All Space is Virtual Space

As I’ve been working on my project for the DH seminar this semester, it’s occurred to me in several of our discussions that mapping and visualization aren’t so different. Indeed, we might even say that they’re the same thing in different terms: maps are abstractions of space meant to make large quantities of space readable, along with their social and cultural attachments (towns, regions, nations, etc.). Visualizations are abstractions of data, meant to make large quantities of data, and trends within them, visible. So what I’m doing with ImagePlot–visualizing game narratives–really isn’t so different from someone doing a mapping project visualizing the *where* of a set of data.

Many DH and software studies scholars have noted how visualizations rely on these abstractions, the curious concoctions of distance, transformation, and relationship that visualizations require. Yet as we read about mapping projects, and particularly spatial humanities this week, it struck me that all spaces rely on abstraction, or perhaps mediation. It’s easy to see how maps are abstractions of space, but even as we navigate the spaces around us, the way we perceive and navigate those spaces is entirely dependent on sensory inputs that are interpreted and rendered to consciousness by the brain. In this sense, all spaces and all of our interactions with spaces are built on abstraction, even in our moment-to-moment experiences that seem to be immediate.

I think this realization is important because it deconstructs dichotomies that say some things are “real,” “actual,” or “natural,” and other things are “constructed,” “virtual,” “fake.” The history of maps demonstrates how untenable that distinction is: the abstractions of space have very real, direct consequences for our experiences of space. And I think we see something similar in contemporary gaming, and attempts to write off virtual or digital spaces as not being “real.” This argument is especially prevalant in online trolling and harassment cultures: it’s ok to treat people like garbage, because it’s all online and therefore has no consequences. The realization that all of our spaces are abstractions, that all spaces are virtual ones, helps us reject that premise that is causing a lot of harm in contemporary social spaces.

Updated Project Plan: The Archive of Player Experience

For this week I’m updating the project plan for the Archive of Player Experience. As I laid out in the last proposal post, for this semester I plan to complete the initial stage of the Archive using ImagePlots of the games I’ll be using in my dissertation on queering game narrative: Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, SOMA, and The Talos Principle. I have completed a worksheet planner for the project, and am including the link here:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1WPp7bWWVDTpwqXUIp3msAjq8X50aDPYn7lRRS2m3T4o/edit?usp=sharing

As I worked on a separate project in the past week (on Pokémon GO and narrative construction of reality), I realized a way to frame my argument for the Archive. My interest in using ImagePlot with games has always been to establish a better handle on narrative variance in games–how each player has a different experience of the game, and to what extent. By comparing different players’ playthroughs of the game, we can get a sense of the general form of a game’s narrative, including the critical mass of similarities that players’ experiences generally share. What I’m measuring, then, is how games cohere as a narrative while still allowing players to have different and emergent experiences. Ultimately this determines how a game shapes its reality for the player, including how much variance and possibility that reality has built into it. This allows us to account for difference while still acknowledging commonalities.

Visualizing Plot

This week I was especially drawn to Matthew Jockers’ blog post, “A Novel Method for Detecting Plot” (Jockers). In the post, Jockers discusses how his project of tracing sentiment in 19th century fiction using sentiment analysis also lead him to visualizing the plot structures of the novels he looked at. Basically, he found that the shifting emotional valences in a novel (measured through certain words and sentiment markers) are also a proxy for the rising and falling action of the plot. Presumably the moments of positive sentiment are also the high points of the plot, and the moments of negative sentiment are the low points in the plot. There are still some questions and potential problems there––for example, aren’t the low moments also the ones with the most conflict and action?––but it’s an interesting way of visualizing how the narrative moves and varies throughout a work of fiction.

I’m very interested in the possibilities of visualizing narrative forms and structures because it allows us to see how narrative develops and grows: in other words, how it is a living process. This is one of the central goals of my ImagePlot study of narrative variation in games. If we can see how much narrative changes even within a single text (like a game), then we can get a better handle on how narrative operates and the potentials of what we can do with it. The idea that narrative has a shape is interesting as well: what does it mean that the abstract and affective qualities of narrative have specific forms? Is the shape of a narrative ever anything more than an abstraction or a metaphor? Or if it is just that, what meaning does it have? It seems like common or repeated shapes could act as a key of sorts: not in a determistic sense as unlocking every story in a particular form or archetype, but in terms of establishing a set of common meanings that relate to each other across stories.

