Dienstag, 27. Oktober 2009
On Game Art, Circuit Bending and Speedrunning as Counter-Practice: 'Hard' and 'Soft' Nonexistence
In The Exploit Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker speculate that "[f]uture avant-garde practices will be those of nonexistence." This extraordinary claim is a response to the current ubiquity of digital technology and its impact on cultural politics; if existence becomes a question of being classified informatically, the avoidance of this classification, or nonexistence, becomes of paramount importance. The discussion of nonexistence in The Exploit opens with a question, one that forms the basis of this essay: "how does one develop techniques and technologies to make oneself unaccounted for?" Directly following this question comes a specific, material example through which a crucial distinction between "unaccounted for" and "invisible" or "absent" is made -- the use of a laser pointer, aimed into a surveillance camera in order to 'blind' it. In this situation, the camera is not destroyed nor is the individual shining the laser actually hiding, or invisible; instead, they are simply not present on the particular screen or data set recorded by the camera in question. The same is true of the tricking of a server, causing it to record a routine event when one goes online. These kinds of tactics, "tactics of abandonment", are "positive technologies" for Galloway and Thacker. They are entirely distinct from absence, lack, invisibility and nonbeing because they are "full" or rather, because they "permeate." The practical consequences of Galloway and Thacker's formulation of nonexistence are clear: It's not a question of hiding, or living off the grid, but of living on the grid, in potentially full informatic view, but in a way that makes one's technical specification or classification impossible.
As the "Tactics of Nonexistence" section of The Exploit progresses, Galloway and Thacker speculatively suggest some broader practical approaches through which nonexistence can be executed by the individual actor, from "nonexistent action" to "unmeasurable or not-yet-measurable human traits" and "the promotion of measurable data of negligible importance." In each of these examples, it must be noted that the key terms are positive, or practical; action, traits, and promotion. Once again, nonexistence is not a retreat from, but a "fullness," or a pushing beyond. The purpose of this article is to examine some of the ways in which these practical and conceptual versions of nonexistence can be explored in relation to a single specific classification, made later in the same book, between "user" and "programmer." Becoming unmeasurable, or nonexistent, in relation to this particular classification, which is created through a subject's relationship to technology, represents a productive way of thinking towards counter-practice under contemporary digital culture.
As Gilles Deleuze states in his "Postscript on Control Societies", "[i]t's not just a question of worrying or of hoping for the best, but of finding new weapons." In examining the distinction between "using" and "programming", and specifically the ways in which one can become nonexistent in relation to this distinction, it becomes possible to identify and highlight some practical strategies that are emerging from within the "control society" or "gamespace", the present era of distributed, informatic control that is widely documented from Deleuze to McKenzie Wark. This particular distinction is essential because it concentrates the two crucial aspects of nonexistence, the rendering-unclassifiable of a particular identity and the technical means by which this can be carried out, in a single set of practices. Examples of which are provided in later sections of this article.
Galloway and Thacker, in the "User and the Programmer" section of The Exploit, briefly speculate on a possible response to the cultural, social and legal implications of proprietary technology. This passage is extremely short at only twenty-six lines of text over two paragraphs, but contains some crucial speculations on the avant-garde as common practice in the control era, centred on the following: "[f]reedom of expression is no longer relevant; freedom of use has taken its place." This statement is clearly a response to proprietary thought not only in its most obvious sense, as in proprietary software, but transferred into a broader relationship between subject and technology, art and politics. The user-programmer classification is crucial in the contemporary era because it defines a distinction of access, or use. The individual actor, who finds a way to manipulate a given technology without creating a trace of their action from the perspective of the machine's input or executive processes, is becoming nonexistent technically. At the same time, by directing their actions in this way -- between the expected (or surface) use of a technology and the exploitation of its possible unexpected functions -- they become nonexistent culturally, impossible to classify in terms of the user-programmer distinction that is definitive of identity in the digital age. Viewed in this way the user-programmer distinction becomes a potentially fruitful point at which to concentrate tactics of nonexistence.
