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About the Archives

This page contains all entries posted to GAMBIT in November 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

October 2011 is the previous archive.

December 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

12/1/11: The Aesthetics of Games - Frank Lantz (NYU Game Center)

Thursday, December 1, 2011 - 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Room 4-231 (MIT Campus Map)
Presented by MIT Comparative Media Studies

Frank LantzThis talk will explore what it means to consider games an aesthetic form -- something akin to literature, music, or film. That this is the most appropriate category within which to place games seems like an emerging consensus. But what does it actually mean? Are only video games an aesthetic form, or do non-digital games also deserve that status? Are the aesthetics of games a hybrid blend of other forms or a distinct form unto themselves? Do they express a new aesthetic fresh-born of the computer age or a primal, fundamental aesthetic that computers have amplified and brought into focus? The talk will examine these and other related questions.

Frank Lantz is the Interim Director of the NYU Game Center. For over 12 years, Frank has taught game design at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He has also taught at the School of Visual Arts, and Parsons School of Design. His writings on games, technology and culture have appeared in a variety of publications. In 2005 Frank co-Founded Area/Code, a New York based developer that created cross-media, location-based, and social network games. In 2011 Area/Code was acquired by Zynga and is now Zynga New York. Frank has worked in the field of game development for the past 20 years. Before starting Area/Code, Frank worked on a wide variety of games as the Director of Game Design at Gamelab, Lead Game Designer at Pop & Co, and Creative Director at R/GA Interactive. Over the past 10 years, Frank helped pioneer the genre of large-scale realworld games, working on projects such as the Big Urban Game, which turned the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul into the world's largest boardgame; ConQwest, which featured the first major application of semacodes in the United States, PacManhattan, a life-size version of the arcade classic created by the students in his Big Games class at NYU, and many other experiments in pervasive and urban gaming.

11/30/11: Civic Games - Colleen Macklin, Liz Lawley, Scot Osterweil

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Room E14-633 (MIT Campus Map)
Presented by the MIT Center for Civic Media

Game design is developing very rapidly, and insights, tools, and practices from gaming are increasingly integrated across different areas of life, leading to talk of the 'gamification' of everything -- including civic media.

MIT Center for Civic MediaThis session brings together innovative game designers, theorists, and activists in a conversation about the possibilities of and challenges for civic games. Independent game designers, networks like Games for Change, and perhaps even major industry players are moving towards linking gameplay with realworld civic actions. What is the state of play, and what is coming just over the horizon? In theorizing and developing civic games, what can we learn from games with civic content -- as texts, processes, and points of community engagement? How can we understand game design itself as civic engagement, as communities become not only game players but increasingly also design, mod, develop, and critique games?

Colleen Macklin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and Director of PETLab (Prototyping Evaluation, Teaching and Learning /Lab), focused on developing games for experimental learning and social engagement. PETLab projects include a curriculum in game design for the Boys and Girls Club, a set of statistical games for the Red Cross Climate Centre, and big games such as Re:Activism and the "fiscal" sport Budgetball, which is played every year on the national mall in Washington, DC, by college students and members of the legislative and executive branch. She is a member of the game design collectives Local No. 12 and The Leisure Collective. Her work has been shown at Come Out and Play, SoundLab, The Whitney Museum for American Art and Creative Time. BFA, Media Arts Pratt Institute, graduate studies in Computer Science, CUNY and International Affairs, The New School.

Elizabeth Lawley is a Professor of Interactive Games & Media at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she also runs the Lab for Social Computing. In addition to teaching classes on game design, web development, and online identity & community, she produced Rochester's city-wide alternate reality game "Picture the Impossible" with the local newspaper, and is currently working on "Just Press Play", a gaming layer for student success targeted at students in RIT's Interactive Games & Media program. She speaks regularly at conferences ranging from the Game Developers Conference to Internet Librarian and runs an annual symposium on social computing for Microsoft Research that brings together academics and industry professionals in the field. She maintains a personal blog at, and also blogs for the virtual worlds weblog Terra Nova. She has a M.S. in Library Science from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Information Science from the University of Alabama.