One of the issues I see with this approach (one that I’ve encountered with my own ImagePlots) is that while these visualizations allow us to see change over time, they’re not great at capturing the fluid, variable, active elements of the experience. In other words, these visualizations present the plot, whether it be represented in rising or falling action or in images, as something static––the graph itself does not move, nor does it capture all the possibilities present in each moment of the text. It is an arresting of motion that is itself quite dead. That might be a necessary evil in order to do this type of work and analysis, but I still wonder if the tools themselves could get better at demonstrating some of the same action that they represent.

 

Jockers, Matthew. “A Novel Method for Detecting Plot,” http://www.matthewjockers.net/2014/06/05/a-novel-method-for-detecting-plot/, June 5, 2014.

 

Planning the Archive of Player Experience

For this week’s blog, I’d like to lay out my plans for my project this semester. My plans to start archiving player experiences and measuring narrative variance in games extend far beyond one semester’s project, but, as with so many large DH projects, that demands breaking the project up into manageable pieces.

For this semester, I’d like to start the project by plotting the playthroughs of first-person, narrative, indie, and queer games that I’m using for my dissertation. These include Gone Home, a game about exploring an empty house and piecing together the narratives of people who live there; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a game about a missing boy who loves to tell stories and is rejected by his family; SOMA, a game about encountering the last of humanity and post-human futures in virtual reality; and The Talos Principle, a game that draws attention to artificial intelligence, consciousness, and the construction of reality. Not all of these games are explicitly queer, or have LGBTQ characters or representations. Yet all of them draw attention in different ways to the queer ways we experience play and construct narratives of our experiences.

Plotting these games will help me assess how players have engaged with these games in different ways, and how their experiences and narratives of the games are different. Even though every player played the same game, their different experiences mean their perceptions of the game are likely quite different (though this study will help assess *how* different). One might even argue that they cognitively constructed different versions of the virtual play spaces they explored.

This project is in many ways complementary to the work I do with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive. Whereas the Archive collects records of LGBTQ representation in games in different decades and game series, my work with ImagePlot will seek to explore how players are engaging with queer games, and perhaps how queer games are or are not different from other games in their genres. Do games with LGBTQ content also tend to have different and queer forms? Or do they borrow the forms and conventions from their genres, and replace heteronormative content with LGBTQ content?

Visualizing Narrative Variance in Games

For my course project this semester, I’d like to continue and expand an ongoing project I have with visualizing playthroughs of video games using ImagePlot, developed by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at CUNY and UCSD. Basically, ImagePlot is able to capture frames from videos as image files, and then plot those files according to different attributes (such as color, saturation, shapes, etc.). My project uses ImagePlot to plot the playthroughs of games captured in players’ Let’s Play videos on YouTube and Twitch. Each playthrough and its corresponding ImagePlot represents a player’s entire experience of playing a game, and allows us to quickly see where and how players’ experiences are different from one another.

Narrative theorists and game studies scholars have long noted that narratives are interactive and changeable in games, but we rarely (or never) dig deeper into the evidence for those basic insights. Yes, narratives vary in games, but to what extent? The overall goal of the project is to discover new measures and insights on narrative variance, and to get a clearer picture of how it functions in the play spaces of games: what parts of the narrative change in different players’ playthroughs? How do they change, and how much? Answering these questions helps us tease out the limits of play in narrative, and provides a framework for assessing players’ engagement with games that goes beyond simply acknowledging that different players have different narratives and experiences. The results of this project will be of interest to narrative theorists, game studies and new media scholars, literary scholars interested in reader response, and digital humanities scholars interested in visualization and user experience. I’m hoping to move the current complete draft of early project results toward a publishable state for the upcoming PMLA Digital Humanities issue.

In the future, I’d like to expand this project into a digital collection of playthrough ImagePlots––an archive of player experiences. Such an archive could be used to study many aspects of game narrative and player experience, such as genre conventions, different groups of players, games made by the same developers or using similar mechanics, etc. I’d also like to link the project up with my work for the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, and perhaps visualize playthroughs of games with LGBTQ content. How are players engaging with queer games and queer experiences? Does anything change noticeably between a queer game and a similar game with no apparent queer content or forms? In any case, I think we’re only just beginning to see the possibilities of this sort of analysis.

I want a flexible, variable, inclusive DH

I’m finally back with another blog post. This semester’s posts will focus on topics related to two ongoing projects of mine: the first, a collection of visualizations of intersectional representation in the LGBTQ Video Game Archive as part of the CHI fellowship at MSU, and the second, a TBD digital humanities project for a proseminar.

