writing about “vineyards”

Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

I’m going to be taking up some space here to write a little about what people write about games and game criticism or what is called game criticism because I think I’m ready to do it, or, rather, I’m just fed up enough to try.

I’ve been reading what people have been and are writing about games since the mid nineties and am waiting with patience for IF Theory. Here are a few of the authors that I’ve met: Espen Arseth, Jesper Juul, Marie-Laure Ryan, Janet Murray, Mary Flanagan, and others.

Considering games has led me from some hiatus back to narrative theory and David Herman, Vladimir Propp, Mikhail Bakhtin and others, with jumps back into rhetorical theory with Burke, Quintilian, and Perelman.

The hiatus prior to the writers on narrative concerned Human Geography studies and studies of memory (inner geography). And this reading continues with writers like Yi-Fu Tuan, David Harvey, Edward Casey , Mary Carruthers, Ivan Illich and others.

This list is made up of reading and study that I’ve either chanced upon, have been advised to read by friends, or that has followed from Medieval studies as a matter of course. The range of accessibility is broad. Carruther’s demands that you know your Aristotle and Aquinas, while Herman demands that you know your Greimas.

In a way, this has been the journey for a while, this reading, and it hasn’t always been fruitful. For Augustine reading was a difficult task. Disentangling the multi-layered meaning from the literal or intended text in exegesis is revelatory, difficult, and pleasurable. The difficult task of searching for meaning is rewarded with the pleasure of “finding.” Augustine writes,

“But why I view them with greater delight under that aspect than if no such figure were drawn from the sacred books, though the fact would remain the same and the knowledge the same, is another question, and one very difficult to answer. Nobody, however, has any doubt about the facts, both that it is pleasanter in some cases to have knowledge communicated through figures and that what is attended with difficulty in the seeking gives greater pleasure in the finding” (On Christian Doctrine II. 2.6).

The same idea comes before this from Diotima to Socrates in Plato’s Symposium. Reading becomes a journey through the vineyard of the text, as Hugh of St. Victor and Illich would have it in the Didascalicon.

These metaphors for reading have always interested me not because of the religious focus involved but because of the ethical and empirical implications of reading that range far beyond doctrine and are or can be independent of specific faith. In a sense it’s a wow factor that leads to deeper wow factors, if I can use such language.

It seems to me that the dialectic adventure genre on the computer is another rendering of this possible intellectual journey or gives it another path. Essays are one; poetry is another; the adventure another. We could extend Milan Kundera’s contention about the novel as a container for other genres in this way–the novel can contain poetry, the poem cannot contain the novel; while the poem in a book cannot contain video, the hypermedia poem can; the graphical computer game can contain motion video and poetry and so forth. Just so, Barthelme’s “In the Tolstoy Museum” can contain story and image.

I have to admit to a judgment that while criticism, literary criticism, the criticism of games, and culture, lives on, its language is crepuscular and self-absorbed, and I can’t recall a writer in this vein–other than Foucault, Janet Murray, Brenda Laurel, and Theodore Nelson, and a few others whose excitement is downright inspiring–who actually passes on an excitement for what they’re after, as if passion, joy, and insight are things to be avoided or somehow wrong or unattainable in critical prose.

On the subject of string theory, Edward Witten even when he’s writing about K-Theory, always blares an excitement for what he’s doing, as if around the next corner fairies will leap or bubbleworlds will float. It’s great to read Brian Greene on the wonders of strings and the passion that’s buzzing through physics and mathematics. The field balances the incredibly abstract with simple illustrations so that even those with limited college calculus, like myself, can at least consider what the incredible ideas mean.

In a recent entry at gamestudies, Julian K|cklich in “Perspectives of Game Studies Philology writes,

“This means that narrative is not an inherent feature of games, but something merely implemented in a game virtually, i.e. as a possibility. The actual construction of the narrative is always done by the player by taking the signs on the interface and interpreting them further. Thus, for example, a change in the relationship between different characters, or from one state of the game-world to another, can be seen as a progression in the process of interpretation that constitutes a semiotic event. An event can be seen as a complex sign that incorporates several other signs as well their interrelations. Similarly, narrative progression can be seen as a sign that puts two event-signs in relation to each other.

