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Didaktik Gama

Didaktik Gama

May 16, 2024

Exhibition History

Recspec Annex at The Museum of Human Achievement, Austin TX, June 28th - July 7th 2024 (Upcoming)

About

Didaktik Gama is an installation of game-like software art by Wiley Wiggins, accompanying a curation of cold-war era videogames and artifacts, curated by the artist. This project employs the Dungeon Mode.

Background

I am a descendent of Moravian (Czech) immigrants to Texas, a family split that happened in 1872. Throughout the cold war my family continued to receive letters from Czech relatives. At age seven, I remember the feeling of staring at a page of ruled notebook paper, unable to think of what to write to my Czech cousin Marek who had told me he was, “praying for a basketball for Christmas.” My mother and I lived alone on her preschool teacher’s income but I had no conception that we might be poor. At this age I was obsessed with the idea of one day owning a computer, and did not understand that this was then out of the question financially— in fact I assumed it could happen at any time. The letters from eastern Europe were full of dizzying pathos to me and I found myself unable to write back.

By the early 1980s, the home video game industry in North America was experiencing a sharp decline, exemplified by the collapse of Atari Inc. During this period, consumer electronics in the west shifted their focus, promoting 'serious' home computers as essential tools for education and home finance, rebranding computing devices as household information appliances. In Japan however, the game console market survived this downturn- Nintendo Inc’s “Family Computer” (Famicom) console had been a surprise success following its 1983 release.

One year prior, Sinclair Research released the ZX Spectrum home computer in Europe and South America. Manufactured in Scotland and priced at an accessible £125 ($200), it significantly undercut its main international competitor, the Commodore 64, by $400. This compact, all-in-one unit connected to a television and utilized audio cassettes and a tape recorder for program loading and saving. The Spectrum has since become a canonized landmark in many histories of computing, especially in the United Kingdom where it was extremely popular.

Nintendo had planned to enter the Western market with a programmable successor to the Famicom—a device with a built-in keyboard and data tape drive like the Spectrum. Against prevailing wisdom, it pivoted to another devoted gaming console instead— the Nintendo Entertainment System (1983). By 1985 the device had completely revitalized the game console market in the United States. In the UK, Sinclair went on to sell five million Spectrums (an impressive number considering there were roughly only 30 million homes in the region), the Spectrum was a programmable device through which millions of Europeans learned hobbyist programming. Its low price point made it attractive to working-class parents who hoped their children would be able to compete in an imagined, computerized, future job market, making it a symbol of class mobility set against a backdrop of neoliberal austerity. Many of the homebrew software projects created by young Spectrum users were videogames, shared on audio cassette via a sneaker-net of aficionados and user-group fanzines. While Nintendo exerted strict quality control, having been convinced that the downfall of Atari Inc. had been the result of loose licensing control and a glut of substandard games, the Spectrum game landscape was an uncharted jungle of uncountable, wildly diverse (often homemade) titles. Between the extremes of consumer electronics as locked-down entertainment product or instrumentalized work machine, there was a glimpse of a possible future where computing devices were a democratized possibility space.

During the same period, the CoCom (Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls) embargo denied the export of modern technology, like CPU chips, to the Soviet bloc. In response, Eastern countries reverse-engineered chips and made their own copies. In places like Soviet satellite-state Czechoslovakia, hobbyist scenes sprang up, despite the unavailability of parts and internal legal restrictions placed on software sales. In 1987 Czech manufacturer of school supplies Didaktik Skalica, created a computer named Didaktik Gama – a clone of ZX Spectrum, extended with 8255 PIO and with RAM expanded to 80 kB. Homebrew Czechoslovak games from the time eluded censorship and many presented a distorted echo of western media and brand fetishism as seen through the eyes of disenfranchised teenagers, imaging a world of abundance and freedom, in stark contrast to the actual experiences of many young Spectrum users in the UK.

‘Expert for Bank’- Kamasoft 1988, Czechoslovakia

It was unusual that the Timex Sinclair 1000 ended up being my first computer. It was the American version of the Sinclair ZX81, developed by Sinclair Research in the UK and resold by the famous watch manufacturer in the States. Like the Spectrum it was compact and affordable, if underpowered and lacking color graphics. The Timex Sinclair 1000 featured a Z80 microprocessor, 2 KB of RAM (expandable to 16 KB), and a flat ‘membrane’ keyboard. It was not a popular computer in the US, although its low price kept it competitive. My mother had found one, not functioning but complete, in the trash at her job- she was a teacher in the embattled Head Start government subsidized preschool program where I was also a student. A school administrator had placed the computer, back in its box with manual and power adapter, in the trash. My mother gave it to me to play with and encouraged me to take it apart and look inside. I remember opening the computer’s plastic case with a screwdriver and finding that by clipping a broken ribbon connector I was able to get the computer functioning again. With the manual I was able to learn some programming in the embedded BASIC programming language.

