Lit 80, Fall 2013

Author Archives: David Hemminger

Game(r) Critique

September 30th, 2013 | Posted by David Hemminger in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

That games are a form of media is hardly a question. As McKenzie Wark writes in the third chapter of Gamer Theory,

Games have storylines like the historical novel, which arc from beginning to end. Games have cinematic cut scenes, pure montages of attraction. Games subsume the lines of television just as television subsumed cinema and cinema the novel. But they are something else as well. They are not just an allegory but a double form, an allegory and an allegorithm. Appearances within the game double an algorithm which in turn simulates an unknown algorithm which produces appearances outside the game. (Wark 67)

Games in fact implement all of the power of classical literature, whether it is novels through in-game text and plot or film and theater through cut scenes and videos. Therefore they must be considered a medium so long as novels and cinema are considered media, leaving us with the question not of whether or not games are a medium, but instead whether they are a useful one.

As Bogost argues, “we can understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does.” (Bogost 3). Games can certainly be used for a variety of things, falling all along the spectrum of entertainment and artistic statement. That games can be made for the purpose of entertainment is clear, but we also find that games such as “The Company of Myself” make use of their specific medium to express their theses in ways that could not be done otherwise.

“The Company of Myself” makes use of player agency (or at least an impression of such) to put the user into the shoes of the narrator in ways that other media can’t quite achieve. In the introduction, the narrator explains:

I know that you don’t want to hear me describe my admittedly less than fascinating lifestyle, so instead, I’ll describe my day with a much more interesting allegory.

The user then takes control of a character who, feeling forced to solve problems on his own, makes use of many copies of himself in order to face various challenges. The only point in the game in which the character cooperates with an entity other than his own self-copies is during a short series of challenges he resolves with the help of what appears to be a girl he once knew. The narrative text never makes explicit the nature of this new character, but through the mechanics of the game the user discovers that the girl is incorporeal, suggesting that she is no more than a ghost or a memory. The medium of the game allows for the user to make this discovery for himself, rather than having to be told, which is a powerful artistic tool. Furthermore, at a later point in the game the user is forced to “kill” this memory in order to progress, placing him inside the narrator’s mind in a way that only the player’s agency in games can allow.

We later discover that the narrator did in fact murder his girlfriend and now lives in the psych ward of a hospital visited only once a week by a psychiatrist. The “reality” of the game world and the allegory of the narrator merge, and the user is pulled into the two through a powerful first person perspective and what is now true empathy.

The Game “Cloud” makes an artistic statement in a different way. The game acts as a commentary on gaming from within the genre itself; specifically it challenges the idea that games need to be fast-paced or have long term goals. Slow-paced with a distinct focus on the scenery within the game, “Cloud” consists simply of the player’s avatar flying through the clouds. The game is both beautiful and relaxing, but it has no clear, immediate goals or challenges.

In order to place games in a critical context, we reexamine Mattern’s criteria for evaluating digital work (Mattern). Most importantly of these, for any game to be critiqued as a work of literature, it needs to have a clear thesis supported by the structure and function of the game. In the example of “The Company of Myself”, the game mechanic of working with copies of oneself, the incorporeal girlfriend, and forcing the user to murder the girlfriend in order to progress all function to support the theme of loneliness and put the user into the mind of the narrator. With “Cloud”, the game makes its statement about games simply by inviting the user to play a different type of game. Examples of games fitting this criterion are sparse, but these two games demonstrate that games are in fact a valid medium for literature.

One weakness that games in academia have today is that there is currently very little in the way of a system for formal peer review and consultation. While many games are open source, they are rarely reviewed in a critical context. However, this is not necessarily a permanent weakness of games as academic works. It is simply a fact about the current state of games in academia that would need be changed in order for games to be truly critiqued.

Given the rich possibilities for incorporating literary elements into games such as player agency and game world design, games provide an excellent field for serious academic study. While the study of games is still young, the large set of high quality, unstudied games makes it a promising field. Bogost comments, “Yet most of us haven’t begun to think about games in this way, as a medium with many uses that together pervade contemporary life, and as a result, interesting adoptions of the form have been labeled illegitimate or simply ignored.” (Bogost 7-8).  Over the next few years, this should and likely will change as more scholars recognize the literary power of games.

Bogost, Ian. How to do Things with Video Games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. 12-13. Print.

Mattern, Shannon Christine. “Evaluating Multimodal Work, Revisited.” Journal of Digital Humanities. 1.4 (2012): n. page. Print.

Wark, McKenzie. Gamer Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. 67. Print.

The Company of Myself Ending

September 27th, 2013 | Posted by David Hemminger in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Can be watched here.

ORBIS Evaluation

September 16th, 2013 | Posted by David Hemminger in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

We chose the ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World digital humanities project to critique. As an interactive software model of Ancient Roman infrastructure, ORBIS is a collaborative effort between historians and information technology specialists at Stanford University to augment modern research about Ancient Rome. The project attempts “to understand the dynamics of the Roman imperial system as a whole” [1] by allowing scholars for the first time to analyze Roman transportation costs in terms of both time and expense.

The mapping application works by allowing users to choose a start and destination location from the 751 sites, prioritizing based on fastest, cheapest, or shortest, and selecting from network and transportation mode options. The application then outputs distance, duration, and cost in denarii based on the options selected. Rebecca J. Rosen, writing for The Atlantic, describes ORBIS as “Google Maps for Ancient Rome” [2]. ORBIS was designed as a tool for scholarly study of the Ancient World but has garnered popular interest on the internet as well as a fun tool for people to explore history.


