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Sep. 25th, 2010 @ 01:27 am syllabus: the ensmartening
Current Mood: bouncycaffeinated
Current Music: Bomani Armah - Read A Book
I am fed up with being constrained by the limits of my understanding, on a non-technical level, of the fields in which I work. Being able to write and code has ceased to be sufficient--how can I create anything new if I do not really understand what it is I am creating? What role it will play, what purpose it serves? So the next step in my education has begun.

Aided by reading lists graciously compiled by technology historian kezinge and media theorist virtualstar, today I set out to the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to acquire some Real Fucking Knowledge to replace my current set of Pretentious Undergraduate Bullshit Cleverly Pretending To Be Real Fucking Knowledge. It's not enough to be familiar with ideas like "the medium is the message" and "the signifier and the signifier are one." If I am going to be working with these ideas, I need to understand them, explore them, contest them, discuss them, not just toss them around like beanbags to see if someone better read than me will catch them. It's not just about getting into Media Lab. It's about knowing the big picture about what the hell I am doing, and finding inspiration in it. My CS degree taught me the what and the how, but it frustrates me how little I know about the when or why. And I'm tired of being one of those name-dropping, walking-Wikipedia, hedge-scholar intellectual poseurs who knows everything he knows only in broad summary. I want to actually know what I'm talking about.

The first step to knowledge is acknowledging your own ignorance. In this case that meant looking for it in the wrong fucking place.

Oh, Brooklyn Public Library. I love you, you're a noble endeavor, you're one of the finest things on which my tax money is spent. But you were built to serve the needs of the many, not the ambitions of the few. And that is why your shelves are stocked with career guides, SAT prep books, tax ledgers, children's books, pulp novels, car repair guides, and partisan political propaganda. Useful, practical things, not the one copy of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media exactly one intellectually irresponsible twenty-five-year-old without access to a university library needs to make budget video games about social networking puppetry. It's why you have six copies of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which was marketed as a crass Luddite coffee-table book in the '80s but was actually brilliant enough to become an important contemporary text on media theory, all of which ostensibly gathered dust for a couple decades before NYU and Columbia media theory students snapped them all up at once and forgot to return them. (Status: CONSULT LIBRARIAN. Oh no.)

The card catalog covers sixty branches. I found just one book. The business library in the City Hall branch had a copy of Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922, an exploration of the early history of radio by Susan J. Douglas. And it's not even one of the really important ones, just neat in a oh-this-provides-some-interesting-context sort of way. All the others? No dice.

Media theory, kezinge explained to me last Farm Party, is such a young science that bookstores have yet to market them with the veneer of academic legitimacy. Most of the books I've heard cited over and over again are written by journalists, businessmen, and sometimes even random New Age stoners (blind squirrel effect), not professors. That's because until recently, the discipline had no professors. It is one of the few disciplines in which its foundational texts--books that are widely influential, sometimes regardless of their brilliance or the newness of their ideas--could actually be conceivably found in a public library, or a used bookstore, next to a copy of the Hacker's Manifesto and some book with a dollar-marked atom bomb on the cover titled COLD MONEY: HOW KHRUSCHEV'S NEW CAPITALISM IS DESTROYING AMERICA.

(Related note: ennyousai, would you be so kind as to explain to me how the Dewey system organizes books past the decimal point? I get the idea of general categories, and subcategories within them, but I am amused and befuddled by which books on ostensibly the same topic end up next to each other.)

Books about McCluhan's infamous "the medium is the message" statement abound in the BPL system, but Understanding Media itself? It's a blank spot in the card catalog. The Manhattan library system doesn't have it listed either. The Strand doesn't have it. Barnes and Noble doesn't have it. Only way to get it, it seems, is from a university library or the Internet. And it's not even an academic text. If I hadn't seen a physical copy somewhere, I'd think the book didn't really exist, that it was an elaborate hoax by academics in the 1980s, invented for the sole purpose of seeing whether they could get parents to forbid their children from watching television.

After all, how would you know this book existed if you were the kind of person who would rather be watching television? The medium is the message.

It boggles the mind, then, if no one in either the fifth largest library system, the largest used bookstore, or the biggest bookstore chain in the United States has this book (and therefore no one has read it), how many non-scholars are talking out of their asses when they invoke the phrase "the medium is the message." Either that, or all of New York's television pundits, ad executives, guerilla artists, and smug Williamsburg hipsters already have copies and are refusing to part with them. You can't have our knowledge, neener neener neener.

