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A Day of Processing: Simple Ideas

Posted by Bart

I have a backlog of blogging topics that keep popping into my head as I try to do other things so I best get started before term time hits with a debilitating thud.  Last week a bunch of TAGgers got together with some Kokoromi folks for some Tagoromi action (Heather’s word) courtesy of Peter Kirn. The goal of this workshop was to learn something about Processing, which is an open source programming and development environment kinda geared to artsy types. Now Processing is nothing new to design people but it was sure new to me so thanks to Heather, Lynn and Jane for bring this on and especially Peter for being a great sport and providing such a clear introduction for my programming inept ears.   Now for the reflections…

I really am not about to quit my day job (I promise) in pursuit of some new found desire to program great works of gamey art (or arty games for that matter) so for me learning about Processing was about gaining greater insight and respect for programming as a mediated practice and game programming as a special case of this. There are other things of course but I am thinking about this issue right now in part because of a doctoral student I am working with at Carleton (shout out to Jennifer Whitson) and also some recent work by Damien Charrieras.

I think non-programmers sometimes have the impression that programmers have more or less direct access and control over the machines and processes they program but this really has not been true since the days of machine code (the loss of which is lamented by new media theorists such as Fredrich Kittler). I think part of what is promising about the field of software studies is the ways in which we can begin to talk about programming environments like Processing on the one hand and say Virtools or Unity on the other as kinds of cultural environments with affordances, constraints and values towards interactive processes that go one way rather than another.  The same could also be said for the base languages these environments are built on (Java or below that C/C++) but the analysis there needs to be more subtle.

My first point about this with respect to game studies and design is that cultural factors do not simply enter with the player, nor (if we back up one step for the humanities folks stuck on representation) with the representational/interface layer of the code, but rather there is a cultural practice of programming that is already fully mediated. Well this is old news to some but we are only beginning to get at this in game studies so that understanding what goes on in game playing really has much to do with understanding what is going on in these programming environments.

Well thats just me justifying why I will not likely become of Processing geek… I was told that this environment is closer to the core and more flexible as a result… there is less “mediation” or perhaps “commerical institutionalization” of processes and routines (wait for this… I have a whole post coming on ‘routines’) than Virtools or Unity.  The implication is that its easier to be more innovative in Processing than in Unity say…  now I am trying to be provocative on purpose and I recognize that Processing is a completely different beast — originally it was a drawing/sketching environment and now it can do much more and is in principle endlessly expandable because of its modularity.  Folks seem to talk about it as a tool for prototyping games rather than a game devlopment tool… plus its free, open source and loved by artists as opposed to capitalists 🙂

Enough on that… my other discovery is that for Processing anyway – even for the most basic drawing and animation of geometric shapes – programming requires more patience and attention to detail than I can muster (that x,y,z coordinate thing alone would kill me).  Well they say this about sociologists… we lack the historians’ (for example) attention to detail (and I freely admit to being an exemplar of that noble tradition) but then we like to believe we are less plodding for it. My question becomes whether the need for patience at this base level of programming lines and shapes is transposed to the higher level no muss, no fuss implied (and marketed)  by Virtools or Unity… is one replacing one form of patience for another?  And for anyone doing cultural analysis of programmers (like Damien or Jennifer) what do we get when we unpack this term “patience” when we talk about programming?

I have more… I haven’t talked about the issue of interactivity and interface at all, nor about how proud I was to be the first in the room to program a mouse controlled rotating picture…. next week I’ll start programming for my as yet undisclosed ‘AAA’ PS3 title.