Scot Osterweil is the Creative Director of the MIT Education Arcade and a research director in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. He is a designer of award-winning educational games, working in both academic and commercial environments, and his work has focused on what is authentically playful in challenging academic subjects. He has designed games for computers, handheld devices, and multi-player on-line environments. Scot is the creator of the acclaimed Zoombinis series of math and logic games, and leads a number of projects in the Education Arcade, including Vanished: The MIT/Smithsonian Curated Game (environmental science), Labyrinth (math), Kids Survey Network (data and statistics), Caduceus (medical science), and iCue (history and civics). He is a founding member, and Creative Director of the Learning Games Network where he leads the Hewlett Foundation's Open Language Learning Initiative (ESL).

GAMBIT games discussed on Polish website Polityka

In September, Adam Szymczyk wrote an article on three GAMBIT games for the Technopolis blog on the Polish website Polityka. With the help of translator Karolina Michalska, Adam has provided us with the English version of the same article. The full text is below the jump.

Thanks, Adam!

Part Ten of the GAMBIT Summer Summit Videos: Jason Haas/Education Arcade

Part Ten of the GAMBIT Summer Summit 2011 Videos: Jason Haas from The Education Arcade / MIT Scheller Teacher Education Program gives a talk entitled: "The More We Know: Inside NBC News' iCue, and Why It Didn't Work". Every summer at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, students from Singapore and the US work with GAMBIT researchers and development teams on novel game concepts, and visiting researchers spend that time research gaming related topics across a variety of fields. Back on July 6th, 2011, we drew back the curtains in the middle of the summer to provide insights into our current game development and research activities during the inaugural GAMBIT Summer Summit.Video Produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley

Part Nine of the GAMBIT Summer Summit Videos: Konstantin Mitgutsch: "Afterland Revisited"

Part Nine of the GAMBIT Summer Summit 2011 Videos, "Afterland Revisited. A Theory-Based Game Development Research Circle" is a lecture from GAMBIT Researcher and Summit Organizer Konstantin Mitgutsch about his Summer 2010 game, "Afterland". Every summer at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, students from Singapore and the US work with GAMBIT researchers and development teams on novel game concepts, and visiting researchers spend that time research gaming related topics across a variety of fields. Back on July 6th, 2011, we drew back the curtains in the middle of the summer to provide insights into our current game development and research activities during the inaugural GAMBIT Summer Summit. Video Produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley

12/1/2011: NE Games SIG - Collaboration of the Game Industry and Academia


Talent is the essential ingredient to success in game development. The MIT Enterprise Forum's New England Games SIG provides a look at the state of collaboration between industry and academia with this panel discussion.

How can we build a stronger pipeline of talent and what more can be done to improve the number and quality of graduates from schools in the region? This panel of game industry veterans and academic leaders will discuss this topic, as well as provide an overview of the Massachusetts Digital Game Institute's (MassDigi) outreach from K-12 to colleges/ universities across the Commonwealth and MassDigi's industry focused programs. In addition, colleges from around the region will provide an overview of their video game programs.

Moderated by Robert Ferrari of Bare Tree Media, the panel will include Tim Loew of Becker College, Philip Tan of the MIT Gambit Game Lab, Monty Sharma of MassDigi, Terrence Masson of Northeastern, Mark Claypool of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Mary Jane Begin of the Rhode Island School of Design.

6:00pm - 7:00pm: Networking & Light Appetizers, Refreshments
7:00pm - 8:15pm: Panel
8:15pm - 9:00pm: Post-Panel Networking

Come early or stay late to enjoy light appetizers/drinks and to network with your peers. The event will be held on December 1, 2011 from 6pm - 9pm at the Microsoft NERD Center (One Memorial Drive, Cambridge).

More details on the MIT Enterprise Forum site.

Registration is required! Please register here.

Reconstructing the Vector Graphics in Spacewar!


When we first started looking at the Spacewar! source code, one of the first things we tried to identify were the code segments that handled drawing the game state. Thanks to helpful comments in the source, we were quickly able to find the code that rendered the star field, which was covered in the previous post in this series. We also found a section of code that had the tantalizing comment "outlines of spaceship", followed by the two blocks of numbers that you can see in the image to the right. Working out what these numbers meant was the core challenge in understanding how Spacewar! draws its ships.

