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Super Smash Bros. Melee Exhuming New Spirit into “Dead” Technology

 

From their inception, video games have not stopped evolving. As video games become embedded as a naturalised mainstream activity, new opportunities continue to develop. As video games grew as an industry, so formed esports, the act of competitive video gaming which in recent has also begun to be accepted as common practise. Many different esports communities have flourished alongside a group’s game of choice. Often, these games played competitively are scaffolded on older programs or software and continue to develop, update and change indefinitely. In this technological age, constant change is expected and expedited. Many players of popular competitive games must adapt their play at the hands of constant patches and updates to their system. However, one esports community in particular does not have this issue.

 

Super Smash Bros. Melee (SSBM) is a platform fighting game that was released for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2001. The game’s director, Masahiro Sakurai, intended the game to be a party game that all players could enjoy casually. The game is packed with a cast of 26 characters from a variety of Nintendo games, now set against each other in combat. The game was based on its predecessor The Super Smash Bros. released for the Nintendo64 in 1999. SSBM introduced faster gameplay, more movement options and the ability to create and personalize combos that was unseen in the original and other fighting games. Once players, or “smashers”, began to discover SSBM’s potential, there was no stopping the fire of competition that the game unintentionally created. Shortly after its release, tournaments began to appear and a community formed. Today, there are SSBM tournaments held almost every weekend at an international level. Players gather from all over North America and Europe to compete at these lively events. While this was not the original intention for SSBM, there was no stopping the passion of these players to compete.

 

Esports and video game communities alike have had to and continue to adapt to an influx of updates and changes. SSBM however, is the only video game to be played at a competitive that has not changed since its conception in 2001. This means the hardware and software required for optimal play has essentially been left unchanged. While community members create various modifications (MODS) for practise and new hardware that addresses accessibility issues, the core elements of hardware and software are unaltered. When the game was released in 2001, there where no flat screens nor digital signal processors (like HDMI) available that are common to the consoles of today. The standard for competitive play requires the same hardware that was available when SSBM was originally released. The setup consists of a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) Television, a Gamecube and its controllers connected to the CRT via the time-honoured Nintendo multi-out cable which outputs the game’s content via an AV component cable. As the game was developed to run on this hardware, when a player hooks up the game to a flat screen there is a noticeable delay (also referred to as lag) from when a player inputs an action to when it happens on screen. As this lag is unacceptable for a competitive setting, players chose to collect and harbor CRTs for optimal play. While the game’s software can be emulated on a Nintendo Wii and connected to a CRT, the cables, software and frame rate do not change. Thus, the combination of the game’s original software, component cables and a CRT television are agreed as the universal standard for SSBM despite the emergence of newer equipment.

 

Smashers will hunt for this hardware in thrift stores, on the street or maybe even in their parents’ basement. There is no widely accepted substitute for this hardware as of yet. Many people may consider the hardware utilized in the SSBM community to be outdated, archaic or even dead, especially as technology evolves so quickly around us.

 

The commentary surrounding SSBM’s reliance on old or “dead” hardware speaks to theories and practises in critical design, rhetorical design, the sociability of objects and prompts a discussion about sustainability. With this, I have created a computational art piece which expresses SSBM’s critical position to old hardware through its composition, components and audience interaction. Critical design theory argues that objects can make their point through their existence and are scaffolded by their narrative framework (Malpass, 2017). My piece’s existence and purpose are to prompt discussions of esports, SSBM, and technological obsolesces. 

 

My piece takes the form of a small coffin (roughly 2ft long) constructed out of book-board and is wrapped in an off-white linen. The plain exterior is to not distract the user from the contents of the coffin, as they are the primary spectacle of the work. The contents of the coffin are lodged and warped between layers of resin, glue, pouring mediums, and several other adhesives. The contents consist of old and broken AV component cables that are traditionally red, yellow and white, but have been painted pastel to fit the aesthetics of the work. There is a broken Gamecube controller in the centre of the coffin whose placement can be read as the heart of the deceased entity. Moreover, there are little bits of broken technologies (wires, buttons, etc.) that I do not have the proper means to throw out that are now preserved in the coffin. There are many wires infused in the layers of adhesives that are meant to mirror the chaos of wire management many gaming setups still must learn to cope with. Ultimately, there is an RGB LED that runs through the multiple layers of the coffin’s contents that is connected to an Arduino and two capacitive sensors. Through its code written by technician Elio Bidinost (and with my support), when a user touches either sensor, the RGB LED lights up red in succession. Once the whole strip is lit it cycles through a gradient rainbow. When the sensor is released, the LED strip goes out in succession. Each component and choice in the piece’s conception are truly meaningful in the discussion of SSBM’s critical position to outdated technology.

