Category: ‘Readings’

AI papers galore!

[Readings] (04.17.09, 7:55 pm)

I decided to read a bunch of AI papers to make sure that my representations and critiques of AI in games is accurate. Over the course of this, I’ve realized something important. This is that I am not trying to develop a simulation system that will replace AI in games in social environments. I am not trying to depose planners completely. Rather, I want to make a more subtle argument. The success of an AI artifact is dependent on how closey knit the underlying technology is to the domain it represents. So, in some circumstances, planning is extremely effective, but in other circumstances, it is much less so. Planning is also not a uniform and monolithic infrastructure, it is a relatively loose system of algorithms. Planning frameworks have been developed that incorporate (or attempt to incorporate) situated and reactive reasoning, action repair, emotional models, and interaction with other systems and agents. While it is not monolithic, it still represents a perspective of how agents act and think, and thus conveys a particular model.

Included below is a list of a bunch of the papers that I have read, with notes describing some of the relevant take-aways from the papers. This is generally particular to my work, and may be of limited use to other readers. The papers are not in a particular order.

Mao and Gratch: Social Judgment in Multiagent Interactions (2004)
paper is about judgement of attribution of responsibility in social settings
tied into military system of authority

McCoy and Mateas: The Computation of Self in Everyday Life (2009)
looks at applying Goffman to character simulation, manifests as social games
adaptation target: Sex and the City

Perlin and Goldberg: Improv (1996)
early work, involves framework for animation and behavior
scripted behavior systems

Geib: The Intentional Planning System: ItPlanS (1994)
builds from STRIPS action model (with preconditions and postconditions)
attempts to exchange preconditions with intentions, done via simulation
still about robot control

Magerko, Laird, Assanie, Kerfoot, Stokes: AI Characters and Directors for Interactive Computer Games (2004)
describes goals of setting up interactive drama:
computer games with nonviolent, plot-driven stories
focus is in author centric model, with working around players
target is newly authored artifact: Haunt 2

Cavazza, Charles, Mead: Characters in Search of an Author (2001)
model is character-centric approach
addresses issues of narrative and authorial and user control
adaptation target is “Friends” scenario
system is built from model of Barthes S/Z
planning model is consistent with sitcom genre

Pizzi and Cavazza: Affective Storytelling based on Characters’ Feelings (2007)
attempting to develop computational character system based on emotional theory
this is based on appraisal and coping
adaptation domain is Madame Bovary

Cavazza, Pizzi, Charles, Vogt, Andre: Emotional Input for Character-based Interactive Storytelling (2009)
adaptation domain is Madame Bovary
about using emotional voice input to interact with the program

Si, Marsella, Pynadath: Thespian: Modeling Socially Normative Behavior in a Decision-Theoretic Framework (2006)
focus is interactive drama
built around modeling social norms
military goal, norms are essentially a means to an end of uncovering information

Magerko: A Proposal for an Interactive Drama Architecture (2002)
proposes a model for interactive drama that uses a director
structure of drama itself is composed of scenes
director is attempt to resolve conflict between authored plot and user agency

Cavazza, Charles, Mead: Emergent Situations in Interactive Storytelling (2002)
applies planning model to sitcom genre
recognizes need for situated reasoning and action repair within planning model

Magerko and Laird: Mediating the Tension between Plot and Interaction (2005)
describes director model wherin director makes predictive planning
director does simulation of world based on player model
involves reconciling errant player behavior

Peinado, Cavazza, Pizzi: Revisiting Character-Based Affective Storytelling under a Narrative BDI Framework (2008)
uses Madame Bovary domain
develops alternative model of BDI (belief, desire, intention) as Narrative BDI
first looks at Shakespearian model

Gratch: Why You Should Buy an Emotional Planner (1999)
Applies emotional models and appraisal theory to planning formalism
aim is to reconcile areas where planning has trouble: conflicting goals, limited resources, imperfect information
primary focus is construal and assignment of blame/responsibility
odd examples with conflict over moving a car
but leads to model with system of personalities in agents

Geib, Webber: A Consequence of Incorporating Intentions in Means-end Planning (1993)
incorporates situated reasoning into planning model
this means replacing preconditions with alternative approaches
preconditions use generation conditions and execution conditions
alternatives are robust failure, replanning, and action repair

Bates: The Role of Emotion in Believable Agents (1994)
concept of believability, comes from animation (esp Disney)
describes Woggles world
emotion necessary for recognition of personality and believability
uses emotion theory of Ortony, clore, and Collins
characters in most video games show no reaction to violent world around them

Goldberg: Avatars and Agents, or Life Among the Indigenous Peoples of Cyberspace (1998)
poses model of animation and behavior that comes from Perlin’s Improv
heavy importance of scripted behaviors, but scripts are extended to have robust extensibility
model comes from numeric properties, and then matched with importance values, allowing weighted selection

Pizzi, charles, Lugrin, Cavazza: Interactive Storytelling with Literary Feelings (2007)
initially outlines focus of constructing interactive storytelling experience with focus on literary feelings
introduces Madame Bovary domain
domain requires focus on characters’ feelings, and planning is about long term objectives — this is HUGE change from traditional models
uses clear system of adaptation, from feelings, to literary analysis, to computational model

Christian and Young: Comparing Cognitive and Computational Models of Narrative Structure (2004)
uses traditional cognitive science system of models to look at user’s understanding of narrative in virtual world
cognitive models are very abstracted, very structural
domain is Unreal spatial puzzles (levers, lifts, bridges, etc)
user study to match model of knowledge structures to model of computational system

Hal Foster: The Return of the Real

[Readings] (04.06.09, 6:08 pm)

The Return of the Real is about relatively recent changes in the contemporary avant-garde. My interest in this comes from the analogy between art practice and the practice of creating games. The practice of game making has many differences from art practice, but it is important to realize that game making is a wide and open field, and there are many more types of games than the mainstream. It is equally important to remember that the avant-garde, with all of its self-reinvention is a small subset of art practice as a whole. Digital media is a common location for avant-garde works, (especially in early hypertext), but games themselves tend to be less considered. This is not to say that there are not avant-garde games, but they are far and away less common.

The avant-garde is about the cutting edge in art. To speak exceedingly generally, this usually means pushing what it means for something to be art, or to practice art. The analogy to games, by that measure, seems rather straightforward. When applied to games, we can question what it means for something to be a game (or software), question the rules, the relationship between the player and the space of the game versus outside the game, and so on. A lot of early theory about games in culture (Huizinga, Caillois) is sociological and anthropological and a lot of the ideas described there could be tested and challenged by an experimental avant-garde games movement.

It is interesting then to compare this idea of avant-garde experimentation with Hal Foster’s claim that the avant-garde has done a full circle and has become about presence and reality. The two movements being compared are the “historical avant-garde” of the 1910s and 20s and the postwar “neo avant-garde” generally of the 1960s. Both movements described are unmistakably avant-garde, characterized by their motivation at tackling the same types of problems, their often similar formal qualities, their aesthetics of rupture, and their hermetic inaccessibility. However, the concepts of the neo avant-garde have become more focused on body and reality, while the historical avant-garde had focused on the broader concepts of empire and state, at a level that eclipsed the individual participant.

