Archive: January, 2009

Marie-Laure Ryan: Narrative as Virtual Reality

[Readings] (01.31.09, 10:55 pm)

The focus of Ryan’s discussion is to use the language and metaphors of virtual reality to look at texts and narrative. Virtual Reality, as a genuine endeavor has largely been discredited, or at least has come to be understood as suffering from major flaws, and was so in 2003 when this book was published. The important elements of virtual reality are ways of thinking about experience. Ryan picks out the two dimensions that follow from VR as immersion and interactivity. These dimensions do not belong to VR, but it is in that context where they take on their most evocative meaning. VR is important not because of what has been achieved in terms of hardware and input devices, but because of the ideas and metaphors it has created in culture. The idea of a virtual world is a powerful thing, and it has roots in ritual, narrative, and performance.

What is perhaps the most startling about Ryan’s analysis is that she is not attempting to analyze VR in context of narrative theory, but instead analyze narrative theory in the context of VR. Within the scope of this analysis, Ryan brings forth several ways of thinking about texts as worlds.

There is a useful review of the history of literature with respect to immersion and interactivity. The immersive ideals are tied to the aesthetics of illusion, relating to the idea of transparency in the medium. A narrative is transparent when it easily enables immersion. Nonfictional modes tip away from immersion, with a focus on form and language. The 19th century realist novel tips back and focuses on immersion again. Subsequently, modern literature often returns to examining the use of language, again distancing from the experience of the storyworld. In postmoden literature, the idea of meaning becomes ambiguous and is dependent on interpretation. Interpretation begets a kind of co-creation of meaning, which shifts to an aesthetic of interactivity. The postmodern form can be seen to exist the most prevalently in hypertext.

The Two (and Thousand) Faces of the Virtual

This chapter compares two perspectives on the virtual. Ryan compares the interpretations of Baudrillard to Lévy. The conflict is over whether the virtual is purely fake or a matter of potential. The Baudrillard sense of the virtual is simulacra, that which designates an absence of the real and gradually is mistaken and interchanged with it. Lévy’s understanding (taken from Becoming Virtual) is more positive, that virtual is a state of potentiality. In this sense, there are two processes: virtualization and actualization, which compliment each other. Virtualization introduces ambiguities and possibilities, while actualization moves the virtual closer to a state of concreteness. There are four points about these processes: (p. 36)

  1. The relation of the virtual to the actual is one-to-many. There is no limit on the number of possible actualizations of a virtual entity.
  2. The passage from the virtual to the actual involves transformation and is therefore irreversible. As Lévy writes, “Actualization is an event, in the strongest sense of the term.”
  3. The virtual is not anchored in space and time. Actualization is the passage from a state of timelessness and deterritorialziation to an existence rooted in a here and now. It is an event of contextualization.
  4. The virtual is an inexhaustible resource. Using it does not lead to its depletion.

The role of virtualization and actualization are significant within narrative. Ryan clearly prefers Lévy’s understanding of the virtual, and rightly so. A text may be considered something that employs both of these processes, and the reading of a text is a means of moving from a more virtual world into a more actual one.

Virtual Reality as Dream and as Technology

This chapter discusses the ideas and hopes for VR as compared to its reality. Much of the concept comes from the metaphor of the holodeck, which became a common idealization. The intensity of speculation about the potential of VR (in its early days) was rampant and suggests at the pervasiveness of the desire to be within a world.

The idea of VR is a dynamic object, a simulation. Ryan compares the idea of simulacra to simulation, as it pertains to VR and computer simulations. Baudrillard’s conception of simulacra are objects which embody deception. “Computer simulations differ from this conception of the simulacrum on several essential points: they are processes and not objects; they possess a function, and this function has nothing to do with deception; they are not supposed to re-present what is but to explore what could be; and they are usually produced for the sake of their huristic value with respect to what they simulate. To simulate, in this case, is to test a model of the world.” (p. 63)

When input is given to a simulation, it becomes the life story of its user. Simulation is a space of possible stories.

The Text as World

The metaphor of text as world is used by VR theorists, but it has roots deep in literature. Ryan gives the particular examples of Brontë and Conrad, who present worlds in effort to get the reader to see and experience. A text, as a semantic domain,  is a cosmos of meanings. In order to be a world, it must be seen as a whole. Reading turns literary codes into content. There are four approaches to understanding texts as worlds:

  1. Cognitive psychology (metaphors of transportation, and being lost in the book). This is the classical sense of immersion, explored by Richard Gerrig and Victor Nell.
  2. Analytical philosophy (possible worlds). This model is the subject of another of Ryan’s books. This explores the combinatorics of what worlds could possibly exist.
  3. Phenomenology (make-believe). This model is connected to the sense of play, where the story world exists within a kind of magic circle. This approach is studied by Kendall Walton. In this sense, representation and fiction are equivalent, and worlds take on a phenomenological character.
  4. Psychology (mental simulation). Simulation is the subject of most interest to me. Simulation is studied by Walton, as well as by Stephen Stich and Shaun Nichols, and Gregory Currie. Stich and Nichols argue that simulation is a kind of counterfactual reasoning, where the simulator suspends their own decision making and takes on the beliefs and desires of the simulated to determine their course of action. The act of reading moves the story world forward in time (and also along the causal chain). Simulation is thus the reader’s performance of the narrative. It hearkens back to Aristotle’s Poetics which recommends envisaging things vividly. Simulation is perhaps the best endorsed by the process of writing: “There cannot be a more eloquent tribute to the heuristic value of mental simulation than the feeling voiced by many authors that their characters live a life of their own.” (p. 114)

Immersive Paradoxes

Temporal immersion is similar to what might be called suspense. This has to do with dramatic tension and reader investment. Ryan makes an analogy of suspense to the to the engagement of sports fans. Even though sports fans have no agency over the outcomes, they are very engaged and immersed in the game, psychologically invested in its outcome. There are three bullets describing the immersion of the sports fans, and then another three describing narrative suspense. (p. 141-142)

  • The enjoyment of the spectator is due that he roots for one of the teams and sees one outcome as vastly preferable to another.
  • Spectators participate in the action through the activity known as “armchair quarterbacking”: they imagine scenarios for the action to come and make strategic decisions for the participants. This activity is made possible by the rigidity of the rules that determine the range of the possible.
  • Suspense increases as the range of possibilities decreases. It is never greater than in the ninth inning or the last two minutes of the game, when the teams are running out of resources and options are reduced to a sharply profiled alternative: score now and stay alive, or fail to do so and lose the game. At the height of suspense, the ticking of the clock (if the game is limited by time) becomes strategically as important as the actions of the players. When this happens, the spectator reaches a state of complete temporal immersion.

Narrative suspense operates according to similar rules:

  • Dramatic tension is usually correlated to the reader’s interest in the fate of the hero. The prototypical suspense situation occurs when a character is in danger and the reader hopes for a favorable alternative.
  • Suspense is dependent on the construction of virtual scripts and events. Though it is tied to uncertainty, it must present what Noel Carroll has called “a structured horizon of anticipation” (“Paradox,” 75). This horizon is given shape by potentialities that trace visible roads into the future, such as the processes currently underway, the desires of characters, the goals to which they are committed, and the plans under execution. The reader’s ability to project these paths is facilitated by narrative devices that constrain the horizon of possibilities in the same way the rules of a game determine what can happen….
  • The intensity of suspense is inversely proportional to the range of possibilities. At the beginning of a story, everything can happen, and the forking paths into the future are too numerous to contemplate. The future begins to take shape when a problem arises and confronts the hero with a limited number of possible lines of action. When a line is chosen, the spectrum of possible developments is reduced to the dichotomy of one branch leading to success and another ending in failure, a polarization that marks the beginning of the climax in the action.

There are four kinds of suspense. These differ in terms of intensity, subject matter, and the role of the reader.

