"Visualizing Cultural Patterns" featured in UCSD/Calit2 article

An article featuring UCSD Chancellor's Collaboratory-funded project we are working on is available through UCSD News and the Calit2 newsroom.

Lev Manovich, a professor of visual arts and a Calit2-affiliated researcher at UCSD.
"UCSD Visual Arts Professor Lev Manovich is leading a team of researchers who will use software-based research methods and cutting-edge cyberinfrastructure to analyze large cultural data sets."

SoftWhere'08 pecha kucha videos

Video recordings from the Software Studies Workshop SoftWhere'08 are now available. Individual presentations are linked to the workshop participants list by name, and are available for online streaming or download in Quicktime MOV format.

The videos have also been uploaded to YouTube. They can be browsed via the Software Studies YouTube Channel and embedded as playable objects:


The YouTube videos are catagorized, dated, tagged, geocoded, and otherwise metadatively expressive - if you'd like extra data added to them or have video clips of your own to contribute to the channel, let us know!

Ludological dynamics of Fatal Frame 2

Researcher: William Huber | PhD student, Art History, UCSD

The game "Fatal Frame II," part of a franchise of games on various platforms, which began with the 2001 release of "Project Zero" on the Playstation 2. The game was designed by Keisuki Kikuchi, was developed by and is published by Tecmo. Kikuchi was the design lead for the first three games, and is the co-lead for the fourth, a title created for the Nintendo Wii. The game has become a staple in academic videogame criticism. This project included the application of cultural analytic techniques to identify the transitions in modes of gameplay, in order to characterize the mechanics for generating suspense and uncanny aesthetic experience in a videogame.

In this game, the camera obscura, a camera with the ability to see supernatural entities, replaces traditional weapons found in most other games, and is at the center of the most important player activity: the simultaneous documentation and exorcism of spirits. What importance in this case means is not simply a function of time, but rather is the activity of peak excitation, that in which the player is in greatest peril of failure, the activity which makes the most demands on the immediate attention of the player throughout the course of the game.

This action is distinguished from the practice of navigating the space of the game in a trade-off that is made between freedom of motion and freedom of view: when the player is in a navigational mode, the camera is completely controlled by the CPU; when the player is in camera obscura mode, the player has full freedom of rotation for a 360º view, but is unable to move. Additionally, certain elements appear in the visual field whenever the camera detects a supernatural entity.

To place the experience in context, we identify the different modes of the game, the regimes of signs and agency which are present at any moment. The first is the cutscene: a mode in which the player's interactive agency is removed and their attention is called to various narratological, aesthetic, or game-diegetic elements (e.g., clues for the solution of puzzles.) In many games, these are indicated by letterboxing and/or FMV. In Fatal Frame II, on the Playstation 2, there is no letterboxing; however, they can generally be recognized by the absence of other display elements.

Another is the navigational mode, in which the player's interaction with the controller moves the avatar through the rendered three-dimensional space of the game; this mode constitutes the majority of most players' experience of the game. The depth and nature of player attention demanded in this mode can vary. It may not be far off to describe this mode as the canvas for the others; the default spatio-temporal posture in the Lost Village. In Fatal Frame II, this is a timeless mode; one generally invites danger only if one moves.

The camera itself is discovered in the 1st chapter of the game, in the 1st of a number of buildings which the player explores. Camera mode is accessed from navigational mode: the player presses the square button to shift between the two modes. Shifting into the camera mode arrests mobility.

Other modes of player-game activity include inventory screens, camera-upgrade menus, photo-album modes, various diegetic inscriptive systems (discovered notebooks, discovered newspaper clippings, the spirit radio and the discovered ethnographic film footage.) There are interesting aesthetic and narrative effects created by these elements; however, my observation is less about the specifics of Fatal Frame II and more about the relationship between the overall experience of the game as a horror video game and the aesthetics of the uncanny and the eerie. For the sake of clarity, we have isolated two of these modes as significant: a generalized "menu mode" in which various auxiliary operations occur, and the save-screen, where a player saves or loads a game.

This animation displays a sequence of mode transitions over several hours of play. The oscillations between narrational, cinematic and operational modes are a kind of "catch and release". The cut scenes and cinematics, during which the player is not called upon to act, release the compression created when the signs of the uncanny accumulated during operations are instead relased into another kind of reading. This release is never complete: even as the player is transfixed by the phantasmic spectacle on the screen, the sequence may contain clues and indications which the player will need to progress through the game.

Something that emerges from reviewing the transcripts of play sessions is the very episodic nature of play. Not only do players use save-points in the ways we might expect - to save progress to avoid having to repeat a passage, or in order to end a session - but menus are also called up to freeze play, as a pause mechanism. These patterns of saving and pausing are the player's way of managing the tempos of the game experience in the interstices between intense and semiotically dense sequences of play.

The ambition of our game-analysis work at the Software Studies lab is the collect and process complete traversals of the game from multiple players. Getting the footage is a tractable problem; however, the image processing we are performing is computational demanding past a certain scale.

VideoGamePlay.viz | Analyzing Temporal Patterns in Gameplay

When people engage with interactive media - from video games and digital art to applications on mobile phones and netbooks - their interactions leave digital traces. This creates possibilities to graph and analyze interactive experiences in detail - something which was not possible if you wanted to analyze interaction with traditional (non-digital) media, such as reading a novel or watching a movie.

VideoGamePlay.viz project investigates these possibilities using recordings of people playing video games. Some of these recordings are done in our own Game Libratory; others come from the web collections of demos and speedruns (such as archive.org). We use computer vision techniques to analyze the videos of gameplay, keylogs recordings, and video capture of gamers' faces. The data is visualized using techniques drawn from information design, media design, and GIS.