At first we thought the numbers might be a bitmap encoding of ship sprites, but drawing out what that might look like gave us nothing recognizable. From reading interviews that discussed the techniques that the Spacewar! programmers used we gleaned that the spaceships were actually drawn with vector graphics methods, so our second guess was that the numbers were encodings of vectors. Frustratingly, the simplest interpretation of taking consecutive pairs of numbers to be the x and y coordinates of a series of vectors that were being drawn one after the other again gave us nothing.

A big clue as to what was going on came from a section of the code that was commented as being the "outline compiler". Tracing through this code revealed that it was writing out machine instructions into an empty block of memory past the end of the main program, some of which were display instructions. Next we discovered a separate code section that seemed to be taking the heading of a ship, computing the sine and cosine of the heading, and storing linear combinations of the results in memory. That same memory was then referenced by the code that was being generated by the outline compiler. This was suspiciously like the kind of computation that would need to be done to multiply vectors by a rotation matrix. We'd found the code for rotating the graphics coordinate system!

We found the next piece of the puzzle by tracing the code in the outline compiler using an excel spreadsheet to keep track of variables as the program executes. It turned out that the memory that stored the outline encodings was being consumed in small chunks, and the number that those chunks encoded was being used to jump the program that many instructions ahead. This meant every octal digit in the outline's encoding was specifying a source code section to execute, and each of these code sections caused new instructions to be written into memory, which in turn would later be executed to display the ship on the screen. What these instructions did was update the drawing location, moving it in one of 5 directions relative to the last point drawn, save the current location, or restore the last saved one. By chaining these instructions together the program would trace out the outline of the ship.


With this discovery we had enough information to try reconstructing the outlines of the ships from the encodings by hand. Anxiously, we started sketching the outline of the first ship and were disappointed mid way through to find that it seemed like it mostly just a straight line and that there weren't enough instructions to possibly encode the whole outline of a ship. After reflecting for a moment though, we realized it makes sense that the needle ship would be mostly straight, so that was actually not a problem, but the final realization that made everything fit together was that only half of each ship's outline was being encoded; the programmers must have reflected them to draw the other halves.

Armed with our decoded spaceship outlines we are now reconstructing Spacewar!'s graphics in GAMBIT's Arduino port of the game. For avid Spacewar! fans, you too can reconstruct your own needle and wedge from the encodings in the picture using this decoding: 1 = down, 2 = right, 3 = down and right, 4 = left, 5 = down and left, 6 = save / restore, and 7 = finish!

Friday Games @ GAMBIT - A History of The Elder Scrolls

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released last week in a blaze of Nordic fury, so this week's Friday Games @ GAMBIT will be about, what else? - a history of the Elder Scrolls franchise - in how it grew from its inception in 1994 (and through its tangential relationship with Bethesda's Terminator titles) into what is now, in the minds of many, the industry gold standard for rich, deep, open-ended single-player RPG design.

As always, we'll be in the GAMBIT lounge at 4pm with cookies. Here is the full list of game's we'll briefly look at, before opening things up with Skyrim.

- The Terminator
- The Elder Scrolls: Arena
- The Terminator: Future Shock
- The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
- The Elder Scrolls: Redguard
- The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind
- The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion
- The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

We're on the third floor of 5 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142. If you can't join us, you can watch our live stream.

Electronic Arts CFO, Eric Brown To Speak at MIT Today at 5PM

Today, November 14th at 5PM at MIT, there will be a lecture from Electronic Arts CFO Eric Brown as part of a college recruitment visit for positions with EA. The event is only for MIT students, alums and GAMBIT alums. For more information please contact GAMBIT Communications Director, Generoso Fierro The event is sponsored by the GAMBIT Lab.

