Digital Preservation Assignment and Workshop

In celebration of National Preservation Week, I thought I’d post a couple of relevant assignments I’ve used with my undergrads, both of which could be easily adapted for younger students. The first is a writing assignment, the second a set of lab activities.

 

RECEPTION HISTORY

Formal requirements are slightly different for this paper topic: six double-spaced pages, plus bibliography of at least five sources. You don’t need to quote or summarize or overtly reference these sources in the body of your essay; they should inform your work indirectly rather than directly. I will be looking for evidence that you’ve absorbed and synthesized some of the core themes of ENGL467 and are able to extend them in novel yet credible ways.

Create a hypothetical reception history for Robert Pinsky’s Mindwheel, Roberta and Ken Williams’ Mystery House, OR Sean Stewart’s Cathy’s Key that spans 25 or 50 years in the future. Think of yourself as a biographer, only you’re writing the life of an artifact, not a person. This is where the rubber meets the road: where issues of preservation, intellectual property, technology, authorship, creativity, reproduction, scholarship, and geo-politics coalesce to determine the fate of your object. Will it turn viral to survive–or be locked down 200 feet below ground in a cold-storage vault? Will it remain inviolable–or ripped, mixed, and burned so repeatedly that it morphs into something bearing no physical resemblance to what the author(s) originally created? Will it be taught in classrooms, exhibited in museums, studied by scholars, and propagated across online communities? Or will it slowly rot and decay in the trashbin of history? Will it be irradiated by the heat of a nuclear holocaust–or will humanity’s better angels prevail? Migrated across media and platforms, or permanently fixed in a material substrate? Remembered or forgotten? Lost or found?

To do well on this assignment, you will need to give considerable thought to how our various course themes interrelate: how, for example, does intellectual property affect preservation? How do media and technology affect preservation? At a more basic level, what is preservation, anyway? If a community of individuals transmits an object over time but mutates it in the process (think William Gibson on little Johnny X), does this transformission (a term coined by textual scholar Randall McLeod, which splices the words “transmission” and “transformation”) constitute a legitimate form of preservation? What if only a fragment of the original survives—is that preservation? What if the artists have created a work whose different nodes are distributed across multiple media, as in Cathy’s Key? Do some parts of this multi-unit work stand a better chance of survival than others?

Narrative point of view: lots of possibilities here. You could write from the vantage point of a third-person omniscient narrator. You could also tell the story from the point of view of the object itself; a future researcher, curator, collector, fanboy, or amateur; or all or none of these.

Vivid detail: give me granular information!

Limited space: six pages isn’t a whole lot of space in which to tell the life story of an art object. You may have to choose one or two key moments to relate rather than attempt to give an exhaustive account of the object’s transmission and reception. This is not necessarily to dissuade you from offering a more comprehensive view–rather it’s intended to get you thinking about how best to structure your writing.

VIDEO GAME PRESERVATION LAB

(collectively, these lab exercises should be spread out over 2-4 class sessions)

This set of exercises has three parts. In Part I, students are introduced to Mystery House Taken Over, a crossbreed between a remix project and a preservation project. Working with the reimplemented source code of Mystery House–a classic 1980s-era game of interactive fiction–students can study, alter, and recompile the code to create their own mash-ups. In the process, they learn a lot about the history of the game (the first work of IF to include graphics) and what it means to update and re-create a vintage video game for a contemporary platform. The commented code gives insight into the creative decisions made by the programmers, who elected, among other things, not to require players to enter commands in all caps, as was the case in the original, while at the same time choosing to reproduce a programming bug.

In Part II, students run another early work of IF, Mindwheel, in an emulator. After playing the game, they  obtain a hash value: a unique alphanumeric code that acts as a digital fingerprint for the file. To test its efficacy, they alter the game’s disk image in a “Hex editor,” and then obtain a new hash value, which demonstrates that the bits have changed in the interim. Digital archivists use hash functions to monitor the integrity of the digital objects in their care over time.

