Burn the Glitch?

An archaeology of digital queers

Smith Nicholls cover image - Project Glitch screenshot

Florence is a heritage consultant and archaeogamer living in London. They are particularly interested in queer archaeologies of gaming and dark tourism. Follow the author on Twitter

Introduction

Glitches can be characterised as digital pests. Like their analogue equivalents, they can range from mildly inconvenient to unavoidable. Examples include loading errors, clipping through walls, and game-breaking glitches which result in a complete cessation of play. Despite this, glitches are highly valued by certain play communities. Speedrunners exploit glitches in order to complete games as fast as possible, and record their occurrences for other members of their community. Archaeogamers, who study the intersection between archaeology and video games, may also record glitches in order to better understand the development and experience of playing a particular game. If we understand that queer can be used as a verb describing a process of undermining or challenging assumptions about productive play, then glitches can be considered queer in that they potentially disrupt play and break immersion based on experiencing in-game physics mimicking the analogue world. While screenshots and videos of glitches can capture their context, in this essay I will argue that emotional responses to glitches are integral to understanding their cultural significance and queer dynamism.

Archaeogaming-a glitch between worlds

Archaeogaming is a slippery term to define. It broadly relates to the study of the intersection between archaeology and game studies. Some main themes of archaeogaming research have included the ethics of how archaeology and looting are depicted in video games (Dennis 2016), applying archaeological theories and methods to games (Reinhard 2018), or using game development to play with archaeological interpretation and narrative (Copplestone 2017).

One implicit thread that runs through archaeogaming research is the desire to question the policing of academic boundaries. Archaeology has historically defined itself as having an intellectual monopoly on material culture, heritage fieldwork, and the deep past. This is why applying archaeological methodology to modern technology which comprises both material and immaterial culture, such as video games, might be seen as somewhat epistemologically transgressive. It is for this reason that I have previously explored the queer potential of archaeogaming (2018). I argue that archaeogaming as a developing field can productively query the limits of archaeological specialisation and demonstrate how video games can be understood as cultural artefacts. In this way, archaeogaming works with and beyond canonical archaeological methods and theories; it is a ‘glitch’ of the academy. With this in mind, the video game glitch itself has radical potential as the subject of archaeogaming inquiry. As a transgressive glitch of the academy, archaeogaming is a useful tool to unpack video game glitches and their queer potential.

The queer potential of glitches

The word ‘glitch’ is thought to have its origins in the German word for ‘slippy’―another slippery term, like archaeogaming. The word is commonly applied to unexpected hardware or software errors. Given the broadness of the definition, several scholars have attempted to categorise and classify glitches. In his talk “From Bugs to Features: A Computer Archaeology of Errors and/ in/ as Games” Stefan Höltgen (2019) defines software bugs as errors in code which can lead to glitches, such as syntactical errors leading to the program crashing. Although the terms ‘bug’ and ‘glitch’ are often used interchangeably, for the purposes of this essay I follow Höltgen’s definition and           define bugs as software errors which constitute one but not the only possible cause of video game glitches. Most importantly for this essay, the term glitch can be used as both a noun and a verb, as it is possible to glitch something for a deliberate purpose.

The queerness of glitches is bound up in their agency; their spontaneous manifestation which affects player behavior. Their appearance can disrupt and alter the rhythm, constraints, and aesthetics of play. Queer, much like glitch, is a term that can be used as both an identifying noun and a verb. When we queer something, we question assumptions about identity and status. I argue that glitches have the potential to be queer agents, altering the player-game relationship, and subverting notions of realism, aesthetics, and immersion.

To give an example from one of my favourite games, in the Wii U remaster of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (Nintendo 2013) it is possible to perform a glitch known as ‘item sliding.’ This lets the protagonist Link move so fast that he can traverse the ocean without a boat, dramatically changing the experience of play. Whether such a glitch is desirable to a player or not, it can be considered queer in the sense that it subverts one of the central mechanics of Wind Waker (sailing), whilst also making a potentially fatal space for the player character accessible. The common idiom ‘to walk on water’ implies the ability to do something impossible, and this glitch is both figuratively and literally an act of walking on water. Glitches allow for ‘impossible’ play that breaks the in-game physics. Immersion based on a replication of real-world physics is also broken, and the seams of the game as a crafted object become visible.

The queerness of glitches is not just in terms of how we may play with them, but also how we may identify with them. This is one of the defining points of Legacy Russell’s Digital Dualism And The Glitch Feminism Manifesto:

Glitch Feminism therefore is feminism for a digital age, a heralding of virtual agency, a blooming of particularity and selfhood. “Glitch” refuses being categorized as subtext, it rejects being labeled as subversive, it does not speak for the marginal or the subaltern, as “sub-” as a prefix needs to be marked as a mode of acquiescence to our own exclusion from the canon, the academy, the Platonic ideal. (2012)

Russell’s refusal to be defined by academic canon is very much in line with Halberstam’s embracing of ‘low theory,’ which is situated as a body of theory grounded in accessibility with reference to eccentric texts such as animated films (2011, 16). In this passage, Russell also dismisses any concept of an ideal, definitive glitch. This refusal to be pinned down on the corkboard of essentialism could be at odds with the typologising impulse of the archaeogamer. The tension between the archaeogamer’s desire to capture, archive, and isolate glitches, and their dynamic, queer potential will be explored further in the next section.

