Author Archives: Matt Hebert
Our society today thrives on interconnectedness. We pursue it avidly, expanding the scope of social media in every direction we can. I broadcast to the world what music I like, what news I find interesting, even the state of my love life without a second thought. I do this both to learn about myself through my choices in assembling an online persona and to make this available to others so that they might learn about me as well. But we do not live in a world that could produce the Ebocloud, which caters to “the primordial urge for belonging”. Interconnectedness as we crave it is centered around the individual. We seek to know each other, but not necessarily to unite. I need control over my music, my profile, my identity. We use social media to define ourselves as discrete entities within an increasingly large world, and any common bond we form with other users is secondary to the ability for us to personalize our own experience.
Ebocloud shapes our addiction to social media into a single leviathan, capable not only of connecting the people of the world, but physically influencing them. Rather than simply allowing users to interact, the Ebocloud begins to shape people’s behavior through the use of tattoos that release hormones to encourage ‘good’ behavior. This is a literalization of the way that social media can lead toward the development of a more empathetic society, as well as how our reliance on technology can come to control us. But while social media today can influence their users, they do so in a very different way. Websites like Pandora and Netflix which recommend content to their users will influence people’s tastes and form small ‘communities’ of users who are all consuming essentially the same content. However, these communities are not families like the ebos from the novel. Today’s users exist in an isolated bubble, only connected to their fellow consumers by invisible mechanisms used to recommend more content. I couldn’t find other Netflix users with similar taste if I tried. There is no brotherhood between us. Netflix has no moral investment in how we relate, and would probably prefer that we remain isolated enough to maintain the illusion of originality rather than let us feel like near-identical cogs in a much larger machine.
Ebocloud acts as a parable for the good and bad that could emerge in the next step of social media, but it is one that is unlikely to occur. The Ebocloud is an answer to a problem that the world does not believe it has, and as long as our society remains as ardently individualistic as it is today, I expect the world to move farther from its interconnected utopia before it gets any closer.
Video games are often dismissed in the artistic community for being driven by player action rather than the strict vision of the author. However, the inclusion of choice enables games to leave impactful impressions on players that would not be possible with more conventional media. A film can tell you something about its creator. A game can tell you something about yourself.
The defining aspect of video games is the most crucial part of anything that might be considered a game — choice. Choice is defined in two complementary ways — by what is possible, and by what is restricted. Possibilities imbue the player with the empowering perception of free agency, offering the player a personal stake in the world of the game. When the player makes a mistake, they feel regret. This agency also comes with a sense of responsibility. The consequences of a callous decision are much more impactful when it was the player’s decision to begin with.
However, a game can also disempower a player by emphasizing the constraints they are held within. Players go into a game expecting agency. Having it removed or checked can force the player to experience powerlessness, or demonstrate when a choice may be barely a choice at all.
I will be exploring how choice, or the illusion of choice, allows games to connect with the player directly, making games an excellent tool for encouraging introspection. For my media element, I will be making a simple text-based game designed around giving the player choices and exploring their consequences.
Rememori is an online matching game/interactive poem which deals with the degeneration of the brain in the face of Alzheimer’s Disease. For each level, the player is able to choose an avatar from a list of users ranging across the spectrum of intimacy from “Father” to “Doctor” to “Stranger”. The player’s choice of avatar will affect the text generated during gameplay. The actual body of the game is a memory game involving matching pairs of cards with identical images. Everything is neurological in nature, either depicting the anatomy of the brain, or embodying an idea which the sick character must struggle to hold on to.
In “Electronic Literature: New Horizons For the Literary”, Katherine Hayles describes electronic literature as “a hopeful monster… composed of parts taken from diverse traditions that may not always fit neatly together” (Hayles 2008). Rememori is unquestionably a hopeful monster, though a highly successful one. It utilizes a combination of poetry, hypertext, gaming and moving art to present the player with a compelling depiction of Alzheimer’s disease which the player must experience firsthand. For simplicity’s sake I will refer to Rememori as a game, although to be more precise it is a piece of electronic literature without a clear genre.