Some of the concepts Foster describes in his early discussion are: the three-dimensional and spatial nature of art, the role of the body and of trauma, and the relationship between the past and present and actions that are reverted and deferred. The role of the real is not a as a medium, but as a subject, where the real itself is a thing of trauma and distress, acting on the individual.  The process of defamiliarization, common within avant-garde, seeks to reveal the grotesque and horriffic within the everyday and commonplace. The artist’s role is as an ethnographer, living in reality, but also observing it and criticizing it through artwork.

It is in this sense, that art practice is a form of ethnography, that interesting connections begin to get made. It is arguable that any work (either commercial or individually produced, with or without the self-critical obsession of the avant-garde) is a product of the culture in which it was produced. The artifact owes its existence not only to the author, but to the social and cultural world wherin that author resides, and within which the artifact may be recieved and interpreted. This is a pervasive argument within cultural study, and is made explicit in Goldmann. It may also be handily argued that the same connection applies to games. Being procedurally oriented, and built on rules and systems, we can make the claim that anyone who produces games reflects within the systems of the game the systems and values of the creator’s culture. When the medium shifts from the environmental, sculptural, or audio-visual used by avant-garde into the procedural, the systems modeled by the game can then be added to the rhetoric of cultural criticism.

I do not know offhand what types of artistic claims could be made through procedural media that could not be expressed using other media, but a couple of interesting points may be made. The first is that the format of a game, in general, is very interesting as a cultural object. Games have their own history and their own culture and role within popular culture. There are customary ways in which players interact with games, and how games work as social objects, and this may be interestingly extended for the purposes of the avant-garde. Furthermore, Foster claims that because the new avant-garde is about a return to the real, but games are generally characterized by the imaginary and the escape from the real. Games have an ambiguous relationship between the real and the imaginary. On one hand, through graphical sophistication, mainstream games are on a determined march toward the photorealistic, but the content and concepts of games are usually extremely far removed from realism. What is painted in many games is a hyper-realistic image with a level of sub-human expressivity. Violent games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series enable the player to move through an intense visual wonderland with the Freudian id running free.

If games represent within their systems the conceptual systems of our culture, then artistic works that aim to subvert the Freudian destructive impulses might have some potential. Mostly I am not interested in art about games, but rather games as art, though, and this would lead to different subjects. Much of the avant-garde described by Foster accounts for the shock and trauma of reality, and while games are often a medium of escape, so too have been fine art and film, media which have been co-opted by the avant-garde. Games too may take the concepts of escape and subvert these with clashes with reality, revealing the alien nature which the everyday world may sometimes possess. Generally, Foster is interested in the support and preservation of the avant-garde, and this is to be done with a shift in theory. Likewise, for games to function as culturally critical artifacts, so to must theory be used to treat them critically.

There is a useful review of the book, as well.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFoster, Hal
TitleThe Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century
Tagsmedia traditions, postmodernism, specials
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Lucien Goldmann: Towards a Sociology of the Novel

[Readings] (04.04.09, 3:13 pm)

Goldmann’s work derives directly from Lukacs and Girard. The main contents and work of the book is in connecting Marxist cultural economics to the forms and values of the novel. The novel is a social product, and is thus shaped by social and cultural forces. Because the modern period is heavily influenced by capitalism, the values of capitalism are ingrained in modern works. Goldmann is specifically interested in how these values appear and are expressed within the novel, and this is done through analysis of character, individual values, morality, and other such concepts that appear in fiction.

The study consists of both general claims as well as specific ones. The heart of Goldmann’s study is in his analysis of the novels of Malreaux, which is unfortunate, because I am not remotely familiar with Malreaux. My interests will be focused on Goldmann’s general claims, but it should be noted that these claims are backed up with some degree of focused study.

There is a very good paragraph in the preface, which explains what his intentions are:

In so far as the tendency to coherence that constitutes the essence of the work is situated not only at the level of the individual creator,  but already at that of the group, the approach by which this group is seen as the true subject of creation may account for the whole of the writer and integrate him in its analysis, whereas the reverse does not appear to be the case. (p. ix; italics original)

Introduction to the Problems of a Sociology of the Novel

The point of this section is to illustrate a homology between structure in classical novel and the structure of exchange in market economics. To do this, Goldmann begins by explaining theories of how the novel is a social product, and is shaped by the values of its culture. He builds from Lukacs and Girard, in identifying the basic structures of the novel. The central feature of this is that the novel is a search. It is a search of a degraded hero for authentic values in a degraded world. The concept of degradation is important, and involves a degree of falseness. The hero’s search is itself degraded, meaning that the intentions are not genuine, but this does not mean that the authentic values are false. Goldmann’s concept of degredation is a bridge between Lukacs’s term “demoniacal” and Girard’s term “idolatrous.”

The authentic values being sought are implicit within the text, they are not explicitly specified, but they are intrinsic to the social system of which the novel is a product. The hero is problematic, in searching for these authentic values within the degraded world. However, both the hero and the world are degraded, which leads to a complexity. Goldmann explains this as a typology, which is borrowed from Lukacs: (p. 2)

  1. The abstract idealist novel: the hero is overly narrow in comparison to complexity of world (Don Quixote, Le Rouge et le Noir)
  2. The psychological novel: characterized by the inner lives of the characters, their consciousness is too broad to be satisfied by the limited conventions of world (Oblomov, L’Education sentimentale)
  3. Bildungsroman: concludes with the hero giving up the problematic search, and ends with self-imposed limitation, changing neither the world’s nor the hero’s values or natures (Wilhelm Meister, Der grune Heinrich)

In the novel, the relationship between the writer and the world is different from other literary forms, because the novel is both a biography and social chronicle. This relationship between the writer and the world is what Girard calls humor and Lukacs calls irony. This also resembles what Bakhtin describes as the novel’s inherent comic dimension. At this point, the influences of Lukacs and Girard diverge: Girard finds the humor problematic, while Lukacs is permissive of it.

The concern seems to be over what to make of the moral dimensions of the novel’s resolution. Lukacs goes so far as to say that the author’s ethics becomes an aesthetic problem of the work. This introduces the need for sociology: not only does the novel reflect the social values of its context, but it concerns the deeper problems of reification, how the content of fiction and the fictional reality bears on and is considered real outside of fiction. For this, a true sociological analysis is necessary. Goldman relates novelistic problems to those of value in production, in classic Marxist analysis:

“The novel form seems to me, in effect, to be the transposition on the literary plane of everyday life in the individualistic society created by market production. There is a rigorous homology between the literary form of the novel, as I have defined it with the help of Lukacs and Girard, and the everyday relation between man and commodities in general, and by extension between men and other men, in a market society.”

This involves the relationship between use values and exchange values. Goldmann relates these to the implicit values that are the “authentic values” in fictional worlds. This also relates to the idea of relationships between problematic individuals and degraded values.

Marxist literary sociology has the potential to offer a few ideas, summaraized here: (p. 9)

  1. The literary work is not merely the reflection of collective consciousness, but a constructed or possible consciousness.
  2. The relationship between collective ideology and creations is not in identity of content, but in a homology of structures.
  3. A world view cannot be created by a single individual, but must be created by a group. The individual can only transpose this view on the realm of the imaginary.
  4. Collective consciousness is not a reality, but is expressed implicitly in the behavior of individuals.