Part Eight of the GAMBIT Summer Summit Videos: Shu Ke, Singapore Management University

Part Eight of the GAMBIT Summer Summit 2011 Videos features a talk from Shu Ke from Singapore Management University entitled: "K-Sketch: A Simple Animation Tool Used In Game Design". Every summer at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, students from Singapore and the US work with GAMBIT researchers and development teams on novel game concepts, and visiting researchers spend that time research gaming related topics across a variety of fields. Back on July 6th, 2011, we drew back the curtains in the middle of the summer to provide insights into our current game development and research activities during the inaugural GAMBIT Summer Summit.Video Produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley

3 new games spring from our sister lab in Singapore

Dark Dot, Snap Escape: The Epic Swing, and Backflow are three new games just released by the Singapore lab.

Each is available on iOS -- Apple's mobile operating system -- and are thus in the App Store, with both Dark Dot and Snap Escape being free:

It's GAMBIT, so, while you're having fun, try not to think about how awesomely you're helping the Singapore lab answer game research questions. Don't think about: shape manipulation features, intuitive tilting controls for your iPhone, or using games to provoke awareness of environmental issues.

You've been warned.

Now get playing...

Looking Glass Studios Interview Series - Audio Podcast 8 - Marc "Mahk" LeBlanc

Part 7 of a continuing series, where I interview members of the now-defunct but highly influential Looking Glass Studios (1990-2000), which wrote the book on 3D first-person narrative game design throughout the 90s, in such games as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief.

This week is Marc "Mahk" LeBlanc. Marc was a programmer/designer at Looking Glass for most of the company's life, and was one of the major voices in shaping the overarching design aesthetic of the company. This is partially what lead to Marc being a thinker, writer, and educator on game design, developing the MDA framework (Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics) as a simple tool for creating emergence-centric games. I talk with Marc about his time at Looking Glass, how he remembered dealing with simulation, fiction, and emergence across various projects, and how those lessons and strategies have filtered out into the rest of the games industry after the company folded.

If you ever wanted to know how performance-enhancing drugs can help you in System Shock or what the exact difference is between the design philosophies of Deus Ex and Thief, give it a listen.

Download the podcast here.
We're hiring!

We're looking for a financial assistant to join us in the Cambridge, MA offices of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab! If you have three or more years of financial/accounting and administrative experience, and the idea of working at an MIT game research lab sounds exciting, check out the details here. Apply through MIT's Staffing Services website.

Part Seven of the GAMBIT Summer Summit Videos: Nguyen Thi Nhat Anh, Nanyang Technological University

Part Seven of the GAMBIT Summer Summit 2011 Videos presents a talk from Nguyen Thi Nhat Anh from Nanyang Technological University . Her talk is on "Interactive multi-view image segmentation".

Every summer at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, students from Singapore and the US work with GAMBIT researchers and development teams on novel game concepts, and visiting researchers spend that time research gaming related topics across a variety of fields. Back on July 6th, 2011, we drew back the curtains in the middle of the summer to provide insights into our current game development and research activities during the inaugural GAMBIT Summer Summit. Video Produced by Generoso Fierro, Edited by Garrett Beazley

Video: "What Can The Demoscene Do For You" with Tammo "kb" Hinrichs

The video is up from The Friday Games @ GAMBIT from October 14th, 2011. Tammo "kb" Hinrichs is a game industry professional and organizing team member for several demoparties with attendance as high as twelve hundred people. On October 14th he gave an overview of what the demoscene is and presented on what the demoscene community has done in the past to contribute to his and others' professional development and encourage the formation of new companies, such as game studios.

The demoscene is a computer art subculture active most in Europe which has encouraged students, mid-career IT and computer creative professionals to build and continue to develop their coding, graphic arts, and compositional skills. It has also facilitated networking and mentorship connections. Many members of the scene have also found opportunities within it to cultivate their teamwork and leadership skills. Software development houses, particularly game studios, have also benefited from techniques refined in the scene, such as procedural content generation, and many demosceners work in the games industry.

Friday Games @ GAMBIT - Zombies That Don't Belong!

Zombies are everywhere... even in games where they shouldn't be. Our (late) Halloween session will examine the phenomenon of zombies in otherwise zombie-free games, often appearing in the form of downloadable extras, easter eggs, in-jokes, etc.

The games will include:

  • Red Dead Redemption
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops
  • Yakuza: Ryu Ga Gotoku of the End
  • Time Splitters 2
  • Railworks 3: Trains vs Zombies

So drop by the GAMBIT lounge at 4pm. As always, there will be cookies.