(I called virtualstar and asked how she gets all the media theory books she's always reading, and she said, "I don't know. I use my mom's library card to get into the SUNY Binghamton academic library." Aaaaargh.)

But, I do not give up the pursuit of knowledge so easily. So after bouncing from library branch to library branch all afternoon, I decided to let my wallet take a hit and went to the Strand. Eighty dollars and two hours later I now have a whole bunch of literary magazines and about six useful-looking books on related topics I never expected to find anywhere, but not one of the foundational texts I was actually looking for.

So it looks like it's going to be Amazon.com for me, shipping fees be damned. I'm lucky to also have an MIT Press catalog I got through my ACM SIGGRAPH membership, otherwise I'd have no hope of ever being able to read some of the more esoteric important works at all.

An interesting conundrum, is it not? I want to get into MIT, among other reasons, so I will have access to the books I will need to read to get into MIT. Damn it, ivory tower, let me in! It's not like I've even been gone that long.

But no matter! I have books now. They're not the books I was looking for, but they will are topical and they are books I was going to get to anyway. If the pen is mightier then the sword, I now have an arsenal. All that's left is to move that tightly packaged IKEA monolith out of the living room and build an armory to put it in. (Armoire. Armory. Same difference.) And then I can start poring through my stash! And slowly I will be armed to the teeth with ideas.

These are the books I obtained today. The very incomplete syllabus for a graduate-level course in New Ways To Think About Video Games. They are not decorative. They will not sit on a bookshelf until I get around to them, like the ones yuppies purchase to display in their TV cabinets as conversation pieces. Their ideas are going straight into my head, where they shall careen like brakeless bumper cars crashing about in the dark until I discover something new about them to talk or write or code about. Someday, hopefully, all this research will help me achieve my lifelong goal of telling a story in a way that's never been tried before, a story that would suffer if it was told any other way.

Titles in red are ones I am still looking for. If you just happen to have a used copy you'd like to give or sell me, I'd be immensely grateful. Suggestions for addition to the reading list are also welcome!

GAME DESIGN

  • Brathwaite, Brenda; Schreiber, Ian. Challenges for Game Designers.
  • Crawford, Chris. The Art of Game Design. A classic from the legendarily batshit founder of GDC. It's been out of print so long you could get engaged for less than it'd cost to get a copy. But YAAAAAY IT'S ONLINE. "For truth! For beauty! For art! Charge!"
  • Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on Game Design. Chris Crawford is a Lunatic Genius: Electric Boogaloo. (Or, rather, Chris Crawford Has Been Designing Games Longer Than I've Been Alive: A Retrospective.)
  • Dille, Flint; Platten, John Zuur. The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design. Possibly the only game writing textbook in existence, much less the ultimate.
  • Salen, Katie. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The theoretical grounding to Schell's practical knowledge. Coined virtually all the current academic terminology on the subject, and is worth a purchase for that alone. Let's face it, I don't have any real business talking about "ludology" until I've read about it from the source.
  • Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Fat. The mother lode of applied game design theory, apparently. Praise for this book transcends the hyperbolic.

HISTORY
(Thanks to kezinge and retch)

  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin; Aspray, William. Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 2nd ed.
  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry.
  • Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922. About the early history of radio. How is this relevant to video games? Well, it provides a useful reference point in understanding how new technology is invented, improved, and adopted relative to the zeitgeist of the era in which it is created, which will help me contextualize future readings on that subject. Also talks briefly about the beginnings of geek culture, apparently!
  • Kent, Stephen. The Ultimate History of Video Games--The Story Behind The Craze That Touched Our Lives And Changed The World. I'm told it's like David Sheff's better-known Game Over, except broader. And 500 pages long.
  • Kushner, David. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. If Sheff and Kent's massive flyswatters are the macro, this book is the micro--the tale of the young game company that came to define every stereotype of game developers in the '90s, and ultimately subvert them. I especially want to read this one because I've heard it is told from a game designer's angle, focusing on new technologies and experimentation with gameplay elements instead of the more typical business and historical-cultural perspectives.
  • Levy, Stephen. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.
  • Montefort, Nicholas. Twisty Little Passages. Already read this one! Simultaneously an unprecedentedly thorough history of text adventure and a groundbreaking exploration of interactive narrative's unique place as a medium of expression. Montefort's bibliography is a major source for this reading list.
  • Sheff, David. Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped An American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, And Enslaved Your Children. Despite the absurdly sensationalist tagline, this is a pretty well-regarded history of the video game industry from the 1960s to the early 1990s. I read some of this book at retch's place and it was pretty fascinating.