Thus, the study of the sociology of the novel is not a study of the collective conscious, but rather, an unconscious. This study reveals values and meanings that are internalized and ordinarily invisible. They emerge and are placed within artifacts (such as the novel) without express intentions, but are inevitable and automatic.

It is interesting at this point to take a step back and compare the sociology of the novel as described by Goldmann to a possible sociology of the video game that might be applied to modern day games. Games are an interesting target to apply this analysis, because they are already made of rules. Not all rules are explicitly coded (or part of the game), of course, many dimensions of sociological analysis may be found in static assets, or even file formats and platforms, that are not part of the game’s “rules” explicitly. I think it would be interesting to consider the expressions and conventions of games within this sphere of criticism. Indeed, the idea of the problematic search of the hero for authentic values in a degraded world seems to be intertwined with Campbell’s monomyth, which is itself the basis for many plots of mainstream games.

There is an interesting point of comparison as well, between the spheres of the idealistic hero, who is too simple for the complex world, and the psychological hero, who is too complex for the simple world, and the relationship between the player, the avatar, and the range of actions and expression. Very often, players get frustrated with the limited capacities for the responses or actions that they may take within game worlds.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGoldmann, Lucien
TitleTowards a Sociology of the Novel
Tagssociology, narrative, specials
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Odi et Amo: On Catullus and Adaptation

[Readings] (04.03.09, 5:26 pm)

The focus of this is to look at Catullus as a candidate for adaptation. This involves several steps. First is the consideration of what, exactly, is being adapted. Is it a poem, a subset, the entire ouevre, or is it the world of the poetry, the character of Catullus, or something else?

The second issue is closely related to the first. What is being extracted and used in the adaptation? What are the rules, systems, and values? This is the core substance of the answer to the first question.

The third and final issue is what shapes or forms should the resulting adapted artifact have? It should express and convey the substance, but adapting Catullus into any medium would necessarily require more than just that, it would require something more, a layering on the original. The question here is: what should be built around the substance, and how deep could or should that be?


It would be good to give a little bit of background about Catullus and the context in which he was writing. The dates of his life are not known exactly, but it is estimated that he lived between 84 and 54 BC. This was during the late phase of the Roman Empire, but Catullus’s death occurred (according to these dates) a good ten years before Caesar’s ascendance to dictatorship in Rome. Many of the notable figures that would later come to clash around the rise of the empire were political contemporaries, and some were even known to Catullus.

It is difficult to get a clear view of Catullus’s life, since there are only a few accounts of him from other sources, and his character put together from his poetry can hardly be considered accurate. It is known that he was a member of the lower aristocratic class, and was friends with several members of Rome’s political elite. He did enjoy some popularity and recognition during his day.

The important thing about this is how we should percieve his work in its context. His voice resembles that of a starving artist type, something like a risque beatnik or a romantic poet. He was a member of a microculture, a circle of contemporaries formed around poetic values of wit and sharpness, and probably had some following of admirers. It is easy and entertaining to speculate, according to his poetry, what Catullus’s actual attitudes and life was like. However, much of what he says is to be taken with a grain of salt. His poems were written not to be kept secret as his innermost feelings, but performed and used and shared. It has been suggested by Daniel Garrison to view Catullus’s poems as being enacted by a persona.

As a reader it is very tempting to view the imagined Catullus as being one and the same as his persona, but this clearly can not be the case, for instance, his claims of poverty. However, many of his poems are also crafted with such intense and vivid emotion that it is impossible to belive that the writer is not speaking directly. As a result, we are left with some mix, where it is inherently ambiguous what is real and what is feigned. It is this, combined with a “racy freshness” that makes him so popular even today.

One of the elements of his freshness comes from style. Catullus’s style is based around the virtues of wit, grace, and brevity. These have become the values and virtues of Catullus and the “neoterics”, his poetic followers. This style is aimed in opposition to the long and rambling poetry which makes up for quality with quantity. Catullus despised poets who did this, and was extremely influential on followers who adopted the sharp and succinct style.

1: What to adapt

In terms of what exactly is the subject of the adaptation, I suggest that a portrayal of the entire world and context of Catullus is necessary to adapt any of his work. His individual poems are short and clear, but they work because they are both elegant and connect to something within the urban world of Rome. His poems are interrelated, and one might go so far as to say that they are interdependent. The most prominent recurrent character is Catullus’s love interest Lesbia. In the poetry, we see that he falls in love with her, engages in some whirlwind of an affiar, and then there is some aftermath of a falling out. In addition to Lesbia, there are several friends and political contemporaries.

We could consider the entire ouevre of the poetry, but this would leave something lacking. There would be all of these references, but they would be unresolved. His poems also refer to cultural moments which would require some additional explanation in adaptation, so the body of the poems themselves are not sufficient for adaptation alone.

What is interesting about Catullus is how modern his perspective appears to be. Through his writing, through the eyes of his persona, the world of Ancient Rome seems immediate, fresh, and accessible. His emotions are clear, and reflect human feelings in their full spectrum. Within his work there is not a single model, a depiction of how things work, but there are captured moments and identifiable situations. These together form something, a perspective. If we think of a model as a particular way of looking at the world, then, context included, the model of Catullus could very well be the world of Ancient Rome through his eyes.

2: The underlying model

What then is the system implied by this perspective? It would make sense for the neoteric values of charm and wit to be included, but it is also worth considering the way in which the wit was used. I will not go so far as to say that wit becomes a currency, but it is something that clearly has a value, and being in posession of a lot of it can enable one to get away with some daring activities. Catullus openly mocked Caesar in one of his poems, but reportedly, after apologising, was invited to dinner by Ceasar the same day. The currency seems to be more of “reputation” rather than wit itself, but wit is used to earn reputation.

Similarly, reputation must be defended by publicly mocking one’s rivals or enemies. Two characters appear in Catullus’s poetry with some frequency, Aurelius and Furius, who seem to be companions or cohorts, but are also rivals. They are subject to both endearing and derisive takes within the poems. The idea of the persona is also an important dimension that must be factored into the model of Catullus’s world. We understand that world through his persona, but he still is a living, feeling agent behind it. The persona could thus be used instrumentally, as a tool for defending or concealing one’s emotions, or as a tool for exaggerating them, or alternately may slip away at times. The idea of interacting with a world through a persona is actually rather like the way a player interacts through an avatar in a game. The difference is of course that the actor and the persona are both in the world, whereas the player and the avatar are in different worlds. The confusion between false and genuine nonetheless is a powerful idea.

Probably the most defining characteristic of Catullus’s world is the idea of “otium” or “leisure time” (the opposite of buisness, or “neg-otium”). At this stage in history, leisure has become a more common phenomenon among the non-elite of the world, and there was quite a lot of it among Catullus’s social circle. The existence of leisure time means that individuals were free to socialize, have parties, and engage in interpersonal and political drama. This makes characters within the world largely free in their activity.

3: A possible solution

My approach to represnting a world such as this is through simulation. The world of Catullus is rich and vibrant, and seems to be a wothy candidate for being simulated. Presumably, the player could take the role of Catullus (probably not Catullus exactly, but someone in this sort of situation), and would have freedom to engage, percieve, and inhabit the luch world of Rome. It would then be possible to write poems that would earn reputation and noteriety.