Programming was a new way of thinking for me, a procedural form of writing that caused things to occur, like a magic incantation. I spent hours writing programs that were like primitive chatbots. I delighted in making the computer print strings with whatever swear words I knew in them. In the back of my Sinclair manual was a folded page containing a BASIC program that, if painstakingly typed in, would create a working text-based game of Monopoly 1. If you managed to write its lines out exactly you could then record it to audio tape to reload it later, something that never worked for me as a child no matter how many times I tried it. If you are old enough to have held a "Speak n' Spell" toy, you'll recognize the same flat plastic membrane keyboard that was on the Sinclair 1000. Imagine trying to type a short novella on that ‘keyboard’, at age eight. Imagine that a single typo would render the entire work unreadable. Then imagine that, once successfully completed, you could not save the book, that it dissolved in your hands like a sand mandala. Do this again and again anyway, despite each failure, and despite having little to no interest in the game Monopoly.

The Sinclair ZX80 Character Set

The Sinclair ZX80 and ZX Spectrum each had their own nonstandard character sets, where letters and numbers were joined by dithered blocks (in the ZX80 and ZX81) or Tetris-like solid block elements. These blocks allowed a sort of drawing to be done in the same way text might be added to the screen. These character systems, with their glyphs and blocky visual designs, not only facilitated programming but also enabled a form of visual creation, turning the screen into a canvas of words and figures. A character set is a lexicon of visual language, where each glyph holds the potential to be read as text, perceived as part of an image, or understood as a cultural symbol. Our minds are accustomed to computer user interfaces now, but this was a gradual transition between mediums, much like the transition from the epic poem to the novel.

Box drawing elements in these character sets created primitive print-style layouts of text enclosed in boxes– like menus and alert callouts. Shaded blocks might imply a hierarchy of depth, where a box was ‘raised above’ the rest of the screen. The text user interface (TUI) inherited both from print and time-based media like animation. Early terminal drawing packages, such as the curses library, were crucial in this evolution, allowing developers to create text-based user interfaces with elements like windows, forms, and other interactive components. The curses library was an integral part in the design of Rogue, a seminal videogame created for Unix-like shared computer systems common in university computer labs (Craddock). The ‘Codepage 437’ Characterset popularized by IBM DOS

These Sinclair computers, with their limited but creative use of block drawing characters, can be positioned as an early example in the lineage of text-as-image. This concept was further developed with systems like PETSCII on the Commodore 64 and Code Page 437 on IBM DOS, which expanded the repertoire of visual elements available for creating graphics using text characters. Early computer games utilized these text user interface innovations and used character-based graphics on a grid to create dynamic, map-like images for players to explore. These designs blurred the distinctions between image and text, as well as orientation. Characters in an interface might be read from left to right, or might be interpreted as viewing a map from above, but are animated through time. A wave of early “dungeon crawl” videogames (inspired by Rogue) utilized these characters to represent the walls and figures of a navigable map. In the early 90’s the game creation system ZZT created a new possibility-space of creative do-it-yourself games using this character set in lieu of complex graphics tools. ZZT is often credited as being an early inspiration for innovations in modern gaming (Anthropy 2014).

The manner in which text is read influences our perception of how time flows in relation to space Bergen and Chan Lau 2012 (Bergen and Chan Lau)(Yang and Sun) (Park et al.).

A Mandarin writer may describe moving ‘downward’ into tomorrow, reflecting the direction in which they write—starting at the top of a page and moving downward— the Mandarin word 夏 (xià) means both “next” and “down”(Park et al.). On a surface level we may say that time itself has no spatial aspect, and these metaphors that ascribe a directional axis to time begin with language and writing, but there are powerful precedents to consider. Falling downward can feel like being swept along by the relentless flow of time, whereas walking forward suggests moving at one’s own volition or marching in sync with others through time. Genealogists talk of lines of ‘ascent’ that move through generations. In Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson writes–

The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of the nation, which also is conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history. Nothing better shows the immersion of the novel in homogeneous, empty time than the absence of those prefatory genealogies, often ascending to the origin of man, which are so characteristic a feature of ancient chronicles, legends, and holy books.