After their opening statements on the distinct, predominant freedoms related to particular techno-historical periods, Galloway and Thacker go on to clarify the breadth of their user-programmer distinction in moving beyond the specific connotations of computer and software use into broad cultural existence. This is concentrated in their definitions of "'[u]ser' as a modern synonym for 'consumer,'" designating "all those who participate in the algorithmic unfoldings of code," and programmer as a "modern synonym for 'producer,'" relating to any individual who is able to "participate both in the authoring of code and in the process of unfolding." This particular pair of definitions is in need of some development in order to become fully aligned with the counter-practices of nonexistence that Galloway and Thacker earlier propose. The type of programmer that is proposed in The Exploit is at the interface of user and somewhere between user and 'professional' programmer, since they participate in both authoring and unfolding. This in-between state is essential to the concept of informatic nonexistence, but requires a consideration of the distinction between the professional programmer who participates in the politics of proprietary technology and Galloway and Thacker's programmer, who may be engaged in the possibly illegal opening up of technology. It is in locating means and applications of programming in directed, but non-professional areas, away from the commercial knowledge industries that Alan Liu documents at length in The Laws of Cool, that contemporary cultural-political possibilities may lie.
Critical Art Ensemble offers a solution to this problem of two programmers in the introduction to Digital Resistance. CAE make a critical distinction between the professional, whose work is officially recognised or existent, and the amateur who may attain the same technical proficiency while avoiding this recognition; "[h]ere may be a final link to invisibility: these participants favour access over expertise, and who really cares about the work of an amateur?" It is notable that CAE's statement almost perfectly matches one made by Giorgio Agamben, and referenced by Galloway and Thacker in the 'Tactics of Nonexistence' section of The Exploit. "A being radically devoid of any representable identity would be absolutely irrelevant to the state." The programmer that Galloway and Thacker call for every user to become is the type of amateur described by CAE, an individual who cannot be primarily classified according to the prospective value of their technical skill, but who is nonetheless able to take an active role in their relationship with technology.
If attaining access to the underlying form or code of a technology is a move towards programming, while retaining a relationship with surface effects is definitive of using, then finding a way to articulate both possibilities at once is the key to nonexistence. It is for this reason that the categories of game art, circuit bending and speedrunning, each based in the technical but non-specialist reallocation of a given technology's programmed properties, are of interest beyond their apparently modest, hobbyist appearance. As Galloway and Thacker point out at the end of the "Tactics of Nonexistence" section, "[t]he nonexistent is that which cannot be cast into any available data types. The nonexistent is that which cannot be parsed by any available algorithms." If individuals are defined as belonging to either the "user" data set or the "programmer" data set in relation to a particular technology, then attaining the impossibility of being definitively placed in these sets is nonexistence in practice. Furthermore, as this process can always only take place through technical modes of opening up limitations, the acts an individual carries out in avoiding being parsed through this particular algorithm are themselves acts of nonexistence at the machine-user level, comparable to the laser pointer aimed into the camera. This double articulation is definitive of nonexistence as counter-practice, containing both the cultural unlocatability of the nonexistent individual and the technical methods they execute in order to take up this undecidable cultural position.
Viewed in this way, there are many practical ways in which the distinction between user and programmer can be intermediated, leading to nonexistence. An extreme example: in 1994, a seventeen-year-old schoolboy and boy scout named David Hahn attempted to build a fast breeder nuclear reactor in the shed of his mother's house. Possessing no specialist education in chemistry or physics, and equipped only with a copy of Robert Brent's The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, Hahn extracted radium from fluorescent watch and clock faces, americium from smoke detectors and lithium from batteries, amongst other elements harvested from everyday household goods, assembling a reactor that emitted over a thousand times normal background radiation. Frightened by the high amounts of radiation emitted by his successfully constructed reactor, Hahn began to disassemble it, but not before attracting the attention of the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Despite the technical skill required to carry out his teenage experiments, Hahn subsequently found it impossible to secure employment as a nuclear specialist. The questions that result from this incident are closely related to the idea of user/programmer nonexistence. Since Hahn possessed no specialist training or higher education when he made his reactor, does this exclude him from the role of programmer? Since he did not put his reactor to any useful purpose such as generating power, can he be definitively be classed as a user? This is only one example of the way the programmer's supposedly elite technical knowledge is both attainable and employable by the supposed layman without official, formal access to it, and the problems of classification that this type of action creates. This is not to say that people should take up the handling of dangerous materials in their home as avant-garde practice; the applications of this attitude are incredibly broad. As Galloway and Thacker state, "[i]f a person installs a game console modchip, he is programming his console. If she grows her own food, she is programming her own biological intake." The value of this project lies less in the specific tasks that programming allows, and more in the value of reclaiming a breadth or freedom of use from, or programming, technologies designed to work in only one, directed way.