The important dimension of this is that it should be possible to have more and more rich experiences. It is arguably impossible to communicate digitally the essence of Catullus’s world by only looking at his words. The words are expressive enough on their own, a game adaptation must thus look beyond words to communicate the same ideas and experiences that Catullus described. The best way to do this in a game, I believe, is not to try to tell the player what the experiences are, but to allow the player to experience them himself.

I do not know how to make into a mechanic the experience of falling in love or becoming infatuated with someone from a distance, but it seems to me that it is not necessary to make this integrated into the mechanics themselves. If a player has the option of behaving as though he were falling in love, or has the actions at his disposal to watch longingly an object of romantic interest, and then write about it, performing the poem aloud to a group of characters, I do not think the depth of the simulation itself needs to be worried about.

Reading Info:
TitleCollected Poetry
Tagsmedia traditions, fiction, settings, specials
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Sheri Ray Graner: Gender Inclusive Game Design

[Readings] (03.31.09, 1:04 pm)

Females and Machines

This first chapter examines the relationship between gender and machines. The fact that the game industry caters to boys aged 13-25 can be traced to deeper cultural influences that affect how girls perceive computers. There is an attitude that girls do not want to have fun by playing computer games, and this leads to a larger cultural understanding that the only type of software that women might buy for themselves is productivity software. One of the suggested reasons for this is that girls are usually given only secondary access to technology, this leads to a compounding of attitudes and also a prevalence of boys doing game development. If girls cannot have fun with games, they will be less comfortable, and less adapted to working with computers later on.

Three elements of design seem to be at the forefront of how to design for female audiences. In general, girls prefer activities to goals, to have the computer as a collaborator and not a foe, and have negative consequences allow recovery rather than punishment.

Conflict and Conflict Resolution Styles in Game Design

Ray suggests an interesting idea that gender inclusive designs should allow for indirect competition and nontraditional conflict resolution. Conflict poses an interesting role within games, because conflict tends to be worked into their definition. However, the types of conflict predominantly used in games are violent, and this (I think) is because it is easy to depict. This has become prevalent enough though that designers construe all conflict (and hence all games) as requiring violent conflict.

A similar issue exists with competition. Direct competition involves directly preventing other players (or agents) from winning or achieving an objective. Frequently girls will avoid and shy away from interpersonal competition. Ray gives an example of a focus testing session done by Her Interactive where boys and girls played an early title, but there were not enough computers to go around. The boys would attempt to crowd out the girls, and the girls tended to give up control and withdraw (or standing over the boys shoulders and watching), later articulating that it is not worth fighting over. Ray suggests that the lesson to learn from this is to enable indirect competition, where players can succeed independently and not interfere with each other.

A final observation is of another market research experiment done by Her Interactive in 1995. In this, high school girls were asked to play fighting games, and then were asked what they thought of them. The girls did not like the games, but the reasons they gave were that there was no reason or context for the violence. They did not find the violence itself distasteful, but lost interest in it quickly.

Stimulation and Entertainment

Ray presents an interesting argument that entertainment is all about physiological stimulation. Males and females are wired to respond to stimulus differently. She explains that this difference emerged in humankind’s origination in hunter-gatherer societies. The roles of hunting (occupied by males) demanded response to visual stimuli. The role of women was centered around childbirth and child raising, necessary to sustain the tribe. This role requires powerful emotional responses.

The first thing to do realize from this observation is that games should be emotionally stimulating. Part of the solution to this is the development of a backstory, a story that explains the histories of characters and what their relationships are to each other. This ensures that there will be a groundwork and context for emotional relationships and understanding. The second thing that Ray suggests is to present mutually beneficial situations between the player and other in-game characters. Doing so incorporates ideas of interdependence within game mechanics (something used to great effect in Ico, for instance).

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRay, Sheri Graner
TitleGender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market
Tagsfeminism, games, specials
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Andrew Rollings and Earnest Adams on Game Design

[Readings] (03.30.09, 11:12 pm)

I want to look at this book in two respects. The first is as the book was intended, for application to the design of my lofty Pride and Prejudice game idea. In this sense, I will take the authors advice as it was intended to be received. The second dimension is as a critical view of game design as viewed from the industry. This is not a theoretical text, but a trade text, intended to be applied to the practice of game design. As a work that examines the practice of making games, it deserves critical attention.

The first thing I am really interested in that the authors describe is the relationship between game design and art. While the big name designers tend to be considered artists, the actual practice of making games and doing game design is about craftsmanship. Artistry is about expression, and it is true that games do involve expression (as does nearly any real craft), but the bulk of the work and focus is on the actual craft itself. I think that there is a spectrum between artistry and craftsmanship, between expression and technique, but but the craft side is much more important than generally is acknowledged to be. The idea of crafting also suggests that game design is a process, a skill that may be evaluated and judged, and one that must be improved and developed by practice.

As has been the case recently, my notes stop a little short. The reason for this is that after the chapter on storytelling, the book discusses characters (the discussion of which is better handled in Isbister), and then gets into technical and gritty issues regarding gameplay. There is a brief discussion on moral challenges which is interesting, but my attitudes on moral systems in games have been firmly established. The part following this is a detailed discussion of existing game genres.

What Is Game Design?

The authors present game design as depending on three main supports: core mechanics, storytelling, and interactivity. The core mechanics are the science of the game, the mathematical dimension that form the absolute bedrock upon which the game must stand. Core mechanics are so integral to a game that they often become invisible, pervasive to the point at which their absence becomes notable. As such, core mechanics tend to be the least questioned or developed dimensions of games, to much detriment.

Storytelling as described by the authors is primarily used as a means to create a dramatic arc, which keeps attention and modulates the flow of the experience. As such, the narrative is not the end of a game, it is instead instrumental, the means to producing an experience. I do not think I agree with this approach to narrative, as there is certainly more to narrative than drama.

Interactivity is used to apply to everything that the player can perceive and affect. The interactivity thus lives in visual representations, audio, cues and feedback, as well as the buttons and interface that structure the player’s means of affecting the world. Interactivity is posed as separate from the core mechanics, because the core mechanics govern the math that is internal, while the interactivity governs the user engagement. I think this separation is a little arbitrary, but it can make sense if we view the three pillars as subject to different degrees of intersection. For example, interactivity in Wario Ware games might be considered to overlap significantly with the mechanics.

Game Concepts

Focusing on practice and production, the authors look at some of the basic formal elements necessary in games. These are the setting in which the game takes place, the model of interaction, and the perspective the player has. These qualities lend themselves quickly to generic classifications. Looking further, these can reveal the modes of interaction and behavior, and the levels of realism. The ultimate goal of making games is entertainment. Successful entertainment requires working between audience expectations and the formal game elements. The ultimate and deciding factors for success in this case is economical, how many people buy the game. However, there is also a tradeoff: the idea is to find an audience and entertain it really well.

The authors describe the genres of games (and in fact spend the entire second part of the book exploring them). Genres are stable and used because of what they have in common in terms of their formal qualities, and with the types of audiences who play them, and their reasons for doing so. I find the discussion of genres somewhat stiffling, but their placement makes sense within this volume, as genres exist due to the reasons of marketing, audience recognition, reviews, and retail. Despite the capacity for games to extend beyond the narrow spaces of genres (and they do, especially in independent titles), it is remarkable how ingrained genres are.