  1. What suspense. This is the most intense of the varieties, and is a matter of wanting to know what will happen next. Usually this is met with some crucial narrative question: will the hero triumph over the villian, will the two lovers marry, etc. The involvement of the reader is in a state of not knowing the outcome.
  2. How (why) suspense. At the next level is the question of how an event or situation came to take place. The reader knows the outcome, but not the process leading to that outcome, and the mode of engagement is thus a matter of the reader moving forward and backward in time.
  3. Who suspense. Ryan explains that this is the suspense of murder mysteries, finding out who did it. The reader is epistemic rather than invested, and the reader is not attached to the outcome. This suspense is a matter of considering several finite options instead of paths.
  4. Metasuspense. This is a matter of suspense regarding how the author is going to weave the narrative together. This is the least immersed in that it involves meta speculation on the part of the player.

The paradox of suspense is that a written text is necessarily certain. Suspense requires uncertainty (from Carroll). Kendall Walton poses a resolution that uses make-believe theory, which is of play. The reader constructs a game wherein certainty is stricken from the game rules.

From Immersion to Interactivity

Section compares texts as games and texts as worlds. Ryan gives the examples of Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Proust. These were maximally dense as narrative worlds and pinnacles of the realist movement. Subsequent works could not maintain the density of narrative realism, and subsequently narrative worlds needed to break apart and become dissociated. Play becomes a dominant theme and operation within these. Ryan compares games and language, where the terms of games do not fit easily into the literal sense of narrative.

Ryan compares each of Callois’ types of play to texts. This works in terms of reader expectations. In modern and postmodern narratives, narrative rules shift from ludus to paidia, as systems move to subvert rules.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRyan, Marie-Laure
TitleNarrative as Virtual Reality
Tagsnarrative, simulation, specials
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Rodney Brooks: Intelligence Without Reason

[Readings] (01.28.09, 9:52 pm)

Brooks argues that instead of AI having an influence on computer architectures, the converse is true, that architectures have had a strong influence on our models of thought and intelligence. Particularly from the Von Neumann model of computation.

Brooks avoids a formal definition of intelligence explaining that it can lead to philosophical regress. Instead, “therefore I prefer to stay with a more informal notion of intelligence being the sort of stuff that humans do, pretty much all the time.” This is nice, but unfortunately can lead to wildly varying interpretations.

The classical account of AI is built from the top-down, starting with thought and reason. This naturally leads into abstract approaches to cognition such as knowledge representation, planning, and problem solving. Brooks’ approach aims start at the bottom level, starting with physical systems that are situated in physical environments: robots. This approach is aimed to reflect the evolutionary path of human development. The running comparison is between artificial intelligence as compared to robots and biological systems.

Early approaches to robotics made use of robots with onboard computers that would form models of their environments and then form plans to act in relation to them. This set of models is refered to as the Sense, Model, Plan, Act framework, or SMPA. This approach was influenced by the traditional AI models, and was not very successful. Brooks explains that the assumption behind SMPA was that once the problem of performing tasks in a static environment had been solved, then the more difficult problem of acting in a dynamic environment would fall into place. This echoes the claims of Newell and Simon in their assertion that once reasoning were solved, then issues of emotion, human interaction, and the like would naturally follow.

Around 1984, roboticists realized several things of importance:

  • Most of what people do ordinarily is neither problem solving nor planning, but activity in a benign but dynamic world. Objects are not defined by symbols, but by interactions. (Agre and Chapman)
  • An observer may be able to describe an agent’s beliefs and goals, but those do not need to be reflected in the agent itself. (Kaelbling and Rosenschein)
  • In order to test ideas of intelligence, it is necessary to build agents in the real world. Agents can exhibit behavior that appears intelligent even without having internal data structures. (Brooks)

This new approach to robotics signifies a significant departure from traditional AI. It also contains several new values for how to think about intelligence and robots. The approach values both situatedness and embodiment. Agents are present in the world and interact with real situations as opposed to abstractions. The intelligence of robots is given from their repoire with the world, as opposed to from abstract reasoning. Robotics is also characterized by emergent behavior from the component elements.

Brooks compares the systematic behavior of both computers and biological systems. Biology operates in parallel, with low speed. By comparison, AI systems run on Von Neumann machines, which have serial calculations, large spaces of memory, and narrow channels with which to access that memory. In AI research, there is a strong trend of associating the current models of computation as the pinnacle of computational technology. This is perhaps a straw-man argument, but it is reflected in the way that human problem solving has been associated to computational models. Brooks argues that this is extremely foolhardy.

Particularly, Brooks is critical of the approach of Turing that cognition and computation are independent of embodiment. Turing’s examples of computational intelligence also encouraged disembodied activities (especially chess), the prevalence of which has continued in AI research. Brooks continues to describe several AI movements, each of which have met with little success.

Brooks gives an overview of some biological perspectives of how cognition and intelligence work. Early appraoches to biology, notably ethology, were heavily influential in early AI. These approaches propose hierarchical models of behavior selection, but have largely been discredited by modern evidence. Particularly, modern approaches to psychology, especially neurophysiology, suggest a flexibility present in the workings of human brains which is dramatically contrary to ideas used by AI, notably the notion of the brain as a knowledge storage system, and heirarchical models of cognition. Brooks argues that the models used by traditional AI are not reflective of how human brains are built.

Brooks’ critique of AI is severe: He asserts that it is necessary to focus on robots that are situated within physical space. The robots should not hold internal representations, but instead use the world as a model. Systems would also need to work within the constraints of its physical components. Robots are not only present in physical space, but, like real bodies, they are also imperfect and subject to limitations, deficiencies, and drifting calibrations.

While these arguments are not particularly helpful for the purpose of developing a simulation of a cultural world, they are important for considering ways to think of agents within a world. Brooks’ focus is on intelligence, not in the sense of the metaphysical, or the ability to solve complex abstract problems, but rather in the empirical sense. Intelligence is determined by interactions within the world, and by the eye of the observer. In light of this, his essay provides an anchoring to the empirical and demonstrable. Even in the case of a simulated world, agents are still situated (though in a significantly reduced sense), and thus their intelligence is still determined by their engagement with that world.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBrooks, Rodney
TitleIntelligence Without Reason
Tagsspecials, ai, embodiment
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Sherry Turkle: Seeing Through Computers

[Readings] (01.28.09, 1:47 pm)

This article elucidates some material which later appears in Turkle’s book, The Second Self. The subject of this essay is the culture of simulation and its effect on pedagogy. The article is tied between the competing ideas of a computer as a creative tool versus an appliance, and between the role of education as teaching mastery or usage.

Turkle’s article was published in 1997, which gives it some historical distance from the current trends in education, but the state of affairs in 1997 seems to strongly resemble the state of affairs now, at least as pertains to simulation. I think that modern education has become overtaken by the cultural effects of the internet and mass information.

Computer education in the 1980s relied on teaching students programming, and using the metaphor of the computer as a machine or calculator. Educators aimed to portray the internals of the computer as something to be understood and manipulated. This moment was seminally infleunced by Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. This style of thinking culminates in an example of an exhibit in the Boston Computer Museum, of a computer visually blown up, so that children can see the insides.

Gradually, there is a shift in the way that people think about computers, which is heralded by the desktop metaphor of the Macintosh user interface. Instead of seeing transparency as looking into the lower operations of the computer, the role of transparency changes to the immediacy of metaphors and interfaces. Transparency becomes the value of being able to look at a computer screen and immediately see a document, a spreadsheet, or a desktop.

This shift brings in an educational change, where educators become motivated to teach the computer as an appliance, and instruct children in the operation of programs. Instead of being taught how to build machines, children are being taught to use them. This is partially motivated by the prevalence of computers in the workplace and as a means of training students for future employment. Along this way, students begin to get used to thinking of the computer as a black box, with the internals hidden and unknowable, rather than something to be learned and mastered. The pinnacle of this new moment is simulation, which is all about black boxes.

