A Revisionist History of JFK: Reloaded (Decoded)

Jun 07, 11 A Revisionist History of JFK: Reloaded (Decoded)

In my previous post on Play the Past, I looked at the way critics and scholars made sense of the videogame JFK: Reloaded (Traffic, 2004). The game lets players reenact the Kennedy assassination, the goal being to match the findings of the Warren Commission Report with as much accuracy as possible. Even though the Kennedy family called the game “despicable,” many scholars argued that JFK Reloaded was a legitimate engagement with history (see Raessens, 2006; Bogost, 2007;  Fullerton, 2008; and Bogost et al., 2010). For my own part, I argued that the game’s greatest strength was not as a documentary videogame, but as an engine of counterfactual historical thinking. JFK Reloaded doesn’t ask us to play history so much as to reimagine history.

Today I want to double back on my and these other videogame scholars’ interpretations of JFK Reloaded. The game is indeed part of a documentary tradition, or to be more precise, an engagement with documentary evidence and historical archives, as Poremba suggests. But it is also a historical artifact itself.

In other words, the game emerges out of a specific time and place, textured by the touch of countless hands. I want to look at a very precise kind of texture, the human-readable comments that appear in the code in one of the two WAD files that comprise JFK Reloaded‘s game assets. WAD stands for “Where’s All the Data?”; a WAD file is a collection of individual sounds, sprites, level information, NPC (non-playable character) behavior, and other often customizable game data. Originally used in Doom, WADs or similar composite files are now commonplace in many PC games.

In the case of JFK Reloaded, opening up the core000.wad in a text editor reveals mostly binary codes that look like junk (because they ought to be opened in hexadecimal editor rather than a plain text editor). But beginning with line 224,070, we find plain text information that resembles XML structured data, accompanied by programmer comments.

For example, the following lines specify the actions that should occur when a generic character is fatally hit by Oswald’s rifle:

// Generic character’s killed action
// —————————————————————-
// This is the action that a character takes when they should die if
// they’ve got no special animation for it
// —————————————————————-
[ACTION]
<NAME>
PersonKilled
<DIE>
0
0
<RAGDOLL>

Notice the double slashes: //. Any line that begins with the double slash is a comment in the code. Code comments pose a number of interesting epistemological challenges. They are ignored by the machine interpreter and readable by humans, but not exactly legible. They are visible only if one is able to view the source code. They are not intended for the end-user, but with the right tools, the end-user might find them. In fact, I wasn’t the first to find these comments in the JFK Reloaded WAD file. BrooksMarlin noticed them in 2004, but nobody to my knowledge has ever read these comments against the game itself and against the existing scholarship on the game.

We can think of code comments as a kind of textual marginalia—the doodles, notes, and corrections that authors and readers add in the margins of a text. When I asked on Twitter if marginalia was an accurate way to think about code comments, Patrick Murray-John, a developer at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (who also happens to have a Ph.D. in Anglo-Saxon literature), suggested that the medieval division of marginalia into separate categories might have an analog in computer code comments. As Murray-John notes, medieval scholars distinguished between lectio and enarratio. Lectio refers to aids for reading at the level of comprehension—notes and marks that help a reader make the text legible (originally for the purposes of reading aloud). Enarratio refers to marginalia that actually help readers interpret the text on a rhetorical and symbolic level. To lectio and enarratio we might also add, as Whitney Trettien suggests, emendatio, comments that correct or even offer improvements to the existing text (such as we might find in an open-source project, with one developer making suggestions on another developer’s code).

The marginalia in JFK Reloaded‘s WAD file resembles enarratio, not only helping us to make sense of the individual lines of code that follow the comment, but also offering an interpretative gloss on the code. For example, in the following snippet, Jackie Kennedy’s actions are defined:

// —————————————————————————
// Jackie cradling JFK before the money shot
// —————————————————————————
[ACTION]
<NAME>
JackieCradleJFK
<CONCERNED>
0
0

The use of the informal and vaguely sexual phrase “money shot” begins to shed some light on the developers’ attitude toward the subject matter (what we’d call the author’s “tone” in literary studies). The strictly objective perspective that we (often falsely) associate with documentary media begins to dissolve here.