Game Settings and Worlds

One of the core reasons behind creating coherent game worlds is to establish a sense of harmony. This is harmony between the world, mechanics, and player. The effect of achieving this is something like suspension of disbelief or immersion, but does not fall within the trappings of having belief of sense of presence. The essence of harmony is an emotional resonance. Examples of games with good harmony are Myst, Half-Life, and Tetris. Games with good harmony tend to be very long lived.

I tend to think of harmony as arising out of a consistency between the in-game world and the fictional world that is being represented by the game. Looking at parts of game worlds, the authors examine the very technical essences required for constructing games. This means the dimension of the game space, how it is perceived and navigated, how objects are represented and distinguished, what the boundaries are and how to deal with them, how time works for the different elements of gameplay, and so on. The authors continue and discuss aesthetic, emotional, and moral dimensions of game worlds, which all emerge from how the model of the game responds to the player activity, and how the player responds to the behavior of the model.

Storytelling and Narrative

The authors turn in this chapter to Campbell’s monomyth, and then to Christopher Vogler’s “A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey.” The monomyth is used as foundation for all game plots. The authors defend the model in that it is meant to be a form, not a fomula, and that the term “hero” can be applied to female as well as male characters. This is somewhat upsetting since Campbell’s monomyth is expressly aimed at male stories. Female narratives are inherently excluded from this model (whether or not the heroes of the stories may in fact be heroines). While the structure is not meant to be a formula, the fact that it is presented as form suggests that while not all games that use the monomythic structure may be successful, it suggests that all successful games must employ the monomyth.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRollings, Andrew and Adams, Ernest
TitleOn Game Design
Tagsspecials, games
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Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogic Imagination

[Readings] (03.30.09, 11:46 am)

The Dialogic Imagination is Mikhail Bakhtin’s examination of the novel. The book describes the novel as a new genre, one that is relatively new and immature. This is despite being written in the 1930s, when we would normally think of the novel as being much more stable. Bakhtin nonetheless saw the novel as new and unique among genres, because of its capacity to incorporate material from other genres, and reformulate and parody them. There are many powerful analogies that can be made between Bakhtin’s study of the novel and digital media. The digital too is young and immature, and like the novel it has the capacity to incorporate, extend, and parody other media. It does this the same way that the novel does, by revealing the structure and patterns of the other genres and media. The digital is uniquely gifted in this fashion, as it can operationalize these rules and reveal their capacities and limitations.

In this work, Bakhtin introduces his ideas of dialogism, which is his approach to intertextuality and the property of a work existing in a constant dialogue with its context. This may be seen as a dialogue between languages, between the language of the text and the languages that make up the world in which the text exists, that the text describes. I would probably call “languages” as he describes them to be “models” instead, as they involve similar terms of particular treatments, interpretations, and understandings of the world. Another term for the complex network of languages within which any text exists is heteroglossia. The term heteroglossia literally means having different languages, but it may be thought of as a state of many interpretations under which a single word may be understood. Bakhtin is reacting to the movement of linguistics that he sees as forgetting the inherent heteroglot nature of language. This probably means Saussurian linguistics, but applies much more strongly to Chomskian context free grammars.

There is a glossary written by the translators which gives a definition of heteroglossia (partly transcribed; p. 428):

The base condition governing the operation of meaning in any utterance. It is that which insures the primacy of context over text. At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions–social, histoiracal, meteorological, physiological–that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are fucntions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve.

My actual notes are rather brief, and I have focused on only two sections: Epic and Novel, and Discourse in the Novel.

Epic and Novel

The focus of this is on the study of the novel, and what it means to study the novel. It is a new genre and its skeleton is flexible, and not hard. The novel has the potential to continue to grow and shape itself beyond what it is now. This may be compared to older genres such as the epic and tragedy, which are old and stable. To extend the metaphor, their skeletons are hard, thus they cannot grow beyond what they are. One may even go so far as to say that their skeletons are brittle, that extension too far will quickly shake a work beyond the reaches of the genre.

The novel gets on poorly with other genres, as it exposes their inner workings and makes use of their forms, incorporating them into itself (similarly to digital media). This absorption not only furthers the genre of the novel, but it also changes and recontextualizes the original genres as well. Similarly to arguments made about adaptation, as well as transmedia, when the novel as a form makes use of other genres, those genres must then be understood in context of how they have been adapted and extended by the novel.

On the subject of adaptation, Bakhtin describes the process of novelization, which serves to make the original genre more open, flexible, and self reflective. It is interesting to compare the idea of simulation and adaptation, as this poses a very similar threat. The novel has the power to expose patterns, show inner lives, and reveal new perspectives in a work, and the existence of a novelized work (whether the original is theatre, epic, film, comic, or so on) requires that the original be considered in context of these perspectives. In a sense, the novel exposes a new canon. Bakhtin focuses on the broader reaches that the novel has over literature: “In many respects the novel has anticipated, and continues to anticipate, the future development of literature as a whole. In the process of becoming the dominant genre, the novel sparks renovation of all other genres, it infects them with its spirit of process and inconclusiveness.” (p. 7) What is interesting about this is that digital media, and simulation especially, has the capacity to do this very thing. It too has the capacity to reveal new perspectives and change how other media and genres understand themselves.

Bakhtin reveals three properties of the novel as a genre. (p. 11)

  1. Its stylistic three dimensionality, which is linked with the multi-languaged consciousness realized in the novel;
  2. The radical change it effects in the temporal coordinates of the literary image;
  3. The new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely the zone of maximal contact with the present (with contemporary reality) in all its openendedness.

The epic has three properties as well: its subject is the absolute past, its source is national tradition, and it is separated from reality by an epic distance. While the epic is about the past, the novel is about the moment. Within the novel time is free and flexible, but is fixed and absolute in the epic. The epic world is finished and fixed, it cannot be re-thought without breaking the epic form.

Epic authority and distance is destroyed by the elements of humor and laughter, revealing the reality and human nature, which breaks the image of pure greatness and potential. The epic presents an image of wholeness, but the comic reveals the inconsistencies and incompleteness. The novel has been the agent of this change, picking up other genres and dragging them to reality.

Discourse in the Novel

I am going to quote the opening paragraph to this essay as it is a good summary:

The principal idea of this essay is that the study of verbal art can and must overcome the divorce between an abstract “formal” approach and an equally abstract “ideological” approach. Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon–social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning. (p. 259)

This essay argues against the pure stylistic analysis of the novel, explaining that the context of the novel is important, even primary, in the understanding of its meaning. This context is developed socially, and thus the novel is a combination of social and individual speech. “The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized.” (p. 262)

Language (spoken or written) is subject to an intersection of not only individual dialects, but also social-ideological languages. Literary language is heteroglot–stratified into many languages. Spoken utterances exist at a strange intersection between forces that aim to reveal and increase this stratification (centrifugal forces), and other forces which aim to condense the speech back into a coherent and unified whole (centripetal forces). The fact that both of these exist means that there is a dialogue between the individual speech and the social speech, between the different languages. Bakhtin explains that stylistic analysis has given no acknowledgement to this dialogue.