 

The piece symbolizes how SSBM represents old media becoming new again by the means of a player’s touch. The aesthetics of the coffin contents are rendered in pastel, sparkly and glowing ways to represent the nostalgia many people experience for these hardware and gaming experiences. As the user interacts with the capacitive sensors, they infuse new life into these “dead” technologies and objects represented by the succession of lights. This corresponds to the ways of a smash player as they acquire and utilize the outdated hardware needed for optimal play. Ultimately, the piece represents a spirit of SSBM as based on its reliance on “dead” hardware, nostalgia and the player’s interaction. For me, spirit can be visualized as something very magical and powerful. While I know my aesthetic choices may not read as “spirit” to some, for me these choices have a strong and striking presence which evokes powerful energy. I feel as though utilizing death and memorial processes as a means to prompt my discourse is very dynamic, for death entertains discussion and thought.

 

Other design and artworks similarly disseminate death and memorial processes accompanied by computational processes to make their claim. Primarily, an example can be drawn from the once popular MMOG (Massively multiplayer online game) EVE Online. One player in particular, Azia Burgi, formed EVE’s first and only digital cemetery for the virtual corpses of deceased players. While originally created as a memorial for players lost in combat, other players began to use this site to memorialize people they have lost in real life as well. The most interesting concept of this piece is that death is not permanent in EVE. Upon death in game, players leave behind a corpse but are instantly transferred to a new virtual body identical to their previous one (Menser, 2017). Here I see a connection to my project in the discussion of “dead” technology. The EVE graveyard as well as my piece both initialize that technologies, virtual and physical, may not actually have a death, even if perceived by the masses as such. Both our works seek to memorialize things that are recognized as dead but create a new space for them to live on in some capacity. For Burgi, it is the virtual corpses of players, for me it is the reuse of outdated hardware used for SSBM. Both of us see importance in the perception of technological death and create new spaces to continue and expand on this conversation.

 

            Other communities’ harness computational elements to optimize their mourning processes. Various apps for smartphones have appeared to allow people to keep those who have passed on closer to them. RIP Cemetery is a smartphone app that serves as a digital cemetery. People can leave virtual flowers, notes, love and other gifts to their deceased loved ones on the interface the app provides. Although this app deals with the real death of people, it is still relevant in the discussion of computational memorials. Moreover, an ancient Chinese memorial process called “grave sweeping” has been digitized for sustainability and accessibility purposes. Essentially, this process is the burning of money and other artifacts so the deceased may have extra “ghost money” in the afterlife. This virtual memorial process is also gamified in that it tallies the sacrifices one “burns” for the afterlife of the deceased (Jou, 2012). Both of these computational memorial processes deal with the death of real people, but are useful examples in seeing the ways computation can be adapted to traditional mourning practises. In my work, however, casket viewing is the only traditional memorial procedure overtly adopted.

 

The piece is primarily built on models of human computer interaction (HCI). Bill Gauver’s discussion of HCI emphasizes the satisfaction of experience. A given piece exhumes the body in its modes of digital communication. Here, the tactile manipulation of technology is used to produce an artifact, experience and critique (Gauver, 2008). The piece is validated as an artifact not only by its existence, as mentioned prior, but too from its stylistic choices. Coffins can be commonly recognized as an artifact through their connotation and exposure in museums and history lessons, often in regards to ancient Egypt. Furthermore, the object’s experience is an extension between itself and the user as they both require each other to reach a full form. Finally, through this experience and status as an artifact the work can derive a critique and fixate itself as a critical design work.