In thinking about practical ways to program, in the broad sense proposed by Galloway and Thacker, it becomes essential to think about the significant obstacles that proprietary technology places in the way of doing so. These obstacles are definitive of the need to break down the user-programmer divide in the first place, representing an ever-decreasing freedom of use. Friedrich Kittler's "Protected Mode" sets out, in no uncertain terms, the significant increase in user-obfuscation masquerading as user-friendliness that begins with the removal of op-codes from the operating manuals of Intel's 80286 microprocessors of 1982 in favour of higher-level commands. This marks, for Kittler, a key moment in the gradual process of hardware becoming culturally, if not technically, inaccessible, buried under layers of software and high-level programming languages as outlined in his earlier "There is no Software". It is notable that both of Galloway and Thacker's programming examples, the installation of modchips and the growing of food, operate at the level of hardware. Through this, alongside Kittler's technical accounts of the relationship among hardware, software and control, it becomes clear that this is the level at which practices of user-programmer nonexistence must be located. In achieving nonexistence it becomes essential to find ways to productively manipulate hardware at as few levels of abstraction as possible, but with a level of technical expertise that can rival that of the programmer. As if to illustrate this necessity, Kittler actively derides the hobbyist, or non-professional programmer, as well as the user, as "stupid." It is at this point that a shortfall in Kittler's theory lies, in what Geert Lovink describes as the casting of "aspersions." Despite the sternness of Kittler's tone in "There is no Software" and "Protected Mode" it may be that it is exactly a quality of this "stupidity", as a cultural distinction from the commercially recognisable and therefore classifiable talent of the programmer, which defines a particular application of nonexistence as counter- practice when harnessed to the ability to make technical interventions.
To move towards a position of nonexistence between user and programmer it is not enough for the user to become a programmer through the learning and exact reproduction of his or her technical expertise. What is important is not the technical specifics, but the intended effect of these processes, the what and why instead of the how. The figure of the hacker must inevitably come into play when considering the application of technical skill that can be distinguished from official or industrially recognised uses; this is clarified by Robert Graham, who traces the etymology of the word to the golfing terminology, referring to an individual who is "inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity," before going on to specify the distinction between the hacker's procedure and industrially-recognised talent. As Graham states, "[i]n the 1970s, the word 'hacker' was used by computer enthusiasts to refer to themselves. This reflected the way enthusiasts approach computers: they eschew formal education and play around with the computer until they can get it to work. (In much the same way, a golf hacker keeps hacking at the golf ball until they get it in the hole)." The idea of playing around at the technical level is a crucial distinction between user and programmer, which is borne out to varying levels in each of the forthcoming examples. There is, however, an emergent conceptual difficulty in the simple equation of hacker with contemporary counter-practitioner in the current period. The 1970s concept of the hacker has undergone a near-continuous change in the intervening years. McKenzie Wark, in A Hacker Manifesto, expands the role of the hacker from electrical engineering and computation to all cultural and technical fields where information is processed and turned to new applications. Wark defines the contemporary hacker as someone who "creates the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things." Throughout Wark's book a struggle is played out between the hacker as informatic creative, irrespective of discipline, and the third-party ownership of their output by a vectoralist class. "While we create...new worlds, we do not possess them. That which we create is morgaged to others, and to the interests of others." This depiction of the hacker demonstrates a significant problem in the application of practices that move towards both technical and cultural nonexistence. The production of definably new things represents positive, recordable data, or a state that exists. The hacker that Wark depicts creates the possibility of new things entering the world, and as such tends towards existence. The practical application of nonexistence, by contrast, lies in this "possibility" remaining latent, always on the cusp of spilling out but always remaining unmeasurable. Nonexistence reappoints the functionality of that which already exists without addition, leading to an individuated application between underlying and overlying levels that cannot be effectively classified. The task of the undecidable, and therefore nonexistent, user/programmer intermediate is the location of alternate applications, uses and functions of existing objects that avoid the production of any surplus as can be defined by a new object or technology.