Turkle gives an example of a child playing SimLife, who does not attempt to ask what the meaning of the terms in simulation are. Instead, he understands things functionally. This is depicted with some degree of terror. Turkle fears that simulation shuts down questions rather than answering them, but I disagree, and say that simulation instead demonstrates answers by playing them out, by exposing procedural and functional relationships. Instead of telling, simulation shows.

Another element is that this demonstrates in kids a comfortability (in simulation culture) to working with partial and incomplete information. This is also a gender issue. In Western culture, Girls are traditionally less comfortable with working with partially understood systems, and prefer having a more complete understanding.

Turkle exposes this question further about simulation culture: why should kids use virtual magnets to pick up virtual pins? However, I think the reason is exactly the same as using real magnets to pick up real pins. Interaction is playful, but is illustrative of relationships.

Describes that concerns over simulation in college education. Simulation results in students detachment from their work. With simulation, educators are concerned that students do not understand importance and effects of the subjects they are learning. It does however enable students to do work and experiments they would not have been able to do before. This is still a subject of some controversy in education today. There is a heretical/blasphemous element to simulation in science, where educators fear that students will mistake world of simulation for the real world. This fear goes back to Baudrillard.

This article discusses Turkle’s ideas of simulation resignation and denial, and poses a third mode of criticism, which examines and challenges internal assumptions. She argues that it would be possible to develop a readership for culture of simulation. This would emphasize a way of distinguishing between the world of the simulation and the real world.

The way to build this would be to have children create their own simulations, to develop authorial skill to learn how to critique and read the simulations. We have centuries-long history of readership for written text, a similar tradition must be made for understanding simulations.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurkle, Sherry
TitleSeeing Through Computers: Education in a Culture of Simulation
JournalAmerican Prospect 8, no 31 (March 1997)
Tagscyberculture, specials
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Further thoughts on Pride and Prejudice

[General,Research] (01.28.09, 1:25 am)

I am working away on an analysis, a kind of deep reading of one of the chapters in the book. My goal behind this is to learn what things are happening symbolically within the story world, and find ways of abstracting those into some kind of format that can be easily modeled. My plan has been to do cycles of analysis and then design, and repeat the process, getting in a few good cycles. I hoped to get the analysis done last week, and the design done by Thursday, but I am only halfway through with the chapter analysis. Part of the problem is my fault for simply writing too much. Hopefully this will not prove to be problematic.

However, I did have a few preliminary notes:

Social variables / currencies are:

  • money
  • happiness
  • social status (this is moral standing in social landscape)

core character traits are:

  • moral standing (gentlemanliness) in Austen’s moral landscape
  • pride – sense of self value
  • prejudice – disposition toward (usually against) other characters. Prejudice is also an indication of the rate of change of one’s opinions
  • adherence to social codes


  • prejudice offsets moral interpretation of others
  • pride offsets moral interpretation of self ?
  • high adherence involves interpretation of social status as morality, otherwise treats real moral standing (evidenced by actions) as such

Types of conversation atoms:


  • offer: offer a topic of conversation
  • observation: special form of offer, commenting on something in situation
  • press: press an offer (if it has been rejected)
  • reject: decline an offer, potentially giving an excuse
  • pause: make no response to an offer
  • accept: accept the offer and respond to it in some form
  • respond: an accept in response to an observation
  • display emotion: blushing, growing pale, looking struck or taken aback
  • proposition: a kind of observation, suggest that something is true, generally of the conversation partner. This may be a raise or lower among others
  • agree: accept and respond positively to a proposition
  • disagree: deny and reject negatively a proposition
  • request: a special kind of offer, ask a character to engage in some activity or situation
  • gossip: a special kind of observation where the speaker shares some potentially hidden information
  • inquire: an offer that asks the conversation partner to gossip or make a proposition
  • intrigue: make an ambiguous statement which would require an inquiry to make sense, also may require a lowering of status to ask
  • defer: an accept that is accompanied with either an agreement or an inquiry for the partner to continue on

status related:

  • raise: compliment someone in some direct manner
  • lower: tease or lower someone socially
  • tease: special form of lower, indicate other’s failure to abide by social convention of conduct
  • misdirect: redirect a tease to the teaser, ignoring the accusation and reconstructing it
  • grab: attempt to raise own status by claiming authority in situation
  • threat: generally has the form of an inquiry, which suggests a grave violation of conduct were the threat transgressed. This may be used to refer to events in the past
  • pull together: associate two characters by comparison
  • distance: dissociate two characters through refuting comparison

Glorianna Davenport: Desire versus Destiny

[Readings] (01.27.09, 5:01 pm)

This essay is on the competing roles of desire and destiny within literature, and the ways in which they could operate in electonic literature. Desire is a phenomenon experienced by the reader of a text, who wishes something to happen within the context of the story, or simply wishes to find out what happens next. The act of reading may be seen from both the light of desire and destiny, where the reader desires to know what happens next, but the destiny of the narrative is fixed and unchangeable. The question of desire and destiny is about consequence and control. Destiny controls outcomes and thwarts the consequence of desire.

It should be noted that this discussion makes the most sense when applied to classical texts. Works of modern literature and media are often interested in convoluting the desire and destiny, even when they operate by conventional narrative forms. Modern texts can be interwoven and impenetrable as destined narratives, but require instead the reader to take an active role in experience and interpretation.

The act of reading is unidirectional. If the reader wishes the narrative to take a different direction than the one it has taken, she is powerless to effect such a change. The reader can stop reading, or watching, or listening, but cannot undo the course that the narrative has taken. The reader has control over what is consumed, but not the text or its chronology. Because the text is already written, it is destined.

Davenport poses the question of how to reincorporate desire into narrative. Were such a thing possible, it would raise complex questions and cause implications in how to think of such narratives. Davenport argues that responsive narrative is a social need, and requires thinking creatively of narrative time.

The creation of narrative, the act of telling is motivated by desire, which effects a communication of the writer’s values and beliefs. The author expresses desire by creation of a world, a redescription of the world of the author. “The act of telling incorporates the desire to be heard. In shaping the world, the situation, the characters, and the action, an author inevitably incorporates her own set of bounded “life” values which are structurally embedded in the social contract that conjoins the artist, her community, and the economis of the act of making.”

The process of writing is conveyed as a simulation. The author imagines and describes a world, and the author creates the story by asking “what happens next.” The reader too is motivated by this desire in the experience of reading. Through the process of writing, the author reveals more of the world and conforms to the rules of the story world. These rules are closely tied to the cultural world of the author. Davenport compares how Greek tragedy, Shakespearean plays, and the 19th century novel each reflect the value systems of those eras.

Stories are understood as existing in two kinds of time. One is the time of the story world, which is composed of meaningful events and moments, and the second is the time experienced by the reader. The time of the story world may shift in one direction or another, it may fold in on itself, and it may expand and compress. Control over the story world, whether by the author or through some interaction of the reader’s, must take place and operate within the time of the story world.

In terms of the kinds of ways that users might be able to effect story worlds, Davenport offers two potential means for doing so. The first is the collection-based model, where users collect story elements and assemble them into meaningful sequences. In order to effect agency over the story worlds, readers can inject new potential narrative items. The software itself may take an active role in assembling these and returning information to the user. The second model is aimed toward multiplayer online games, which are highly authored and do not possess generative power. Davenport suggests a means for using commonsense reasoning to dynamically create new narrative segments for the players.