 

Gaver’s analysis of critical design continues by rooting itself in satire. Many critical design works evoke satirical implications and utilize dark humor to make their point (ibid.). My piece elicits Horatian satire which is embed in the folly or paradoxical and often exaggerates. The dark humor is obvious in my work; it parodies death. For some it may be droll to see a casket filled with objects, rather than a body. Others, may not find it humorous at all, for death and its darkness may be too distracting. Moving forward, the piece is an obvious exaggeration in its dazzling aesthetics and absurdity of contents in relationship to its form. These satirical modes can create convention for temptation and intrigue, hopefully provoking interaction to participate with the object in full.

 

Critical design pieces often engage in modes of rhetoric also as a means of making their claim. Richard Buchanan asserts that design as rhetoric induces a new belief about the past, present and/or future and attempts to shape society in some manner (Buchanan, 1985). Here, my piece is meant to launch a discussion about esports and video game culture in the realm of eternally evolving technology. Primarily, there is an obvious negative rhetoric that surrounds identifying as a “gamer”. Studies of newspaper, popular media and web-based productions continue to produce a negative stereotype for gamers as the anti-social-responsibility-neglecting recluse (Bergstrom, et al. 2016). Although my piece cannot overtly combat this stereotype or the notorious on-going representation of gamers, its charming rendering and delightful interaction aims to source a more positive conversation about video game culture.

 

Subsequently, Buchanan’s dialogue of rhetorical design developed alongside technology’s formidable assertion into mainstream society. With this came a multitude of fears about technology’s potential impact and changes to life. In his text, Buchanan avows that when creating a rhetorical design piece, a designer is showing their value of technology in life, possibly as a means to help assimilate technology into society at that time (Buchanan, 1985).  For my work, I address my own value of technology, specifically video game culture, as something magical as evident from the aesthetics and sparkly choices in my piece’s rendering. My experiences in the SSBM community have been some of the most powerful in my life. Gaming communities, like that of SSBM, unite people with common technological practises across the world. The shared experience of a given game connects people through their interaction and participation. I know my rhetorical position and value for technology here is shared by gamers who have found homes in a video game community.

 

As design practises grow to include computational aspects, theoretical framework begins to shift to include the possibilities of emerging technologies. Alongside the internet’s rapid growth, visions of a world interconnected by devices appear. These visions were accompanied by a blurring of the boundaries between physical and computational life. This continuing shift towards extreme connectedness can be understood as a facet Internet of Things (IoT). IoT seeks to explain our shifting relationships to objects as they become interconnected computationally. A new emphasis on materiality is introduced as a means to explore digital-physical consumption as well as relationships shaped by our interactions with a given object. IoT argues for an object-oriented ethnography approach to show and study ways that objects are active participants in our social lives, as opposed to traditional ethnographical methods which primarily address people/bodies. This approach can disclose objects as social actors, a collective participation of an object, and can be used to explore memory of/with these objects through the addition of a computational level (Nansen, et al. 2014). This methodology also gives way to the discussion of the death of objects. If objects can be social and live alongside people, can they also die?

 

The notion of objects sociability, life and death is crucial in my piece. My work maintains the sociability of the hardware for SSBM as community actors. Hardware specificity is required to preform and identify as a Smasher. The Gamecube controller is the heart of SSBM’s sociability as it enables player interaction in and out of game and is represented as such by its placement in the centre of the coffin, as mentioned previously. Collective memories are shared by “smashers” and gamers alike of acquiring their first Gamecube controller and each have unique stories of how interacting with the Gamecube and its hardware affected them. This effect is more obvious in the case of the top competitors for their whole career is enabled by actively performing and living alongside these hardware, especially their controller which is often personalized.

 

Object oriented ethnography suggests that objects can be companions to our emotional lives as provocations of thought (Ibid.). Hence, the controller lives alongside and shares the experiences, reactions and feelings a player experiences at a tournament or in play. A relationship and closeness to these objects is often preformed by players wearing the controller around their neck or belt loop like a medal, player’s throwing a controller after a loss or a passionately tight grip during gameplay.