One possibility for the user to move towards programming without the creation of any quantifiable surplus can be found through the redistribution of already existing functions in a given technology. Sean Cubitt, noting the military, scorched-earth origins of the term avant-garde in an interview conducted by Simon Mills for the journal framed, comments that "[t]he built-in obsolescence of digital culture, the endless trashing of last year's model, the spendthrift throwing away of batteries and mobile phones and monitors and mice...and all the heavy metals, all the toxins, sent off to some god-forsaken Chinese recycling village...that is the digital avant-garde." It may be in finding practical ways to recycle, reuse and reallocate the intended functionality of technology that the user/programmer intermediate can be located; in the uncovering, through non-professionally acquired technical skills, of alternative uses, states and practices for the "junk" produced by digital culture's "built in obsolescence." This is where the core concept of digital technology, what Kittler calls its radical reprogrammability, takes on an essential role in potential counter-practices. If historical avant-garde practices relate to opposition, conflict, sabotage and destruction, it may be that their contemporary counterparts reverse the equation, pushing beyond, extrapolation, extension and the location of an unproductive creativity.
In "There is no Software" and "Protected Mode" Kittler higlights the way in which, irrespective of levels of abstraction, all programming equates to hardware manipulation, since it eventually reduces to the movement of electricity through logic gates. To this end, the productive manipulation of hardware is achievable through a number of different processes, relating to programming, interface or direct alteration of circuitry. Through the remainder of this article I will work through three of the possible ways in which such hardware manipulation can be executed in ways that redefine the uses of the existing technology, creating new possibilities without any definitive addition that can be classified as such. The videogame, as the only new media technology resulting from control society/gamespace and perhaps the most obvious example of proprietary hardware and software, obsolescence and supersession that characterises commercial digital technology, is a perfect frame for examining potential praxes. If alternative uses can be eked out of such a market-driven, closed medium as the console-based videogame, possibilities in other media and forms may become apparent at the practical level.
Much of the work of the artist Cory Arcangel involves the direct manipulation of hardware, or more accurately two distinct manipulations, one of hardware and one of code. In creating works such as I Shot Andy Warhol, (2002) Super Mario Clouds (2002), F1 Racer Mod (2004) and Super Mario Movie (2005) he removes a chip from a cartridge, most often for the NES console, burns manually new assembly code to a new chip and resolders it into the cartridge, allowing the final work to be projected through the original system. The choice of the NES is interesting here for a number of reasons; firstly, because it is an obsolete format whose reinvigoration through art objects highlights the industry-driven, enforcedly premature disposability of digital technology; secondly, because as Critical Art Ensemble note in the chapter of Digital Resistance that recommends similar projects for the Gameboy platform, due to "Nintendo's obsession with stopping piracy and reverse-engineering of its products" such projects "help demonstrate that no product is perfectly fortified, no matter how many precautions are taken;" and finally, because the games are written in assembly language, in this case 6502 assembly, rather that a high-level language. What is crucial about assembly languages, compared to more common programming languages, is that they consist of sets of mnemonics that correspond directly to the binary variations of 1's and 0's that the system hardware reads as voltage differences. As Arcangel states, "I tend to prefer assembly because it gives me control over the machine and assures me that aesthetic choices are based on the hardware of the machine and not, say, some dupe at Macromedia." To write, as Arcangel does, in assembly is to come in as close proximity to the computer hardware as possible while programming, without writing binary. He does not create the possibility for a new type of gaming, or a new commercial application of the NES, but instead a homespun reapplication of its existing functions. His work approaches the kind of hardware manipulation that Kittler defines as essential practice, while refusing the addition of definably new properties through his programming.
What is primarily interesting about Arcangel's work is the way in which it highlights the materially closed nature of commercial hardware-software technologies that Kittler bemoans in his writing on computers. The presence of the original system in the gallery space at exhibition, along with the detailed documentation Arcangel provides on his website, makes it clear that in the primitive 6502 assembly language of a Nintendo cartridge there is no extreme way of reading the original game that changes the fact that Super Mario Clouds cannot exist without the expression
.inesprg 2 ; 32k program memory
.ineschr 1 ; 8k chr graphics
.inesmir 1 ; standard mirroring
.inesmap 0 ; NROM mapper....aka no mapper...