I believe that Davenport’s posed solutions to responsive narrative in story worlds is feasible, but there would necessarily be many forms for their potential implementation. She does not suggest a simulation based approach to effecting game worlds, but does describe narrative authorship as operating in a distinctly simulation oriented manner. This approach is dramatically different from, say, Scott Turner’s approach to story generation.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorDavenport, Glorianna
TitleDesire vs. Destiny: The Question of Payoff in Narrative
Tagsspecials, narrative, cybertext
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Margaret Hofer: The Games We Played

[Readings] (01.27.09, 2:27 pm)

Hofer’s book is about the golden age of board games, which was from the 1840s to the 1920s. The games reflect the values, beliefs, and aspirations in the American cultural landscape at that time.

This is relevant for considering in the case of 1) gender (many game players were girls), and 2) the correlation of games to ideologies/cultural meaning systems. In contrast to how video games are percieved now, board games were seen as positive, educational, important instilling moral values, and occupied a center within family life. Games were tied into moral value systems, and operationalized the cultural values of the time.

The golden age of board games emerged partly due to the urban shift in the mid 1800s, and indicates a redefining of the space of the home. Board games were not generally popular until urbanization, as agrarian life did not lend itself to leisure time. The emergence of games reinforced the focus of the home as the center of life. The games also conincide with the loosening moral restrictions around the idea of dice and randomness.

The majority of games are not skill based, but generally pure chance, eg, racetrack games, a la game of the goose (and also Orlando Furioso, though this is much earlier). Gradually skill became more significant. Chance based racetrack games are indicative of victorian era, but more modern ones came to have more complex rules and require skills, both in terms of dexterity or strategy. Racetrack games indicated races along several senses of progress, which could be virtuous lives, economic progress, or travel and exploration.

The role of games gradually changed from moral instruction to success, particularly in terms of rising in both wealth and status. Earlier games held Christian themes, of leading a virtuous life and then being rewarded in heaven, to gradually secularizing the games by rewarding material accomplishments, and then focusing on the material entirely.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHofer, Margaret K.
TitleThe Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board and Table Games
Tagsspecials, games
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Cassell and Jenkins: From Barbie to Mortal Kombat

[Readings] (01.26.09, 3:43 pm)

Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins: Chess For Girls? Feminism and Computer Games

The subject of this book is the girl games movement. The authors open by comparing the topic to a Saturday Night Live skit from December 6, 1997, “Chess for Girls”. The skit parodies girls’ disinterest  in chess, and poses a way to liven it up by making the pieces doll like, and having them prance around with the knights, which are ponies. The parody is important because it parallels the subjects of the girl games movement. Posing serious suggestions to the parody, the authors pose three ways of looking at the disparity. One option is to look at the cognitive activity, and ask if girls are not enjoying chess, or the cognitive effects of chess. Is the game sealed and need to be opened up to girls, and what form would such a thing have? Another way to look at the problem, as “endorsed” by the skit, is to think of chess in relation to other girl activities, so that chess for girls would associate with or resemble activities traditionally associated with girls. A final approach is market based, to think that only 50 percent of a potential market is spending money on chess games and products, and try to develop campaigns to cultivate players.

These approaches parallel many of those seen in the girl games movement. There exists an uneasy alliance between feminism and market approaches to girl games. The approaches both have the same goals, but are frequently at odds in terms of what is the right way to go about implementing them. Debates already existing within feminism come to surface in the matter of developing software and products, and this is made more difficult by the classically masculine audience for games. The goal of this book is not to push one approach or agenda, but to document the moment indicated by the girl games movement.

Gender in games is significant from three perspectives: women in game development, representations of women and the available gender choices within games, and the gender of the players themselves. The last perspective demands a study of the differences between girls and boys, especially as pertains to what they want out of games. This study is problematic, as it can be seen to naturalize gender dichotomies with generalizations (girls want, boys want). Within a culture, differences can be demonstrably found in gender based preferences. To deny that these differences exist is to overlook clear evidence. However, gender roles are culturally based, so the fact that girls and boys tend to want certain things in America at one point in time does not mean that these are universal desires or are biologically rooted.

Games have a huge problem with gender. They predominantly exclude women in favor of men in box covers, and the games themselves. Women are generally simply absent. When they do appear, they are normally in helpless roles or are otherwise misognyistically portrayed. Representations tend to fall under traditional stereotypes. The subjects of games are very predominantly oriented along violent action and exploration of space. Girls are very rarely incorporated into the demographics for these activities. It is frequently argued that there is nothing wrong with that, that girls have other activities they can enjoy, so why is it so important that they play games? Part of the reason for this motivation is along the technological lines, that games are an important step toward comfort with computers. Another motivation is purely economical. It is, after all, no coincidence that The Sims has been the greatest selling PC game of all time and it has a roughly even gender audience. Along the dimension of persuasive games, it can be argued that games are important cognitive tools and are important for thinking about the world systemically.

The concern in this book is to combine theoretical feminism with the practical issues of bringing girl games to market, which is rife with entrepreneurial issues. The most severe problem in girl games, is not to make games for girls who are already comfortable with video games, but rather to introduce games to those who are normally excluded, who are not already interested. This spurs several scholars and game makers to defensiveness over the feminist horror over games that continue the various pink Mattell franchises. They aim to support girls against the loss of self confidence experienced by girls as they enter into a culture that devalues their interests. Barbie is notable because the doll is present on a professional landscape it is a way for girls to think of themselves in professional roles. Other scholars are more critical. Theresa Duncan attacks the “earnest blandness” or girl games. Others argue that the approaches found by market research reinforce gender stereotypes and assumptions, that because of its cultural indoctrination, market research will narrow the understanding of what girls want, rather than broadening it. They argue that games must instead be opened to explore new formats and models of software.

An open question is whether to focus on games for girls explicitly, or simply focus on expanding the sense of games, period. This becomes notable when compared to the use of modern games, where the idea of a “gamer” has become itself a peculiar and narrow demographic, with hardcore players of games only a small subset of 18-35 year old males. A challenge in thinking about inclusive games is to get away from the gender divide in the first place. It is necessary to make generalizations and think about what girls want, to get any inclusivity at all. But it is also necessary to avoid the process of totalizing and demeaning quality of emphasizing only select few interests or lifestyle choices.

Kaveri Subrahmanyam and Patricia M. Greenfield: Computer Games for Girls: What Makes Them Play?

This chapter is an analysis and discussion of Barbie Fashion Designer, written by the game designers. In earlier studies, the authors were struck by the partiality of games to male audiences, and how girls were generally uninterested in them, even if the games themselves were nonviolent. The authors analyze the success of Barbie Fashion Designer according to the study by Yasmin Kafai, who studied children who created their own games. The authors find that the success did not come from branding, but came primarily from watching and playing preferences.

Barbie Fashion Designer is interesting partly because of its profound success, but also from its unusual trans-media nature. It creatively connects the computer as a tool to play outside of the computer. The software allows the user to design clothes based on a variety of patterns, and they can then print the outfits out, and follow instructions to assemble these into actual clothes that can be worn by the dolls. The program leverages the software of the computer, but the focus of the play does not actually reside within the computer, but outside.

The authors discuss the elements in games, and how they relate to other media and activities, and how these play out with girls and boys.

  • Violence and violent action. This is pervasive in games and media culture for boys. Girls generally have a distaste for it. The differences between girls and boys are not uniform or universal, but they do exist. Removing violent action is important, but not the only thing necessary for success.
  • Themes. The narrative content and the manners of conflict resolution are another difference. Boys’ games tend to focus on exploration and finding things. In narratives, boys tend to gravitate towards stories with struggles between good and evil. Girls seem to prefer a variety of themes and social or negotiated means of resolving conflicts. Cooperative play is clearly important for successful themes.
  • Microworlds. Boys tend to prefer fantasy environments, while girls tend to prefer realistic ones, dealing with problems that might be encountered on an everyday basis. In this sense, girls tend to prefer software that are tools for other activities.
  • Characters. The most ostensible application to games and other media are the presence of girls within them. Girls also tend to prefer games which have characters in realistic roles that they can identify with.
  • Modes of interaction. Boys tend to readily adopt experimental methods toward engagement, using trial and error before understanding the rules. Girls might prefer games where the rules are more clear and the effects are more predictable. This relates to the styles of hard and soft mastery as described by Turkle. Hard masters prefer to bring the system under control, wheras soft masters are interested in bricolage and having control over the pacing and interaction.

