June 19, 2003

Joining the Hokey-Pokey (or, Putting My Left Foot In)

I'm hoping that we can dig deeper into this discussion of the difference between textual interpretation and operation, all of which seems to be attempts for us to grapple with this always present and rarely (well)defined concept of interactivity (with a book, a poem, a board game, a film, or a computer game). In some respects, the differences seem functionally different because of the operations' embodied-ness as opposed to interpretation's mind-function - so, say it a little less crudely, while sharing space with the interpreting mind, the body is involved in operations (non-trivial effort, as E.A. would say), whereas the mind is the dominant partner in 'traditional' literature (novel or poem), sidelining the page-turning-but-otherwise-latent body. This is what I think I'm reading in the following quotations from the comments of a really excellent discussion on GrandTextAuto:

The difference between the virtual environment of a novel (or a poem like the Inferno) and that of a computer game is the difference between description and simulation. They're not the same; the latter requires not just interpretation but operation as well. Theories of textual interpretation don't explain how people operate cybertexts. (nick)
It seems that the boundary you're speaking of is between knowing (through description) and being (through experience). Textual interpretation, as you point out (and correct me if I'm reading you wrong) is a form of knowing,not of being (or operating). (peter)

Knowing vs. being is a bit existential for my mind, so I'll have to avoid it until I can wrap my head around it better. But I am intrigued by the difference of description and simulation that (as I perceive it in this discussion) is one that might be defined as separated by primary mind-interactions (description) rather than mind & body interactions (simulation).

Overall, as I'm following the various discussions here, in other blogs, and on various lists, it seems like one of the central desires on the part of everyone involved in (call it what you will) computer game/video game/GIVE studies is an apt and direct attention to the material conditions in which the game exists. How so? By paying attention to the specific material conditions of a game, we can recognize "it" for what "it" is. The ludologist argument is valid, but so is the film-analysis argument ("such-and-such games use film techniques, as described here and here") and the narratologist argument ("such-and-such game uses narrative in this way").

What do I mean by "materiality"? I'll reveal my literary prejudices - to be clear, I'm referring to the type of attention to material conditions on par with practices in textual studies. Textual studies (as I'm sure most of you already know) focuses rapt attention not only on the text, but also the trappings of the text (the material conditions), ranging from graphic art, bookbinding, types of paper, variants, fonts and so on all the way down to line breaks and comma choices (and this is far from an inclusive list, so forgive me if I didn't mention a favorite component). All of this is also considered in its historical moment.

Several of us had a brief trackback / comment frenzy along these lines a few months back when George asked "Is it accurate to call print an information technology?" (if interested, be sure to follow the trackbacks as well). I mention not only because it strikes me as relevant to the conversation at hand, but also because I'll just borrow Matt's comment to save retyping the names of folks in the field I'm referring to: "The immediate progenitors here are people like Johanna Drucker, Jerry McGann, Marjorie Perloff, Charles Bernstein, and Randall McLeod, who have been mining the materiality vein in rich and sophisticated ways for quite some time now in their writing about the avant garde (and textual studies)." Matt K. modestly did not include himself in the list, but his forthcoming _Mechanics_ certainly will be a useful and important addition to this long-standing discussion, especially considering its attention to all things electronic/digital.

Further relevancy of materiality?

First, it helps us work through issues of virtual environments, pen&paper environments, and so on, by developing specific descriptive vocabulary dedicated to discussing the particulars of a game's material environments - this draws from film techniques (when appropriate), narrative techniques (when appropriate), but perhaps most importantly also paves the road easily for integration of this "new" methodology everyone seems to clamor for without (hopefully) alienating those others who don't think discarding previous methodology is such a good idea (I'm probably distorting the argument, at least in someone's mind, so I ask for leniency and/or input). It would give us the freedom to use - most of the time - general references to games (thus keeping our blog posts, comments, etc. short) but also allow a quick break down of material components. In short, it would hopefully (as Nick so aptly described) avoid descriptions that were either "very vague or hideously elaborate". Currently, "virtual" doesn't do it for me, because of some of the concerns already mentioned - how do we count certain board games? Do Pen&Paper RPGs count? Does virtual = digital? and so on. Nick mentions that D&D would count as a GIVE, but how then do we distinguish playing a Pen&Paper version of a module called Neverwinter Nights from a session online of Neverwinter Nights?

Second, I think a more in-depth discussion of material conditions helps us work through this issue of body/mind that appears to be one of the functional differences between our conception of interpretation/operation, virtual/non-virtual, ergodic/non-ergodic, and so on. Because while "interpretation" might be adequate for some traditional literature (say, _The Great Gatsby_), I feel much more like an operator when reading an artist book by J. Drucker, or Danielewski's _House of Leaves_, or a great Powers issue. In fact, in the many times I've read House of Leaves, I still feel like I'm driving the book rather than reading it (prompting me to feel less like a reader, and more like a practitioner of textual ergonomics). In any case, if the delineation of interpretation vs. operation is a mind/body thing, or a knowing/being thing, I'm not sure what to do with these avant-garde (and no so avant-garde) objects....

I'm afraid this might be all horribly muddled, but I'm sketching these ideas on the metro on the way to work, so blame any rattles on the tracks ;)

Posted by Jason at June 19, 2003 12:15 PM | TrackBack

This is good stuff, J. I think it also links up with the whole "should artists program" discussion, because the basis of the materiality of a cybertext/simulation is its code--this does not necessarily mean going all the way down to Assembler, but it does mean (as we've discussed) learning to use module building, extensions, etc. as a form of embodied critique. Put another way, the question could/should be extended to "should _critics_ code"?

And thanks for the plug, btw. The title is actually _Mechanisms_. (Though I am thinking of going with _Popular Mechanics_ for the trade edition . . . )

Posted by: Matt K. at June 20, 2003 10:51 AM | Permalink to Comment


So much for my memory. Let's blame it on my smoking fast typing fingers. ;)

I think the whole "should xxxx code" question is an interesting one - b/c the implicit question behind that is, can an artist or critic adequately create or evaluate a work without understanding the tools they are using? Part of me says "surely not;" the other part says, "I've critiqued novels for a while now, but I've yet to write one."

I need to revisit that thread...

Posted by: Jason at June 20, 2003 12:29 PM | Permalink to Comment
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