.org $8000 ; 32 k cartridge
clouds_start: ; include cloud hex file
This is why process is central to the execution of user-programmer confusions; in avoiding the user position it is essential to begin manipulating form. Each NES cartridge contains a CHR (Character) chip, which contains all of the graphics, and a PRG (Program) chip, which tells the graphics where and when to appear. By replacing either or both with his own, newly written chips, Arcangel is able to make the game act in novel ways without any tampering with the designed functionality of the hardware. Super Mario Clouds, for example, relies on the pre-programmed graphics contained within the CHR chip of the commercial game cartridge, with Arcangel's PRG chip simply telling the game console to put these graphical elements in particular orders. This technical process is as important as the visual output of the work. As Arcangel himself admits, "to make something that looks similar [to Super Mario Clouds] on a modern computer would take about 3 minutes in PhotoShop." It is the kind of technical virtuosity that is not recognised industrially as talent that underpins his work. He is influenced by net artists such as Jodi, but also by hobbyists, home programmers who hack supposedly closed systems to make new things.
In my opinion these are the true heroes of contemporary computer art. Out of the hobby scene have come portable PlayStations, Dreamcasts that boot LINUX, and even hard drives that play music by spinning at different speeds. Arcangel's approach can be seen moving beyond the early videogame into a more recent set of pieces that address the relationship between technology that is designed and constructed to behave in one specific way and its users. For the video piece Sans Simon (2005) Arcangel presents a camcorder recording of a televised Simon and Garfunkel performance in which he places his hands between camera and screen in a vain attempt to keep Paul Simon covered throughout. Plasma Screen Burn (2007) exploits a technical flaw of plasma screen monitors whereby any non-moving image left on the screen too long becomes physically burned onto the surface due to the light-emitting phosphor compounds that enable the technology to function losing their luminosity through over-use. Two Keystoned Projectors (one upside down) (2007) exploits the characteristic of screen projection whereby, if placed too low on the vertical axis in relation to the projection surface, they become keystoned, resulting in the rectangular aspect ratio being distorted into a trapezoid. Each of these recent works reflects a simplification of Arcangel's central concern, the hierarchical relationship between form, medium and user. They highlight simple ways in which misuse, or non-designed use, of technology that is designed to function in only one way can result in new creative possibilities. These later works are particularly effective alongside the older hacked videogame works because there is a functional analogue between the light in a television or projector and the code of a piece of hardware or software. In both cases an invisible language underpins a visible one, and in collapsing these distinctions Arcangel suggests a possible future where manipulating code is as simple and accessible as placing ones hands in between camera and screen.
It is this intended ease of potential participation that underlines much of Arcangel's work. As well as giving away both the method and the assembly code for most of his coded works, he makes it clear on the Super Mario Clouds documentation page that the code is itself borrowed and modified from the website of a hobbyist programmer, Chris Covell. Covell is an example of the hobbyist who lies between user and commercially defined programmer; he exhibits a great level of technical virtuosity, but gives away not only the resultant products but also the methods and source code of his work. He writes programs, games and hacks for obsolete systems such as the NES, and it is from the free sharing of his applications and source code that Arcangel is able to obtain the crucial elements to build Super Mario Clouds. This kind of free accessibility of method and code shows one possible movement towards the intermediating of user and programmer, the making available of programming methods and structures to the non-programmer. Significantly, the specific platform he manipulates in each work can register no definitive technical difference as a result of his tampering; by replacing chips in NES cartridges, he allows the system to function as normal, in every technical sense, while producing an output that is distinct from that intended by the game designers. In terms of the games system, running Super Mario Clouds, F1 Racer Mod or I Shot Andy Warhol is no different to running any regular, commercial cartridge. It is this avoidance of being registered as measurable technical difference that makes Arcangel's work suggestive in relation to accessible tactics of nonexistence. There is, however, still a level of technical difficulty associated with such work that creates an obstacle to its broad application. Ultimately, the practical distinction between assembly languages and higher-level languages for the user are limited, despite Kittler's insistences, since both require learning and, at the bottom line, execute physical action at the hardware level. There remains a gap between the everyday ability to place hand between light source and projector screen and the everyday ability to write low or high-level programming languages that is a current impediment, and it is essential to find ways of traversing this gap in order to execute technical nonexistence. The movement towards direct hardware manipulation that circuit bending demonstrates is one way to think towards this process.
