Cody Mejeur

Narrative, Games, Queer Studies

Month: January 2018

Planning the Archive of Player Experience

For this week’s blog, I’d like to lay out my plans for my project this semester. My plans to start archiving player experiences and measuring narrative variance in games extend far beyond one semester’s project, but, as with so many large DH projects, that demands breaking the project up into manageable pieces.

For this semester, I’d like to start the project by plotting the playthroughs of first-person, narrative, indie, and queer games that I’m using for my dissertation. These include Gone Home, a game about exploring an empty house and piecing together the narratives of people who live there; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a game about a missing boy who loves to tell stories and is rejected by his family; SOMA, a game about encountering the last of humanity and post-human futures in virtual reality; and The Talos Principle, a game that draws attention to artificial intelligence, consciousness, and the construction of reality. Not all of these games are explicitly queer, or have LGBTQ characters or representations. Yet all of them draw attention in different ways to the queer ways we experience play and construct narratives of our experiences.

Plotting these games will help me assess how players have engaged with these games in different ways, and how their experiences and narratives of the games are different. Even though every player played the same game, their different experiences mean their perceptions of the game are likely quite different (though this study will help assess *how* different). One might even argue that they cognitively constructed different versions of the virtual play spaces they explored.

This project is in many ways complementary to the work I do with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive. Whereas the Archive collects records of LGBTQ representation in games in different decades and game series, my work with ImagePlot will seek to explore how players are engaging with queer games, and perhaps how queer games are or are not different from other games in their genres. Do games with LGBTQ content also tend to have different and queer forms? Or do they borrow the forms and conventions from their genres, and replace heteronormative content with LGBTQ content?

Visualizing Narrative Variance in Games

For my course project this semester, I’d like to continue and expand an ongoing project I have with visualizing playthroughs of video games using ImagePlot, developed by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at CUNY and UCSD. Basically, ImagePlot is able to capture frames from videos as image files, and then plot those files according to different attributes (such as color, saturation, shapes, etc.). My project uses ImagePlot to plot the playthroughs of games captured in players’ Let’s Play videos on YouTube and Twitch. Each playthrough and its corresponding ImagePlot represents a player’s entire experience of playing a game, and allows us to quickly see where and how players’ experiences are different from one another.

Narrative theorists and game studies scholars have long noted that narratives are interactive and changeable in games, but we rarely (or never) dig deeper into the evidence for those basic insights. Yes, narratives vary in games, but to what extent? The overall goal of the project is to discover new measures and insights on narrative variance, and to get a clearer picture of how it functions in the play spaces of games: what parts of the narrative change in different players’ playthroughs? How do they change, and how much? Answering these questions helps us tease out the limits of play in narrative, and provides a framework for assessing players’ engagement with games that goes beyond simply acknowledging that different players have different narratives and experiences. The results of this project will be of interest to narrative theorists, game studies and new media scholars, literary scholars interested in reader response, and digital humanities scholars interested in visualization and user experience. I’m hoping to move the current complete draft of early project results toward a publishable state for the upcoming PMLA Digital Humanities issue.

In the future, I’d like to expand this project into a digital collection of playthrough ImagePlots––an archive of player experiences. Such an archive could be used to study many aspects of game narrative and player experience, such as genre conventions, different groups of players, games made by the same developers or using similar mechanics, etc. I’d also like to link the project up with my work for the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, and perhaps visualize playthroughs of games with LGBTQ content. How are players engaging with queer games and queer experiences? Does anything change noticeably between a queer game and a similar game with no apparent queer content or forms? In any case, I think we’re only just beginning to see the possibilities of this sort of analysis.

I want a flexible, variable, inclusive DH

I’m finally back with another blog post. This semester’s posts will focus on topics related to two ongoing projects of mine: the first, a collection of visualizations of intersectional representation in the LGBTQ Video Game Archive as part of the CHI fellowship at MSU, and the second, a TBD digital humanities project for a proseminar.

For this post, I want to explore some ideas I’ve been mulling over for quite some time related to DH. One of the readings for the proseminar this week was Kate Theimer’s “Archives in Context and as Context.” Theimer’s essay is an excellent overview of the ways digital humanists and archivists use the word “archive” differently, but I was frustrated by the definitional argument that she makes. Specifically, she highlights how the collections that digital humanists often refer to as archives would not count as archives to archivists, and while she acknowledges that archivists do not have the final say on what archives are, she writes, “The archivists’ definition is more specific, and therefore in my opinion conveys greater meaning.” The basic argument here is that a word too broadly applied to too many contexts loses meaning.

I’ve encountered this logic before in my studies in game narrative, where some scholars argue that applying the concept of narrative to play in games is to stretch the concept too far, and to make it lose meaning. It’s the move that “narrativists” make, those nasty folks who see narratives everywhere––and if narratives are everywhere, then narrative means nothing. I’ve always found this logic troubling and exclusionary: as though a word or concept can only maintain meaning within the confines of a particular context and a specific signified. In terms of clarity, this makes good sense. It’s much easier to understand a word or a concept when it has a limited number of interpretations. Yet this is also a very rigid sort of thinking, and one that fails to recognize how words and concepts with broad applications can be extremely useful and meaningful.

Words with broad usage are not less meaningful, nor are they further removed from context. Quite the opposite: a word that applies to many contexts *demands* context. And I think that’s the crucial point that is often lost: when a word applies to many and new signifieds, it does not do so in a universal way. It morphs and changes, and demonstrates it is flexible enough to adapt and relate to different contexts. It creates more meaning, and relational meaning at that. As long as we keep a wary eye to the contexts of that meaning, and clarify that meaning when we need to, then we shouldn’t shy away from differences in usage and understanding.

To bring this back to DH as a whole, this is why I’m not so concerned about defining exactly what the Digital Humanities are, or coming down to an official definition of what an archive or other key term is. I’m more interested in what these terms do, and what they can do: how can they change our perspectives? How can we use them in different ways? What meaning emerges in that difference? Beyond applying this simply to terms, I think we can apply it to DH as a field as well. DH is various, multivalent, and often messy, and it should be so. Rather than trying to standardize it and apply strict boundaries to the field, what would it look like for the field to practice a radical inclusiveness? For it to worry less about what is or is not DH, and more about how it relates to other projects and communities?

I want a DH that can flex and morph. One that reaches to and adapts to new problems. One that, from the get-go, is built to address the needs of marginalized and excluded peoples. One that is intersectional, not in the sense of checking diversity boxes, but in the sense of respecting, encouraging, and reaching across difference. And if we’re going to have a DH like that, we need to let go of rigid definitions and categories.

Referenced: Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context

 

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