The “poetic” portions of Rememori meet with Hayles definition of hypertext as text “characterized by linking structures” (Hayles 2008). Each click will produce a randomly selected piece of text which floats in the air for a few seconds. These components do not blend seamlessly with the gaming portions of the piece, but the dissonance between the hypertext and the gaming serve to make each as impactful as possible. If the player is playing the matching game in earnest, then this sea of disembodied phrases should barely register, acting initially as an emotional backdrop to the task of matching images. Of course, once the player recognizes the thematic importance of the text, the text explicitly distracts the player from the goal of completing the level, since completing the level means being unable to read more of the text. The disjunct nature of the text and images ensures that together they will always present the player with a chaotic blend of ideas that mirrors the fragmented nature of actual thoughts, particularly those in the disordered brain. With each advancing level, the interface incorporates multiple methods to portray degeneration of the mind. The card placement becomes more erratic, the images more volatile, the phrases less complex. In conjunction with one another, these components form an intuitive shorthand for the state of the mind at different stages of the disease and allow the player not only to understand it, but to feel it for himself.
Rememori is very effective as a game because it is based around forcing the player to experience distorted version of the familiar. Most people have played a memory game at some point in their lives. Even if they have not, the first level presents a very typical version of the classic matching game for the player to become acquainted with. Fragments of text appear with every upturned card, but this is otherwise a very ordered game. Of course this cannot last. The impact of each subsequent level is built upon its ability to distort the norms of the previous one. The second level has the images shake and turn. The third replaces images with questions. By the fifth level, the screen is a disorganized mess of misspelled words, poorly drawn clocks, and unanswered questions. These levels are not just visually jarring, they are more frustrating to play after having learned to play the game with more simple structure. Rememori is powerful because it mimics the experience of neurological disease by taking the familiar and turning it into something noticeably distorted.
The game is especially poignant in that it gives the player a small amount of choice, only to steadily remove that choice near the end of the game. Users begin to blend together as relationships lose meaning, cards become blank as thoughts fall apart. Nothing the player does really matters once the sixth level is begun. The player can make the arbitrary distinction between “Stranger” and “Visitor”, but in either case there is nothing left to do but click each circle one last time and watch the brain fade away. In the same way, life is sometimes unfair, uncompromising, and unwilling to wait. When a degenerative disease takes hold, one can no longer hold back the inevitable just by wanting more time. At some point, it is necessary to simply let go.
The final portion of the game, seeing the brain turn to white and fade away, is oddly serene after the more blunt, garrish imagery of the levels preceding it. The cross-sections of brains and jumbled misspellings of words are very agitating images for the player to be bombarded with. The plain white circles, while disturbing on an existential level, are in contrast very placid, allowing the game to end on a less violent note. And after feeling the frustration that comes from struggling to make sense of once simple concepts, I felt oddly calm when I resigned myself to the fact that oblivion was the only outcome. By removing the player’s ability to struggle back, the game forces the player into acceptance of the inevitable, which could prove very cathartic for players coming to grips with the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease.
At its core, Rememori is a meditation on death and loss. Things that we take for granted now – order, identity, continuity – may soon be gone. We may lose something that we didn’t even need a name for until we had to describe the world without it. The internal mechanisms of the mind are difficult to conceptualize and even harder to convey, which is what makes Rememori so clever for finding a clear “language of the mind” through which to communicate with the player. As a game built around random elements, it has no well-defined message, but its emotional tone and impactful finale are unavoidable. It is a rare game that wants to be ruminated on far more than to be played.
Daytripper makes excellent use of the graphic novel’s unique strengths in storytelling to draw the reader into Bras’ mind as we delve into his life. For instance, the novel utilizes the ambiguous voice of the panel’s expository text to suggest that the intriguing characters described in the opening will be important characters in the story. In fact, the descriptions are obituaries written by Bras, the true main character. These obituaries, while they may have had a passing influence on him, are just his day job. If they come to mind now, it is probably because he was working on them earlier that day. It is not until the bottom of the page that the actual narrator takes over, a transition which is demonstrated to the reader visually with a change of text box style. The obituary-style text boxes are used again at the end of each chapter to describe Bras’ deaths. It would be difficult or impossible for a traditional book or film to achieve this ambiguity. A book would have to forgo the distinct forms of delivery which make the transitions in voice clear. A film would have to let the actor playing Bras deliver the opening lines, which doesn’t provide the same sense of narrative layers and would be less effective when used to describe Bras’ own deaths.
One powerful recurrent image is that of the tree under which Bras’ father, Benedito, writes. When the tree is first shown to the reader, it juts out from the landscape, a scraggly mass of roots with Benedito’s legs seamlessly intertwined. It portrays both the aura of grandeur surrounding Benedito and his perpetual isolation from all those around him. Bras seems tiny in comparison, even as the tree stands far in the distance.
Later the tree is used more subtly. In this panel, the tree complements the text, its image a symbol for the growing influence that Benedito’s image as a great writer is having on Bras. As we look into Bras’ later years we see that he becomes far more like his father than he would ever wish to admit – frequently absent, larger than life, prioritizing career over family. Though the line here refers to Bras’ family tree in terms of genealogy, it also gives a name to the iconic image of his father that would eventually grow to dominate his life.