Circuit bending is the practice of creatively altering the circuitry of electronic items to produce new outputs that were unintended at the product's original design and production stages. As a broad movement it is defined by its accessibility, the ease of basic procedures and cheapness of basic components that make it practicable by individuals with no technical training or specialist knowledge. Reed Ghazala, the artist credited with formalising the practice in 1966/7 after discovering a 9-volt transistor amplifier shorting out against a piece of metal in his bedroom desk drawer, has stated of circuit bending that "[n]o theory is needed. No knowledge of electronics. It's probably the easiest introduction to electronic design to exist. I use pictorial diagrams rather than traditional schematic symbols. This turns people into designers, literally, overnight." This use of pictures or diagrams in place of schematics remains the predominant manner of information sharing in the circuit bending community, with archives such as 'experimental list anonymous' using annotated photographs to demonstrate possible bends in a variety of items. Crucially, the basic accessibility of circuit bending is a modular practice, enabling a broad scale from simplicity (the bridging of two points on a board to create a single effect) to complexity (the installation of multiple controls and interface elements to create an orchestra of effects on a single item.)
The fundamental exploratory technique employed in circuit bending is an intimate connection between user and technology. Beginning with a battery powered, audio-emitting device such as Texas Instrument's "Speak & Spell" the person looking for bends opens the casing to expose the PCB, depresses a key in order to generate a sound and, with lightly wetted fingers or a length of wire, systematically or randomly connects points on the circuit, noting the resultant effects. These can range greatly, from pitch variations to extreme distortions and beyond, into the indescribable audio output of crashing chips. The next stage in the process is to place control components between the points that created effects, from switches and potentiometers to light or humidity sensors. Perhaps the most interesting types of bend, in terms of the intimacy of the user-technology relationship that circuit bending suggests, are those involving body contacts, points that are connected by the user-programmer's body, employing their body as a variable resistor. Eleni Ikoniadou has somewhat dramatically stated, of circuit bending in general although clearly in reference to body-contacts specifically, that "[a]s electricity flows through the player's body and is affected and transformed through the flesh and blood flow, the body becomes an active part of the sound circuit that emerges in the performance space." Recent applications of circuit bending are taking the practice away from sound creation into full audio-visual bends of larger, less immediately disposable products, both breaking Ghazala's rule of never bending direct-current-powered items and broadening the possibilities of what can be bent, and what these bends can do. Like computer hardware, the majority of electronic devices subject to circuit bending are based around integrated circuits, and it is in connecting chip pins to other components that many exploits are found; as a result of this, it is theoretically possible to reproduce the process in microprocessor computer hardware, a process that is emergent in current circuit-bending practice. Here circuit bending dovetails with the hobbyist, hardware-hacking practices that Cory Arcangel cites as an influence on his work, and it is interesting to note examples that bear an aesthetic connection, allowing a direct comparison across user-programmer nonexistence methodologies. The audio-visual bends of NES consoles carried out by Philip Stearns (Pixel Form) and Peter Edwards (Casper Electronics) produce output comparable to Arcangel's more extreme Nintendo works, most obviously Super Mario Movie, as well as the game mods of artists such as Jodi, but do so by manipulating the circuitry of the console itself. In these cases the interaction between user and technology is at a lower level of abstraction than the code work of those artists, doing away with the writing of high-level or Assembly languages that remains a significant impediment to their methods becoming broadly accessible. Alongside the removal of this technical impediment, however, a limitation on applicability that is present in the code works of the above-mentioned digital artists remains; there is a shortage of things it is possible to do with circuit bending. The majority of audio bends are confined to the extreme and distorted, and the visual, videogame-based bends of Stearns and Edwards add only graphical distortions, with no addition to gameplay. These practices do not significantly add a programmable layer to the existing, intended user functions of technology beyond the introduction of aural or visual noise. In terms of videogames, the consumer medium that unites the practices examined above, there must be an injunction at the level of play, an extension of intended action, in order to fully implement a confusion of user and programmer.
