Cody Mejeur

Narrative, Games, Queer Studies

Category: Digital Humanities (page 2 of 2)

The Holodeck 20 Years Later

As I move into the final weeks before taking my comprehensive exams, I’m taking the opportunity to blog about my reading and thinking as a way to reflect in preparation for being tasked to bring it all together. Of course writing is a practice too, and I think it grows through trying out ideas in informal settings such as conversations and blogs like this one. So for anyone reading this, I hope this provides you with a similar opportunity for reflection, and for trying out concepts old and new.

Today I reread Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, a seminal work for studies of narrative in new media. While I expected Holodeck to show its age after twenty years of media development, I was repeatedly surprised by how relevant Murray’s thoughts still are today. For example, Murray begins her book with a wary and defensive posture. She notes how new media are always frightening and seemingly fraught with danger: “Any industrial technology that dramatically extends our capabilities also makes us uneasy by challenging our concept of humanity itself” (1). She even feels the need to declare that the computer is “not the enemy of the book” (8), as though computers were or are out to get traditional media. It’s hard not to compare this to similar political and disciplinary moves made a few years later by ludologists eager to defend games from the specter of literary imperialism. Such posturing is regrettable if inevitable (I’m doing something similar right now!), but perhaps with the benefit of two decades’ distance we can reveal the blindspots it introduced.

The medium Murray is talking about is the computer, which itself might be a sign of age—these days we talk more about software applications and interfaces as media than we do the computer as a whole. This is necessary in a culture of media convergence where computers do more and more things all the time, and it seems reductive to amalgamate all media involving computers into the monolith of “the computer.” Yet in the 1990s the computer medium was more limited and less ubiquitous, and consequently more stable as a concept. To be clear, it is not that the computer is no longer a usable term, but rather that its possible referents have changed significantly in two decades.

What has happened to the computer has also happened to narrative—Murray’s other theme in the book. Murray was spot on in noting the fragmentation of linearity in computer narratives (be there hypertext, electronic literature, games, etc.), and several of her terms and metaphors, such as “multiform” (30) and “kaleidoscopic” (159) stories, remain helpful today. Likewise, her four essential properties of digital environments are still relevant: digital narratives are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic, though that last property might be better expressed in terms of archiving and system memory. All of these properties remain in play, and indeed they have proliferated over the years into an incredible constellation of media and narratives.

Yet they also beg a question that is notably absent in Holodeck: what have these properties done to the concept of narrative itself, and how do we define narrative after such transformation and fragmentation? Some have pounced on this question to claim that narrative is no longer relevant (or at least primary) in digital media, and recently Markku Eskelinen has gone as far to charge Murray and others with being “unacademic” in failing to define narrative. Exactly how we might define narrative will have to wait for another blog (or, more likely, another dissertation—I’m feeling coy), but Murray might inadvertently point the way. Just as the concept of the computer has fragmented and scattered now, narrative has done the same. This does not mean that these concepts are no longer applicable, useful, or significant. Indeed, I think they indicate the need to reexamine them in the field, as it were, and to unearth the similarities between the objects and places they have dispersed to. Computer and narrative apply broadly now, but there are still common elements between their broad applications. Let’s follow the paths they have trodden, and see what trails they have left behind. Only then will we be closer to seeing what they are and what they mean, at least until they change again.

What do we (English, the humanities) do?

The oft-cited crisis in the humanities of the past decades and the turn toward things like cognition, neuroscience, or the digital humanities generally are topics that everyone seems to have an opinion on. I realize that my ramblings here will be just another one of those opinions, but as a young, inexperienced scholar of the digital and the new (for now) I would be remiss to not deal with these topics in some way. The CFP we looked at this week seemed to be onto something when it, in true humanities fashion, wrote the following in a paragraph-long sentence of jargonese: “This will include exploring the extent to which discourses engendering neuroscience in fact do match neuroscience’s real world (social) effects; but it will also include interrogating the anatomy of the neuro-discourses themselves. . .” (it goes on at length from there). What stands out to me here is the focus on “discourses” and “interrogating”–in other words, on what is said and how it matches with what is done.