Furthermore, narrative progression in computer games must always overcome the games resistance against the players attempts to make sense of it. This seems to correspond to Roger Caillois category of agtn, or competitive play, which is part of any game-like activity. According to Marie-Laure Ryan, this category “is largely restricted to the literal domain. In a computer game, the purpose is clearly to win, and the way to win is to defeat enemies” (183). Semiotically speaking, this resistance corresponds to Peirces category of secondness, or “outward clash.” In Peirces system of categories, secondness is the sensation of the worlds “objectness” before it is interpreted, and thus changed to the state of thirdness. A sign in the state of secondness is incomplete and unstable, and can only be stabilized by interpretation.”

All kinds of problems exist here. It’s not the grammar or the technical skill. The problem is with lack of specificity and reliance on jargon and other writers to “imply” a point that could have been stated in clearer terms. Often it is hard to know what the author implies because of the use of terms like “inherent” and to whom this is directed. The player creates a narrative for sure–I do it all the time–but it is also true that this is made possible because the authors anticipated the options, thinking in terms of narrative possibilities in the guts of the programming and planning. I think the author intends to say that, while there are multi-levels, a code and interface level, the player doesn’t quite know what will happen or how to go until they begin to play, but this doesn’t mean that narrative is not an “inherent feature.” On the contrary, it depends on what we mean by “inherent.”

Specifically, the following passage is almost without meat because it lacks illustration: “Thus, for example, a change in the relationship between different characters, or from one state of the game-world to another, can be seen as a progression in the process of interpretation that constitutes a semiotic event. An event can be seen as a complex sign that incorporates several other signs as well their interrelations.” There’s something obvious about this, yet repetitive, and, ultimately, tortured in execution because there are no “whichs”–which character, which game, which event? This sentence is indicative: “Similarly, narrative progression can be seen as a sign that puts two event-signs in relation to each other.” Translation: I left my car, tripped over a skateboard in the drive way, and entered my house. The problem is “narrative progression” can “be seen” in many ways, but in order to “see” it this way we need an example. The two paragraphs are seeded by “it seems” so that the author never really sounds quite sure.

It isn’t necessarily the fault of the writer that the terminology of theory so gluts the ideas here, but what I see lacking in this kind of writing is a notion that the writer has any excitement about the subject other than a position over it. The subject here may be games or may be the theories that may be applicable to game studies or philology, which, of course, are different things. Ultimately, the author never really makes me care.

Two issues here are frustrating in the above essay as I go about looking for something to hang my hat on and as I continue my habit of reading and restudying on the various subjects I mentioned in an earlier paragraph: the time taken up explaining a critical foundation and extended warranting, which I don’t need or want to have to plow through, and the lack of concrete referents to modify the jargon other than the names of their originators and their possible application to whatever “thing.”

I think criticism is important and terminology necessary. Garcia Marquez takes us through the reasons in One Hundred Years of Solitude. We can’t always indicate something simply by pointing at it, and complex ideas don’t always translate well through simple explanation. It’s almost impossible to explain metonymy without actual examples of it, since denotation in this case will take us in a loop. Metonymy: a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated. Thanks a lot. How about “You know, those Washington sore heads (Government officials) really have it in for the little guy (person without much to fight with).” Of course, this figure wouldn’t work on Martians.

What about a little humor to jazz things up a bit; what about some interesting references to the cool factor? For Augustine, who knew about the cool factor, reading and writing were related endeavors. But there was passion to be had, ideas to explore; there were hidden pearls in the text which was never just a text but a vineyard with all the implications that that words brings with it.

I don’t want to fault K|cklich. I want the author to get me excited.


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