Gamers and Namers

This week, I have repeatedly found myself wondering about the modes of self-identification that games and other stereotypically “nerdy” pursuits can evoke or hinder in their participants.  Jane McGonigal’s “Growing Up Gamer” is intriguing to me because of the fervency with which she feels compelled to defend the type of self that she chooses to describe with the word “gamer.”  I’m not sufficiently steeped in Althusserian theory to give a full analysis of hailing “gamers,” but I do find it curious that the appellation seems such a slippery one.  Patrick Jagoda’s essay “The Dark Side of the Digital Humanities — Part 3″ includes the statement that there “approximately 183 million American ‘active gamers’ (that is, people who claim to play digital games an average of 13 hours a week).”  Who has determined that this is the threshold for claiming the identity of “active gamer”?  By treating the term as one that needs further explanation, Jagoda implicitly acknowledges that  the definition he is using is not necessarily self-evident.  I am now pondering these questions alongside my experience at the GEO conference this past weekend.  During the “Cyber-Realities” panel, Kevin Kilroy began his presentation “Kurzweil, the Cyberman” by asking the audience whether they knew what “cybermen” are.  The audience (including me) were silent, so he explained that they were monsters from the British television show Doctor Who.  At this, several audience members (including me) gave a murmur of recognition.  Actually, Doctor Who is among my favorite shows and I did immediately think of it when I heard his title.  Why, then, did I assume he was talking about something else — something with which I was unfamiliar?  Perhaps because I was in a session of presentations that was prominently labelable as being about Digital Humanities (capital D, capital H) and I therefore assumed that the presenters held deeper knowledge of the field than I (digital immigrant that I am) possessed?  All I can say for certain is that Kilroy hailed “people who know what cybermen are” and I did not think he was talking to me.

Also during that session, I was fascinated by Nigel’s brilliant presentation.  He raised questions about the implications of achievements in games that had never occurred to me, but about which I now can’t not think.  What surprised me most was that I was able to follow what he was talking about, even though I went into the session thinking that my only reason for being there was as moral support to my friends.  In other words, since I have frequently felt bewildered or wrong-footed as I try to forge onward into new realms of digital existence (a phrase which here means “I had never before heard of most of the things we have talked about in this class before it began”), I assumed that any research project in a Digital Humanities topic would be mostly over my head (at least, if it involved stuff we haven’t gone over in class).  Nigel’s presentation used World of Warcraft as a focal point in discussing how achievement systems work.  I started playing it a few months ago, so I was familiar with the system and can now contemplate how my own game-playing behavior is affected by or reflected in the achievement log.  However, I don’t consider myself a “gamer.”  I don’t play every day (or even every week) and I certainly fall short of the 13-hour-per-week threshold for “active” gamership according to Jagoda.  However, I enjoy playing often enough that I consider it worthwhile to subscribe; Blizzard Entertainment is quite happy to consider me an “active” player in that I have a valid credit card and fork over their monthly fee (which would be the same whether I played for one hour per month or 24/7).  When I tried to determine why I, a player of this game, do not call myself a “gamer,” I came up with two possible reasons:  1) I haven’t been doing it for very long, so I don’t have the lifetime of social memories that McGonigal connects with her gamership and I could therefore imagine myself ceasing to play with no emotional trauma, and 2) I’m not very good yet, so I don’t have the warm aura of accomplishment that I could imagine feeling if I was actually really awesome at smacking monsters with a giant virtual hammer (though it has been ages since I died by falling off of buildings, thank you very much).

So, fellow DH-ers, my question is this:  How do you identify yourselves in the digital world?  Are you a gamer, a game-playing non-gamer, a nonplussed non-gamer, a digital native, digital immigrant, “active” [blogger, tweeter, Facebooker, instagrammer, etc.], conscientious objector, or none of the above?  Why?  How do we decide what to call ourselves, and how (if at all) does that decision impact the reality of of our digital lives?

A DH Round-up. Yeehaw!