ORBIS gives a distinct impression of being the product of the rigor and attention to detail expected from academic work. The entire creation process of ORBIS has been outlined clearly on the ORBIS website. The creators acquired all their data from previous scholarly works, and all outside contributions are explicitly credited. Furthermore, the ORBIS mapping tool is available for public use online, and there are plans to make the ORBIS API public.

The creation process of ORBIS and ORBIS itself have had a significant impact on the study of the Ancient Roman world. Not only was the project horizontally integrated in the sense that it brought together history and the digital humanities, but it was also vertically integrated in that tenured professors and graduate students worked together to create the final product. Despite the fact that it was only recently created, ORBIS has already been a key feature of 5 papers and 15 presentations. In addition to allowing historians to have a better general understanding of Ancient Roman transportation systems, it has also been applied to specific problems such as explaining maritime freight charges.

ORBIS does a great job of explaining both the historical and modern sources from which they formulated the aspects and assumptions of their model. The 751 sites included in the interactive map were chosen and named based on Talbert’s Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. The three modes of transport incorporated into the model (sea, road, and river) are all evaluated based on routes, time, and expense. All of the metrics included in evaluating these factors are clearly explained by ORBIS and sufficiently enriched by supporting media. For example, the sea transport time variable is determined by winds, currents, and navigational capabilities. Monthly wind data for the Mediterranean and the Atlantic were derived from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency 2002. Additionally, the algorithm employed in accounting for navigational capabilities was compared against over 200 historical documents of sailing times.

In order to determine the central thesis that the ORBIS project asserts, we examine the choices that the creators made regarding what include and emphasize in their model of the world surrounding Ancient Rome. As mentioned above, the authors themselves say that the goal of their project is “to understand the dynamics of the Roman imperial system as a whole”, so we consider their decisions within this context. The only clear decision that the authors made for what to include was that the authors chose to focus on financial and temporal transportation costs to, from, and surrounding Ancient Rome, which implies that they believe that transportation costs are an important aspect of understanding the dynamics of an empire. This is not a particularly bold thesis, as the vast majority of the historical community would likely agree that transportation costs are a fundamental part of understanding an empire. Furthermore, the form of the work (i.e. software that allows for the creation of maps modeling Roman transportation costs) mostly takes this assertion for granted, rather than functioning to further contribute to the argument. It is therefore not as productive to evaluate ORBIS as a humanities work that is creating an argument. Instead, we can think of ORBIS as a powerful tool for augmenting research regarding Ancient Rome and evaluate it as such.

One weakness of the ORBIS project is that it has not been formally peer reviewed. While a more traditional academic paper would need to be evaluated by independent researchers in order to be published. ORBIS has not been held up to such standards because it was simply published online. While ORBIS is now being used to create more traditional papers that will necessarily be peer reviewed, it is not clear that ORBIS and the software it uses will be held up to the same levels of scrutiny. All things considered, however, this weakness is not as concerning as it would be for other academic works, as it is likely that the only reason ORBIS has not been peer reviewed is that there is not currently a formal system for peer review in the digital humanities

In January of 2012, programmatic access to some routes and site data was opened via API release. “Thanks to the efforts of the Pelagios Project, by mapping many ORBIS sites to place name entries in the Pleiades digital gazetteer, ORBIS is now (modestly) a part of the Linked Open Data cloud.” This moderate attempt at open sourcing some aspects of the project have now made ORBIS more open to independent critique or analysis and opened up the project to contributions from outside sources. The ORBIS web mapping application also operates with a lot of open source software. The website, including both the web map and text ‘article’, are described as a work in progress so ORBIS has plans for continuing development.

— Written collaboratively by Craig and David

Distant Reading on PHD Comics

September 15th, 2013 | Posted by David Hemminger in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Hi All,

PHD Comics recently included a short Youtube video about Distant Reading as part of a series of videos in which they ask graduate students to explain their thesis in two minutes.  If you’re interested, you can check out the video here.

Neuromancer Novel Response

September 6th, 2013 | Posted by David Hemminger in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Throughout Neuromancer, William Gibson plays with a theme of the dissociation of mind from body.  Enabled by futuristic technology, characters can remove their consciousness from their bodies in a number of ways, simply by taking them out and storing them somewhere else for a while (as we see with the “puppets”), entering a completely digital world Gibson calls “cyberspace” (whenever Case “jacks in”), or even entering the body of someone else (whenever Case “flips” into Molly’s body).  The theme raises the natural question of whether a body is even required in order for a consciousness to exist.

Gibson addresses this question a number of times throughout the novel, but with mixed answers.  Certainly Dixie’s construct can act, think, and respond to his environment much like the original Dixie, but he also has no will to live, repeatedly requesting an erasure that he finally receives.  In page 231* of the novel, Case reflects on how sex requires the body, thinking:

It was a place he’d known before… It belonged, he knew—he remembered—as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked.  It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read

A commentary made even more interesting by the fact that the sex in question was taking place not in the “real” world, but the one constructed by Marie-France.  A world so so lifelike that, Neuromancer claims on page 249, it contains the independent consciousness of Linda Lee:

‘But you do not know her thoughts,” the boy said, beside him now in the shark thing’s heart.  ‘I do not know her thoughts.  You were wrong, Case.  To live here is to live.  There is no difference.’

So while the body may be a fundamental part of the human experience, in the world of Neuromancer both body and consciousness can in some sense be fully absorbed into the digital.  Whether this will one day be possible for us is a question nobody knows the answer to, but we can always imagine.


*I’m using the Ace Trade Paperback Edition from July 2000