(Anderson, p.26)

Walter Benjamin, who proposed this idea of ‘homogenous’ time, describes the ‘Angel of History’ as being propelled backwards into the future, with wings like sails that cannot be closed. While it may be a stretch to say that these bodily sensations of moving through time inform writing systems directly, there is a connection between the phenomenology of bodily movement through time and the structuring of thought through writing.

The Prophetess Libuse – Karel Vitezslav Masek 1893

My ‘angel of history’ is the mythological Czech prophetess Libuše, a pagan witch who, in stories, foretells the founding of Prague. In my allegory, Libuše exists in a vertical simultaneity of time, with the past below and the future above. This is often the fantasy backdrop I use when genre elements are needed to make my game-like works fit into the history of games that they reference.

The name ‘Libuše’ might have originated from an ancient mistranslation. Kosmas of Prague first mentioned her in the Chronica Boemorum in 1125, but his enumeration of the names of the Přemyslov family (Libuše’s lineage, mythical chieftains of an early Czech tribe) closely resembles what could be a Latin transcription of Old Slavic words intended to deter Frankish aggressors (Karbusický). In this light, the prophetess herself is a construction of language, a glitch of translation.

In 1817, a forged medieval manuscript containing an apparently undiscovered Slavic epic poem placed the name Libuše further back in history than Kosmas' text. This is not an isolated incident—myths often insert themselves into history through forgery and strategic archival placements. In this case, details were added to the myth of power passing from Libuše to a man, suggesting that ancient Slavic culture had a democratic character before adopting Christianity. This was the planting of a myth meant to be used as a foundation for a Czech national culture.

In different versions of Libuše’s prophecy, she foresaw not just the building of Prague but the mining of the Ore Mountains, initially for silver and later for uranium (Veselovský et al.). In its earliest usage, uranium from the Ore mountains was used to glaze glassworks, resulting in a sheen that fluoresces under ultraviolet light. These glass items are relatively harmless now, and have become popular collectors items, but their manufacture was extremely hazardous and shortened the lives of the workers and craftspeople who manufactured them.

With each shift in power, rulers of the Czech lands altered Libuše’s prophecy, grappling for control of both the mines and history. The prophetess knows the future because she is compelled to utter the words of future writers. Her words sound not in the past, crowded with the unresponsive dead, but with us in the future. The prophecy could be an argument for primitive communism or the divine right of kings, for feminism or patriarchy. Allegory, as Benjamin laid out in his work on the Origin of German Tragic Drama, is unfixed from its referent. It is “the art of the fragment, the opposite of the symbol, which presupposes the value of ‘Nature’ preserving unchanging, complete identities and values”(Tambling).

The Libuše Character Set, created for an imaginary computing device

Walter Benjamin’s idea of messianic time—a time filled with ruptures that provide opportunities for change—can be paralleled with moments in technological history when new possibilities suddenly emerge. The introduction of affordable computing disrupted traditional barriers to technology and power to some extent but also reinforced existing inequalities. Computers represent more than just tools; they symbolize progress, inequality, hope, oppression, and cultural shift— a symbol of the future now itself old enough to be patina’d with layers of nostalgia and trauma. The narrative of ‘technological progress’ is mythologized, set aside from its material origins, much like a game sidesteps the world in which it is inset with heterotopic rules.

Libuše’s prophecy is malleable, capable of conveying contradictory messages. It overflows with dialectics of progress and extraction, group politics, ideas about gender and hierarchy, and war. As a prediction of the future made by the future, it becomes an amorphous fable of progress and the imagined identities of nations. The prophecy, in its various forms, reflects the ongoing struggle between the unstoppable movement of history and the power that struggles to halt or steer it.

