Prof. Joseph Osborn Awarded Digital Humanities Advancement Grant

Prof. Joseph Osborne works on his laptop in his office.

Last month, Joseph C. Osborn, assistant professor of computer science, was awarded a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant for $146,605 by the National Endowment for the Humanities with Eric Kaltman of CSU Channel Islands. The award will fund the development of software tools supporting scholarship and citation of interactive software, including video games.

We spoke with Osborn, an expert in AI-assisted game design and gameplay recording tools, to better understand the project. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What questions are you addressing through your project?

If you want to cite a page in a book, you cite a page number. If you want to cite a thing that happens in a movie, you cite a time range. But the only tools we have for talking about video games are people’s personal recollections and familiarity with those things, which is unreliable. What it does in practice is it disincentivizes these higher quality citations in favor of lower quality, harder to follow, more “take-my-word-for-it” types of citations.

In many cases, old software can’t even be run today. Any app written more than a couple of years ago is probably not going to run on today’s computers and operating system versions. The tensions between what the software industry values as far as long-term durability of these cultural artifacts and what is useful from a humanities standpoint, a research standpoint or a software studies standpoint are plainly misaligned.

But if we’re trying to do research into these artifacts, we need to specify, for example, which version of Super Mario Brothers we’re talking about: Is it the one that was on an arcade machine? Or was it on the NES? Was it the version that came out in Japan? Or was it the internationally released version? These kinds of small differences get glossed over, in many cases, because they’re just not interesting for the companies making programs because they want to sell newer things.

What has been done so far about these shortcomings?

For years, programmers have made software (so-called “emulators”) that act like original hardware. The bytes that make up Super Mario Bros. are usually read by dedicated physical components, but emulator programs read those bytes and mimic the operation of that hardware. In a sense, emulators translate a program into something that the computer they’re running on can understand and display the results on the screen.

Emulators have been around for many years, 20 or 30 years. Recently, it’s become practical to run them inside of a web browser, which is pretty new and pretty cool, and opens up the possibility for sharing games by simple hyperlinks.

Tell us more about your project.

We took emulators, combined them with a database of information about games, the sort of bibliographic information—like who developed them, who the publisher was, when they were released—and allow people to play games on this website and make bookmarks into specific moments of the game. Then these bookmarks will themselves be put into the database and be shareable with a link. So if you wanted to say, “Oh, there’s a secret room in the first world of this game,” here’s a link that will take you there.

Our contribution is to take that and make it shareable and portable. For example, I could record myself unlocking that secret room as a video and also as the sequence of button presses that’s required to unlock it and share that. Then somebody could play that back and see what it’s like and have access to the moments before and after that phenomenon of interest was exhibited. And because it’s all on the web, we can also do things like embed that into articles and web pages.

As a metaphor, you can imagine a recipe page where at each step, you can click on the text and see a picture of what the food is supposed to look like, or a little video of the person whisking at this stage: “It says soft peaks, but what does that look like?” Our work with this project is to create something like that in the domain of interactive software and video games.

Who will benefit from this project?

These tools are mainly intended for people doing software studies research, for example, digital humanities scholars. It could also be interesting for people in the competitive gaming space because they already use replays of games as ways to study or to do commentary, or as a way to teach people how to use complex programs by demonstration.

We’re hoping to run tutorials and workshops for scholars over the next couple of years on how to incorporate these tools into their practice. I’m also hoping that this can be a way to improve citation standards in my own field of technical game design, where often we’ll just cite a game offhandedly. I think it’d be much better if we could be more specific about what we’re doing. And tools like this will help make that practical.

How does this project relate to the humanities?

It’s in support of digital humanities workflows: people who want to study software as cultural artifacts instead of software as technical. This is a grant in support of better tools for doing scholarship of interactive work.