 

With this, it is clear that the Gameube controller hasn’t necessarily died, for they live at the hands of “smashers” around the world. Yet, the other more universal hardware for SSBM can often be regarded as outdated, useless or even dead, especially in regards to the CRT televisions or component cables. It is hard to find examples other than gaming cultures that still rely on this hardware. Thus, I believe it is important to continue to foster SSBM’s recycling and reuse of outdated technologies, which is promoted through my piece. As Smashers around the world continue to breathe new life into old objects, they are unintentionally appealing to sustainable gaming. They preserve technologies that most would commonly throw out and replace with the newest model.

 

I evaluate this as a successful project because I learned a multitude of relevant design theories and plenty about Arduino. As I still consider this piece a prototype for a larger application, I have many reflections about the piece. Primarily, a main concern of mine is sustainability. I see the obvious irony in a piece about preservation of neglected objects in contrast to the choice of materials. Resin is not sustainable and will likely outlive me. As well, wires and other hardware do not have a common procedure for disposal. Here, I aim to reclaim these items by morphing them together as an artifact which could live on in display at tournaments or in a collection.

 

Subsequently, I would love to recreate this piece and include the CRT television as the central container or coffin. I envision a CRT on its back, with the screen hollowed out, and the same layering of wires, hardware, resins and glues inside. People would be invited look inside the CRT placed ground, similar to viewing a casket. Unfortunately, because of time and access I could not do this, and I would never do this to a working CRT which is all I have. Some of my peers upon reception eluded to the religious connotations of the coffin. Moreover, when the work was displayed, it was close to the ground, so users had to kneel in a prayer-like stance to interact with the sensors. I know that I could have used a different container like my imagined CRT casing, or even a box to make my claim. I accept that the coffin and its setup may imply some religious reference, given that I perceive a lot of gaming and esports communities as devout to their practice.

 

I speculate on ways to represent SSBM’s relationship to this outdated hardware more clearly. It is hard to make an art piece alone that explains SSBM’s unique position. One comment during critique considered the separation of touch in the work. More specifically, how the Gamecube controller is held with two hands, but here, the same hands are forced to touch the sensors instead. I do not see a huge issue with this shift in touch, as I feel this change forces the user to reflect on their relationship with the controller and contents of the work in a new restricted way. Through restricting or subverting a normative experience of an object, here a controller, commands a reshaping of thought, attention or positionality from the user. Consequently, to best explain SSBM’s disposition if this work were to be displayed, I believe a didactic panel would suffice in explaining the piece’s narrative. Finally, when displayed during critique, I am pleased to say the work was well received. My peers recognized the charm and magical feelings I tried to evoke with my stylization and were eager to participate.  I believe this was a good exercise in seeing different interdisciplinary ways that I can discuss SSBM and represent its specialness.

 

References

Coding References

LED Strip Coding: https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/connect-led-light-strips-arduino/

Capacitive Sensor Coding: https://maker.pro/arduino/projects/touch-controlled-light-using-arduino

 

Work Cited

Bergstrom, K., Fisher, S., & Jenson, J. (2016). Disavowing ‘That Guy’: Identity construction and massively multiplayer online game players. Convergence, 22(3), 233–249. 

Buchanan, Richard. "Declaration by design: Rhetoric, argument, and demonstration in design practice." Design Issues (1985): 4-22.

Gaver, W. "Designing for homo ludens, still. In (Re) Searching the Digital Bauhaus, T. Binder, J. Lowgren, and L. Malmborg, Eds." (2008).

Jou, Eric. “Ancient Chinese Graveyard Ritual Goes Online.” Kotaku, 4 April. 2012, https://kotaku.com/5898983/tomb-sweeping-tradition-becomes-gamified. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.

Malpass, Matt. Critical design in context: History, theory, and practices. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Messner, Steven. “The Struggle to Maintain EVE Online’s Only Graveyard.” PC Gamer, 6 Nov. 2017, https://www.pcgamer.com/the-struggle-to-maintain-eve-onlines-only-graveyard/.

Nansen, Bjorn, et al. "An internet of social things." Proceedings of the 26th Australian Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Designing Futures: the Future of Design. ACM, 2014.

“RipCemetery - Always Have Your Loved Ones with You.” RipCemetery, http://www.ripcemetery.com/. Accessed 22 Nov. 2018.