The tone becomes much more obvious in the following snippet of code, which defines Nellie Connally’s actions when her husband, Texas Governor John Connally, is shot:

// —————————————————————————
// Nelly shoving Connally’s bonce down into her minge,
// in a last desparate attempt to get oral sex out of
// him before he croaks
// —————————————————————————
[ACTION]
<NAME>
NellyShoveConnally
<CONCERNED>
0
0

In just three lines of code commentary, the developers at Traffic absolutely undermine the entire stated pedagogical project of their docu-game. Their outwardly respectful “interactive reconstruction of John F. Kennedy’s assassination” is undone by inaccuracies and misspellings (Nelly for Nellie, “desparate”) but even more so by the explicitly sexual reframing of this traumatic event. It’s difficult to take JFK Reloaded as a serious exploration of history when under the hood it resembles an adolescent joke, preoccupied with sex and making light of death (“before he croaks”).

In addition to undermining Traffic’s official rationale for the game, these comments in the code also complicate the arguments of the critics who defended the game. Access to the code allows us to write a revisionist history of JFK:Reloaded. Yet how far should we go in letting the marginalia of the game, which was never intended to be available to the player, guide our interpretation of the game? On one hand, it’s important to keep in mind the “intentional fallacy,” the idea—first formulated by New Critical literary scholars—that an author’s stated intention should be ignored when interpreting a literary work. One should trust the story, not the storyteller, this line of thinking goes. One the other hand, though, the exegesis of the underlying code and assets of the game expands the story itself.

In the final analysis I’m more interested with these broader questions of critical code studies than this particular game. What does an attentiveness to code, or even the comments in code, mean for cultural historians who study digital artifacts? Decoded and viewed through a revisionist approach, these questions might be the ultimate legacy of JFK Reloaded.

[JFK Photo courtesy of NASA / Public Domain]

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. 2007. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bogost, Ian, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer. 2010. Newsgames : Journalism at Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fullerton, Tracy. 2008. Documentary Games: Putting the Player in the Path of History. In Playing the Past: Nostalgia in Video Games and Electronic Literature. Vanderbilt University Press.

Poremba, Cindy. 2009. “JFK Reloaded:  Documentary Framing and the Simulated Document.” Loading… 3 (4). http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/viewArticle/61.

Raessens, Joost. 2006. “Reality Play: Documentary Computer Games Beyond Fact and Fiction.” Popular Communication 4 (3): 213-224.

8 Comments

  1. I feel that the claim that “the developers at Traffic absolutely undermine the entire stated pedagogical project” is overly ambitious given the groundwork you’ve laid. Even if I accept that code comments represent authorial intent in *some* way, you yourself note that the code comments run the gamut from dry descriptions to expressing various attitudes towards what is being coded. In the absence of at least some deeper analysis, taking any one or two comments, however colorful, as displaying the overall mindset of (presumably) a group of individual programmers is, perhaps, reading too much into them.

    But, I don’t think we get there, because I find the proposition that the code comments legitimately represent the programmers’ intentions to be pretty dubious. Firstly, the teaching about code comments treats them as lectio, i.e. they primarily exist to clarify what is being done in a particular code snippet (very important in large projects).

    This does not require that they be dry and declarative. Writing code is tedious, often frustrating work, and when you’re doing it you often write irreverent things “in the margins” as a way of keeping yourself entertained and as an emotional outlet. In my own code the comments, while still legitimately signposting the functional intent of the nearby lines, often become extraordinarily profane as I try to kludge around problems, even in perfectly dry data-handling scripts. This is to say nothing of the error messages in which I, for instance, jokingly accuse the user of attempting to reheat his coffee in a million-dollar spectrometer. To conclude from this that my intention was to compose a comedy routine in the form of a CLEANEX-PM pulse sequence would be a serious overreach.