For this post, I want to explore some ideas I’ve been mulling over for quite some time related to DH. One of the readings for the proseminar this week was Kate Theimer’s “Archives in Context and as Context.” Theimer’s essay is an excellent overview of the ways digital humanists and archivists use the word “archive” differently, but I was frustrated by the definitional argument that she makes. Specifically, she highlights how the collections that digital humanists often refer to as archives would not count as archives to archivists, and while she acknowledges that archivists do not have the final say on what archives are, she writes, “The archivists’ definition is more specific, and therefore in my opinion conveys greater meaning.” The basic argument here is that a word too broadly applied to too many contexts loses meaning.

I’ve encountered this logic before in my studies in game narrative, where some scholars argue that applying the concept of narrative to play in games is to stretch the concept too far, and to make it lose meaning. It’s the move that “narrativists” make, those nasty folks who see narratives everywhere––and if narratives are everywhere, then narrative means nothing. I’ve always found this logic troubling and exclusionary: as though a word or concept can only maintain meaning within the confines of a particular context and a specific signified. In terms of clarity, this makes good sense. It’s much easier to understand a word or a concept when it has a limited number of interpretations. Yet this is also a very rigid sort of thinking, and one that fails to recognize how words and concepts with broad applications can be extremely useful and meaningful.

Words with broad usage are not less meaningful, nor are they further removed from context. Quite the opposite: a word that applies to many contexts *demands* context. And I think that’s the crucial point that is often lost: when a word applies to many and new signifieds, it does not do so in a universal way. It morphs and changes, and demonstrates it is flexible enough to adapt and relate to different contexts. It creates more meaning, and relational meaning at that. As long as we keep a wary eye to the contexts of that meaning, and clarify that meaning when we need to, then we shouldn’t shy away from differences in usage and understanding.

To bring this back to DH as a whole, this is why I’m not so concerned about defining exactly what the Digital Humanities are, or coming down to an official definition of what an archive or other key term is. I’m more interested in what these terms do, and what they can do: how can they change our perspectives? How can we use them in different ways? What meaning emerges in that difference? Beyond applying this simply to terms, I think we can apply it to DH as a field as well. DH is various, multivalent, and often messy, and it should be so. Rather than trying to standardize it and apply strict boundaries to the field, what would it look like for the field to practice a radical inclusiveness? For it to worry less about what is or is not DH, and more about how it relates to other projects and communities?

I want a DH that can flex and morph. One that reaches to and adapts to new problems. One that, from the get-go, is built to address the needs of marginalized and excluded peoples. One that is intersectional, not in the sense of checking diversity boxes, but in the sense of respecting, encouraging, and reaching across difference. And if we’re going to have a DH like that, we need to let go of rigid definitions and categories.

Referenced: Kate Theimer, “Archives in Context and as Context

 

Supporting Inclusive, Interdisciplinary Game Studies

It’s no secret that gaming cultures and communities—including game studies—have longstanding issues with inclusion, especially inclusion of marginalized and underrepresented peoples. The most apparent example of this is #GamerGate, the thinly veiled, ongoing harassment campaign against game critics, scholars, and developers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ folk. Game studies has fared somewhat better in this regard, in that many game studies conferences and publications include some scholars from marginalized communities, and to some extent encourage academic criticism of games and gaming cultures. Yet even in game studies, the study of race, gender, sexuality, and other identity categories remains cordoned off from the rest of the field: they’re things that scholars of these topics engage in, but others can ignore. In other words, they’re viewed as specializations or special issues, but optional ones at that.

Yet if we as gamers and game scholars truly hope to create inclusive gaming communities and game studies, or to seize on the potential for games to “make us better” or “change the world” in Jane McGonigal’s words, then we have to stop compartmentalizing discussions of identity, community, and intersectionality. There is no sitting on the sidelines when it comes to race in games. There is no part of gaming or game studies where it is not an issue, so there is no place where it is possible to ignore it without doing harm. The same is true for gender, sexuality, disability, or class. To pretend they are separate issues is to perpetuate exclusion and marginalization by refusing to confront them. We can’t marginalize the discussion of marginalization and expect anything to change. If we want to change our culture and realize the potential of games, then we all have to actively cultivate practices of inclusion.

That sounds like a tall order, because it is. Creating inclusive communities requires a lot of listening to each other, educating ourselves, and respecting and navigating difference. But the good news is that none of us has to do this work alone. We can do it together, and together we can build the communities and programs that can sustain and empower us all. For example, the Inclusive Game Development Collaborative, hosted by Michigan State University and founded by Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée, is a cross-institutional program dedicated to supporting diversity of all forms in game development (http://gamedev.msu.edu/inclusive/). It provides a forum for sharing and discussing issues of representation and inclusion in games, and further organizes events at MSU that focus on topics such as concept art and representing cultures or indigenous game design. The Collaborative exemplifies how to bring people together from different backgrounds and experiences, and to especially support developers and scholars who have been marginalized or excluded in gaming culture.