[The instructions for the hash values are adapted from a handout created by Matt Kirschenbaum and Naomi Nelson for their "Born Digital Materials: Theory and Practice" course at UVa's Rare Book School.]

Part 3, which I still need to write up, uses a Kryoflux and a disk drive to rescue bits off of old 5.25 or 3.5 inch floppy disks.

MYSTERY HOUSE (NB: I haven’t checked these links in a while, so it’s possible some are broken)

Modding the game:

Tips and Suggestions for Game Play and Game Mods

  • Begin by playing the original version of Mystery House online. If you need help, consult one of the walkthroughs by clicking on a relevant link above. Spend 15 minutes or so familiarizing yourself with the game.
  • You should already have the MHTO Occupation Kit on your desktop.
  • Consult the “Read Me” file in the MHTO occupation kit folder to help you make game modifications, recompile the code, and Blorbify it (we’ll go over this in the workshop). If you are a PC user, open the “Read Me” file and the Inform source code file in WordPad instead of NotePad for better formatting/legibility.
  • If the source code or “Read Me” file is still difficult to read because of the formatting, then copy and paste the mhto.inf file into Microsoft Word, and then copy and paste the contents back into your original file and save. Make sure you replace the old content with the new.
  • Suggestions for mods: Change the description of the house (or any other description); change the text of notes as printed on the screen; change the descriptions of the Non Player Characters (NPCs); change the number of turns that elapse before the “It is getting dark” message appears (original number is 20).
  • Guidelines for changing images: locate Flickr photographs released under CC licenses by using the CC search engine. Once you’ve downloaded an interesting image, use your favorite image editing software (default choices would be the “Paint” program on Windows or “Preview” on Mac) to change the file format from jpeg, gif (or whatever) to .png file format. (As a last resort, use the online image converter–see link above.) Rename the image using the exact same file name as the original image you want to replace (e.g., “Attic1.png”). Make sure you put your new image in the same folder as the original image (either “Items” or “Views”). The name of the image file for the house (front view) is “front_yard.png”).
  • If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, use the “Paint” application installed on your machine to create new notes. (NB: these notes are image files. You can save them directly in the required .png file format and then store them in the appropriate MHTO occupation kit image folder. Make sure they are labeled in such a way so as to replace an original image note (see previous bullet point).
  • Before playing your modded game, make sure you’ve recompiled and reblorbified it following instructions in the “Read Me” file. Also make sure you’ve downloaded an interpreter, or reader, for the game (see “Glulx Interpreters” link above).

Experimenting with hash functions:

Windows/PC Users: start out by locating two kinds of utilities/programs and downloading them:

  • HexEditor: HexEdit or FSHED (there are also others)
  • Find and download a free MD5 utility for Windows/PCs
  • Then proceed to the rest of the instructions for Mac users and adapt them for your purposes

Mac Users:

  • Copy the “Creative_Futures_Lab folder from the USB drive directly onto your desktop (rather than in “Documents” or “Downloads” or any subdirectory).
  • Open the “Mystery_house_hexfiend” folder in the Creative_Futures_Lab folder and drag the “mystery_House2.DSK” out onto your desktop.
  • Open “Terminal” (the UNIX shell/command line interface) on your Mac.
  • Type in the following command (minus the quotation marks): “cd Desktop”
  • Now create an MD5 hash by typing in the following command (minus the quotation marks): “md5 Mystery_House2.DSK”
  • You should get back a long alphanumeric string that looks something like this: 2af9aeaab8d67d9d63114fabe11e5068. Copy this string into your text editor or Wordprocessor (e.g., MS Word)
  • Return to the “mystery_house_hexfiend folder and fire up the “Hexfiend” Hex reader by double clicking on the icon.
  • Open the “Mystery_House2.DSK” file you just hashed. Change a byte or two. Then save, and run your MD5 command again in Terminal (see above).  Copy and paste this new alphanumeric string directly beneath the previous one in your text editor or word processor. What do you notice?