The tree reappears in the penultimate chapter when Bras takes over for Benedito as storyteller and begins to explain the importance of life and death to his son as only he can. He has at last carved out an identity for himself that is not primarily defined by his father. As such, he now appears larger than his father within the frame.
Again, these images convey complex emotions and themes more effectively than a textual description or film could do alone.
The point that intrigued me most during our discussion with Jussi Parrika was the idea of analyzing media by understanding the processes through which they were created. The particular example given during the discussion was recreating the printing of an old journal with a long outdated printing press. The process of assembling raw materials and physically producing the journal was naturally much more difficult than it would be in modern times. I believe that understanding the way in which something was created can help us understand it more completely. Of course the end result, having a copy of the journal assembled from comparable materials, is not significantly different from a scan of the document stored on a Google server. But by taking part in the process of creating it, these scholars now better understand the mindset of its original creators. It is very rare for creators to have full autonomy to create whatever they wish. They are restricted by the means of production and distribution. Modern recording artists release albums short enough to be contained on a single CD. Painters decide what to create as much according to what hues and brushstrokes are available to them as they do out of self-expression. For having investigated the constraints that the original creators worked within, these scholars are more aware of how important the information within the document was to its creators, or what might have been included out of pragmatism or convention. Although this is a more low-tech example than most of what we discuss in this class, I would argue that this process of understanding through re-creation is a form of augmenting reality.
I think this, in conjunction with the field’s focus on the margins of society rather than the mainstream, is one of the most interesting sides of media archaeology. Historians have given a good deal of attention to the advantages and limitations of past technologies, but sometimes in broad strokes and often focused on the most prominent media of the era. It is very valuable to give more detailed consideration to the less studied pieces of history. Even technologies that are well-understood by historians may offer some interesting implications about specific works or creators which are not as well-studied. Also, using these methods of creation offers scholars a more intimate understanding of the technologies limiting creators than merely studying the theory could.
The Difference Engine acts as an excellent lens through which to view both contemporary society and the intellectual ideals which characterize it. The novel presents us with a society that operates on the same information-focused infrastructure that defined the late 20th century, but also subscribes to many Victorian era morals that defy modern standards. Some of the ways that characters use the boons of computing technology would be considered downright despicable to a modern viewer, but follow logically from the social morals of the time. For instance, take Ned Mallory’s set of values.
He had, of course, read admiringly of the engineering feats of Suez. Lacking coal, the French had fueled their giant excavators with bitumen-soaked mummies, stacked like cordwood and sold by the ton. (pg 136)
In the eyes of a modern academic, the idea of casually burning pieces of history and cultural heritage, solely in the name of efficiency, is horrifying. At the time, it was a testament to mankind’s growing power over nature and the ability of information-centric thinking (efficiency) to expedite progress. The novel then leads us to consider what modern day practices with technology which seem normal now will be seen as equally abhorrent 150 years in the future.
The novel also chooses an excellent time period to discuss the growth of an information-centric culture. At the dawn of the actual 19th century, western society was still on the cusp of the industrial revolution, having just begun to seriously discuss malthusian economics and phrenology. It marked a point where society no longer regarded people simply as people. They were their punch cards and productivity reports. They could be defined as variables in a mathematical model, or even the dimples on the backs of their skulls. It could not be more fitting to view this time period through the lens of a computer. The ultimate message of the novel appears to be that, if given the necessary technological headstart, this society would have continued breaking down and objectifying the patterns of reality until information was the only thing of importance. By the novel’s conclusion in 1991, society exists within a computer as a series of simulations, where information is all that is important. This is the ultimate manifestation of societies detachment from humanity in favor of data.
In some ways, our society now has sobered in its quest for information and progress. We will catalogue private information in the name of security, but we won’t burn a mummy for fuel. Still, information mining and all forms of data-centric mentality are still rampant, made moreso by the advantages afforded by plastics, electricity, etc. The society of the difference engine got to where they were without an internet. If that is the ultimate fate of their civilization, what can we expect of ours?
conscience to be, or not
For who would
scorns of so long
in thy takes us
rathere’s the native
despised love, to
And enterprises of us pause: to
be, or not of
calamity of death what pith this regard ther ’tis
puzzles the rub;
For who would bear
those bodkin? who would
-Lord Bristol Dosett
Sure. But it isn’t just data. Literature, like anything that can leave an impression on someone, is greater than the sum of its parts. But as powerful as it is, literature is certainly made of information, in the same way that people are made of cells. A novel is just a sequence of words and symbols, information that was printed and distributed so that someone could read it and be moved by it. It wouldn’t even be fair to say a particular book is a novel in the truest sense. When my friend talks with me about The Hobbit, he isn’t referring to the battered tome gathering dust on my bookshelf back home. He is referring to the story those weathered pages conveyed to me, as another set of pages did for him. The Hobbit itself is just a very specific idea, an object without a body. Transmission of information is literature’s modus operandi, its only way to exist.