As part of the Collaborative, I’ve had the honor this fall of working with Jonah Magar at MSU Libraries to develop the Game Studies Guild, a group of scholars, students, and gamers interested in games and game studies that reads current game studies texts, plays games together, and engages in critical discussion of them. There are so many amazing faculty and students doing work with games at MSU, but unfortunately they rarely get the opportunity to work together across programs, departments, or colleges. Even when they get to, the work they do rarely makes its way out to communities beyond the university. The main goals of the Game Studies Guild are to address this by fostering community and discussion across disciplines, supporting use of the Library’s developing gaming resources, and hosting critical gaming events that are open to the public and streamed on Twitch.tv (a popular platform for streaming gameplay). The group’s interdisciplinary and open nature is a reminder of another form of inclusion: the inclusion of different perspectives and forms of knowledge.

This year’s events are further dedicated to issues of representation and diversity in games, and our fall events focused on these issues in Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights At Freddy’s and Blizzard’s Overwatch. We would love to have you participate in person or via our live stream, and you can find out more at our website (https://libguides.lib.msu.edu/gsg). All are welcome, regardless of experience or knowledge with games.

There are so many ways to get involved with this work where you are: including readings and discussions of intersectionality and inclusion in your courses, forming a reading or working group dedicated to these topics, attending and supporting existing events related to them, starting a program at your institution that promotes them, or even just making them a topic of conversation in the gaming groups and communities you’re a part of. Whichever way you choose to get involved, the crucial thing is that you do.

HASTAC 2017, Twine, and Empowering Student Voices

*Copied from Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship blog*

The HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) 2017 conference is already starting to feel like a distant memory, but as always it was a fantastic opportunity to meet with many brilliant scholars, teachers, and activists who are committed to transforming pedagogy to meet the challenges of today’s digital world. If you weren’t able to attend, definitely take some time to look over the program: there were many fantastic panels and workshops, such as “Building a Feminist Future” (Savonick, Meade, Bosch, Sperrazza, Esten, Tran, & Woods), “Multi Lobes, Multi Modes: Fostering Student Engagement and Learning Through Multimodality” (Garrett Colón, MSU), and “The Half-Real Humanities: Hard Problems in Humanities Games” (Dewinter, Dombrowski, Fanfarelli, & Mcdaniel).

My own panel with Dan Cox, Kristopher Purzycki, and Howard Fooksman was titled “[[Enter Twine’d]]: Linking Teaching and Learning through Hypertext,” and focused on using Twine, a platform for authoring interactive fiction and games, in the classroom. When I first started using Twine in my courses, I had two goals: first, I thought Twine could be a great way to introduce students to game design and development, and second, I thought Twine could help teach narrative concepts and theories by showing them in action. To test these possibilities, I built Twine into “Games as Art, Narrative, and Culture,” my course at MSU that is part of the Integrative Studies in Arts and Humanities general education requirements for undergraduates.

As part of the course, I had students build their own Twine games as one of their major projects. I introduced students to Twine by having them play Twine games such as anna anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World, Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest, and Squinky’s Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!. In addition to playing the games, we discussed Twine’s capabilities and how each game uses different mechanics to capture a different experience. Next students came up with their own game ideas, designing each idea around a particular experience they wanted to create for players. Finally, students put their ideas into action, and created basic games that used special effects and meaningful choices to deliver on their vision.

Beyond student projects, I also created Narrare (“to narrate” in Latin), a Twine game meant to teach narrative theory in games. The game draws attention to concepts such as branching narrative, limited choices, character types and roles, and narrative voice. The game is still an ongoing project, but the current version is available on my website/portfolio at cmejeur.com.

While I expected Twine would be helpful for meeting course objectives, I was surprised by how much students were excited and engaged by it. At first many students, particularly those with no coding experience or interest, found making their own game intimidating. However once they got into the design process, many of them reported becoming so immersed in their projects that they had to set limits for themselves to remember to work on other coursework.

I suspect that this happened because making Twine games gave my students the opportunity to engage in a type of creative authoring that they unfortunately don’t often get to do in higher education. It allowed students to use their own experiences, perspectives, and voices to make something that was truly their own, and then to share that with their classmates. My students used this opportunity to tell their stories, especially those that they don’t often get to tell. For example, one student created a Twine game that captured the experience of culture shock that came with studying in the United States as an international student. Another told a story of a childhood event that has always stuck with them as a strange and meaningful experience, but that they hadn’t ever shared or represented before.