In this project, an imagined computing device from the past performs mysterious work with language and symbols on a grid. This grid exists in a state of confused time and space, where glyphs function both as components of larger images and as maps. These glyphs serve as letterforms that can be written in four directions or animated, and they possess intrinsic meanings as symbols. The ZX Spectrum computer was able to combine high-resolution graphics (such as drawing individual pixels) and low-resolution graphics (character-size blocks) interchangeably. An interesting aesthetic artifact of its memory optimizations was that color information was at the resolution of the character size blocks. For each block there is a PAPER color and an INK color defined, determining the colors of the plotted pixels and their background. I’ve attempted to preserve this in my system, in less elegant ways (some of my glyphs have opaque white pixels that I can easily tint in code, most glyphs are transparent so that I can display a block of color behind them).

a page from De Re Metallica A page from De Re Metallica

The poems in the keyboard.js sketch are generated by first making a long sentence using Markov chains generated with Markovify. Words are then randomly removed from this sentence in steps, and new ‘mirror’ sentences are generated using the removed words. The text for this process is sourced from various corpora, including De Re Metallica, a medieval mining text that bridged alchemy and modern metallurgy.

De Re Metallica dates back to the initial period of mining in the Ore Mountains (at a mining town called Joachimsthal), then part of Bohemia. This region standardized coinage in Europe with the ‘thaler,’ the etymological root of the modern word ‘dollar.’ Later, radioactive pitchblende from these mountains was used to create fluorescent glazes for glasswork and subsequently enabled the Curies to isolate radium. The text of De Re Metallica was initially translated into English from Latin by Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover—the former a mining engineer before his political career, and the latter, his wife, a geologist proficient in both Latin and Mandarin.

The mine and the computer exist in a temporal feedback loop of cause and effect. Extraction digs away into the past as wreckage and construction soar into the future.

Every part of a computer, including the disposable plastic of a cheap computer case, originates from materials dredged from underground. The plastic is made from petroleum, and the rare earth elements essential to many computing devices are often the result of US-sponsored slave labor in the Congo (Kara). This is the same extraction site where NATO uranium stockpiles, which countered the Eastern Bloc hoards mined from Joachimsthal, were built 2. Today Congolese cobalt is a primary material used in the rechargeable batteries used in portable computing devices. Cobalt derives its name from the Germanic word “kobold,” A mythological creature that European miners blamed for the toxic effects of the substances they extracted. Kobolds, now popular figures in fantasy gaming, are portrayed as less-than-human beings that dwell in the darkness of mines and dungeons, entirely adapted to life underground.

These grotesque simultaneities of material history—the slave pits and the liberated playgrounds of homo ludens—are crafted from the same prehistoric material. The mine is a wound torn into the fabric of modernity, exposing a stratum of values not accepted on the surface. At the bottom of the pit lies an ideology that devalues life and treasures only raw material.

As Lewis Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization (1934)–

Until the 15th century AD, mining had perhaps made less technical progress than any other art. The engineering skill that Rome showed in aqueducts and roads did not extend in any degree to the mines. Not merely had the art remained for thousands of years in a primitive stage, but the occupation itself was one of the lowest in human scale.

Apart from the lure of prospecting, no one entered the mine in civilized states until relatively modern times, except as a prisoner of war. a criminal, a slave. Mining was not regarded as a humane art. It was a form of punishment. It combined the terrors of the dungeon with the physical exacerbation of the galley.

The actual work of mining, precisely because it was meant to be burdensome, was not improved during the whole of antiquity, from the earliest traces of it down to the fall of the Roman Empire. In general, Not only may one say that free labor did not enter the mines until the late Middle Ages, one must also remember that serfdom remained here, in the mines of Scotland, for example, a considerable time after it had been abolished in agriculture.

Possibly the myth of the Golden Age was an expression of mankind's sense of what it had lost when it acquired control of the harder metals.

(Mumford)
  1. A game with an ideological history that started in capitalist critique and ended in a popular commodity that reproduced the ideology that it had once satirized. 

  2. The Congolese mine Shinkolobwe was where the high-grade uranium used to build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was sourced. 

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didaktik


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didaktik gama 1.5 alpha version notes

updates

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didaktik gama 1.4 alpha version notes

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didaktik gama 1.3 alpha version notes

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didaktik gama 1.2 alpha version notes

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Studio Notes 5-17-2024

This is project start for Didaktik Gama, a videogame installation.

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studio notes 3-14-2024

moha cat Spring break has given me more time to sit and play with projects. No big breakthroughs. I rewired the doorknob plinth from Doors and now the action on all the knobs and doorknob is much nicer than in the show. Unfortunately there’s still communication issues with the blinkm rgb light that lights up the keyhole. It’s possible that I rewired it wrong, but maybe more likely that it’s an OSC issue. It’ll take a little work to remember how it was meant to work and do some troubleshooting, since it was the last feature I added before the show and probably the least documented part of the project. plinth rewire Do I even want to get this working again though? I can see it being part of a show with more grotto-related stuff, but part of me thinks it’s probably better to concentrate on other stuff.