In analysis of models and systems, this idea of dialogue between individual and systems has a great deal of potential. In simulation and adaptation of fictional worlds, many systems are being considered, and dialogue must take place between each of them. There are the systems of the world of the author, the world of the characters in the author’s work, the world of the adaptors, the world of the readers, the medium, and the world conveyed via the rules of the simulation. In this sense, the adaptation process is not a matter of hit or miss, or of fidelity, but rather a negotiation between languages and systems to find some reconciliation of meaning.

The discussion reveals the dialogic nature of words and language. This starts with the observations that languages already exist and that things have names within those languages. Linguists tend to forget that language is built on top of existing language, and must be in some fort of dialogue and relationship with it. There is no longer a state where there is no such thing as a thing that does not have some sort of word or phrase already used to identify it. Thus, if something recieves a new term to identify it, that new term must be understood in relationship to the old ones. It is easy to forget this, especially with respect to programming, where the arbitrariness of language becomes absolute. With Bakhtin’s advice, we might remember that even ideas depicted by simulation have words, and the language we use to interact with the simulation is in dialogue with the language that we use to build the simulation.

Bakhtin compares authoritarian discourse and internally persuasive discourse. Authoritarian discourse binds the word to power and authority, and demands recognition. It aims to be considered whole and indivisible. The whole of the word and its associated rhetoric are united in autoritarian discourse. Internally persuasive discourse is incorporated, at least partially, into one’s own world. It has the capacity to awaken and open up new words. The novel is a system for bringing different languages in contact with one other, in doing so, it forms hybrids. In this way, the novel can be considered a tool for breaking apart authoritarian discourse, as it breaks down wholes and redevelops them into hybrids. The novel must be understood in the context of heteroglossia, how the novel has situated itself with respect to other languages.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBakhtin, Mikhail
TitleThe Dialogic Imagination
Tagsphilosophy, sociology, specials, narrative
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Mark Stephen Meadows: Pause and Effect

[Readings] (03.28.09, 4:32 pm)

Meadows addresses the question of interactive narrative from a perspective of visual arts. Meadows himself is an artist and has done a great deal of experimental work with digital media. His approach is strongly reminiscent of Barbara Stafford, and focuses on the roles of the visual and spatial in constructing narratives. The essence of narrative, in his terms, is the communication of a perspective. This approach is interesting and useful from my understanding of models as conveying a particular view and way of looking at the world. His ultimate resolution though seems to describe a spatially navigable world (with narrative environmentally embedded), which seems an anticlimax, narrowing something which could be made more broad.

My focus in looking through the book is on the first part. This is where Meadows summarizes and explains the dimensions and elements of interactive narrative most fully. The remainder of the book describes the relationship between story and image, as well as story and space. Meadows is interested in narrative extensions, particularly alternate reality games, and includes some discussion of these, but my summary does not cover these in depth.


Narrative is about conveying perspective. Traditional narrative conveys one perspective. Meadows’ goal is to expan the notion of narrative to include multiple perspectives (as seen in interactive narrative), and also to broaden the ideas of interaction design, and to emphasize the role of imagery within narrative.

Modern narratives are transmedial and multimodal, weaving text (print), image, video, web sites, games, puzzles, and so on. Meadows gives examples of magazines, television, film, commercial video games, as well as alternate reality games. Gradually, narratives come to exist in many forms and are disseminated over many forms of media. The strongest and most striking example is the alternate reality game, which is used as a form of marketing, but builds up a narrative universe that interweaves with the narrative of the marketed product. These are all described as narrative forms because they convey perspectives, but the perspectives are many and are interwoven.

There are two types of perspective: emotional and visual. These are deeply linked in our cognitive understanding of the world. The relationship between visual and emotional perspective has been explored for a long time in visual art. Meadows gives examples of renaissance painting, specifically Giotto, who obsessively explored the relationships between the perspectives of the subject of a painting and its viewer. Meadows describes Giotto’s process as heralding a “perspectivist” approach, which depicts both the dimensional and emotional perspective of a subject. This approach is dependent on the viewer’s position with respect to the painting. To capture the right moment, the viewer must physically move to the place at which it is possible to best see the work. This lends the process of finding the perspective out to the viewer. Like interactive narrative and games, this activity requires active engagement.

One of the effects of this process is that there exists one correct view of a work, a correct perspective to see, where everything will rightly fall into place. In this sense, interpretation is a regulated and moderated activity. It does entail more freedom than being simply handed a perspective, which makes the perspectivist view a revolutionary one in the face of the authority of the church. In renaissance painting, the church frowned upon unapproved and unsanctioned interpretations, making the act of interpretation a political one. In this sense, there is still a right perspective, but a conflict of power over to whom that perspective belongs.

The perspectivist approach challenges the authority of meaning and the objective interpretations. The elements of perspective are the relationships between foreground and background, context to decision, and the situatedness of artifact and meaning. These elements are common and integral to interactive narrative. Interacttive narrative, in this view, is like a painting in the sense that the reader has the capacity to navigate around it and see inside of it in different ways. This does not seem to include in great degree the internal dynamics of the artifact, though.

Meadows makes an extended argument that software and narrative follow the same rules, and that software can be understood as narrative. This is done in the context that it is authored, read, follows a plot (which in software are use case scenarios), and makes use of a set of metaphors. Meaning in software, as in narrative, is co-created. I find this argument troubling, though. Yes, connections may be legitimately darawn, but I think that it is not as useful to view software as narrative. The effects, contexts, uses, and practices surrounding narrative as compared to (arbitrary) software are incongruous and extremely different. The properties of formal structures (plot or use cases), metaphors, co creation of meaning, and so on, I would argue belongs neither to narrative or software, but are general properties of human cognition and engagement with artifacts.

Meadows describes interaction as fundamentally about communication, which is governed by three principles. The greater the depth of these, the richer and “better” the communication is. Again, this is something I find problematic because there are many kinds of communication, and not all of them aspire toward interactivity. For example, shouting to alert people in a building of an electrical fire ascribes to none of the principles of deep communication, but that does not make it less meaningful, important, or worse than a fluid conversation. The three principles are:

  1. Input / Output – Feedback and responsiveness. The depth and degrees of channels by which input and output occur with the system.
  2. Inside / Outside – Involves a linking between sign and idea. Inside denotes experience, feel, and meaning, while outside covers design, feel, and symbols.
  3. Open / Closed – An open system will come to include more via interaction, it is open toward accommodating additional state and input, and is wholly responsive. An open system should get better with use, whereas a closed system is fixed and cannot change.

There are four stages to interaction:

  1. Observation: the reader reads and understands the state of the system
  2. Exploration: the reader determines what can and cannot be done within the system, and plans an action
  3. Modification: the reader/interactor changes the system
  4. Reciprocal Change: the system makes a change on the reader (feedback?)

Meadows examines some dimensions of design concerns, and the dilemmas that interactivity poses to design. Design requires the treatment of both information and time. This involves decisions, but poses a conflict regarding the role of the author versus the interactor in constructing the narrative.