A final point is that the project is critiqued along the lines of perpetuating gender stereotypes, by encouraging girls to play with fashion design. Along that line of reasoning, though, so do boys’ games. The matters of what boys and girls are interested in is subject to cultural flow. Another issue is whether Barbie Fashion Designer can be considered a game. But it is a tool/accessory around the Barbie world. Most games have tight rules, but this is looser, enabling a free social play.

Cornelia Brunner, Dorothy Bennett, and Margaret Honey: Girrl Games and Technological Desire

This chapter is concerned with what girls want out of technology. Brunner studied gender preferences and desires in technology in general and produced the following table: (Brunner 1994, on p. 76)

  • Women/Men fantasize about it as a MEDIUM/PRODUCT
  • Women/Men see it as a TOOL/WEAPON
  • Women/Men want to use it for COMMUNICATION/CONTROL
  • Women/Men are impressed with its potential for CREATION/POWER
  • Women/Men ask it for FLEXIBILITY/SPEED
  • Women/Men are concerned with its EFFECTIVENESS/EFFICIENCY
  • Women/Men like its ability to facilitate/grant SHARING/AUTONOMY
  • Women are concerned with INTEGRATING it into their personal lives / Men are intent on CONSUMING it
  • Women talk about wanting to EXPLORE worlds / Men talk about using it to EXPLOIT resources and potentialities
  • Women are EMPOWERED by it / Men want TRANSCENDENCE

The authors list several elements of design particular to games and these technological desires.

  • Technological sophistication. Girls are frequently interested in the ability for devices to interact with each other. Objects should be able to interact with each other in interesting ways within a game world.
  • Winning and losing. Girls tend to want to perfect themselves, while boys tend to be interested in power over others. Self improvement is notably not the same thing as leveling (which implies comparativity and power), damage is something that is internal (or possibly social).
  • Success and sacrifice. Girls are aware of the sacrifices that must be made in life’s choices. Some games emphasize resource management, but this is not the same thing as sacrifice.
  • Contradictions of femininity. Games have the potential to explore many dimensions of femininity.
  • Persuasion versus conquest. Women tend to value persuasion, not conquest. Persuasion is much more difficult to simulate than conquest. The ideas of spreading a rumor is a good game analogue.
  • Humor. The authors suggest that girls are less tolerant for humorlessness in games, because boys are more likely to have fun with conquest and victory. The ideal humor suggested is based on character and situation.
  • Adventure. The elements of adventure that are most interesting to girls should focus on defying conventions, rather than gaining authority.
  • Puzzles and obstacles. Girls tend to prefer puzzles that are integrated with the story.
  • Writing. Girls are interested in writing and communication, paying attention to how to say something, analyzing the meaning behind responses. “Girls might be interested in games that focus on how things are communicated, not just on what is being said.”
  • Being chosen. This generally has no analogue in boys’ games. Being chosen is complicated and it can open new friends and opportunities as well as close off old ones.
  • Mysteries. This suggests finding ways within games to look at material from a variety of perspectives, in interest of uncovering something hidden. There is usually a social dimension to this uncovering as well.

Yasmin B. Kafai: Video Game Designs by Girls and Boys

This study is about gender differences in game design. It takes place by actually having elementary school students design games for either science or math classes. Both boys and girls were interested in the activity of playing and designing games. The study analyzed the games created by the students to get a sense of their focus and content. Kafai breaks her results down into several analytic categories and finds that the gender differences are pervasive. She finds that boys are primarily interested in adventure games, while girls had a diversity of genres, that girls preferred realistic worlds, small casts, and self-identified characters. Kafai also found that the results from the boys were more diverse than originally expected. This small detail suggests the origin of the trend for mainstream games to dwell on a particular subset of males.

Interview: Brenda Laurel

Laurel discusses the game “Rockett’s New School”. The game “Rockett’s World” “allows players to rehearse different emotional responses to social situations and their consequences.” (p. 123)

Henry Jenkins: Complete Freedom of Movement

Game culture fills a space defined by traditional boy culture (specifically 19th century American). Games create new spaces offering limitless exploration in the modern, confined, urban world. The play worlds in 19th century boy culture is also inicative of social role preparation for adult life. Jenkins lists 8 bullets connecting boy culture to game spaces:

  1. Culture is characterized by independence from the realm of mothers and fathers, and fosters autonomy and self confidence. Games create personal and private spaces, instead of finding spaces outside, the spaces are internal (but are windows, representing external space).
  2. Social recognition among boys was gained by daring, stunts, or pranks (usually aimed against authority figures). Daring in games is proven through mastery of levels and systems.
  3. The central virtues of boy culture were mastery and self-control, and were implemented via setting and meeting challenges. These are characterized in game culture by examining how boys play games repeatedly in order to master challenging levels.
  4. Culture was hierarchical, where social status was gained through conflict and challenges. Game and arcade culture is hierarchical with proficiency and adeptness being measures of dominance.
  5. Boy culture was violent and aggressive, and children often hurt each other or were hurt in their play. Video games move violence into the symbolic realm, creating pretend violence rather than real.
  6. 19th century boy culture tends to be scatological, referring to growing bodily awareness. This is present in games usually through violent means, with depictions of blood and gore. This bodily focus also is used misogynistically to exclude or control women.
  7. Role playing was prevalent in culture especially in games of “Cowboys and Indians”, placing boys in fantastic roles. Video games make strong use of roleplaying as well.
  8. Play activities were opportunities for social interaction and bonding. Video games enable bonding through expression of common interests, discussing games and using them as a catalyst for interaction.

Jenkins compares boy and girl spaces to novels. Early novels were generally feminine, aimed toward female audiences, but gradually boy books began to emerge. Jenkins characterizes the differences in the interest in books to play spaces. Boy spaces are adventure islands, environments with potential for exploration and mastery, full of wildness, danger, and risks. Girl spaces are secret gardens, private and secret spaces. These spaces reward exploration, but do so at a slower pace, where the goal is not to overcome, but uncover. These spaces also follow along the lines of the gothic traditions, revealing repressed memories and emotions within the confines of the space. In books that feature this motif, often the female protagonist must sacrifice her personal space for the good of others. An alternative style of female space is the “play town“, which reincorporates urban characteristics into other spaces, and emphasizes character and connectedness. This is less explicitly feminine, but is still against traditional masculine roles.

The goal at the conclusion is to develop gender neutral play spaces, though I think that the play town comes close.

Justine Cassell: Storytelling as a Nexus of Change

This chapter is about the dilemma of games for girls, as it is messy to understand the flexible and complex issues of identity. Games should not shoehorn girls into fixed roles providing only a few possible forms of agency. The focus on narrative in some games enables some empowerment, but in these, usually the player is the listener, not the teller. Cassell’s goal is to establish a feminist game design. This requires two elements: 1) authority distributed to the users, where the game itself is about construction, and 2) focus should be interactive storytelling, giving the players the tools to tell their own stories and find their own voices.

Cassell outlines a few bullets characteristic of feminist approaches to design. (p. 303)

  • A rejection of “the desirability or even the possibility of value-free research”. It is impossible to factor out the point of view of the researcher in studying a problem.
  • A focus on the subjective, experiential, everyday lived experiences of individuals, moving away from objective truths.
  • An emphasis on collaboration.
  • An attempt to showcase a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives.
  • An attempt to promote the distribution of authority among the members of a community.