Recording the glitch

In his germinal book Archaeogaming An Introduction to Archaeology In and Of Video Games, Andrew Reinhard devotes an entire section of Chapter 3 (“Video Games as Archaeological Sites”) to exploring the idea that glitches are archaeological artefacts. As glitches can arise from errors in code, he compares them to the misfired pots that archaeologists discover during excavation (2018, 152). I would also compare them to the fingerprints that are found on pottery and other materials. Similar to glitches, these fingerprints provide more information about the production process and the labour involved. Further parallels can be drawn in that fingerprints can be intentional or unintentional, and are not necessarily imprinted by the original creator of the object (Králík and Nejman 2001, 11), as ceramics may have been produced in workshops resulting in numerous people working on and interacting with the ‘beta’ version of the pot before it was fired. Glitches and other perceived imperfections, like preserved fingerprints, also have an affective aspect in that they manifest the otherwise implicit human labour that went into the creation of analogue or digital craft. The glitch as queer agent invites player reflection on the process of the game’s creation, which otherwise could be obscured by its marketing and consumption as commercial product.

Reinhard’s thesis that “Glitches are artifacts created from the intersection of hardware, software, and platform” (2018, 153) is an important corollary to this point, as is his identification that glitches “appear at an observable game-space and game-time, are artifacts within the game and therefore have archaeological context” (2018, 152). These two concepts, that glitches are useful in that they provide an insight into the crafting of a game and the idea that they are produced in a certain context which can and should be recorded, are important in understanding how glitches can be the subject of digital archaeological study. To draw out the queer potential of archaeologically recording glitches, it is useful to examine how other play communities have catalogued them.

Speedrunning is the practice of completing a game in as fast a time as possible. As a competitive community of play, the category of ‘any%’ speedrun allows the player to use any means possible to complete the game―even, and especially, exploiting glitches. The aforementioned Wind Waker glitch is one such example of a catalogue of glitches used by speedrunners. Like archaeogamers, speedrunners consider glitches valuable to their praxis and record them through various methods, including textual description, screenshots, or streaming. The Speed Demos Archive hosts the textual and multimedia records of speedrunners, including the specific glitches that they utilized (2019).  Bonnie Ruberg considers speedrunning as queer play, embracing glitches as a means to alter the “chrononormative timeline of gameplay” (2019, 198). While speedrunning involves pushing the limits of chrononormativity in games, archaeogaming arguably attempts to crystallize it. Recording the temporal and spatial context of glitches could be likened to pinning a butterfly to a corkboard, flattening a dynamic experience.

An archaeogaming archive of glitches on the same scale as the Speed Demos Archive does not yet exist, but Reinhard has used similar methods to record glitches, such as screenshots. He found a glitch in No Man’s Sky v.1.13 (Hello Games 2016) that caused him to fall through the game map. In a later update to his post, he expands on this, describing how after posting on Reddit he realised that other players had also discovered the same glitch (Reinhard 2017). The discourse surrounding the discovery of glitches  mirrors that surrounding the discovery of physical archaeological artefacts, as specific speedrunners are credited with first encountering glitches. In the case of archaeogaming, a singular focus on the ‘undiscovered’ glitch would be troubling. Archaeology has colonial antecedents with narratives of ‘first discovery,’ appropriation, and entitlement so efforts must be made to challenge these attitudes in all types of archaeological research, including archaeogaming. In a piece describing the serendipity of her historical research for the LGBTQ Game Archive, Adrienne Shaw relates how someone compared her to Indiana Jones, with Shaw quipping “queer digital archaeologist might be a fun Halloween costume” (2019). As a person who is a queer digital archaeologist all year round, not just for Halloween, I worry that digital archaeology does itself a disservice by leaning into pop-culture narratives of ‘treasure’ and ‘discovery.’ The queer digital archaeologist would indeed be a scary figure if they were to play the role of intrepid explorer without realizing they are essentially rehearsing the paternalism of antiquarians before them.

The sensuality of the archaeogaming glitch, on the other hand, intrigues and excites me. Consider how Legacy Russell characterises the glitch as “the digital orgasm, where the machine takes a sigh, a shudder, and with a jerk, spasms” (2012). While there is the understandable impulse to record these petites mortes before they die the greater death of not being preserved, we also need to accept and work in the knowledge that the glitch archive will never be complete, we can never catch ‘em all. A glitch archive can embrace the spontaneous, fleeting, and queer nature of glitches. Sara Perry (2019) has written about the power of engaging with the enchantment of the archaeological record as opposed to the crisis model of archaeology as a finite resource, and I believe that this approach is helpful for archaeogaming and the recording of glitches as well. In his piece “The History of Games Could Be a History of What Play Felt Like,” Austin Walker contends that recordings of player experience “bear the added pressures of being not only ephemera, but ephemera of an experience that is culturally coded to be disposable distraction” (2019). Recording the affective experience of gameplay, including player intimacy with glitches, is not just an important part of their archaeological context but also a way of queering what archaeology and games history traditionally deems worthy of record. It is key that the archiving of glitches takes into account how they play a role in communities of play, and how they are recorded, shared, and manipulated by players who are enchanted by their irreverence.

Conclusion

I started this piece by characterising archaeogaming as a glitch of the academy based on the fact it subverts traditional archaeological practise. However, this desire to be subversive is at odds with Russell’s understanding of glitch feminism as not undermining conventional wisdom but rejecting it completely. The queerness of glitches can be embraced through archiving by recording not only their context but their enchantment―why many people are attracted to glitches, how they entertain us, and how they change our relationship with games. The impulse to record glitches comes from both personal moments and communal cultures of play, which is why a glitch archive should be collaborative, open access, and never static. Rather than going on a glitch hunt, we should embrace the queer agency of glitch-craft.

Bibliography

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