Zombie Code and Extra-Functional Significance
Last week a controversy erupted when a player discovered that the newly released Steam version of Dead Island contained a fragment of code with a variable named “FeministWhore.” The developer of the zombie shooter, Techland, quickly offered an apology and explained that code was in one of the game’s “leftover debug files” and was the result of a single programmer, who “will face professional consequences for violating the professional standards and beliefs Techland stands for.” The controversy was well covered by Tracey John (in an aptly-named post called Misogyny in code is still misogyny), as well as by Denis Farr at the feminist and queer gaming site The Border House.
The controversy came to my attention when Simon Ferrari compared it on Twitter to my Play the Past post on the sexist code in JFK Reloaded. I’ve been hesitant about mentioning the Dead Island uproar here though. On one hand, the recent controversy does echo the more obscure JFK Reloaded example. On the other hand, Dead Island doesn’t exactly fall under the purview of Play the Past. President Kennedy belongs to history. But how is a game about zombie hordes descending upon a vacation island getaway part of our cultural heritage?
And yet, isn’t misogyny an inescapable aspect of our culture?
And too, aren’t videogames?
And heck, as Kyle Bishop demonstrates in American Zombie Gothic, zombies play an enduring role in our cultural imagination, fungible monsters that society can imbue with whatever anxieties are most pressing at any given time.
And so here I am, writing about zombies on Play the Past.
Except, I don’t really want to talk about zombies. I want to talk about code. The “leftover debug file” that contained the offending code in Dead Island was supposed to be inaccessible. Deleted. Dead and buried. And yet there it was, latent and waiting, and all it took was a bit of digging around on the part of some intrepid grave robber, and the fragment of code with the “FeministWhore” variable stirred, not exactly alive, but certainly not dead.
Useless code and comments in code—these are the zombie figures of software. They serve no purpose in a program’s execution, but they exude what Mark Marino calls extra-functional significance. They have meaning beyond the program. They speak not to the machine or the compiler, but to a different audience, another reader.
In software development, that other reader is often idealized as other programmers on the same project, though in practice the other reader is more likely to be a future version of the programmer him or herself (see Clinton Lanier’s fascinating study on the practice of source code commenting). The examples of JFK Reloaded and Dead Island, though, suggest that users and players should be counted among the audiences programmers can expect will see their code.
Writing about the code of JFK Reloaded, I likened comments in software to marginalia in texts. Jeremy Douglass has made a similar textual metaphor, describing comments in code as paratext, “continuous with and yet set apart from the source.” I’ve never pulled any punches when it comes to critiquing the blunt application of literary theory to software:
But—returning to the opening example of Dead Island—it’d be foolish to deny that there are traces in code that can wound people, make them laugh, expose adolescent fantasies, or simply gesture toward the tedium of software development. Code can do all these things. Unexecutable code, leftover code, zombie code can do all these things. And increasingly, I think, it will be incumbent upon scholars from every imaginable discipline to treat code as a worthwhile object of study from their own vantage point. Textual studies—the perspective I most readily adopt—but also rhetoric, composition, history, cultural studies, sociology, archaeology, philosophy, and many others can add to our understanding of code, but more importantly, an understanding of the social and historical context from which that code emerges.
Code is too important to be left to coders. Zombie code especially.