What excites me so much about this is that Twine can do even more than teach introductory game design or narrative concepts and theories. It can provide a platform for telling stories that don’t get told, and for helping our students develop their own voices. Along the way they have to confront their own experiences, perspectives, and positions, and then think about how to share these things in meaningful ways. My hope is that this process will help students realize that their voices matter, and that they can use them in whatever education or career they pursue. Playing and designing with Twine reveals how the meaning we make with games reaches far beyond the ludic realm. I look forward to using these insights in my course design, and continuing to find better ways to support my students’ learning processes.

Some valuable Twine resources for interested persons:

Twine 2.0
Twine Tutorial videos by Dan Cox
“Games in the Classroom with The Twine Cookbook” by Anastasia Salter

Twine resources

In Defense of Catch-Alls

I had planned on blogging on a different topic this week, but yesterday’s reading, specifically New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (2006, edited by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan), presented a really interesting connection to a number of fields and concepts that I work with. In the introduction to the reader, Chun unpacks the etymology of the term “new media,” and reveals how it came to its current usage. New media refers to a wide variety of media objects, ranging from hypertext fiction to software studies to video games, and at times applying the term new media to all of them seems too reductive to describe such variety. Chun comments on this and a number of other limitations with the term, claiming that it is not accommodating:

“it portrayed other media as old or dead; it converged rather than multiplied; it did not efface itself in favor of a happy if redundant plurality” (1).

Add to this the problem of the “new” part of the phrase—how long are we going to call video games “new” media?—and it seems there are more issues with the term than benefits. One of the only unifying descriptions it offers, at least at first glance, is the general effects that new media has: “It was fluid, individualized connectivity, a medium to distribute control and freedom” (1). Consider how easily that description could apply to language itself!

Yet I argue, as Chun does later in her introduction, that the benefit of a term like “new media” is not in establishing a discrete set of objects for study, or a unified methodology, or a single theory that guides the whole enterprise. New media is something of a catch-all for its many objects, methodologies, and theories, and while that frustrates projects of definition, it also presents a rich, living, evolving toolbox for the study of media broadly construed. New media brings together a plethora of differing perspectives based on the relative closeness of their interests—it is not that they share the same objects, etc., but rather that they have some relationship to each other. They exist in the same constellation, or on the same “map” of new media studies, even if there’s a lot of ground between them (4). There’s a lot to be gained if the places on that map are in dialogue with each other, trading concepts and perspectives that build up their projects, often in unexpected ways. And, as our current political moment makes abundantly clear, there’s a lot to be lost by a sort of intellectual isolationism, looking only to a specific object, methodology, or theory while ignoring the wide-ranging relations that they have.

Of course one also needs specificity in order to have clarity and understanding. If our terms are too amorphous and fuzzy, then we can never get a conceptual grip on the things we study. This is where a catch-all like new media needs further contextualization and historicization, but one can readily see that in the field’s subdivisions—in the case of New Media Old Media, new media archaeology and new media cultural critique (4). The term new media has many referents, but it is not so difficult to identify which one is in question at a given moment.

A number of other fields and concepts enjoy the same benefits and limitations of catch-all status, such as Digital Humanities, electronic literature, and game studies. Indeed, it seems that any field title is something of a catch-all. However in each case I think we can see the same process sketched out above. A blanket term brings together a lot of meaning, but also demands further inquiry and context. For example, last week was the Global Digital Humanities Symposium at MSU, and afterward my colleague, Laura McGrath, tweeted the following:

“I find the label “DH” to be empty/meaningless, but also utilitarian.”

There’s an interesting dynamic at play here, where something that encompasses everything means nothing. Where meaning becomes overloaded and loses all meaning. So I share Laura’s frustration—I often joke that studying games makes me a digital humanist simply because games are often digital. But I also see the “utilitarian” aspect of the term. DH, like new media, brings together many scholars from many areas around a set of interests and questions—what does it mean to do humanities in a digital age? How does one make meaning with digital tools and objects? What can the humanities do to critique and foster newer and better uses for the digital? “Digital” is doing a lot of work here, and its apparent emptiness reflects how it creates a space for work–for generating meaning. I think there is a lot of work to be done, and where there’s a lot of work, one needs plenty of hands. So let’s use our catch-alls, all the while maintaining a critical eye to what they mean, what they include, and what they exclude.