If the videogame is a primary example of proprietary consumer technology, central to the user-programmer distinction that defines contemporary politics for Galloway and Thacker, it might be fruitful to focus on ways in which the user can begin programming in the game medium through play, the intended use of the technology. Since the game, as befits a medium native to the digital era, control society or gamespace, is defined by action above graphics or sound, user-programming must occur at the level of action in order to be of full value. Tim Rogers, in his essay-review of Shigesato Itoi's Mother 2 for the SNES, makes a distinction between two types of gamer; referring to a passage in Mother 2 where the player is confronted, early on in the game in the town of Onett, with a house that is far too expensive for them to purchase at that point. "The player who thinks within the game's world will never have to buy the house. It's the breed of player most commonly referred to as a "gamer" that will need to buy the house. This gamer will come all the way back to Onett once he has enough money to buy the house."
The gamer looks to explore every possibility within the game world, and as Rogers significantly notes, this is because he does not only "think within" this world, which would entail the completion of only essential components of the story, but considers every statistical possibility as a component of the game, irrespective of impact on its plot or completion. The speedrunner, in contrast to both player and gamer, thinks the game world from outside the technology, or rather sees the technical makeup of the game, both interface and code, as part of the overall diegesis. The speedrunner sees the game as coded space, not only seeking every conventional diegetic possibility, but every exploit that is achievable through the game's standard control interface and that can redefine the possibilities of gameplay.
Broadly, speedrunning refers to the practice of completing games as quickly as possible, documenting the process through videos posted online at sites such as "Speed Demos Archive" and "TASvideos" and then attempting to supersede them. As a practice it generally entails procedures and courses of action that lie outside of the intended gameplay -- especially the reverse engineering and close examination of source code. While there is a class of speedrunning that is based in the conventional ways intended at the design and programming stages, usually involving the negotiation of the game's various stages and challenges with level of skill and ruling out the use of shortcuts, exploits or bugs, it is the class of "tool assisted" runs that are of particular interest here. Tool assisted runs involve the use of emulation software that, alongside allowing the paying of a game intended for any console platform on a desktop computer, allows for the manipulation of the running speed of the game as well as the close examination of its code for potential exploits. Ironically, for a practice that ultimately involves the fastest possible completion of a game, the production of a high-quality run is an extremely slow and painstaking process, involving reverse engineering and the close examination of source code and algorithms followed by the assembly of sequences, often frame-by-frame. Despite this, the runs themselves involve nothing but the emulator, which stands in for the original gaming platform, and a regular game controller input such as a joystick or control pad. They are an extension of the intended use of the game, which is to complete it by jumping through its various algorithmic loops before buying the next one, but an extension that both exposes this procedural makeup and exploits its shortcomings.
In examining the various techniques and constituent practices of speedrunning it is worth concentrating on Bisqwit and Finalfighter's run of Mega Man (Rockman in Japan) for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The reasons for choosing this particular run are threefold; firstly, because older games such as Mega Man do not demonstrate the code obfuscation found in newer games due to being written in 6502 assembly, allowing for direct examination as seen in the work of Cory Arcangel; secondly, because they generally contain a higher amount of obvious bugs and exploits; and thirdly, because the "Rockman Tricks" and "Rockman Data" websites maintained by Bisqwit document the full breadth of the techniques and their underlying code and mathematics respectively. The description of Bisqwit and Finalfighter's run on the "TASvideos" page sets out the fundamental characteristics of speedrunning, and the reason why it is of interest when thinking about nonexistence, the user and the programmer, and is worth quoting at length:
...this movie sacrifices a lot in the playability of the game. Full of tricks to pass through walls, tricks to avoid mandatory battles, tricks to pass through enemies relatively unharmed, tricks to acquire weapon refills in little time -- there is very little in this movie left that resembles normal playing. Even death is used as a viable playing strategy that saves time. All of the tricks are still performed by the means of mere controller input, even though portions of the input were calculated by a computer program. n speedrunning, "normal" play is virtually absent, but what does occur is performed with a "mere controller input". This is at the centre of the way in which it intermediates the user and the programmer, adding nothing new to the total content of the game but allowing for a creativity that is against both algorithmic limitations and programmed obsolescence.