The modes of interactive narrative were heralded by the episodic story structure, which changes the modes of narration, perspectives, and identification. Episodic stories enable a shifting kind of identification, which often involves a cyclical structure, where each episode returns (at least partly) to its point of origination. This is like interactive narrative in the sense that the interaction has the capacity to return to an original state. It is a feature of all software to be resettable. Meadows gives a definition: “An interactive narrative is a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose, or change the plot. The first-, second-, or third-person characters may actually be the reader. Opnion and perspective are inherent. Image is not necessary, but likely.” (p.62)

Eventually, Meadows gives a review of several kinds of structures for interactive narratives, which may be modal, modulated, or open plot structures. These are presented as networks with nodes as decision points between them. One irritating thing about peoples’ understandings of interactive narratives is that they always involve node-graph models. These tend to almost always produce a spatial understanding and representation of the story. They convey that story is necessarily spatial. I disagree with this. Understanding decisions and paths is a property of analysis, not design. One characteristic about these designs is that they portray the narrative as soley the path or traversal along the nodes as the essential part of the narrative. While I agree that the process of navigating through the world is important, this seems to be omitting the importance of being in the world. When the plots are distinguished simply as graphs, this says that the two plots are different, and that the interpreter makes this judgment and distinction. This undercuts the value of the reader’s interpretation of the space. The reader may see there as being decisions where there may be none in the graph, or not see decisions that are in the graph. The reader may be actively forming attitudes and opinions that are not expressible within the graph structure. When decisions are spatialized, it is often represented that the story world is just a space that can be traversed, where decisions are navigational (as in the “open plot structure”, where each arrow is a double arrow). This is distressing, because if a decision may easily be undone, or if it is possible to navigate around it, then the decision is meaningless.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMeadows, M.S.
TitlePause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative
Tagsdigital media, narrative, cybertext, specials
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Berger and Luckman: The Social Construction of Reality

[Readings] (03.27.09, 10:28 am)

This book straddles a dubious boundary between philosophy and sociology. The subject of the book is the sociology of knowledge, and, from the title, it should be understood that reality is socially constructed. The point of this is a surprising and powerful argument against introverted approaches to philosophy, suggesting that the deep philosophical questions of “what is real” and “what is meaningful” depend not on trancendental truths, but on communities of individuals. Along the way, the authors describe some progressive arguments regarding the processes of institutionalization and deinstitutionalization. My approach to the book is to think of it from the perspective of models and how people imagine and percieve systems. As such, my focus is primarily on the topic of the construction of reality and the objective reality of society. I leave out the final chapter on society as subjective reality, but it should be noted that this is still important despite my neglect. Wikipedia also has a very useful summary of the book.

It should be noted that the book was published originally in 1966, and many of the attitudes and positions the book is being used to challenge are less dominant now. Particularly, this is the case with the transcendental philosophy of knowledge that is criticized early on.

Introduction: The Problem of the Sociology of Knowledge

This book is an approach to reality and knowledge that is in contrast with (and challenges) the philosophical dominance and interpretation of the problems of knowledge and reality. The authors wish to provide some medium between the “man on the street” view of reality and the perpsective of the philosopher. Some of this is dependent on ideas of what may be taken for granted. For the “man on the street,” reality is simply there and can be taken for granted. For the philosopher, nothing may be taken for granted, and it is necessary to question everything to uncover fundamental and eternal truths. The role of the sociologist is to challenge these views and assert that meaning occurs to people, and is dependent on the group who is percieving reality. The sociologist knows that different groups have different perceptions, but these perceptions must be acknowledged (instead of being questioned to yield absolute truths). The sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social construction of reality. In context, this is a rather bold claim.

Many of the base ideas of the sociology of knowledge come from German scholars, most notably Max Scheler (who originated the term), but ideas also come from Marx, who argued “that man’s consciousness is derived by his social being.” Scheler uses some specialized terms, notably “ideal factors” (Idealfaktoren) and “real factors” (Realfaktoren). The authors explain: “That is, the “real factors” regulate the conditions under which certain “ideal factors” can appear in history, but cannot affect the content of the latter. In other words, society determines the presence (Dasein) but not the nature (Sosein) of ideas.” (p. 8) In Scheler’s view, human knowledge and experience is ordered by society. This order informs how the individual sees the world, and because it is socially pervasive, it seems natural. This way of looking is the “relative-natural world view” (relativnatürliche Weltanschauung), a concept which remains very important. It is important to note how the descriptions used here are about perspective and views, which are similar to my approach to models. After Scheler, Mannheim and Talcott Parsons have been heavily influential in the sociology of knowledge.

Deciding scope, the authors explain that: “The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for “knowledge” in society.” (p. 14-15) This is meant to broaden the focus beyond mere ideas, which is the subject of some other approaches. The authors challenge the intellectual distance of theory about the fomulations of reality and knowledge. These are far removed from the day to day concerns that constitute peoples’ realities. The authors take on social reality comes from George Herbert Mead. THe authors see the inquiry as also pushing for a new direction within the scope of sociology itself, to understand the knowledge and realities of socieities.

The Foundations of Knowledge in Everyday Life

Everyday life is interpreted: “Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world.” (p. 19) The section examines sociological implications of everyday life. It is intersubjective, also empirical, but it is not scientific. Commonsense understandings are pre-scientific or quasi-scientific, but are functional and pervasive nonetheless. The authors approach to this is phenomenological. Consciousness must be understood as intentional. People form attitudes toward things, have intentions toward them, and understand things through experience and perception. Understanding of how things work comes from these experiences, and operates according to causal logic, but is not scientifically accurate. This is how naive theories of physics become embedded in one’s mind, because they are reinforced by experience.

Everyday life is embodied and immanent. It is organized around the “here” of the body and the “now” of the present (p. 22). Everyday life may be safely assumed as reality, and this is a domain of familiarity and experience defining a world of connected meanings. Things observed are given meanings and fit within the world, so that they can interact and interrelate with each other. This works until there is something problematic that does not fit into the model. The response for dealing with something problematic is to attempt to integrate it, to fit it into the model so that it is not problematic anymore. Another solution, although it is not really discussed, is to broaden the model. Problems seem to lie on the separate and incompatible nature of different realities. The authors describe everday life as paramount, but I disagree, as reality and domain shifts (a stepping out) may be a part of everyday life. Different realities, in this sense, are domains such as theatre or religious ceremony.

Face to face interactions are extremely real in that they are very present in the here and now. However, interactions are made more distant through the application of categories and functional understandings (a bank teller, a European, a stranger). As such, these lead to further degrees of anonymity as a person becomes less understood as an individual and more as a category. This, essentially, makes the other less real, at least in the sense of interaction. By contrast, in interactions that are intimate and face to face the individual becomes immediately important and generalizations are less powerful. This illustrates another sense in which anonymity can be constructed, and leads to a dehumanization. This level of distancing is also important in online interactions, as well as with characters in games. This suggests that a way to encourage identity is to create a sense of the here and now within the social context.

Signs, and by extension language, have the power to be detached from their context. When recorded, a sign indicates some meaning that was, at some point, belonging to a moment, a “here and now.” The sign becomes something that can be removed from its context and carried elsewhere, where it can be observed and understood without the original moment.

The stock of knowledge shapes areas of reality based on the parts of everyday life that one must deal with frequently. The world is structured in routines, all of which are fine until something problematic emerges. The world has its own logic, and is structured according to relevances. Relevances depend on interaction and have social value and meaning. The world of one’s reality is not simply a single unit that exists in detachment, but it is shared, or at least it overlaps with the worlds of others, because everyday life is a shared phenomenon.