Our results so far include timelines which show temporal patterns during the game play and graphical representations of spatial navigation in game play

Timeline showing temporal patterns in gameplay modes during one session of "Knights of the Old Republic."

Timeline showing temporal patterns in gameplay modes during one 5min session of "Rez."

Multiple gameplay screen recordings embedded into a large composited map of "Legend of Zelda" game world. One such recording appears in a black square, center screen.

This project developed in collaboration with the game research network Re:Game.

Software Studies Opening Lecture in São Paulo

The FILE Labo is announcing the Opening of the Software Studies Initiative in São Paulo, Brazil.

Round table: Software Studies Initiative in Brazil @ FILE Labo

Software Studies is a new research field for intellectual inquiry that is now just beginning to emerge. The Software Studies Initiative intends to play the key role in establishing this new field. The competed projects will become the models of how to effectively study “software society.” Through workshops, publications, and lectures conducted at UCSD and disseminated via the web and in hard copy publications, we will disseminate the broad vision of software studies. That is, we think of software as a layer that permeates all areas of contemporary societies.

The Software Studies Group in Brazil will develop a deep analysis of the impact of the Open and Free Source softwares in the Brazilian society in the civilian and governmental levels .

Speakers: teleconference with Lev Manovich (UCSD) and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (UCSD) and talk by Cicero Silva (FILE Labo)
When: August 07, 5h30 pm
Where: FIESP
Avenida Paulista, 1313
São Paulo, Brazil

more information: Cicero Silva @ csilva@weber.ucsd.edu

SS: What We May Want (from Each Other)

I recently received some post-workshop thoughts from Benjamin Bratton, who writes in an email titled "SS: What We May Want (from Each Other)":

Software names less a discrete thing than a indiscrete convergence. It is a convergence between genealogies of language and genealogies of technology (leaving information theory and Kittlerian media studies aside for the moment, though their no-show at SS was amazing).

In the history of languages, software is unique in that it performs machinically and mechanically in ways that other languages cannot. Software executes. I can put software "in a box" and that box will do things in the wild world. If I put Russian or Spanish in the box, it would not do anything mechanically. Software is language becoming machine-technology.

Conversely, in the history of technology, software is unique in that its instrumentality is configured linguistically. Software is written. I can write software to operate a machine to cause it to do things. I could write instructions on the side of a hammer (if I was Jonathan Borofsky) but I cannot write a hammer, nor does what I write on the hammer effect its hammeringness. Software is technology becoming inscription-language.

The vectors of this convergence were on display during our day two planning session. More or less clear positions were outlined by socio-culturalists and technologists. Each saw the concerns of the the latter as enveloped by their own.

BUT --and here's the kicker-- it was the socio-culturalists who were more invested in defining software as a wordly technology (building bridges, governments, identities, etc.) and it was the technologists who were more invested in defining software as autonomous linguistic frame or substance (code rhetorics, assembly politics, generative grammars, etc.)

The surprised me. Should it have? Do you agree with this observation?

Is it that Humanists have technology envy, tired of the virtuality of words, and Technologists have culture envy, tired of being instrumentalized as specialized mechanics? Is Software Studies the place where we trade goods, blend our cultural capitals, and leverage a new, shared bargain?

If so, what does it mean that SS to date involves this transposition and transprogramming of interests, and that the wish of one discipline is to be play as the other? To me, it seems like a very good sign, and good reason to get Latour at the next meeting!

It is an interesting provocation to think of the interdisciplinarity stake in software studies as being supplemental for each group. On the other hand, it seems to me that we could also describe each groups primary concern as an extension of the basic or core concerns of the respective home disciplines. On the one hand humanistic analysts go down to the boards of code-and-bits as a logical extension of the mandate to read "closely." On the other hand, information systems analysts extend out beyond the mechanism and through the human interface to engage society and culture as the logical extension of a theoretical program of abstract systems analysis. This description is both an opposite and identical narration of the same interdisciplinarity.

Whatever the answer for individual scholars or groups of scholars, answering the question "what is software studies?" in a disciplinary context will certainly require many of us to answer this other another question "what kind of interdisciplinarity does software studies entail?"

PlayPower | 8-bit Learning Games for Radically Affordable Computers

The Software Studies Initiative is a founding supporter of and collaborator in Playpower.

For more information, see the Playpower website at playpower.org:

PlayDVR | Networked hardware for capturing gameplay on diffirent generations of game platforms (from Atari 2600 to Playstation 3)

A project to develop and document an open hardware and software platform for video game recording and research, oriented to the needs of the game studies community.

We have developed a networked gameplay recording workstation based on a modified version of the MythTV open source digital video recorder software. The hardware platform is Dragon 2.0, an open specification Linux box optimized for the KnoppMyth MythTV distribution, and available from StormLogix. PlayDVR custom modifications include integration of SSH access, keylogging, and automatic video analytics. PlayDVR is being actively used in ongoing research projects, and will be documented for public redistribution.

Documentation of the "Dragon 2" MythTV Linux box, an open hardware specification.

This project developed in collaboration with the game research network Re:Game.

GamePlotBranching | Tracing Variable Experience in "Knights of the Old Republic"

In this exploration of how plot branching designs function (and fail) in games, Noah Wardrip-Fruin first identified a failure in the plot branching structure of the Xbox console video game "Knights of the Old Republic." Under Wardrip-Fruin's guidance, undergraduate researcher Colin Wheelock used the PlayDVR gameplay recording station to record over 40 hours of gameplay, exploring how the plot worked and identifying the conditions under which it failed and creating video excerpts to trace this process. The project includes the development of new novel representations of branching conditions for use in articles and academic presentations about games.