 

MINDWHEEL

INTRODUCTION

Title: Mindwheel: An Electronic Novel
Creator: Robert Pinsky
Creator: Steve Hales
Creator: William Mataga
Contributor: Richard Sanford
ContributorS: Kazuko Foster, Richard Blair, Thom Hayward
Publisher: Synapse Software Corporation / Broderbund Software
Date: 1984
Type: Interactive Fiction / Adventure Game
Format: 5-1/4 floppy disk + hardbound book
Format: BTZ [Better Than Zork] parser/programming language
Description: Developed by Synapse software and distributed by Broderbund, Mindwheel was one of five interactive electronic novels published by the company as part of its text adventure series. Initially released for IBM and Apple, versions of the game were also adapted for the Atari and Commodore (the complete list of platforms includes the Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and DOS)

Description: The user (or “player character”) adopts the persona of a “mind adventurer” who must travel telepathically into the past to retrieve the Wheel of Wisdom, a mysterious object upon which the fate of humanity rests. With the help of Dr. Virgil, the user travels through the minds of four deceased individuals: a rock star, a dictator, a poet, and a scientist. Along the way, she solves puzzles, answers riddles, and encounters the Cave Master, a prehistoric creature from whom she must obtain the wheel in order to avert disaster and save humankind from extinction. The book that accompanies the disk serves as both an instruction manual and fictional guide to the plot. It includes excerpts from an alleged textbook on “matrix immortality,” an interview with Dr. Virgil, an apocryphal note on the genesis of the novel, illustrations, photographs, poems, and blank pages for the user to jot down thoughts about the game.

Rights: Riverdeep, Inc.

MS-DOS version of game: http://www.igorlabs.com/etc/games/index.html

Walkthrough from GamesOver.com:

http://www.gamesover.com/walkthroughs/mindwhee.txt This walkthrough does not specify what system it is for.

Walkthrough from IFArchive.com: http://www.ifarchive.org/if-archive/solutions/Mindwheel.sol

PLAY THE GAME IN AN EMULATOR

  • Open the “Agrippa and Mindwheel” folder in the Creative_Futures_Lab folder
  • Drag and drop the “vMac.ROM” on top of the “Mini vMac” emulator
  • Once you get a flashing disk icon with a question mark in the emulator, drag and drop the System701_boot.dsk in the folder on top of it.
  • Now drag and drop the “Mindwheel.img” file onto the emulator window and then double click on it once it appears in the emulaor.
  • To start playing Mindwheel, you’ll be prompted for a password. To obtain the password, identify the relevant page number, line number, and word number the program asks for by opening the “nw0010023.pdf” file (which is a copy of the Mindwheel game book).
  • Enter the password and start to play (see below for information on Mindwheel and how to find online walkthroughs).

OBTAIN A HASH VALUE (JUST AS YOU DID FOR MYSTERY HOUSE)

  •  Copy the “Creative_Futures_Lab folder from the USB drive directly onto your desktop (rather than in “Documents” or “Downloads” or any subdirectory).
  • Open the “Agrippa and Mindwheel” folder in the Creative_Futures_Lab folder and drag the “Mindwheel2.img” out onto your desktop.
  • Open “Terminal” (the UNIX shell/command line interface) on your Mac.
  • Type in the following command (minus the quotation marks): “cd Desktop”
  • Now create an MD5 hash by typing in the following command (minus the quotation marks): “md5 Mindwheel2.img”
  • You should get back a long alphanumeric string that looks something like this: 2af9aeaab8d67d9d63114fabe11e5068. Copy this string into your text editor or Wordprocessor (e.g., MS Word)
  • Return to the “Agrippa and Mindwheel” folder and fire up “Hexfiend” by double clicking on the icon.
  • In Hexfiend, open the “Mindwheel2.img” file you just hashed. Change a byte or two. Then save, and run your MD5 command again in Terminal (see above).  Copy and paste this new alphanumeric string directly beneath the previous one in your text editor or word processor. What do you notice?

PART III: [STILL TO BE WRITTEN UP: RESCUING BITS OFF OF OLD MEDIA WITH A KRYOFLUX]