ENG 730: Fictions, Representation, and Narrative.

While playing these games, I was thinking a bit about three things from Jasper Juul: his notion of “incoherent worlds,” the role of abstraction and representation, and the ways that rules and fictions can interact.

Juul defines incoherent world in a game as “a game with a fictional world but where the game contradicts itself or some game events cannot be explained as part of the fictional world.” He gives the example of Donkey Kong, as we don’t know why Mario has three hearts and can never find out why. Initially when I was playing A Dark Room, I was considering it a bit incoherent, as the idea of clicking to stab or clicking to build–this projection of a real world action into the game through this mechanic–felt arbitrary.

But really I was confusing the ideas of representation with this coherence. In the world itself, though textual, things made sense. Huts provided housing, and though some of the materials felt odd–like stone spears coexisting with laser guns or teeth and scales making weapons–game elements had an internal coherence. Instead, I found myself a bit jarred from the narrative by the mechanics of playing.

As time went on, also, I found myself less engaged by the fiction and more engaged by the mechanics, which is something Juul also describes: “It is a common characteristic that with sustained playing of the same game, the player may become less interested in the representational/fictional level of the game and more focused on the rules of the game” (139). I think was especially easy in this sort of game because things were pretty abstracted: no sound, only symbolic images (instead of more “realistic” ones), largely alphabetic representations, simple controls and rules, etc.

I found the opposite taking place with Myst: the world drew me in, but I (in time) got a bit bored by the mechanics. As Elizabeth points out, it was nice to sort of hangout in Myst for one, as the setting was  full of ambience, including music and sound effects. The visuals were also attractive and realistic. And the point-and-click movement had a calming quality.

Adding to the raw sensory experience, Myst also wove its game mechanics and instructions into the game, like the note one initially finds from Catherine. This helped the apparatus of the rules feel more integrated into the world itself, withdrawing into the fiction. Similarly, the point-and-click hand that let you project your actions into the space was one of the only representational elements in the game. The rest was “in the world,” as it were, augmented by in-game texts about the world itself.

But, as John points out, it was a bit tedious to go back and forth hunting for clues or trying to figure things out. After some initial gains, I found myself a bit stuck trying to figure out some of the puzzles–or figuring them out but having to re-walk across the island to find a particular number that I missed along the way.

Splitting the difference, Home had some interesting mechanics and fiction, though it undertook the fiction differently. Similar to Myst‘s multiple endings, Home has multiple endings, but it does so through this odd combination of trees and literal chose-your-own ending. I only played through once, but reading about other endings, I was intrigued by some of the possibilities. For me, Norman had killed my wife, but I didn’t know how Norman got killed or who the man in the house was. And, I was able to walk out the door at the end. For others, they decided that they killed Rachel and Norman, then slit their wrists in the bathroom. While some choices affect the ending–like the gathering of clues or the taking of the knife or gun–the player is ultimately decides key plot points, like if Rachel is really dead. This was odd.

For example, one player noted how this puzzling end broke his immersion. As a response, though, another player said, “Most games with various paths and endings just drag you along for the ride, telling the story of these charcters [sic] and expecting you to feel for them. This, though… when I was first presented with the question “Did I find my Rachel?”, I literally sat at that screen for… I dunno, 20 minutes, just piecing together the things I had learned and trying to come up with my own answer. I /loved/ it. It really was my story, even though I was playing as another person.”

I’m still thinking through what Home did and how I feel about it, whether considering it clunky or clever. But overall, I think these games do a great job highlighting the different ways that “fiction” operates in games–and how it differs from narrative.

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CCR 633: Closed Captions and Rhetoric

I’ve been finding Sean Zdenek’s Reading Sounds interesting on a few fronts. For one, I love pieces that dig into something that I often taken for granted–like captions.

But extending this, I confess that my “taking for granted” largely came down to a glib acceptance of caption as a subtitle equivalent, what Zdenek calls “undercaptioning.” I didn’t really take stock in the nonspeech sounds, like birdsong and grunts, or the nonspeech information (NSI), like character names and emotion.  But even more deeply, I completely missed the deeper, more rhetorical understanding that Zdenek brings to captioning. As he writes in his preface:

“Definitions of closed captioning too often stress the technology of ‘displaying’ text on the screen over the complex practice of selecting sounds and rhetorically inventing words for them. In most definitions, the practice itself is simplified, reduced to a mechanical process of unreflective transcription. No one has really treated captioning as a significant variable in multimodal analysis, on par with image, sound, and video. No one has considered the possibility that captions might be as potent and meaningful as other kinds of texts we study in the humanities. In short, we don’t yet have a good understanding of the rhetorical work captions do to construct meaning and negotiate the constraints of space and time.”