The Night Sky in Spacewar!

Expensive Planetarium Source

When we first started looking at the source code for Spacewar! we were struck by a strange section of code at the end, which was solely made up of repeated instructions along the lines of the code in the image on the right. A little bit of reflection and some background reading lead us to discover that this code was setting up a table of all the coordinates of the stars displayed in Spacewar!'s background. The code for doing this is a program in itself called Expensive Planetarium, written by Peter Samson, which displays a faithful recreation of the night sky as visible from MIT and was originally independent of Spacewar, but was later integrated into it. You can see the section of Expensive Planetarium that sets up the star field data on Wikipedia. Investigating this gives a bit of a taste of what unravelling Spacewar! is like.

Right up the top of the source listing is a comment that tells us Peter R. Samson wrote this for version 2b of Spacewar! The command 6077/ means the code from here down should be placed starting at that address in the PDP-1's memory. Next up is another comment telling us that Peter finished his code on March 13th in 1962 and a directive saying all the numbers from here on down should be interpreted as decimal, rather than the default of octal.

Now comes the definition of mark, which is a macro for converting the star coordinates into a format that makes them easier to process for displaying. Anywhere mark is called, the Macro preprocessor will replace the call inline with the code here, substituting in the arguments for the variables X and Y. Interestingly though, any arithmetic expressions or repeat statements are handled by the preprocessor, rather than being translated into code, so repeat 8, Y=Y+Y will multiply Y by 2^8, which is equivalent to bit-shifting it left by 8 bits, but will do this before run time. Wikipedia's listing actually has an error in the code; 8192-X and Y should be on two separate lines. These two lines are telling the preprocessor that 8192 (which is 2^13!) - X should be written at the current address in memory and Y should be written at the following address. In this way, the long list of mark commands that follows the macro's definition builds up a table of the positions of all the stars in the night sky visible from MIT.

Looking at this big list you might wonder why all the X coordinates are in the strange range of 0 to 8192 yet the Y coordinates can be both positive and negative. Also, why bit-shift the Y coordinates and subtract the X coordinates from 8192? It turns out that to answer that question you have to go beyond the code listing in Wiki and look at the Spacewar! source code itself. For keen PDP-1 hackers who are interested in looking at the source code, the macro in Spacewar! that does this is called dislis. Some reading, tracing code execution with pen and paper, and a bit of intuition revealed that Y is initially in the range -512 to 512 because the display of the PDP-1 had a resolution of 1024 by 1024 with its origin at center of the screen. The reason that it's bit-shifted by 8 before being stored in memory is because the display instruction for the PDP-1 looked in bits 0-9 of its accumulator and IO register for the X and Y coordinates respectively and words on the PDP-1 were 18 bits long, so the bit shift puts the Y value in the correct location for display.

The X coordinates are a bit more involved. Spacewar! keeps track of where the rightmost edge of the screen is in world space and moves it along in the game's main loop, which creates the effect of the star field drifting across the screen. dislis examines each X coordinate to see whether it would be in the viewable region of the sky represented in the screen, and then converts the X coordinate from world space to screen space, bit-shifting it in the process to prepare it for a display instruction. The subtraction and also the ordering of the stars by X coordinate performed when the table of stars is generated lets dislis detect when it has reached a star that is beyond the viewable region displayed on the screen and do an early abort of its scan through the table, saving a few cycles.

Lastly if you look back at the Wiki article you can see that the coordinates are separated out into blocks, which it turns out divide the stars into brightness categories. The PDP-1's display was monochrome, but the brightness of any given point could be controlled programatically, a feature which Spacewar! uses quite a lot.

Now that we've worked out how to interpret this star field data we're using it in the port of Spacewar! that we're working on here at GAMBIT. Our device's screen won't be the same size, but we now that we know how the coordinate system worked in the original it will be easy to convert it to make it work for our display. Our next big challenge is reverse engineering the display code for the spaceships in Spacewar! Our initial investigation has revealed that Spacewar! generates the display code programmatically at runtime, but exactly how is a mystery that we're having fun solving.

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