I will admit it, none of these things has anything to do with each other, except for the fact that they are all things we have discussed in class and I found interesting enough to want to share because I thought you all might enjoy them.

QR Codes

As I said in my posting when we created a QR code, mine was in a rather prominent position–right out there on the poster for the Portrait Gallery along 7th Street at Gallery Place.  I thought my intellectual vandalism would surely be removed by now, but as I work nearby, I wandered by just to check if it was still there.  And it was!  This is when I really regretted not having registered my QR code just to see how many people have checked it out in the ensuing weeks since I taped it up there on a cold, rainy day.  Since then, the sun has come out & spring breakers have descended on DC like the 17-year cicadas that are about to take over in a few weeks.  Surely somebody has been curious enough to scan it.

Interactive Books

Is it a book?  Is it an app?  Is it a film?  Well, it’s all three.  The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore was the winner of the Best Short Film of 2011 at the 84th Academy Awards.  But it was simultaneously released as an iPad app that was a book.  But wait, there’s also an actual book.  So which is it?  There’s no simple answer really, other than that’s it’s all three.  All I can tell you is, it’s worth checking out.  You’ll be amazed at the ways the reader/viewer/iPad user becomes part of the book/film/app.


Talk about making your mark on the world and making Google Maps go crazy!  An Australian couple recently saw the Google Street View Car about to drive by and decided they wanted to make mapping history.  What better way than to simulate sex on the hood of the car while chugging a Corona?  Now when you check out Duke’s Highway, you’ll also get the sight of this “inventive” couple.

More fun with topic modeling

While most of you have moved on to newer and perhaps more exciting challenges (I can imagine that hypertext authoring tools like Twine might be a good deal more interesting to people enrolled in a graduate literature program than Paper Machines was), I’m still plugging away at topic modeling. In response to Matt’s tweet earlier this week, here’s a very preliminary update.

The text I’m working with is Gratian’s Decretum, a 12th c. textbook of canon law. The Decretum is not a literary text. Anyone matriculating in the faculty of canon law at any university in Medieval Europe spent their first year sitting through lectures from the Decretum. The Decretum is a composite text, made up of excerpts from authorities like Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome; from canons of church councils; and from papal letters (real or forged). Gratian wrapped all of this in his own first-person commentary (the so-called dicta) that were supposed to carry the thread of his argument. So we’re not dealing with the monolithic work of a single author.

In the late 1990s, the Decretum was discovered to have been composed in two distinct stages, the First Recension and the Second Recension. The immediate goal of my topic modeling exercise is to determine whether I can detect topics that were only added in the Second Recension. I know that at least one such topic exists. My doctoral advisor discovered (the old-fashioned way) that all of the texts in the Decretum relating to the legal status of Jews were added in the Second Recension. If I can get topic modelling working on the text, the goal would be to topic model an electronic text of the standard edition of the Decretum (more or less corresponding to the Second Recension), then to topic model an electronic text that can be thought of as a proxy for the First Recension, and finally to look at the differences to try to detect topics that were added between the First and Second Recensions.

I’m using command-line MALLET (rather than Paper Machines), which gives me the ability to manipulate things like the number of topics to model and the number of iterations at the expense of being a little clunky. Here’s an example of how you run it:

# bin/mallet import-dir –input data/gratian –output gratian-input.mallet –keep-sequence-bigrams –stoplist-file stoplists/mgh.txt

# bin/mallet train-topics –input gratian-input.mallet –num-topics 20 –output-state gratian-state.gz –num-iterations 10000 –output-topic-keys gratian-topic-keys.txt

This test of 10,000 iterations took 12 minutes, 18 seconds to run. I’ve gone up to 100,000 iterations (2 hours, 19 minutes). I won’t show you all 20 lines of output, but here’s the first few to give you an idea:

0 2.5 legis primo presumpserit ordinis rem humana tenere honoris cunctis quarta operis publica celebrare respondetur infirmitate diximus grauius conceditur dignitate
1 2.5 populo facere proprio boni multi ualeat sacerdotium uenia romani malorum clerum tradidit electus dat digna probare possessiones peruenire ordinationis
2 2.5 populi uoluntatem pertinet sentencia uideatur possumus obicitur unitatem dicta urbanus sinodum prohibet permanere sacerdotali decretum matrimonio corpore archiepiscopo dimissa

At this point, there are at least two things happening that I didn’t expect. First, the topic keys aren’t converging. My understanding was that at some point the output of the N+1th iteration wasn’t going to be very different from the output of the Nth iteration. One of the interesting feature of command-line MALLET is that it spits out the list of topic keys every 50 iterations, so you can watch it (try) to converge. So far, I’m seeing the words jump around a lot more than I expected. Second, the topics keys I’m getting look a lot more like the topic keys from Lisa Rhody’s ekphrastic poetry corpus than I’d expect for a non-literary text.

There are many issues that I still have to resolve. Probably the two most important are the number of topics to model, and whether or not stemming the Latin words will make a substantive difference.

Questions on Electronic Literature

As Susie noted in her first post, reading electronic literature presents a completely different experience to reading “regular” literature.  Here’s some things we might think about and discuss:

Questions to consider:

What is it like to read this?

What is it like to read this in comparison to “The Garden of Forking Paths”?  How does the description of the labyrinth-novel match up with your experience of hypertext and interactive fiction?

How much control do you feel you have as a reader?  How do you feel about the amount of control you have?

How does hypertext/interactive fiction complicate our ideas of reading and writing?  How are our usual methods of analysis inadequate for dealing with hypertext/interactive fiction? What new methods can we imagine?

Are authors more likely to adopt this format now that there are standards for buying/selling eBooks?


Questions specific to stories:


How did you feel about the characterization “forced” upon you by the use of 2nd person?

Did anyone get to the “ending”?


First Draft of the Revolution

How did you feel about being “forced” to sympathize with the aristocratic magic users?

weird tape in the mail

I read, if that’s the right way to describe it, “weird tape in the mail.” To be honest, my first reaction was annoyance at the punctuation anomalies (“uncles” when “uncle’s” was meant; “it;s” when “it’s” was meant). My second reaction was that the art was repellant, especially the first appearance of the uncle. It reminded me a bit of George Grosz. The repellant art is, I think, a positive feature of the story-telling experience, as it fits the tone of the story quite well. On a broader level, I found the story at least somewhat engaging, although I agree that the attack on utopian consumerism was a little heavy-handed. I’m witholding judgement until next week, though, because I suspect it’s harder to write in this mode than it looks, and subtlety may be one of the things that goes by the wayside in a shorter piece.

There seems to be a strong affinity between this kind of writing and gaming, and in that regard I may be somewhat at a disadvantage, since I have no experience in that realm. (I really felt that strongly with my very short-lived attempt to interact with SHADE). I’m looking forward to the Twine assignment, since my sense is that this may be one of those things where there’s just no substitute for learning by doing.

On interactive fiction

Later I’ll post my Twine story review per the assigned exercise, but I also wanted to share a discussion post about my experience with interactive fiction. I am a novice in this realm, so reading/playing “SHADE,” for instance, was completely foreign to me. A few observations, which will perhaps spur comments from the more experienced reader/players and sympathy from my fellow novices:

First, anecdotally: I was seated on my futon in my apartment when I opened “SHADE” and seriously, for a few seconds, thought there was some strange voyeuristic business going on when I saw the black bar at the top of the page (“Your apartment, on your futon”). I thought it knew my futon and me. Here’s to fulfilling apartment stereotypes. But I digress.

This game is not intuitive. (But is it supposed to be?) The “about” command only provided more setting and copyright material, and it least for me, it was not obvious which types of things I could and couldn’t do. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing—was there an objective? In games, there are goals and you achieve things, but in narrative, those lines are blurred, and the responsibility certain isn’t on the reader to enact anything. Plus, a story isn’t necessarily about plot; while actions typically drive narrative, they don’t have to. How would the two (action & narrative) be blended in interactive fiction? And how does a reader become a player?