While this is a lengthy block quote, I think it does a great job capturing the gist of his argument, or what I’ve read so far. Zdenek wants to replace a conception of transcription as “unreflective” and “mechanical”–as simply putting a script on a screen–with the rhetorical impact of picking and choosing the words that communicate the context, narrative, feeling, etc.

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ENG 730: The Game and Immersive Narrative

Watching The Game, I kept thinking of Kafka. In many of his stories, Kafka presents this looming network that always recedes as the protagonist gets closer to solving it. I think A Messenger from the Emperor puts it best:

“he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years. . .

In The Game, Nicholas, much like many of Kafka’s characters, must navigate the ever-withdrawing, seemingly omnipotent CRS. Things escalate as he goes forward, almost to an absurd degree. And at the end, instead of closure of catharsis, we get this bizarre party. As John notes, no one seems to recognize the emotional turmoil that Nicholas endured, revisiting the suicide of his father, shooting and thinking he killed his brother, and attempting suicide himself, only to stumble into a room of friends and strangers who only moments ago–he thought–were trying to kill him.

I guess my frustration stemmed from the notion of immersion and boarders that Murray discusses. As Murray writes, “Part of the early work in any medium is the exploration of border between the representational world and the actual world” (103). When immersed, much like the Holodeck example from the beginning of the book, one is caught up in a procedural, participatory medium, as Murray describes. But as she also notes, this participation is “a visit,” and we must often “actively create belief” (110). There is a border, in other words, between the illusion and the larger world in which that illusion sits.  This larger world may have its own hyperreal characteristics, but it is nonetheless distinct–or seems to be.

But the blurring of that border is what seems to make The Game and The Grasshopper examples so haunting. As John notes, Nicholas ends up no longer really playing in a way, as he thinks that he is actively fighting a real entity. For example, toward the end, the ontology of the gun is ambiguous: in the actual world, it’s a prop; in the representational world, it’s a gun. But for Nicholas, the representational world has become the actual world. The game, and all of its trappings, has become his new reality, including the gun. And, as many others have noted, the “voluntary” element of Nicholas’ participation feels murky, making this “game” all the more problematic.

Connecting it back to Kafka, I think the reason why The Trial is so haunting is that the legal system has left its boundaries. To draw from Huizinga, the court has flooded outside its magic circle and has become an existential way of life. K is guilty without his consent, and forced to solve the maze of “state sanctioned violence” as Murray calls it (131), as himself, not a player version of himself.

In a similar note, The Game shows this haunting Grasshopper-like dystopia where the representational aspect of play has permeated and supplanted actual life. But, the game ends, and this is the strangest part. As Murray points out, digital mediums have a more ambiguous ending, often created by their interactive aspect. They often end through exhaustion and not a linear progression. The same could be said for the movie.

The doctor/actor jokes at the end, for example, that if Nicholas didn’t jump, he’d have to throw him.  This raises the question on how prescriptive the game was. Jordan points out that the game maybe was not that interactive, and indeed, it’s hard to see how the game wasn’t pulling all the strings, giving CRS an almost deterministic quality that feels godlike, all driving toward this “ending.” Were there alternative endings? What if, for example, Nicholas didn’t drink the tea? What if he didn’t get the gun from his house? What other rhizomes could he follow, and would those rhizomes still lead to that party in that way?

Much like K’s demise in The Trial, the ending in The Game feels inevitable, and I wonder–since they lied to him before, including about him not being picked to enter the game in the first place–whether the game is really over. Once you turn life into a game, it doesn’t feel easy to get out, and maybe Nick’s blithe acceptance at the end is a sort of absurdist, nihilistic acceptance of the Grasshopper’s wisdom. Worst birthday gift ever.

CCR 633: Anderson, Publics, and Simultaneity

One of the main things that struck me about this reading was the importance of simultaneity. Anderson discusses this through literature, then newspapers, and even connects it to the practice of naming places like “New Orleans” after places from the old world. Essentially this connects to the “empty time” of a situation and the sense of community, that other people–people in a community or country, in Anderson’s example–are going about their daily lives as I do.

Coupled with this, one has the printing press and newspapers. For newspapers, Anderson notes how it represents “the secular, historically clocked community” (35), and creates a daily or half-daily ritual, which again is connected to simultaneity, the paper acting as a technology of synchronizing.

