Course Description

TCS 198: Modding
Directed Group Study

Starting with a Super Mario Bros. cartridge and a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), in this class each student will modify or “mod” vintage videogame equipment in order to explore the rich materiality of technical media, the intimate relationship between analog electronics and digital code, and the complex ecologies formed around both hardware and software. We will clip the pins of mask ROM chips to build custom prototype cartridges, rip binary data with Willem programmers to assemble .NES files for emulation, peek and poke at RAM addresses to reverse engineer ROM hacks, and burn data onto EPROM memory to play new software on original hardware. Through a practical engagement with the tools and techniques of NES development, students will learn basic electronics, circuit bending, soldering and desoldering, microchip programming, assembly language, hex editing, as well as binary and serial communication protocols.

While clipping, ripping, hacking, and burning our mods, we will also survey scholarship at the intersection of media theory and game design. We study the material histories and media archeologies of Lori Emerson and Jussi Parikka, the platform studies and computer histories of Nathan Altice and Laine Nooney, and the ROM hacking and reverse engineering of Brian “BunnyBoy” Parker and Rachel “partytimeHXLNT” Weil (among others).  From packaged products to open platforms for critical making, this course will not only introduce students to the material history and constrained design of retro videogames, but will investigate the community histories and material practices of modders who are constantly repurposing, reusing, recycling, and remaking hardware and software in the aftermarket of the videogame industry.

Previous experience with game design, software development, programming, and electrical engineering is not required, but this course will progress at brisk pace and include hands-on prototyping, in-class discussion, and rigorous critique. As a result, our games will investigate the material and historical specificity of not only NES development but modding as a technical and cultural practice.

Click here for the full Spring 2016 course schedule.

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