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Tech Q&A

Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost

Describe your latest project.
Racing the Beam is our book about the first popular video game console, the Atari VCS (later known as the Atari 2600). In the book, we dig into how that console works and how programmers for the system innovated. There's discussion of the hardware, down to the level of the chips on the board, and an in-depth look at six of the many famous games for the system: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We did a lot of research and thinking about how the way this system was designed in an existing culture of games, including early video games, and how it has lived on and influenced us all since its release in 1977.

  1. Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System
    $26.95 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Modern game designers should read this book for the same reason that modern generals study the military campaigns of Alexander and Caesar: the technology is completely different but the principles are the same." Chris Crawford, former head of Atari's Games Research Group, and co-founder of Storytron
  2. Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction
    $10.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "Anyone interested in the use of technology for artistic and cultural purposes should crack open Twisty Little Passages." Book Bytes
  3. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames
    $49.25 New Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Bogost creates and writes about serious games, seemingly simple diversions that deliver educational, political, and advertising content alongside entertainment. In Persuasive Games, he offers an academic but accessible introduction to their potential, and it is very meaty reading for anybody interested in where the interactive arts meet real-world topics." The Toronto Globe and Mail
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Nick: Very different things, depending upon whether I'm writing conceptual poetry, interactive fiction programs, emails to my students, or a book about a video game system. In the case of this book, my main motivation was my interest in the creative process and in how it connects to the technology of computing systems. Having a collaborator provides great motivation to keep going on a project like this, because if you don't get the work done, you're letting someone else down rather than just yourself.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
Ian: I had a Latin teacher who was really an armchair philosopher. He taught us many things about thinking and living. That was nice and probably influential. But later I found myself wishing that he'd also taught us some Latin. I suspect this had some influence on my later interest in thinking about the connection between theory and practice.

Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?
Nick: In my day, we took the Hacker Test!

Ian: In some ways, our book on the Atari (and the others we hope to publish in the Platform Studies series) rejects the very premise of the Geek Test. Geekdom isn't an identity or a way of life anymore, if it ever was. Geekery is an activity we all take part in, like swimming or going out for tacos.

Chess or video games?
Nick and Ian: Both — Video Chess (Atari, 1979) for the Atari VCS.

What's your favorite blog right now?
Ian: My own, of course. But lately I've been seduced by philosopher Graham Harman's new blog, Object-Oriented Philosophy. Harman is one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, though keeping up with his blogging pace is difficult!

Nick: The one I contribute to, Grand Text Auto, is still my favorite, but lately I've been most avidly reading the blogs of Jason Scott: ASCII and Inventory. Jason is just now finishing a documentary called Get Lamp, which is about interactive fiction. That's the topic of my first book, Twisty Little Passages.

Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?
Ian: Scott Adams. As someone who has made video games about airport security, disaffected copy-store workers, E. coli-laced spinach, and suburban errands, I'm a sucker for wry social satire.

Nick: I have to say that I prefer novelist and interactive-fiction author Douglas Adams. Good thing I have Ian as a collaborator; it means we can cover all the bases in situations like this.

What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?
Nick: Laptop computers — because they combine the power of computation and the networked facility (for what Katherine Hayles calls "hyperattention") with the form factor of a book and the potential for fully engaged reading and writing (for "deep attention"). This can allow people to think in profoundly new ways and bring the best of book culture together with new ways of thinking. The technology was imagined long ago by Alan Kay and others, and obviously has been here for a while, but we still have a lot of work to do in figuring out how to best use it. That work will need to be done by people who are writers as well as programmers, I think.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Ian: Someone whose brain I'd like to feel working from the inside. Probably a philosopher. Slavoj Zizek perhaps, or Jacques Derrida, or what the heck, Socrates. I'd just want to sit around all day and see what would come to mind, so to speak.

Describe the best museum of science and/or industry you've ever visited and what made it great.
Ian: I recently visited my parents, who live in Albuquerque. That was where Microsoft got its start, and Paul Allen recently funded the addition of a whole exhibit in the Albuquerque Natural History museum called Startup, about the history of the personal computer. It was thorough and well created, and I appreciate that visitors can get a perspective on how the computer developed. That's certainly the spirit of the book Nick and I wrote, too.

Nick: I'll be boring and name the Exploratorium, which really is a great museum that deserves to be mentioned again. There and in San Francisco's Musee Mecanique, years ago, I got to play some of the arcade video games that we ended up discussing in the book.

By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?
Ian: Where humankind will be is a question I'll leave to the clairvoyants and futurists. But where I hope it will be, quite simply, is in a place where technology and ideas are far more integrated than they are now.

÷ ÷ ÷

Nick Montfort is Assistant Professor of Digital Media at MIT. He is the author of Twisty Little Passages: A New Approach to Interactive Fiction and the coeditor of The New Media Reader, both published by The MIT Press.

Ian Bogost is Assistant Professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture, at Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner, Persuasive Games LLC. He is the author of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogame Criticism and Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, both published by the MIT Press.

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