Storytelling is seen as a core method for changing relationships between gender and technology. The focus is on story telling specifically, not just stories.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorCassell, Justine and Jenkins, Henry
TitleFrom Barbie to Mortal Combat
Tagsdigital media, games, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon


[General,Projects] (01.25.09, 2:22 am)

This is an idea for a playful project that uses scripting and meta programming. The application consists of two windows (or panels, whatever), one is for rendering, and the other is for editing. The renderer will initially be blank, but gradually will display some sort of animated image. The editor window will have some control features, but will primarily consist of a simple editor window, where the user can enter in code and then try to load it into the renderer.

The primary mechanic for working is not to create and replace, but to add new drawing scripts on top of each other. Over time, the drawing will become lively and complex. The idea is to enable the user to do things that are more feasible and straightforward in code than in some graphical or symbolic system.

One of the challenges is that, in order for it to work well, the editor needs to be good. Ideally it should be possible to embed some real editor, which would be difficult, but it can be done. The interface for creating the drawing scripts would need to be clear, too. Whatever code is necessary for drawing should be something that will be familiar to the user, or easy to pick up immediately.

It looks like an interesting idea. It should be straightforward to pull off in my copious free time. Right?

Salen and Zimmerman: Rules of Play

[Readings] (01.24.09, 11:42 pm)

Salen and Zimmerman are something of the canonical and quintessential game design text. It is a big book, full of content, but my goal is to use it to think explicitly about game design and analysis principles around my research work. The book itself is about design primarily, but in discussing design it uses both theory and practice. Game design is similar to other forms of design, but the content of design is rules. One goal og the authors is to build a critical discourse for discussing games and game design, and I think they have been successful in this regard.

The authors borrow a quote from Clark C. Abt: “A game is a particular way of looking at something, anything.” This is relevant from the perspective of model and world building. The goal here is not to use universalizing (everything is a game), or overly specific understanding of games, but instead use multiple points of view. These are organized through “game design schemas”, which are particular ways for approaching games. It is possible and productive to look at games through many schemas, much like Sutton-Smith’s rhetorics of play. The schemas are organized into primary schemas of rules, play, and culture.

Meaningful Play

The idea of meaningful play used here comes from Huizinga. The authors expand on this idea. Meaning is descriptive (of outcomes) and may be discernible or recognized. Alternately, meaning may be evaluative, in the sense of understanding the relationship between actions and outcomes, reincorporating and integrating knowledge.


Design is a constructive process. Addressing design in general, the authors pose that “Design is the process by which a designer creates a context to be encountered by a participant, from which meaning emerges.” This is very general, but the idea of a context enables a broad sense of the experience to be encountered by the participants. Meaning is understood semiotically now, as meaning within the system, but it may relate to meaning outside of the system. A relevant example of the interplay of meaning between inside and outside is in a controversial event in 1993 where Hasbro removed offensive words from The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. In game, the words lose meaning as words, but they are still offensive outside the game.


Games are understood as systemic, and the understanding of systems is borrowed from Stephen W. Littlejohn. Systems are composed of: (p. 51)

  • Objects: the parts, elements, and varialbes within the system
  • Attributes: qualities of the system and the objects
  • Internal relationships: how these objects work in relation to each other
  • Environment: what the context of the system is

Games may be understood in terms of several equivalent systems, but they may be understood within different system contexts. A game may be understood in terms of formal, social, and cultural systems. This is important to note, because it presents systems as a general interpretive and analytic tool.

Another key distinction within systems is the degree of openness in properties, what their relation is to their environment. A system is open if its internal mechanisms are visible and transparent, and if the internal properties are receptive to changes in the environment. Social and cultural interactions with games tend to be open, whereas formal systems tend to be closed. We can extend this reasoning and consider that formal systems are open when they relate to emergent effects that are derived from their environment.


One perspective on interactiviy is borrowed from Crawford. The authors define four multivalent modes of interactivity that can exist on several scales. In general, a system is interactive when its users have choices, and those choices are meaningful in some sense. It is possible for interaction to be designed, but it is possible for interaction to take place in a manner that is completely outside of design (talking while playing a board game, players on a forum about an MMOG). Modes of interactivity (p. 59-60):

  1. Cognitive interactivity; interpretive participation. This is intellectual between the person and the system.
  2. Functional interactivity; utilitarian participation. These are functional and structural interactions, generally pertaining to issues of usability. For instance, if the text on a screen is legible, or if pieces on a board game are easy to move.
  3. Explicit interactivity; participation with designed choices and procedures. This is the sense of interaction as normally understood between player and system. Choices, random events, and simulation belong to this category.
  4. Beyond-the-object-interactivity; participation within culture of the object. This is the idea of fan culture and cultural participation with the content and meanings of the game.

Choice is the primary means of interaction with game systems directly, and choices have several sub elements to them. These are described as follows: (p. 63-64)

  1. What happened before the player was given the choice?
  2. How is the possibility of the choice conveyed to the player?
  3. How did the player make the choice?
  4. What is the result of the choice? How will it affect future choices?
  5. How is the result of the choice conveyed to the player?

Defining Games

The authors perform a fairly comprehensive analysis of definitions of games made by various game scholars, and define a great grid comparing their definitions. The result is clearly that games are general and reach into a diversity of categories. The authors then formulate their own definition of games: “A game is a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” A such, “Game design is the process by which a game designer creates a game, to be encountered by a player, from which meaningful play emerges.” (p. 80) The two border cases given are puzzles, which, by their definition, are games, and roleplaying games, which by their definition, are not, but may be closer to games or farther away. The authors do not mention simulation games such as The Sims, but I suspect that this would be on a borderline category closer to the negative category, because there is not really conflict implicit in the system.

Defining Digital Games

Digital games tend to have the following properties. This is not to say that non-digital games do not have these properties, but that digital games usually must have them: (p. 87-88):

  1. Immediate but narrow interactivity. Immediacy is the key element, but the scope and nature of the interactivity is confined along the narrow bands of along which one can interact with a computer.
  2. Information Manipulation. Games work by containing information and hiding it from the player, and they can hold large quantities of information encyclopedically.
  3. Automated complex systems. Games may be automated, but they tend to hide the system underneath.
  4. Networked communication. They can facilitate communication between players, albeit on confined channels.

The Primary Schemas: Rules, Play, Culture

Primary schemas are ways of looking at and analyzing games. The primary schemas are oriented along formal, experiential, and contextual dimensions. The authors borrow the idea of schemas from Ortony and Rumelhart (!). The issues in developing schemas are:

  • Schemas have variables: They provide a frameworkd into which new information may be integrated.
  • Schemas can embed: If a schema includes a concept, then it may contain schemas for thinking of the subcomponents of the concept.
  • Schemas represent knowledge at many levels of abstraction.
  • Schemas represent knowledge rather than definitions: Schemas are encyclopedic rather than definitional.

Rules on Three Levels

There are 3 kinds of rules: (p. 130)

  1. Operational: the explicit instructions, such as the instructions on the box of a board game, or the range of options available to players in a digital game.
  2. Constituative: the underlying formal structures beneath the game. These may be understood at a procedural or mathematical level.
  3. Implicit: these are the rules of play, which affect the social conduct around the game, but these rules are generally not specified.

Games as Emergent Systems

This chapter discusses rules, complexity and emergence. Complexity is a sweet spot between periodicity and chaos. Complexity and emergence basically become an aesthetic of rules. The subject of complexity ties into the dyanmics part of the mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics trio devised by Mark LeBlanc. The authors describe that game designers should learn to think about game design on a second-order, developing an intuition for how mechanics will affect the emergent complexity that results from a game system. This is intrinsically tied to the understanding of rules and is at the heart of rules-based approaches to game design.