What seems to be the crux of much of these discussions is this: what do the humanities do, or what should they do? We often talk about how the humanities make the world a better, richer, more aesthetic, etc. place, but does this ever amount to more than rhetoric? To take it in another direction, I recall in my undergraduate years when one of my professor’s commented to me (this is a bit of a paraphrase), “English is always borrowing from other disciplines because it has no territory of its own”. This comment may seem a bit reductive, but it has always stuck with me because it bothered me so much. Why do we in English always need outside insight to do what we do? You’ll noticed I’ve slipped into talking about English rather than the humanities more generally–let’s take it as something of a case study close to home.

What I suggest, and here I’m drawing on (always speaking through others) Derrida’s 1984 essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, is that we in English do discourse and the texts of all sorts through which it operates. What this means in practice, however, is that we do not do anything save through talking about how, where, when, and why other things are done. This isn’t a knock against us English folks, that is unless the how, where, when, and why things are said and done don’t matter. And here we arrive at something invaluable about the field of English–it reminds us that these things do matter.

To bring it back to current topics with cognition, neuroscience, and the digital humanities, it seems crucial that we always ask ourselves what these things do, and how. These trends have become very popular, and as such they must bear both great potential and great discernment. We shouldn’t do these things just because they are popular, or trendy, or even because they can “save” the humanities. We should do them because they are meaningful–because they offer something new to our pursuit of discourse. In doing so, they also alter fields supposedly distince from the humanities too, including science. As Cohen writes in “Next Big Thing in English”: “The road between the two cultures — science and literature — can go both ways”. Not only can it, it must. It isn’t that science somehow legitimizes what we do in English, as though discourse generally needs science (itself a discourse) to operate. It is that we, if we are honest in our work, traffic in discourses and texts of all types. That is what we do.

Maybe Kristin Chenoweth can help a bit here. Mostly I just want to link a song from Wicked.

 

Avatars, Narrative, and Absent Minds

My post for this week is going to be something a little different from previous weeks. I’ll be using this opportunity to introduce everyone to a particular game that relates to some of the questions we have been pursuing this semester–Gone Home (2013, PC/Mac) by indie game company Fullbright.

Gone Home is a first-person exploration game that tells the story of Kaitlin, a college student who returns home to find her family curiously missing. gonehome_titlescreen.pngKaitlin explores the house trying to find out what has happened to her family, and discovers quite a bit about them while doing so. Without revealing too much, the game has become noteworthy for its endearing portrayal of LGBTQ characters and their struggles.

What makes Gone Home so interesting in regards to our course is its focus on discovering and encountering the minds of other characters through the objects they have left behind. As we read in Bailenson’s “The Virtual Laboratory” for this week, “virtual behavior is, in fact, ‘real'” (94). Through a series of experiments with virtual reality, Bailenson and his team were able to show that “agents” and avatars encountered in virtual spaces are perceived in much the same way actual people are in actual space. I use the term actual space quite intentionally–as anthropologist Tom Boellstorff has noted with his studies in Second Life, it is not very apt to call it “real” space when what happens in both actual and digital spaces is “real”. Bailenson and Boellstorff (amongst many others) have thus shown us that our cognitive processes in virtual/digital realities are not so different from such processes in the actual world.

But Gone Home presents a different case. So we encounter avatars similar to how we encounter real people, but what happens when there are no avatars to encounter? What happens when those avatars are absent, and all we have is whatever they have left behind (or, to complicate things, what the designers created and made to look left behind)? We still get a sense of character in GoGone-Home-3.jpgne Home, but that character must be discovered as part of an emergent narrative found and created by the player. I suggest that we use similar theory of mind processes to construct and interpret characters in Gone Home, but that these processes have been broken up. In other words, we are still encountering minds, but minds that have been fragmented into different objects that can be discovered or ignored by the player. This necessarily requires space–space for the objects to dwell in, and for the player to move in.

A further point to consider in Gone Home is that every act becomes a narrative one (a significant point in the game narrative study our group is designing). Unified character has been removed, and in its absence character must be recovered through interaction with objects. Because of this,  even the simple act of moving within the game world has narrative import by virtue of navigating the space and objects that comprise the entirety of the game’s story. Play in Gone Home is narrative, exactly what our group is trying to prove in other games.

These are just a few threads to pursue as an introduction to the game. We will play Gone Home together in class on Tuesday–I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say about it!

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