    This is not to say that a comedy routine might not emerge. Take, for instance, the comment about the “money shot”. Keeping in mind that these comments are generally written quickly (hence the typos) without deep consideration of the wording, the sexual connotation might not have been intended. But, the next guy (or the same guy), coding in later bits, might realize the connotation and “build on the joke”, leading to the more obvious and objectionable comment about Connally. In this hypothetical sequence, the comments represent an extra-textual conversation essentially divorced from the work itself. In that sense the comments are lectio, written in a jocular tone as a means of self-entertainment and, perhaps, as a consequence of crunch-induced exhaustion and exasperation.

    It may well be that you are right and the folks at Traffic made the game for a laugh rather than for any serious purpose. Your argument for this proposition, however, is incomplete. Assessing intent through, basically, a single comment out of many strikes me as questionable. More fundamentally, I question your categorization of code comments as enarratio, a point you must support with proof, not an airy assertion of resemblance. Also, this assumption is in tension with your accusation that the game is not intended seriously — do you believe that Traffic take the code seriously even if they don’t take the content that way? If so, why? I feel that more scholarship is required to support the argument you’re making.

  2. Andrew Plotkin /

    I agree with the comment above.

    More simply: the code comments are interesting, and certainly tell you something about what the developers were *thinking*. But if you want to investigate their *purpose* in publishing this work, you shouldn’t ignore the distinction between what they chose to include in the published work, and what they chose to omit (or, in this case, leave invisible to the player).

  3. @Sparky Clarkson – Thanks for your thorough and insightful response. I especially like the notion that the “joke” may have begun with the unintentional “money shot” reference and the comments after that may have built on the initial double entendre. Of course, we don’t know for sure, and you’re right, that’s the problem with relying on authorial/programmer intention. My point is that regardless of intent, the comments are there, and we don’t need intention in order to begin seeing them as another layer to the game.

    I want to be clear that I’m not saying the programmers at Traffic made the game as a joke or didn’t treat the code seriously. And I’m not arguing that these two comments (and there are at least two others I might have included as well) are representative of the team behind JFK Reloaded. I do want to argue, though, that (1) these comments do exist and (2) to ignore them means overlooking the kind of evidence that historians and textual scholars have long used to create a more complex understanding of the past.

    These programmer comments in no way help us understand what Bogost would call the procedural rhetoric of the game. Yet, they do help us develop an understanding of the game as a cultural object and coding as a cultural practice. At the very least, they show that the “inside” of software does not always match the “outside.”

  4. This is a fascinating exchange. It’s given me pause for a few reflections:

    1) I’ve been interested in how often the intention of the programmers arises in discussions of computer source code in ways that it would no longer be common to find in, say, literary studies not only because intention is often (/always) impossible to determine — but also because intention in those contexts is not as important as what has been produced. It seems like “intentionality” has a special status in code studies. I agree with Mark’s recent clarification that he was not arguing about intent.

    I’m not familiar enough with this project to know for sure but a few additional thoughts:

    Rather than the core of the project, these comments strike me more like an overheard exchange among students running AV for a high school lecture about breast cancer. They have been overheard — or they didn’t realize they’d be caught on tape. It’s interesting that we can’t tell at what point they entered the code and, as Sparky noted, by whom and in what form. Again, this points to another special condition of multi-authored code and challenge for code studies.

    On the other hand, the comments have been entered into the code which should be perceived as a record and are certainly a part of the game, whether or not the producers ever thought a player or critic would read the code. Mark’s right that it’s a part of the piece now. Perhaps more attention to comments from CCS and elsewhere will lead to different, more self-conscious commentary practices, though I hope not. It’s interesting to think about the way the comments became a safe zone where an off-color comment could be circulated without fear of reprisals or tainting even in the context of the presentation of a grave topic.