On the 'TASvideos' site Bisqwit and Finalfighter's Mega Man run is listed as "abus[ing] programming errors in the game" and "manipulat[ing] luck." These tactics are described at length on the "Rockman Tricks" and "Rockman Data" sites, and give clear, material insights into speedrunning practice. Amongst the most obvious examples of the abuse of programming errors can be found in the way the runners exploit the game's zipping mechanism. This is in place to prevent the game character becoming stuck in a wall, which would make the game unplayable, and takes the form of a function of the walls in the game, ejecting the player in the direction they are moving if they somehow enter them. Triggering this mechanism intentionally allows areas of the game to be traversed extremely quickly, making the discovery of ways to enter walls or ceilings important. One way found by the runners to execute this exploit is through a function of the ladders, whereby if the character grabs a ladder too high to climb it, or holds both up and down together on the top of a ladder, they are automatically elevated twenty-four pixels irrespective of the position of the ceiling or nearby walls, forcing wall entry and triggering the zipping mechanism.The combination of these two technical aspects of the game are exploited throughout Bisqwit and Finalfighter's run, producing the vividly distorted, glitchy passages of which the section from 12:17 to 12:41 on the video is amongst the most extended examples.
The manipulation of luck is much less obvious through watching the run documentation video, but nonetheless is highly instructive in terms of the speedrunner's approach to gaming. Since games are played on a computer, which always produces the same output from a given input, many events which appear, even through long observation, to be random are actually predictable. As the "common tricks" section of "TASvideos" states, "[g]ames are purely deterministic and depend solely on user input." As such, when a seemingly "random" event such as the dropping of an item by a killed enemy occurs, it is always determined by a number of numeric variables drawn from the game's inputs and outputs. These variables could be the game clock, the pixel position of the player or non-player characters, the direction and speed of movement or many others. Through examination of the assembly code, alongside trial and error, it becomes possible for the runner to collect optimal items at all times and trigger most desirable (i.e. least troublesome) enemy behaviour, allowing for a reduction of overall play time.
In speedrunning it is understood that, beyond Kittler's comments on all software being reducible to hardware manipulation, all interface actions are essentially hardware manipulation. This understanding allows for a creative undecidability between user/programmer that removes many of the obstacles posed by definable technical expertise; while the game is being clearly manipulated at the hardware level through a direct technical comprehension of the way in which it functions, resulting in often highly abrasive, glitchy and distorted graphics and sound alongside unintended gameplay elements, this manipulation is attained through no actual programming whatsoever at the conventional, code-based level.
It is clear enough that, in the same way that David Hahn's homemade fusion reactor is an extreme example of an individual applying technical knowledge outside of official, commercial recognition, the examples of game art, circuit bending and speedrunning discussed above appear modest when thinking about the broad contexts of becoming-nonexistent in the informatic sense. It could well be that this appearance of modesty is essential to the ways in which these approaches to technology can point forward, always assuring a indistinct position in relation to the definable fields of user and programmer. Regardless, in both instances, extreme and modest, two central concepts emerge in relation to nonexistence as counter-practice. The first is that nonexistence is always a technical process, relating to the manipulation of code and hardware even if this only involves copying and pasting assembly language, creating a contact between two circuit components, playing a videogame, scraping tiny amounts of radioactive material from a luminous watch face or shining a laser pointer into a camera. The second is that processes of nonexistence are always engaging with, and pushing beyond, attempts at informatic control whether through the coded parameters of a game or the preset sounds of a toy keyboard. Each of the practices discussed in this piece reflect what Galloway and Thacker describe as "positive technologies". This means that rather than placing limits, as hiding, absence or invisibility would necessitate, they leverage possibilities and escape limits at all times. It is this close proximity to creation that defines the effective nonexistent act, allowing for the prospect of measurability that causes "incongruent or ineffective" control responses. Beyond the specifics of the examples given in this piece, there is an ethics of both technology use and technology theory that emerges from the tactics these distinct but related practices employ. The extension of these tactics into broader applications, at the level of both practice and theory, can only result in increased opportunities to avoid classification as user or programmer. As it stands, the appearance of modesty is no impediment to the critical possibilities that the above approaches to technology suggest; these technical moves of pushing beyond contain within them a multitude of ways to mobilise nonexistence -- "the purest form of love".
- Seb Franklin