Breaking the Rules

Rule breaking is important in thinking of how players engage with games, simulation and social games especially. We can think about rule breaking as pertains to formal games, but also as how it pertains to the looser kinds of social games (and rituals) where interaction has an essentially game-like format. The authors develop a taxonomy of rule breaking according to player attitudes, and this leads to a classification of player types. Thinking of the policies of rule breaking relates games to ethical and moral systems. The kinds of attitudes that are important are: the player’s adherence to the rules, the player’s interest in winning, and the player’s degree of lusory attitude. This leads to the following five player types:

  1. The standard player: is the measure by which others are judged. The standard player respects the rules, has an interest in winning, and a lusory attitude.
  2. The dedicated player: is interested and driven by the mastery of the game. Has an intense interest in winning and a zealous lusory attitude.
  3. The unsportsmanlike player: is intensely interested in winning, is not interested in breaking the operational rules, but will violate the implicit rules. Both the unsportsmanlike player and the dedicated player are interested in a mastery over the rules.
  4. The cheat: violates the formal rules, usually covertly, but does so with the interest of winning the game. So the cheat has some degree of lusory attitude, in that he is invested in the outcome, but not the process of reaching it.
  5. The spoil-sport: wholly violates the rules of the game, has no interest in winning, no lusory attitude, and actively breaks the magic circle. An example is the Twister player who pushes over the other players.

There is another kind of player in single player digital games who resembles the unsportsmanlike player or the cheat, who plays a game in attempt to break it or uncover what is underneath. This is a process that is both interested in the workings of the game, but also is aimed to defeat the spirit of play in the game. This kind of player is especially dangerous in games that are about fictional adaptation, because the player is interested in exposing the border cases, and disrupting the game flow.

Defining Play

The authors general definition of play: “Play is free movement within a more rigid structure.” (p. 304) There are three kinds of play activities as pertains to games: Game play, ludic activity, and being playful. The latter is the most general, but all three relate to ideas of performance as described by Schechner. Game play is play within the magic circle, within the space and time and the formal rules of the game itself. Ludic activity is engagement with material means of interaction with objects of play or games, but not necessarily within the context of a formal structure. Playfulness is freedom, though it may be tight freedom, within social or cultural systems. This is a good type of division of activity to examine within simulation games, for instance. The authors pose that games are both a subset of play, but play is also an element of games.

Games as the Play of Experience

Play is about the experience of playing games. This is tied to the cycle of interaction, and the authros introduce the idea of a core mechanic to form the experiential blocks of interactivity. The core mechanic an the activity that players perform repeatedly or predominantly within the scope of a game. The core mechanic is both the interaction and the activity of play in a game. Designers often neglect or take for granted the core mechanics in creating games. It is a crucial element to keep in mind when thinking about design.

Games as the Play of Pleasure

This chapter discusses teh pleasure of games, which are wrapped up in the captivating powers of play. They pull from Mark LeBlanc, Michael Apter, Callois, Csikszentmihalyi, and Halford and Halford. Some of this relates to behavior theory, reinforcement, and conditioning, but it is largely wrapped in the ideas of goals and desire. The idea of flow is introduced, but cautioned, that flow is not a golden solution to every game, and it is not necessarily always desirable. The key element is how to provide and negotiate rewards and pleasure between the game and the player.

Games as the Play of Meaning

Games can represent, and games are representations. They create complex internal systems of meaning, which relate to the outside through presentation and performance. The act of play involves both presentation and interpretation. As wholes, games are representations in that they represent something whole in the world: a roleplaying game might represent a fantastic narrative, a fighting game might represent hand to hand combat, and so on. Within the games, the games can represent, by representing characters, stories, ideas, and objects.

Games as Narrative Play

The authors discuss the problematic relationship between games and narratives. The conclusion they come to is that to create a game narrative is to create a narrative system, essentially a fictive world. The narrative system is a system of parts, with elements, relationships, and so on. In roleplaying games, narrative elements are integrated into the game mechanics.

Games as the play of Simulation

Simulations are the means by which whole games are representative of some larger system. “A simulation arises from the operation of a system in which every element contributes in an integrated way to the larger representation.” (p. 439) Borrowing from Warren Robinett, the authors examine simulation as composed of four elements:

  1. Simulations are abstractions. The simulation cuts away large swaths of detail, and reduces the subject being simulated to some stylized or statistical qualities. The key design skill associated with abstraction is deciding what to include and what not to.
  2. Simulations are systems. A simulation is made of smaller interrelated parts. The attributes defined by abstraction must have some relevant meaning within the system, affecting how objects react or are related to other things, otherwise the attributes are superfluous.
  3. Simulations are numerical. Or, alternately, they are logical. In order for the system to formalize its rules, the objects and attributes of the simulation must be formulated numerically or logically. In order for a simulation to work, its abstraction must tie back to its logical formulation.
  4. Simulations are limited. Models are necessarily incomplete. A common belief in games is that simulations are better if they are more complex, but this is  false.

Games as Open Culture

Open culture is the idea that players have control over their experiences and allows freedom of use. Will Wright has described a model of open game design that is shaped like a pyramid. In this model, the players are the producers. At the top of the pyramid, there are the fewest participants, and they design tools for use with the game. The next level are the players who make use of these tools to design new content and objects. The next layer are those who distribute content, and create web sites and share material. At the bottom of the pyramid are the players who make use of the objects created by the above layers. All of these layers can be filled with players, not designers.

Open culture is about open systems, where players are given or are able to devise tools to create their own play.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorSalen, Katie and Zimmerman, Eric
TitleRules of Play
Tagsspecials, media traditions, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Seymour Chatman: Story and Discourse

[Readings] (01.24.09, 6:14 pm)

Seymour Chatman is primarily a film scholar, but his research aims to encompass the broad concept of narrative in all its forms. Chatman belongs to the structuralist school of criticism, and finds that structuralism is an effective and useful approach toward understanding narrative. His position finds that narrative is a combination of “a what and a way”, where the what is the story of a narrative, and the way is its discourse.


Chatman opens by comparing theory and poetics. Poetics accounts for the structure of storytelling, which accounts for how to analyze form, but asks more questions than it answers. Poetics is not concerned with “What makes Macbeth great?” but rather “What makes Macbeth a tragedy?” Russian formalism is an instance of poetics, but it lacks the power to address more complex and modern narratives. Literary theory is about the nature of literature. It is not criticism. It is about explaining what the possibilities are. Instead of asking what the author should or should not do, it asks “What can we say about the way structures like narratives organize themselves? That question raises subsidiary ones: What are the ways we recognize the presence or absence of a narrator? What is plot? Character? Setting? Point of view?” (p. 19) These questions are Chatman’s goals to explore. To do this, he breaks down narrative into components: Narrative is composed of story and discourse, and the story is made of events and existents. This extends loosely from Aristotle.

Chatmans diagram of narrative (p. 26)

Chatman's diagram of narrative (p. 26)

The idea of structure that Chatman uses comes from Piaget, who claims that structure contains wholeness, transformation, and self-regulation. Narrative is a structure by these terms, and furthermore it is a semiotic structure. As a semiotic structure, it is divided into quadrants by expression and content, and substance and form. Discourse is the expression of narrative, while content is the story. Both of these have elements of substance and form. A worthwhile endeavor is to imagine what of this constitutes the world and the model. It seems like both of these are content, but what identifies the world versus the model in terms of the cultural codes, characters, and such is lest clear. The experience of reading is a part of the discourse, and it is arguable that in an adaptation project, the form of expression should be mimicked or made analogous to the source material.

