academically produced games that we are concerned with are those pieces of digital entertainment software produced with a specifically teleological bent. They are designed to research some processes or validate some novel system of play, design, or pedagogy with hopes of publishable academic results. This context is then slightly different than the corporate or independent development process, but it is hoped that many considerations will map accordingly.

References (yes in a blog post):

Elliott, Clark A. Understanding Progress as Process: Documentation of the History of Post-war Science and Technology in the United States. Society of Amer Archivists, 1983.
McDonough, Jerome P. Preserving Virtual Worlds: Final Report. Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2010.

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