MEDIA THEORY
(Thanks to kezinge and virtualstar)

  • Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. I am already a fan of Bogost's criticism and essays, so I'd read pretty much anything he writes. He is also the world's foremost only authority on newsgames and the potential of games as agents for political and social change, and a good reason to consider applying to Georgia Tech's Digital Media M.S. program as well.
  • Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design.Misleading title: this is apparently not a standard game design book but a set of personal and ethical reflections on the nature of gaming by the senior creative officer of Sony. Appears to be very widely read in the industry for some reason.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. If you've ever been asked "Is the medium the message?" and bullshitted an answer, you really need to be thwacked over the head with this book. And then you need to read it.
  • Mitnick, Kevin D. The Art of Deception. Seminal text on information security by the world's most infamous hacker, particularly because it has very little to do with defeating technical security measures and everything to do with exploiting human interactions with technology.
  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. According to kezinge this book is the main reason why parents used to tell their kids that TV rots their brains. "Go read a book!" they'd say, not realizing that reading is an equally sedentary activity. When I grew up, it was, "Kevin, stop playing video games and come watch TV." It's about time I understood why.
  • Kidder, Tracy. The Soul of a New Machine.
  • Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Eeeeeee so excited to begin reading this one. A forward-looking evolutionary history of prose, as written by a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech with an academic background in literary theory. This book is kind of a big deal right now.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet.
  • Turkle, Sherry. “The Subjective Computer: A Study in the Psychology of Personal Computation,” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 173–205.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, 2nd ed.


SEMIOTICS
(Thanks to virtualstar)

  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Awkward yet influential postmodern philosophy essay comparing the experience of reading to the experience of having sex. Cited relentlessly in papers about interactive narrative, as it provides a useful and well-known model against which the experience of playing a video game may be compared. Montefort all but fetishizes on citing this work. Which I guess is appropriate, given that The Pleasure of the Text is reportedly pretty fetishistic in itself.
  • Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Ever hear art and literary theorists argue about the distinction between signifier and the signified? This book is where those terms were first defined. I am told that digital media breaks a lot of traditional assumptions about how media is perceived, so I should learn what they are. (It's amazing how the human brain interprets out of the many layers of abstraction, a series of electromagnetic pulses representing a sequence of numbers representing a set of instructions representing movement vectors for a three-dimensional ordered set of points representing a series of polygons projected into a two-dimensional space represented by a rectangular grid of rapidly flashing lights, sixty times a second, as a single continuous experience. And to think cinema blew the semioticists away.)
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation.
  • Eco, Umberto. Theory of Semiotics.
  • Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge.
  • Foucault, Michel. Order of Things.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics.


ART, DRAMA, AND FICTION

  • Barkan, Seth Flynn. Blue Wizard Is About To Die! Self-proclaimed first published anthology of poems about video games. Expensive.
About this Entry
dd2guy
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From:erf_
Date:September 25th, 2010 08:17 am (UTC)
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Short version:

I R DUMB
I READ BOOK BOUT MAK GAM
WHERE BOK GO
DURR

Edited at 2010-09-25 08:17 am (UTC)
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From:virtualstar
Date:September 25th, 2010 03:12 pm (UTC)
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Game Over is fun! I forgot about that book!

Actually, the terms "signifier" and "signified" were coined by the linguist Saussure. If you want to read about Semiotics, read Eco's Theory of Semiotics.

Also, read Madness and Civilisation or Discipline and Punish by Foucault. It's pretty much all anyone reads anyway. And, he's easy. He's a really fluid writer, so it's easy.
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From:virtualstar
Date:September 25th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
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Kaja Silverman. She's a semiotician and a cinema theorist. Good fun.
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From:erf_
Date:September 25th, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
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Anything by her in particular?
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From:virtualstar
Date:September 26th, 2010 03:24 am (UTC)
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Dunno. I read an essay of hers about Vivre sa vie. And it was good fun.
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From:erf_
Date:September 25th, 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
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Aaaaaaaaagh I remembered wrong. Will keep an eye out for Eco and Saussure.

Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish look interesting from a philosophy of politics standpoint, but don't really tie into what I want to study? I think?
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From:virtualstar
Date:September 26th, 2010 03:13 am (UTC)
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Yes, they do. Because Foucault ties into everything.
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From:virtualstar
Date:September 26th, 2010 03:23 am (UTC)
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In terms of getting his gist in as few words as possible - because, in truth, he has a similar idea that he applies to everything. Read Discipline and Punish and you've got it. Panopticon, docile bodies, the system, etc. So, then you just take his concepts...and reapply. Easy. Because he only really talks about the 17th through 19th centuries anyway because he's a historian, so everyone else applies him to modern culture, etc. Otherwise - funny fact: everything ties into what you want to study. Sad fact: I'm not joking.

