- Racing the Beam does two things: tell the story of the Atari VCS and make a case for “platform studies” as a necessary method for doing digital studies. The latter is more important for my purposes, so most of these notes reflect that.
- “platform”: “A platform in its purest form is an abstraction, a particular standard or specification before any particular implementation of it. To be used by people and to take part in our culture directly, a platform must take material form, as the Atari VCS certainly did. This can be done by means of the chips, boards, peripherals, controllers, and other components that make up the hardware of a physical computer system. The platforms that are most clearly encapsulated are those that are sold as a complete hardware system in a packaged form, ready to accept media such as cartridges” (2). This shares a lot of terrain with Bratton, and is a key concept for inflecting digital studies toward questions of infrastructure.
- “platform studies”
- “In studying the Atari VCS from the perspective of the platform, several things stand out about the system and its influence on the future of video games. One is the strong relationship between the console and the television. . . . Another strong current in the work on the Atari VCS is the powerful influence of earlier games. . . . A final observation is the tremendous representational flexibility of the machine and the less-than-obvious reason for this flexibility” (14–15).
- Book goes chronologically “so that the development of programming practices and the changes in home and arcade video gaming can be tracked more easily through time” (15). In this way, platform studies is more about tracing low-level usage practices that respond to the material constraints of the platform in question. It’s also about building up a corpus of knowledge across the platform as a whole; hence the focus on video game systems in many of these studies.
- Note that the games always come from somewhere: software history is densely inter-referential, in part determined by the speed, computational flexibility, and demands of the market.
- One of the issues w/ platform studies is that within a genre of technical object, the definitional work gets repetitive. How much energy has been wasted on recapitulating the definition of “ROM” over and over? A pejorative for platform studies would be humanist-friendly technical documentation. That being said, I think that enterprise is actually really important. We can position this within the “Care & Repair” folks in the second half of the list, as well as more activist approaches to anti-black-boxing (Pasquale): technical documentation evinces its own contexts, and democratizing that information allows for partial reclamation of the technology in question.
- I’m reminded of Kirschenbaum’s invocation of McGann’s “factive synecdoches”: we go from observing constraints on the screen, to drilling down to find the cause of the constraints in the hardware, conditioned by constraints both on the levels of physics and the humans who built and chose that hardware. The question is: of what meaning do we build with this new cause?
Archive and Impact
- Racing the Beam is most important for its definition of “platform studies” (above). Platform studies shares some terrain with German media theory and the hardware analysis of Kittler. But it is far less deterministic than Kittler’s approach and also leavens its technically rigorous analysis w/ insights from computing history and textual analysis.
- Method: “Our approach is mainly informed by the history of material texts, programming, and computing systems. Other sorts of platform studies may emphasize different technical or cultural aspects, and may draw on different critical and theoretical approaches. To deal deeply with platforms and digital media, however, any study of this sort must be technically rigorous. The detailed analysis of hardware and code connects to the experience of developers who created software for a platform and users who interacted with and will interact with programs on that platform. Only the serious investigation of computing systems as specific machines can reveal the relationships between these systems and creativity, design, expression, and culture” (3–4).
- It’s worth also referring to Montfort’s and Bogost’s FAQ on platform studies, which sets out their methodological project in more abstract terms.
- Platform studies is in many ways part of a desire to get “close to the metal” that was popular around the turn of the decade; media archaeology in its American expression, which involves rhetoric from the tech industry in some unacknowledged ways, shares this enterprise. The German version of “close to the metal” is a little different, in that it’s a fundamentally ontological argument that I don’t think American inflections make as strongly (146).