The Limits of an Archive

As I’ve worked on my project with ImagePlot and game playthroughs in the past couple weeks, I’ve been reminded of the limitations of the archive of player experience that I’m constructing with this method. Specifically, with several games (SOMA and The Talos Principle in particular) I’ve struggled to find enough publicly accessible playthroughs to get even just the few I need to start a comparison of different players’ experiences. With a given game there may not be many playthroughs that have been posted to YouTube or other video-hosting sites, and this limits the amount of comparison that my ImagePlot method can accomplish.

Of course all archives have limitations of one sort or another, but it’s important to keep these limitations in mind as we use archives in our research. This is especially true if we use an archive to make a claim about a particular trend or meaning created in a particular culture, and how and to what extent we can back that claim up. With the playthroughs I’m using, I can start to assess variation in narrative in games, but I can’t make a claim about every player’s experience with the game in every situation everywhere. That doesn’t make the claim baseless or useless, but it does mean that that claim could change with more evidence. Or that the claim could be missing something important that the handful of playthroughs I’m using don’t represent.

It could also be easy to respond to these limitations with a call for more playthroughs and more evidence, and certainly a better sample never hurts in substantiating a claim. Yet it can also be misguided to waste valuable resources (time, money, etc.) on pursuing the perfect sample that will never exist. And this is where the balancing act of the “good enough” sample comes in. I think the archive of player experience I’m working towards here needs more to become that good enough sample, but also want to be mindful of how far I’m going in pursuit of it.

3D, VR, and the Problematics of Empathy

I’d like to take this week’s theme of 3D research and visualization to reflect on virtual reality games and simulations, which have also been used in research. Examples of this are plentiful: from virtual reality situations testing proprioceptive systems to providing meditation settings and exercises to assessing players’ navigations of ethical dilemmas. Putting people into virtual realities works so well for reserach because it provides spaces with lower stakes and risks that also draw on players’ senses to construct embodied experiences. In other words, it’s a reality that feels real, if constructed, but where many of the limitations of actual bodies can be tested and surpassed.

The games that I study are very related to virtual reality–they’re so-called “walking simulators,” first-person narrative exploration games that are very easy to turn into VR experiences. They’re already first person games, so they’re pretty natural translations to VR. Many of these games are about providing a particular affective experience for players: getting them to feel something like loss, joy, despair, etc. For example, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (which I’m presenting on at SCMS tomorrow!) is a game about dealing with ostracization, exclusion, and loss through fiction and imagination.

Games that are designed to make us feel something–and do so through an embodied experience–are often claimed (or claim themselves) to be building empathy for the experience in the player/audience. The idea being that when you encounter someone else’s experience in VR, you will then have empathy for that experience. This can be a good thing: empathy can help build understanding and spur people to act against injustice. Yet it can also be very problematic, as many scholars studying empathy have noted. What happens when fictions and games fail to inspire empathy? What does it say when we pin our hopes for justice or our definitions of humanity on empathy? In other words, what happens to those we don’t empathize with? And, perhaps most perniciously, does empathy force people to rehearse their struggles, oppressions, and losses for an audience? Does it require a certain performance in order for something or someone to be worthy of empathy?

I’m still thinking through these questions, especially given an awesome presentation by Bridget Blodgett (University of Baltimore) this morning on Dear Esther, another walking sim/first person narrative game. The genre is fascinating for how it constructs space and experience for the player, and I’m interested in what it can do and what it can tell us about contemporary culture.

Translating DH Work

As I prepped for the ImagePlot workshop in the seminar this week, I was reminded again about the difficulty DH scholars often confront in translating their work outside of (or even sometimes to!) DH circles. ImagePlot can be very bewildering the first time one encounters it, and I remember the first time I presented on it at a conference I spent most of the time fielding questions about what ImagePlot *is*, rather than what it can do or show us. I think there are several reasons for this. First, ImagePlot as a visualization tool requires a decent amount of abstraction: it’s taking a lot of images, making them small, and arranging them according to particular qualities such that a pattern emerges. Because of these things, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what it is you’re looking at, and it can take some time to explain that. Second, while ImagePlot is open source, it’s not eminently accessible: it involves a number of steps that are easy to get stuck on if you don’t know Command Line, don’t have the right settings or directories, etc. It’s even more confusing (speaking from experience) when you don’t know what the different steps you’re doing are actually doing, or why they are necessary. Finally, ImagePlot as a method is what we might call distance visualization (as opposed to distance reading), because it gets away from particular images and looks at a large collection of images in order to discern patterns. These distance approaches are themselves tricky to translate to traditional scholars, because it can be difficult at first to see what they show us that we couldn’t figure out otherwise–what it is that’s new or original about them.

Because of these realities, it’s especially important that DH scholars practice and be able to translate their work to audiences outside of DH. If no one can tell what it is that we’re doing, then what we’re doing actually isn’t worth much–it’s not helping anyone then. So we need to be able to explain what we’re doing: what our questions are, what our methods are, and, importantly, how the technology works that we’re using to accomplish these things. In my own experience, this involves a lot of trial and error in order to see what makes sense to folks, and what does not. Or perhaps rather what is recognizable, and what isn’t. For ImagePlot, this involves being able to quickly explain what the final product of the process is, and what it shows us. I don’t typically go through each step of the process–that would just be more bewildering–but I have developed quick summaries of the overall process because that helps folks understand what’s happening in it. I learn a bit more every time I translate this work to a new audience, and modify the explanation to help make it more understandable.

I think that’s crucial to improving the legibility of DH as a field, and is something that all DH scholars have to practice. It’s not easy, and it is a bit of an unfair disadvantage: we don’t get to operate under the assumption that everyone knows what we’re talking about, the way folks do when we talk about a symbol or theme in a novel. We have to both do the work and constantly explain it at the same time. But I think this can also work to the advantage of DH studies. It keeps us honest, and keeps us critical about the work we do. And, hopefully, it results in better scholarship in the end–more critical scholarship that is more able to help people.

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:

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,”, 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