Baudrillard's work is online already, as is a number of other people who taught at the European Graduate School. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/articles/
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From:erf_
Date:September 26th, 2010 06:50 am (UTC)
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Looks like I'll have to be a little more selective if I want to ever have any hope of getting through the list. :/

Holy cow was Baudrillard prolific. Weird how the only work by him I could find at the Strand was an oddly sentimental collection of his thoughts upon visiting America. (Maybe not the same Jean Baudrillard?)
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From:virtualstar
Date:September 26th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
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Same Baudrillard...he goes a bit crazy later in life when he writes about 9/11. But he's lovely. No one seems to read anything but Simulacra and Simulation, though, not that I've noticed. Start with that essay...and work from there?

Also: Read Paul Virilio. I haven't, so tell me how he is.
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From:kezinge
Date:September 26th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
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I think which Foucault books people read really depend on discipline and politics. People I know mostly read The Order of Things and History of Sexuality Volume 1, but I know a lot of historians of science and people interested in queer theory. I do think that The Order of Things is really different from his other work, in that it's (mostly) not about power. I also don't think it's as relevant to your interests as a bunch of his other stuff, Kevin. I'd recommend History of Sexuality Volume 1 because then you can read the first half of David Halperin's book Saint Foucault with it and that book it really fun, but there are options.
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From:saberslashalpha
Date:September 26th, 2010 02:05 am (UTC)
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Funny enough, The art of game design : a book of lenses / Jesse Schell is available at the Oberlin College main Library.
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From:saberslashalpha
Date:September 26th, 2010 02:13 am (UTC)
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Also, I found a PDF of it. Downloaded it, virus scanned it, and reviewed it. Its the real deal. Hit me up on AIM if you want it.
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From:erf_
Date:September 26th, 2010 06:52 am (UTC)
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Woot! Would appreciate much. Thanks!

Also, I doubt it's coincidence. After arcangel, rcormac, and I all went into game development the CS department finally got the message and started teaching a game programming course. :]
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From:saberslashalpha
Date:September 28th, 2010 01:32 pm (UTC)
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I've actually loaded it onto my iPad now and have been reading it myself before bed. Maybe it'll actually spark something in my head and we could co-op something.
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From:erf_
Date:September 28th, 2010 11:30 pm (UTC)
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Hit me up on AIM if you have any feasible ideas.
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From:user_undefined
Date:September 27th, 2010 01:42 am (UTC)
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Damnation. I guess this will keep you busy on the subway. I don't have leads on any of those books, but good luck in your pursuit of knowledge!
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From:erf_
Date:September 27th, 2010 03:02 am (UTC)
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The one good thing about living way out here in Sunset Park is that I get a lot of reading time going between places.

Thank you! I'll need it. (And hopefully I can do something about that pesky pursuit of happiness too...)
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From:drabheathen
Date:September 27th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
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Everyone is learning!

Erica and Paul G. are in law school, Eric Stone's in engineering (I think) school, Greer's in creative writing school, Shawn's researching grad schools for art history, Hilary V. S. is looking at programs for being an art teacher, you're autodidacting about media and video games, and I'm going to autodidact about science media!

Exciting.
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From:erf_
Date:September 27th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)
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It certainly seems the logical course of action when there are no jobs. How many times have you heard from older professionals, "I would love to read that book, but I've never had the time?"

By the way, when are you back in the city?
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From:drabheathen
Date:September 27th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
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Tomorrow/tonight! Not actually sure. Tomorrow/Wednesday are marathon moving time.
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From:erf_
Date:September 27th, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
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Would you like an extra hand with boxes and such? My brain could use a rest but my muscles are listless.
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From:drabheathen
Date:September 27th, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
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That would be great! What does your schedule look like on Tuesday night and Wednesday?
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From:erf_
Date:September 27th, 2010 09:39 pm (UTC)
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There's a show I really want to go to at 8:30 Tuesday night, but I'm free to help out anytime on Wednesday before 7:30 PM.
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From:drabheathen
Date:September 27th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
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Wednesday it is, then. Thank you, this is excellent. I'll call you soon.
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From:retch
Date:September 28th, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
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come out to visit again and you can read Hackers (new edition is out now too I believe!), Crawford's book, not sure if I have any of the rest.