For printing, Anderson stresses a few elements. “First,” he writes, “they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernacular” (44).  Similar to what Thorton says about print v. handwriting, printing creates a public connotation, and though it’s been a while since I’ve read Habermas, I imagine a link with his public sphere as well. Along with these “unified fields of exchange,” print technology, argues Anderson, creates fixity, much as Eisenstein notes. And third, it created “languages of power” (45), privileging some forms of language over the other.

I was thinking about how digital technologies connect to these similar qualities, i.e. how internet publics connect to their own technology.

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CCR 633: Handwriting and Withdrawal

One of the tensions in the reading, particular in Thorton, was the role that handwriting has between self, discipline, and social role. Early on, Thorton writes, “Faithful imitation of penmanship models-what teachers would call good handwriting-thereby signals  conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality” (x). This immediately connects with some of the disciplining that Trithemius discusses in relation to scribe work. In both, a certain rigor and repetition, a discipline of the body and the “hand” takes place.

I think, then of writing’s broader potential to discipline, like what McCruer discusses in composition’s ability to “compose bodies” in “De-Composition” (2008) or even in formal rubrics, genre conventions, curricula, the Harvard rhetoric requirement, and pre-set forms, like the five paragraph theme. This capacity that rhetoric and writing has to conform and prescribe has along history, as Thorton points out.

But, in slightly different sense, writing also created or highlighted larger social identity, and in this way it also polices or defines. For example, as Thorton points out, business, itself a core catalyst to writing instruction (p. 6), prescribed more clerk-like ways of writing, rejecting the flourishes of more gentlemanly backgrounds. Writing was also gendered, with many “feminine” scripts designed to take longer and exhibit “fair” qualities. As Thorton writes, “mercantile advice books urged men of commerce to shun penmanship refinements appropriate for gentlemen in favor of a straightforward ‘Clerk-like Manner of Writing.’ And where men might be urged to cultivate a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ hand, Women were urged to cultivate ‘fair’ one” (37).

And through this quality, handwriting, seemed to exhibit a sort of self-expressive quality, growing from social identities. As Thorton writes,  “As each human being performs a socially differentiated part, so is each given a different ‘script.’ Conversely, by reading that script for its social information one could learn all there was to know about the writer. Here at last was a sincere medium of selfhood” (37). Hand writing analysis and associations with different scripts connected the self (albeit a socialized self) to the script, presenting a certain window of expression.

But once again, the movement to “automatic handwriting” and related systems of standardization, like the Palmer method, disciplines expression, but through a certain systematized erasure. By making writing more standardized and less idiosyncratic–whether justified through “science” or a sort of “lore”–one is essentially erasing the body, or trying to. This erasure or withdrawing is particularly bad for embodied backgrounds that do not fit the standard, like lefties, people with disabilities, or those with less training and resources. It is a sort of gate-keeping, but one that erects its gates by assuming writing a certain way is a type of present-for-hand skill and not a complicated, socialized, embodied action.

With this, I often think of a quote by Nirma Erevelles about special education that has been following–or rather haunting–since last semester: “Haunting these policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. . . In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable.” (Disability and Difference). In other words, as the body withdraws from systematization, quantification, and abstraction–as it often does–what bodies and what people get left behind?

And though handwriting is still “a thing” as they say, something that we discuss and learn and use, I am curious about the same disciplining, social-signifying, and withdrawal (in a Heideggarian sense) that takes place in today’s context through digital print or new media.

CCR: Fixity, Preservation, and Circulation

Although a lot of the elements in the Eisenstein reading were interesting, for whatever reason, the opening sections on textual drift and preservation through multiplication–quantity of copies over quality–struck me, especially in regards to circulation.

As Eisenstein writes, “No manuscript, however useful as a reference guide, could be preserved for long without undergoing corruption by copyists, and even this sort of ‘preservation’ rested on the shifting demands of local élites and a fluctuating incidence of trained scribal labor” (113-14). Later on, she terms this corruption through copying “textual drift” and notes how “preservation could be achieved by using abundant supplies of paper rather than scarce and costly skin” (114). Here, then, the fixity of this preservation is not just its material longevity, which is achieved through multiple copies, but the precision of its copies. Each copy is more fixed and less idiosyncratic once the type gets set, reducing the “textual drift” of multiple hand copies.

I want to look at these ideas of drift and fixity.

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