There’s a weird dialectic between player & computer/programmer, here. I am both protagonist of the narrative (it’s “my” apartment) as well as active player and thereby, in some sense, writer of the narrative. The onus is on me to keep the story going, and yet, I have little control over how my actions are described and what consequences they beget. For instance, when I typed “Stand up,” the narrative continued, “You lever yourself upright. Umf. It’s amazing how much lack of sleep feels like a hangover, only without the preceding party.” Andrew Plotkin describes the hangover feeling, but I invoked his description by commanding that my character stand up. In some instances, this was really interesting to experience, but at other times…

I got REALLY frustrated, especially if the game didn’t let me do what I wanted. At one point, I had figured out that the game wanted me (what does that even mean? How does a game “want” me to do something? “The game repeatedly prompted me,” I should say) to drink water. For whatever reason, it hadn’t been revealed to me that a glass was on the counter (I’d looked in the cupboards, where only crackers reside) and I had decided that my best option was to dump out the peanut butter and use the jar as a glass. But the game wouldn’t let me open the jar because it claimed I had no appetite! I couldn’t explain my ulterior motives, so had to give up and put the jar away. (The refrigerator door kept swinging shut anyway…). If this is a game, shouldn’t it just follow my commands? Why is opening the jar contingent upon my appetite? Who is controlling this narrative???? (It’s obviously Plotkin, and as a “reader/player/writer” I found this frustrating).

On top of that, the game kept telling me upon certain commands that I could “see no such thing.” Excuse me? It has also described the apartment as one room, with bathroom and kitchen “nooks.” I’m pretty sure I can see the futon. Why can’t I see the futon? It felt very limiting to be told what I could and couldn’t see. So sometimes I would get existential and tell it to imagine the desert (“That’s a verb I don’t recognize.”). At one point, I told it to look out the window (although I quickly remembered I should open the shade first) but then I was told, “Darkness is already crawling in around the edges of the windowshade. You have no desire to look night in the face. You run your tongue over dry teeth.” Again with the not understanding—or ignoring—my motivations and “desires.” I thought maybe I could get a description of what was outside the window (because I’m curious! Tell me more, narrator!) but instead, I was pointed back towards my “objective”: find some water. As  a typical reader of fictive narratives, I was interested in Plotkin’s descriptions, and eventually, that’s what I went searching for—descriptions of the room, of the trip that was planned, of the scenery outside the window (#denied) but because this is interactive fiction, I had to find water.

I’m pretty sure my asking the game to “Imagine the desert” succinctly portrays my struggle.

Despite my frustrations, I do think interactive fiction makes one think harder about the different roles of narrative. Who ultimately controls the story? What is a narrator? A writer? A protagonist? A reader? In interactive fiction, as I mentioned, there seems to be a combination of narrative description as well as objectives & goals. This prompts us to consider what the objectives & goals of non-game (non-interactive) fiction are. I just finished reading Moby-Dick for the third time, and I can’t help but wonder how it would play out if I read/played it interactively (“Pick up harpoon”).

But at the same time, isn’t all reading interactive? I’ve always thought that Melville prompts us at several moments to consider our own quests of reading alongside Ahab’s quest for the white whale—aren’t we all just looking for enlightenment? Perhaps the metaphor of gaming and reading is actually effective, then. I tried and tried and tried to find ways to get that poor sad sack on the futon some water, and maybe it’s the same as trying and trying to find meaning in a difficult passage. The power of description is ultimately with the writer (who doesn’t understand or know the reader’s motivations—who drinks water out of a peanut butter jar anyway?) but the reader/player, then, must make sense of his or her own experience.

I’m curious to see what experienced gamers/readers of interactive fiction have to say about the value of objective-based play-reading. What can be learned from this experience? Is it just fun? How does having a role in the action influence reading?