Code comments pose a number of interesting epistemological challenges. They are ignored by the machine interpreter and readable by humans, but not exactly legible. They are visible only if one is able to view the source code. They are not intended for the end-user, but with the right tools, the end-user might find them. In fact, I wasn’t the first to find these comments in the JFK Reloaded WAD file. BrooksMarlin noticed them in 2004, but nobody to my knowledge has ever read these comments against the game itself and against the existing scholarship on the game.
We can think of code comments as a kind of textual marginalia—the doodles, notes, and corrections that authors and readers add in the margins of a text. When I asked on Twitter if marginalia was an accurate way to think about code comments, Patrick Murray-John, a developer at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (who also happens to have a Ph.D. in Anglo-Saxon literature), suggested that the medieval division of marginalia into separate categories might have an analog in computer code comments. As Murray-John notes, medieval scholars distinguished between lectio and enarratio. Lectio refers to aids for reading at the level of comprehension—notes and marks that help a reader make the text legible (originally for the purposes of reading aloud). Enarratio refers to marginalia that actually help readers interpret the text on a rhetorical and symbolic level. To lectio and enarratio we might also add, as Whitney Trettien suggests, emendatio, comments that correct or even offer improvements to the existing text (such as we might find in an open-source project, with one developer making suggestions on another developer’s code).
The marginalia in JFK Reloaded‘s WAD file resembles enarratio, not only helping us to make sense of the individual lines of code that follow the comment, but also offering an interpretative gloss on the code. —A Revisionist History of JFK: Reloaded Decoded | Play The Past.