So of course data is an integral part of literature. We can study literature as information without compromising its deeper meaning just as we can study biology without compromising our identities as people. New ways of viewing literature, like distant reading, allow us to view this information in ways that are only just now becoming possible. We can observe trends across entire genres, which has already been attempted has never truly be feasible before. Even the most well-read scholar could only possibly have personally read a fraction of any major genre. This scholar can only claim to know about the genre in general by learning what other scholars think about its remaining items, filtered through all of their biases and misrecollections. This isn’t true knowledge of the genre, just a copy of a copy of a copy. Scholars make their best inferences based on what they know. When they are drawing from a sufficiently large data pool, we can assume that their conclusions are reasonable enough. But with distant reading we may at last be able to conclusively say what characterizes a gothic novel, or the zeitgeist of the 1920’s, or the answers to any number of other questions that we can’t properly conceive of just yet.
We can now identify an author as a pen name for J.K. Rowling through forensic analysis. This probably seems cold and calculating to some, but it is just a new way of looking at information that people notice all time. Most people can do an impression of a friend’s style of speaking, or correctly identify a book’s author by reading a few passages. We recognize linguistic trends. We don’t do this in an effort to break the world down into data, but there are patterns in language that we notice without any particular effort. Now that we are casting a more rigorous analytical eye to literature, we may be able to finally put a name to those ineffable qualities that make up style.
The process of distant reading may seem inane now, since it’s producing things like statistics on the usage of the word “the”. But it shows that patterns exist which we have not been able to see before, and that we can develop the tools to make sense of them. As we get more familiar with the process of examining large bodies of literature, we should expect to find fascinating patterns which we may not have thought to look for 15 years ago, or even have the vocabulary to describe today. The conception of literature as data is not a threat to literary tradition. It is a tool for augmenting reality.
Are video games a medium, at least one deserving scholarly criticism? If we define a medium as “an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed, or transferred”, it is clear that games are technically media just by showing the player the state of their character throughout the game. But the scholarly importance of video games is muddled by the fact that they are, in fact, games. They have rules and objectives. You can win. There’s no way to “beat” a film or a painting. Even a game with an excellent plot may still be bogged down by gameplay which does nothing to enhance the story.
But while the goal/choice oriented nature of games may detract from areas where other media excel, the ability for the player to make choices and participate in a game’s virtual world introduce a whole new realm of creative possibilities unique to the medium. In “How To Do Things With Video Games,” Ian Bogost attests that “we can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does.” (Bogost 3) Games can, of course, tell stories in all the ways that books and movies can, conveying information through text and video, but they also include the ability for the player to affect the game through their actions, thus giving them an additional sense of investment and responsibility within the world of the game. It is one thing for a movie to depict the execution of a civilian by a soldier; it is another for a game to have the player take the shot.
This draws to light one of the great limitations of video games – they are pre-rendered, every possible outcome anticipated in lines of code. “When we play games, we operate those models, our actions constrained by their rules: the urban dynamics of SimCity; the feudal stealth strategy of Ninja Gaiden; the racing tactics of Gran Turismo.” (Bogost 4) If this is the case, then it appears to defy intuition that a player can have any true choice. Whatever semblance of freedom the player may have, they are ultimately confined to the options that the games developers had the foresight to account for. This may give players the illusion of choice, but wouldn’t it also deny them true agency? A game’s world is certainly confined to its specifically laid out rules, but is the “real world” much different? No one truly has the freedom to do anything. Individuals are confined by the laws of physics, their resources and their abilities. If we accept that individuals can possess agency in a reality without absolute freedom, why is a video game arbitrarily too confined to allow for a genuine choice? Many games can accommodate every choice a player is reasonably likely to make, meaning a player may never even notice that they lack a truly free choice.
