DH09 Thursday, session 3: terminology, text as gamespace, architecture

in DigiLib BLog
June 25th, 2009

Walked in in the middle of Stuart Moulthrop’s talk; a big shame–I’d been looking forward to it. Right now he’s talking about cranky digital poets, like for example John Cayley who reportedly has a problem with people making distinctions between literature and the literary.

Stuart Moulthrop, “Literature, ‘The Literary,’ and the Dataworld.”

Now he’s talking about the wake-up call we all got last fall when budgets were cut, furloughs were imposed, dubious times. Radical notion of uncertainty in the economy. Stuart wants to do something to that doubt — bring it home to his own and Cayley’s confrontation with digital media and/or digital humanists. We’re in a system where value is up for grabs. Text, digitized, is said to be unstable, and instability is said to be less valuable, but Wikipedia *works* (says SM, knowing that some disagree).

Paul Krugman says that in order to stabilize the economy again, we need banks to become boring again. Is there a cultural equivalent of boring banks? Is the eruption of social media the cultural equivalent of our financial crisis? Is making new media safe for traditional humanism a future for the digital humanities?

If we want to avoid the hysterical outcome, what happens? Where do we go instead? Blind resistance (like that in the 1990s) probably won’t play anymore in the financial OR cultural sector; boring banks aren’t an option anymore. We can’t shut the ‘net down with a switch.

Things keep moving. Another time is coming. From system-modelling to systemic media: ubiquitous instrumentality of data. An early precursor of this: Context Free Art (mix culture, socially emergent genetic phenomena)

Bruce Sterling, “Mariek Neko” and The Caryalds: oh no, we’re reverting to being readers of books again. (We don’t need to justify this. We read the Old Medium.) SM reads but also codes. Reading and coding is a hybrid, and digital humanists are literate/technical hybrids. Are we then able to escape the fossilization of media? Maybe, but more importantly: you need hybrids like us because systemic post-media could fossilize in ways print never managed. Those who understand the fossilization of print culture and its overcoming are uniquely suited to resist this process in newer media.

Another future for digital humanists: we’re ironically literate. [Someone fill in here?]

Are we, at last, the heroes of our own story? Maybe, but not so fast. Last year’s crash means we should be thinking about our own practices, where they’re coming from, where they’re going. Systemic doubt may be useful; how, we’re still working that out.


Steven Edward Jones, “The Social Text as Digital Gamespace: or, what I learned from playing Spore.”

To what extent did a time-shiifted social model become the backbone of the development of Spore?

Steven is a traditional textual scholar by training, so starts by comparing texts in games — not in terms of their content, but formally, as structured systems for sharing and continued re-editing of their content objects.

The objects of our academic attention exist as chains of events. McGann: models [of texts, of discourse] come to us these days through games and role-playing environments. Games are inherently social; their meaning are in their playing, or performance that’s based on the dynamics of improvisation. (Most obvious example are MMORPGs, but even playing on stand-alone PCs keeps to this.) Rules constrain you, but give you freedom to improvise within them, bouncing off of them. [vz: this is why constrained writing is attractive to me.]

Talks about improvisation games in the theatre, the “yes, and…” model of playing, accepting whatever went before and going with that. Mateas’ and Stern’s game Facade was explicitly based on theatrical improv. Dialogue is produced procedurally by the computer based on what happens in the game. Facade consciously explores what author believes to be the improvisational nature of all games. In some way or another, all games consist of seeking out intelligent life — sets of computer algorithms, bots, AIs, etc.

Spore goes through the stages of cell – creature – tribe – civilization – space. Creatures made starting from graphical primitives (blob, limbs, mouth, etc) and are procedurally animated (the animation is improvised based on your choices of body parts). The player is part author, part editor; she structures and re-structures objects to allow possibilities to emerge.

Talks about SETI. Started out kinda nutcase-like, then became both PR-friendlier and more computational. Carl Sagan mentioned, and “billions upon billions of stars.” Spore is a game played in a proliferation of parallel universes. Distributed, time-shifted content creation and sharing. (Sharing: players who create characters can upload those characters to a Spore website, and download other people’s characters into their own games.) Steven encounters other people’s creatures in his own games, can cooperate with them or kill them or whatever, and doesn’t affect other people’s game worlds.

Rather than an MMO (Massively Multi-Player Online Game), Spore is a Massively Single-Player Online Game.

Game was in dev’t 2005-8, precisely at the time social media were flourishing.

The time-shifted editorial improvisations of objects (creatures) are called “evolution” in Spore.

Things like TextArc, which process and visualize texts and then present results in interesting shapes, are doing what computer games have been doing for decades.

Games such as spore offer a social and a structuring space. Creating and editing content objects makes it seem like they exist in parallel universes, and yet they are all able to interact with each other. Likewise, people in textual studies work in parallel universes, yet interact with each other.

The idea is to collect and protect peer-reviewed “seed text”, safely expose it to annotation and manipulation. Many different kinds of markup on the same text result in many different changed texts. That’s what Spore does, too.

Spore has stuff to teach us. It remains fundamentally coherent, with a stable backbone, while allowing players authoring and editorial power.

Meanings we produce together are new, but not generated out of nothing: they are generated out of seeds left by others.


Nicoletta Adamo-Villani, with her paper “Digital and Virtual Architecture: a review of two projects,” isn’t here. So floor is opened to questions. I’ll publish this so that perhaps people can supplement it.

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