    I guess I’d go a slightly different direction and not position the comments as speaking directly to the content of the game but speaking to the larger cultural climate where the JFK story has become so iconic that there is a “money shot.” Other critics might also see something at the intersection of pornography/assassination footage.

    As to the other example, which again reminds me of comments I’d overhear in (my all boy’s) high school, I can’t help but see a sign of the adolescent male culture that can flourish around programming and gaming environments. Now what’s interesting is to reflect on the fact that the cultural conditions that give rise to those sophomoric jokes (even as a stress relief) to the culture that’s fascinated with (re)playing JFK’s assassination. That’s the starting point to conversation I’d like to hear.

    2) On the instance of comments, I wanted to point folks to Jeremy Douglass’ presentation on Comments in code:

    http://thoughtmesh.net/publish/369.php

    (His name comes to mind, too, Andrew, since he such an acute reader of the code of your work in other contexts.)

    He speaks to the larger question of the place of comments in critical code studies.

  5. While I agree that anyone wanting to look into authorial intent in video games will need to satisfy those that argue it is unimportant in traditional literature, I found this to be terribly interesting. And from a cultural perspective, I think it’s also rather worth the time to figure out why these comments and traces “often become extraordinarily profane”, as Sparky put it.

  6. The programmers’ code comments recall to me feminist reader response criticism (circa late 1970s). Judith Fetterley might blanch to think of “Nelly shoving Connally’s bonce down into her minge” as a kind of feminist resistance, but that’s how I read it. I doubt the programmers imagined their comments as feminist resistance to the hagiography, the domestic bliss ruined, the lost father figure that JFK’s assassination symbolizes. But that’s functionally what they’ve done, and I like it.

    Andrew Slotkin is right to point out that the programmers left this commented language invisible to the gamer. That’s what makes it not a feminist declaration, but an interruption: play and unpredictability shoved into procedural language. I would argue that the cultural discourse around JFK’s assassination might as well be procedural: we know exactly what emotional action (regret, pity) that story is supposed to call.

    If the motive of feminist reader response theory was to blow up the notion of an implied universal male reader and to identify asymmetrical power relations between women and men, then haven’t the coders accomplished an intervention we can appreciate? It doesn’t matter to me that their crude jokes about money shots and oral sex are dopey. They’ve opened the window on a cultural narrative that’s airlocked. JFK Reloaded indeed.

  7. Malcolm /

    I’m afraid too much is being read into this.

    As a developer (Not game) I often use these comments to describe what I expect things to look like. This is to give an unmistakable idea of what the scene would look like and often has little to do with the subject matter of the final product. Whilst the explanations are crude, there is no doubt how the scene should look.

    If you read something into everything you end up missing what was there in the first place.

  8. While I enjoyed the article and the comments left by others, what strikes me as odd is the level of thought people are putting into these lines. For most games, code is not meant to be seen by the players at all, and often cannot be accessed easily. Programmers have a stressful, monotonous job. When a group of predominantly male stress monsters have a large project, especially one that is not visible to their audience, of course they are going to throw some jokes in there. It is too hard to manage without some levity, and the programmers manifest this in code such as that shown.

    Take for instance the game “Dead Island”. This is a zombie RPG that sets the player as a survivor on a zombie-ridden island. One of the possible characters for play was a woman. By accident, the game was shipped with a version of the code that named the female character’s highest level ability as “Feminist Whore”. The description (and name) were obviously a programmer joke, not deleted as part of the final version. This joke was not intended by the company who created the game and it was soon patched.

    My point is, code such as this is not meant to degrade the subject matter or those viewing it. Neither is it a metaphor for feminism, or racism, or the sexual undertones of the JFK assassination. It is simply a group of men under stress messing around, and that is exactly what it should be seen as.

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