Experiencing a narrative requires interpretation, filling in the gaps. This is a crucial element in story, that it is possible for the reader to inject their own interpretations, and supply extra details and imagery to what is being read. This is interesting in the context of film and visual video games, which supply more and more visual information. Chatman explains that narratives evoke a world of potential details. The text supplies some of these details, but it is up to the reader to fill in the rest. There is a range of artistic expression in narrative, as is present in painting. Painting may be more or less detailed (impressionistic works forgo detail to create expression and mood), likewise narrative may choose to go in or out of details at whim. Narrative is never complete.

Statements in discourse may be interpreted, and have different interpretations. Discourse can show and tell, but showing and telling have different meanings. All statements are mediated to some degree, but telling increases the degree of mediation. The range of mediation and forms of narration create a spectrum of modes between the author and the reader.

Story: Events

Events make up the things that happen, and this is the content, but the arrangement of these events as presented to the reader is a matter of discourse. The presentation of sequence implicitly conveys causality. Readers interpret consecutive events as causally related. The verisimilitude of events, the manner in which they are interpreted as real, is according to how the reader thinks they should be, not necessarily as they are. Thus, explicit narration is only required for events which are notable or unusual. Without narration, the reader is left to believe that things continue as they “ought to”. Narration thus becomes an issue of inclusion and omission. This is an interesting point because it ties back to the way in which we read or use models. Although the application to formal models is difficult because common expectations are notoriously difficult to express.

Chatman describes extensively the filmic devices for developing cuts and scenes, and explains these in relation to the terms of narrative sequence. These have to do with the role of time in events, which have flow of rhythms and cycles. Using Pride and Prejudice as an example, he explains how the narration is broken into phases of scene (action) and description. Rhythm and flow are good to think about from the perspective of adaptation, because these carry the dramatic mood and experience of the narrative.

The latter part of this chapter discusses macroscopic plot structures. Chatman argues that to form characterization of narrative forms, it is necessary to understand cultural codes, among other things. Without understanding these, typologies of narratives (for instance, Propp) must be narrow and confined to particular domains.

Story: Existents

Where an event is something that occurs in time, an existent is something that occurs in space. In cinematic narratives, this is more literal: existents are things that show up on screen and take up space on the screen. Chatman gives five qualities for these: (p. 97-98) These are ostensibly matters of presentation, but it is still a matter of the material content of the film itself.

  1. Scale or size
  2. Contour, texture, and density
  3. Position
  4. Degree, kind, and area of reflected illumination
  5. Clarity or degree of optical resolution

Verbal and cinematic story space are different in several respects. Text has much more ambiguity and freedom, and is open in terms of visual imagery, but this imagery may be suggested given the style of the narrative. Conversely, cinema cannot describe things and events, it must show them. Games, interestingly, are in an in-between space. They can both show and tell by making use of various interactive techniques.

Regarding character, the original model belongs to Aristotle, but Aristotle’s approach leaves much to be desired. Aristotle frames characters as having traits, but this raises contention about the primacy of the action or the character’s traits: which is the cause of which? What is the relation of the plot to the character? Formalist depictions of character treats characters as variable and interchangeable, where the only importance is their function within the story. Characters are secondary or worse with respect to the plot. On the other side, Henry James argues for an interdependence of character and plot.

Much study in narratology places character subordinate to plot, only existing to serve the plot’s needs. However, the reader is free to interpret and extend the idea of the character and ask questions about them. Models of characters that are merely functional are closed, where the characters cannot be extended outside the narrative space. In theories that close characters, readers are forbidden from attempting to think about characters outside of the plot. An example that characterizes this stand is O. B. Hardison, who argues that characters (specifically in the case of Shakespeare) are simply dramatic figures and their lives and personalities are restricted to the words on the page. Chatman is horrified by this position and argues that it is absurd, and the reader must be free to imagine and extend the personalities, and ask questions about the characters beyond the text. An interesting element of this conflict is that the closed model of characters is intrinsically hostile to not only adaptations, but the idea that the text may belong to anyone other than the author. If the characters cannot live outside of the text, then they are simply puppets of the author, controllable by the author alone.  Chatman explains that to understand a character, it must be interpreted and reconstructed. There is always more to interpret of characters.

The narrative evokes a world, and the reader is free to enrich that world. Chatman’s goal is to construct an open theory of character (open in the Umberto Eco sense). The terms to be understood in characters are totality, traits, and uniqueness. Traits are used to compose character and character has a range of them. A trait is a “relatively stable or abiding personal quality” (p. 126). Characters may shift between traits over the course of a narrative, and traits may extend beyond the events of a story. The idea of traits is to develop a structural format for character identity, that is meaningful within the scope of the story world, but can also be extended beyond the story world. The notion of trait is sufficient for literary analysis, but for the purposes of procedural adaptation, it requires more formalization and detail. A character model is something that I am interested in developing, but it is not clear exactly how the process will work.

The process of going through a narrative and extrapolating a world from it is something Chatman calls “reading out”. This is discussed in relation to A. C. Bradley (who focused on Shakespeare) and open trait-analysis. This is the sort of thing I am doing with Pride and Prejudice now. This sort of analysis though has been broadly criticized for neglecting the surface features, the texture of language.

Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories

The first topic on the subject of discourse is the narrative spectrum, which is largely pulled from Wayne Booth. The essence of this spectrum revolves around the conflict between showing and telling, or presentation versus mediated narration, or mimesis and diagesis. All of these essentially represent the same conflict between how the story is narrated and read. The importance of discourse is heightened by perspective or point of view. This is made the most prominent in film, but has always been an issue in narration. Most clearly, point of view has to do with how the world is logically digested and understood. There are many forms of discourse, which rely on how the point of view is communicated. Discourse may be narrated, nonnarrated, direct, soliloquy, and so on. Each of these forms implies something meaningful.

One of these forms of narration is free direct speech, which is an interior monologue. This form of narration is frequently used in Pride and Prejudice, and Chatman explains the critical features of interior monologues in five bullet points: (p. 182-183)

  1. The character’s self-reference, if any, is first person.
  2. The current discourse-moment is the same as the story-moment; hence any predicate referring to the current moment will be in the present tense. This is not an “epic present” depicting past time, but rather a real present referring to contemporary time of the action. Memories and other references to the past will occur in the simple preterite, not the past perfect.
  3. The language–idiom, diction, word- and syntactic-choice– are identifiably those of the character, whether or not a narrator intervenes.
  4. Allusions to anything in the character’s experience are made with no more explanation than would be needed in his own thinking, that is,
  5. There is no presumptive audience other than the thinker himself, no deference to the ignorance or expository needs of a narratee.

Chatman more elements of the interior monologue (as stream of consciousness, or free indirect speech), and again relates it to Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth’s thoughts after Lady Catherine leaves are revealed to us, to indicate her emotional state. Chatman explains that the key reason why we are privy to this thought is as a clear narrative action. Elizabeth’s internal mind is a reflection of her character, and the flow of thoughts and moods are very controlled and logical. Narratively, this moment is highly significant, and the moment reveals her emotions and state: perplexed, angry, and strangely hopeful. “The passage tells us, firstly that she is discomposed; secondly, that she cannot take her mind off a visit extraordinary not only in its substance but in the urgency attached to it by Lady Catherine, who clearly feels that Darcy may indeed act; thirdly, that she wonders how such a rumor could have begun; fourthly, that the fact that Darcy is Bingley’s friend and she Jane’s sister must have prompted speculation about her prospects too; and finally that the Lucases have already consummated a match which she has begun to contemplate only in the privacy of her own mind.” (p. 191) This extrapolation, or reading out, as it were, gives a clear set of narrative events that are taking place in Elizabeth’s mind, but are important nonetheless.

This point suggests an interesting game mechanic, though. The player might be prompted at certain points with a bubble of “I think…”, or “I feel…” and must fill in some thoughts, which will indicate the player character’s disposition and composure.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorChatman, Seymour
TitleStory and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film
Tagsdigital media, narrative, film, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon
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