This can be a powerful tool, as in Shadow of the Colossus, where the protagonist is told to hunt down and kill 16 colossi. There is little to do except kill these creatures, but most players never even question whether killing the colossi is morally right. It’s a video game, and you’re the guy with a magic sword! Of course you should kill them. They’re presumably evil. It isn’t until the player has slain many of these colossi that the game begins to explore the implications of killing these creatures. Several colossi will not attack unless provoked. Several appear to fear the player, and fight only for survival. One colossus does not even fight back as it is being slain. The lengthy journeys between colossi, featuring minimal soundtrack and no living creatures but the protagonist and his horse, give the player ample time to ruminate on the implications are of killing what appear to be the last vestiges of life in a barren wasteland. The only real way for the player to avoid killing the colossi is to stop playing the game, but the ethical questions that the game raises hit much harder when the player is first allowed to act without considering them. “Was I rash to assume these creatures were monsters? What do I actually know about them? In another life, what else might I have done without question?” The game may only present the illusion of choice, but the illusion is potent enough.Of course, even if a player appears to be given some choices, they are rarely, if ever, given every choice. Most games are inherently interpassive. Laeititia Wilson of the University of Western Australia defines interpassivity as “a mode of relating that involves the consensual transferal of activity or emotion onto another being or object – who consequently ‘acts’ in one’s place.” (Wilson 2) This mostly manifests in games through pre-rendered actions or scenes. Players project an identity onto their avatar within a game. When this avatar acts without the player’s direct control, players must forgo their agency and accept these new actions as part of the identity they project onto the avatar. In directly plot-driven games, players should identify with the playable character and take the character’s responses to situations as a cue for how they themselves should feel as observers and implicit participants. The line between the audience’s identity and the character’s is slightly less defined in a game than in a movie, but the ability for characters and stories to impact the audience remains consistent across these media. If a character acts in gross contrast to how a player would react to a given situation, it may threaten the player’s immersion within the game, but even without immersion a game’s cutscene is as compelling as a scene from a book or movie.
Besides choice, games offer the potential for players to become immersed in their worlds in ways that no other media can offer. For instance, Braid puts the player in the perspective of Tim, a scientist who uses time travel to return to his past and fix a great mistake. Its gameplay forces the player to view the world as Tim does, with time as a variable to be manipulated. For both Tim and the player, every mistake is impermanent, a minor inconvenience that can be erased with the push of a button. This shows the player how Tim views the world differently from others on a fundamental level. At the end of the game, the ability to reverse time is used to demonstrate how deluded Tim has become about his past and his role in the life of “the Princess.” As the player traverses the final level, the princess appears to flee a large, hulking figure as she removes the obstacles that hinder Tim’s progress. However, everything around Tim is moving in reverse, implying that this is not the true sequence of events. When the player reaches the Princess’s tower, time finally begins to move forward. This time, the Princess is fleeing Tim, laying traps for him along the way. Clearly, though Tim can’t see it, he is the monster of the story. Moreover, he is blinded to his role in the story because he no longer perceives time and consequence like a normal human being.
Braid’s epilogue reinforces this notion that Tim’s reliance on scientific tools has distorted his vision of reality. Several events are presented to the player as Tim, or someone like him, experienced them. However, if the player obscures Tim from view, the event is described from the Princess’s perspective. For instance, consider how this scene:
“He worked his ruler and his compass. He inferred. He deduced. He scrutinized the fall of an apple, the twisting of metal orbs hanging from a thread. He was searching for the Princess, and he would not stop until he found her, for he was hungry. He cut rats into pieces to examine their brains, implanted tungsten posts into the skulls of water-starved monkeys.”
is replaced with one in which the Princess laments Tim’s inability to recognize her:
“Ghostly, she stood in front of him and looked into his eyes. “I am here,” she said. “I am here. I want to touch you.” She pleaded: “Look at me!” But he would not see her; he only knew how to look at the outsides of things.”
Tim’s pursuit of scientific knowledge has again blinded him to the full scope of reality, and directly impedes his ability to be an impartial observer. Braid explores this theme with the interpassivity unique to video games. The player can only see the alternate perspective when Tim is removed from the screen – that is, when the player is no longer viewing the text as Tim.
Video games are still a fledgling medium with numerous uses yet to be discovered. However, they have already demonstrated themselves to be potent tools for creative expression and personal introspection. The ability of a gamer to choose, to explore, to interact with and inhabit the virtual worlds in front of them, ensures that the greatest games will be personal in a way that no other medium can boast.
Braid – http://braid-game.com/
Shadow of the Colossus – http://teamico.wikia.com/wiki/Shadow_of_the_Colossus
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Wilson, Laetitia. “Interactivity or Interpassivity: A Question of Agency in Digital Play.”Fine Art Forum 17.8 (2009)