Two key conferences in digital media and game studies, Digital Arts and Culture (DAC) and the Digital Games Reserch Association (DiGRA) use an unexpected format for their papers: ACM, the format devised by the Association for Computing Machinery for publications in computer science.
I have nothing against computer science, but the use of ACM format is bad and dumb for venues like DAC and DIGRA. It may also be bad and dumb in general. Here are some reasons why.
ACM Format is Unnecessary for Rapid Publication
In computer science, the conference proceeding is considered a top-tier publishing venue, with the best conferences offering more prestige than journal publications. This state of affairs came about because progress moves quickly in science and engineering, and a publication can’t stand to wait years to find its way to readers. ACM format is one of several devised to allow the rapid preparation and publishing of papers by having their authors prepare “camera ready” versions of papers, formatted for direct insertion into a proceedings.
But timeliness is now very easy: papers can be published online, no matter their format. Indeed, ACM publications are put into the ACM Digital Library anyway, which is where most people find and read them.
In the cases of DAC and DiGRA, even though ACM format has been used, a print proceedings was never published for dissemination anyway (I believe some years of the DAC conferences are lost completely, with no publication having ever appeared in any format). Thus, the main purpose of ACM format is lost anyway.
ACM Format is too Discipline Specific
Standards like APA and Chicago are taught, used, and understood in many disciplines. Given the multidisciplinary nature of digital media and game studies, adopting a format from computer science is alienating. Ironically, few computer scientists do research in game studies anyway (a fact I lament).
Beyond putting a troll under the bridge, ACM’s indexing systems also prescribe specific fields and sub-fields (there is a huge hierarchical tree), most of which are inhospitable to humanistic, social scientific, and interdisciplinary work. The fact that conferences like DAC and DiGRA usually omit the ACM categories offers proof that they don’t work.
ACM Format is Illegibile
Because of the need to get papers quickly into print proceedings, and due to the cost of print publication, ACM format packs a ton of words onto one page, around 1,000, formatted in two columns. To accomplish this feat, ACM text is set in 9-point, making it completely illegible on screen and difficult to read in print too. Leading and other text formatting techniques used to increase legibility are likewise eschewed. The result are papers that are just plain hard to read.
The two-column format makes ACM papers hard to read even on screen. The small type requires zooming in, but the two columns require scrolling up and down the page. This isn’t the end of the world, but given the fact that many papers are read on monitors rather than dead trees, it seems silly to make it harder than it needs to be. (In the comments below, Mark Nelson reminds me that this also makes copying text out of ACM papers difficult due the the text selection behavior of PDF readers.)
ACM Format is Uninviting to Readers
ACM papers start with an in-line abstract and a set of arcane keywords instead of with the natural prose of an argument. This codes works as inaccessible. As a kind of media studies that hopes to clarify a form of popular media, in digital media and game studies it is foolish at best, irresponsible at worst, to alienate such a readership.
ACM Format Citations are Hard to Create
ACM format has a deeply unintuitive citation method that uses numerical references. One does not cite in order, as with foot- or endnotes, but one cites retroactively based on the position of a work in an alphabetized bibliography.
The format was designed for automated layout in LaTeX (computer scientists once insisted on programming their writing; some still do), in which case the process can be automated. It is less facile in traditional text editors or word processors. And even though bibliographical packages like Endnote can generate ACM formatted papers, an author should not be expected to have access to such tools to write a paper easily.
ACM Format is Length-Normative
In the ACM/CS world, papers usually come in two varieties, “short” and “long.” Short means four pages, long means ten (so, 4,000 and 10,000 words, respectively, minus any space taken up by figures and graphs). Length not only indicates the depth of an argument, but also the prestige of the publication: short papers are considered works in progress, tentative reports on new research, while long papers are considered mature reports of completed research.
While the journal article does imply a certian implicit length (usually 7,000-12,000 words), it is troubling to equate the length of a written work with its quality or importance. It’s particularly problematic to apply the short-long criterion to work that is not borne from laboratory-style research.
ACM Format Discourages Thorough Citation
The standard way to cite in ACM format is to off-handedly point to a source, which might be an entire book or article, without further clarification (e.g., “Earlier methods for automated gripe generation either fail under load [4, 14, 18] produce inelegant prose [1, 5, 17], or operate poorly on consumer-grade hardware .”) This convention arises partly due to the format’s provisions of length, but more so it underscores an ideology of the engineering world: research moves in a forward march toward progress and efficiency; research papers produce a single result that proves or disproves something.
As such, ACM citations rarely cite page numbers (there is a provision for it, but it is rarely used), nor do they clarify arguments with sufficient evidence. The lack of a tradition of “close reading” in computer science explains this conceit, as does the fact that most publications are considered simple reports on research findings, rather than arguments in themselves. It should be obvious why such an approach would be problematic in discussions of culture, history, and related matters.
I don’t wish to abolish ACM format, but I do wish that venues that publish work at the intersection of computing and the liberal arts would recognize that ACM format is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.