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studio notes 1-1-24

Happy New Year. keyboard experiment Not sure what to tag today’s log, I’m still working with the tileset from Grotto, but it’s moving into other areas, like the cellular automata I started working with a few months ago. I’m starting to take all of the small javascript projects that use the tiles and bring them together into a single repository with a separate node.js app that would hypothetically get input from switches or other devices and then switch between/effect the small projects.

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studio notes 11-21-23

a screenshot of a top-down low fi roguelike dungeon game I haven’t been posting work notes while the world crumbles, but I’ve been keeping them locally. There’s been a few updates to the unnamed roguelike that are worth mentioning, the first is I’ve been experimenting with a creeping plant class, working off the idea that once the player dies the game keeps going, and plant growth would be nice. Other than that, lots of little tweaks, like refactored item and entity classes, arrows that can spread fire, fire destroying things, and I experimented with multiple player instances, which just worked on the first try.

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test

(Epilepsy warning: flashing image) Early test for a new animation piece.

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studio notes 8-17-23

It’s a little confusing to keep calling these posts studio notes, since I no longer have a studio space. I’m sitting in a room at our place back in Austin that’s still filled with unpacked boxes. Settling back in is a slow process, and the last month has been really busy with moving a relative out of this space as we move back in. We also got a new kitten, who we are slowly acclimating to our other cat through a pet gate, carefully negotiating their two territories and resources (is there a strategy game idea somewhere in cats claiming or sharing litter boxes, food dishes, toys and sunbeams?) nutmeg the cat

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studio notes 8-11-23

Still don’t have a project tag for this roguelike experiment yet, but it seems like it might turn into an actual game. Now I’ve added doors, (some of which are locked and have paired, color coded keys,) inventory, enemies, and slightly janky click to pathfind to suppliment arrow key movement. I’m about to add sound with howler.js and audiosprite next. An image of a 2d dungeon game map, text reads "Pig pink door, status: locked" An image of a 2d dungeon game map, text reads "The door is locked!" A big thing that is missing is fog of war. I made kind of a mess getting my Grotto tiles working and it’s not as straightforward as it would be in a normal ascii rot.js game. I’ll give it some consideration once I get sound added.

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studio notes 7-10-23

isBurning I added fire and death to the little rot.js roguelike game I am tinkering with. This is separate from Grotto but uses the same visual language. It’s a difficult proposition to try to integrate this with Grotto, as this is turn based and Grotto is a multiplayer database driven thing with no understanding of items or characters positions in a room. This feels like a new game so far and not an extension of grotto, although there could be some interactions between the two using Grotto’s API. What should it be? It could either be a totally new dungeon game or I could try doing some sort of zero player ant-hill arcology thing to go with Archon as I had originally imagined. Hmm.

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Works Cited:

  1. Craddock, David L. Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games. 2015.
  2. Bergen, Benjamin K., and Ting Ting Chan Lau. “Writing Direction Affects How People Map Space Onto Time.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 3, April 2012, p. 109, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00109.
  3. Yang, Wenxing, and Ying Sun. “Do Writing Directions Influence How People Map Space onto Time?: Evidence from Japanese and Taiwanese Speakers.” Swiss Journal of Psychology, vol. 77, no. 4, October 2018, pp. 173–84, doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000215.
  4. Park, Juana, et al. “Writing Direction and Language Activation Affect How Arabic-English Bilingual Speakers Map Time onto Space.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 14, January 2024, p. 1356039, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1356039.
  5. Anderson, Benedict R. O. G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed, Verso, 2006.
  6. Karbusický, Vladimír. “Báje, Mýty, Dějiny: Nejstarší České Pověsti v Kontextu Evropské Kultury.” Moravia Magna, http://www.moraviamagna.cz/rodokmeny/, 2009.
  7. Veselovský, František, et al. “History of the Jáchymov (Joachimsthal) Ore District.” Journal of the Czech Geological Society, 1997.
  8. Tambling, Jeremy. Allegory. 1St ed, Routledge, 2010.
  9. Kara, Siddharth. Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. First edition, St. Martin’s Press, 2023.
  10. Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. The University of Chicago Press, 2010.