Society as Objective Reality

This chapter is concerned with the existence of the institution and how reality is understood objectively in the social context. The argument is reminiscent of Foucault, that institutions form rules and interpretations for understanding; the discourse of an institution is enclosing. The social world leads to habitualization, and gradually, habitualization gives way to institutionalization. Humans are naturally world-0pen, in that they can shift from one world of meaning to another with relative ease. However, institutions are closed, in the sense that the world of meaning communicated by an institution is encompassing and shuts out other worlds. The authors introduce world-closedness earlier in the chapter, in discussion of the worlds of animals, which are limited and cannot be extended or opened to anything else (although animal play might contradict this somewhat). The authors summarize the objective view of society: “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.” (p. 61)

Institutional development involves the formation of logic, but this is not uniform or individually determined. Logic is social and shared. Individuals take part in an institution by developing biographies that are consistent with the system. (This resonates with Holland, as well as Denzin). Roles enable the self to be understood objectively (a la Mead), and are performed (a la Goffman). Roles enable objectification on the count of others, to enable oneself to be percieved as a type or a category, rather than as an individual. Types are necessarily interchangeable (a la Marx?). Roles represent and embody the social order, and are formed by the same process of institutionalization.

Symbolic universes are a level of legitimization of an institution. The authors explain that these universes are products of a gradual objectification, sedimentation, and accumulation of knowledge (p. 97). Their meaning comes from their history. Symbolic universes order and categorize biographic and institutional knowledge.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBerger, Peter and Luckman, Thomas
TitleThe Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
Tagsspecials, sociology
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Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics

[Readings] (03.26.09, 5:33 pm)

Comics and games actually have quite a bit in common. They share a common trait that they exist on a level of text and images, and they share the common negative characterization as being childish, valueless, and intended for entertainment only. Games are interesting in comparison because they extend beyond the referential level of iconicity and move into the space of systems. I think that the visual language of comics has a great deal of potential to illustrate meaning from games, especially in terms of relating the complex narrative devices used in adaptations. Games that employ a great deal of text and dialogue (before entirely cinematic cut scenes) have often used conventions of comics to convey this dialogue.

McCloud is an important figure because he sees his work as aiming to legitimize comics, and account for the characteristics of the medium, as separate from the content. He goes through properties of signs and signification, as well as story and discourse, showing and telling. These are principally the concerns of narrative.

It is also worth noting that that the medium of comics has been connected to games for a long time. Early games frequently had in their manuals a short comic that quickly illustrated the narrative gist of the game’s backstory. Furthermore, many game adaptations have come directly from comics, and more recently have come from comics, to film, to games. There thus seems to be an affinity of sorts between the two media, and this may broaden the conception of how adaptations might work.

Setting the Record Straight

McCloud’s first step and goal is to legitimize comics. First he looks to identify what comics are as a medium. He borrows Eisner’s term “sequential art”, but the critiques the definition to find out how to examine it more precisely. The definition he finally settles on is “juxtaposed pictoral and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” His goal is to look at what the essential properties of the medium defined by this definition are, beyond the content that makes up work in the medium.

He reviews some of the historical roots of comics, going as far back to the pre-Colombian Mixtec manuscript describing the exploits of “Ocelot’s Claw.” He indicates that this, the Bayeux tapestry, Egyptian paintings (not hieroglyphs), Trajan’s column, Greek painting, and Japanese scrolls all are comics, and form the historical anchor for the origin of comics.

The definition of comics suggested is important for what it leaves out: The content, genre, and subject matter; the materials and tools; the representational rules and constraints; suggesting that all of these are up for grabs.

The Vocabulary of Comics

Comics use an iconographic language. Icons are referential, but they are not equal to their reference. These depend on a language of metaphors and cultural practices of understanding in order to be correctly understood. McCloud describes this as the process of cartooning, which is amplification through simplification. Cartooning strips images down into their essential meanings.

The reason why this works with comics, McCloud suggests, is because of fundamental properties of human cognition, that depend on interaction and identity formation. People will identify with a very simple cartoon, but see a realistic image as implying an otherness. This simplification process is described as being cognitive and embodied. Self awareness is conducted on simplified terms. For example, driving a car involves projecting one’s awareness onto the whole of the car, not just the self within the car.

Cartoons are thus lifelike because we can extend our consciousness into them. There is a transition from realistic to abstract images that occurs on several levels:

  • complex to simple
  • realistic to iconic
  • objective to subjective
  • specific to universal

Words lie in this as well, as words are the ultimate abstractions. Pictures are received information, but writing is perceived information. This introduces a cut along the spectrum of perception to interpretation. A realistic face transitions to a very iconic one, moving from more perceptive to more interpretive, but a description of a face moving from a word to a paragraph moves from simple reception to more active perception. However, moving in this axis, the level of iconicity raises but then declines.

The whole of this defines a system of three axes: picture, reality, and meaning. Comic artists fall within wide ranges of this space through the characteristics of their work.

Blood in the Gutter

Closure is the property of people to complete the missing meaning of something, for instance, imagining that the other side of an object exists when only one side is visible. This is a cognitive property, but also enables images to be understood via small cues. Closure is performed temporally via the spaces (the gutter) in comics, in between panels. This is incidentally the same as the “fill in in the gap” property of narrative in general. To make meaning between a sequence of images, active participation of the reader is necessary to construct meaning and complete the act.

McCloud defines six types of closures:

  1. Moment to moment
  2. Action to action
  3. Subject to subject
  4. Scene to scene
  5. Aspect to aspect
  6. Non sequitur

By far and away, (2) is the most common in American and European comics, but by contrast, (5) is very common and culturally important in Japanese comics. McCloud suggests that this is because Japanese and Eastern culture in general strongly values intervals, with pauses playing an important role in the whole. This indicates an important valuing of minimalism. Western culture is more focused on action and continuity.

Overall, closure is a negotiation between the seen and unseen.

Time Frames

The visual form of the panel has an effect on the perception of time of that panel. Events and actions cause time to stretch and play out over distance. Silent panels illustrate a paused moment, or alternately stretches of time in which nothing happens. McCloud gives a review of the panel language at a technical level, with closed and unclosed panels and bleeds each having expressive qualities. Comics are a still medium that can represent motion, and there are several ways of doing so, by employing different perspectives.

Time is enormously important in narrative theory, and the dimensions that are introduced by comics are really quite astounding.

Living in Line

Lines are used to express mood and evoke senses (this derives partly from Kandinsky, who was interested in the idea of a line being able to stimulate all five senses). Lines are expressive forms, especially around faces. The line has a style and expressivity, which has the capacity to evoke mood and emotion.

Show and Tell

The focus of this section is on words and the image, but it could be extended to include showing and telling in the broader narrative sense. Historically, showing and telling originated together, but became separated over time. With focus of abstract and expressionist art, they turn back together again. A collision of these occurs with Magritte, who indicates the conflict between words and images.

Showing and telling exist in terms of visual versus technical emphasis. McCloud gives an example where a scene is illustrated purely visually, and then accompanied with text, or is only text. Each of these conveys its own meaning, but the combination of image and text causes the reader to evaluate the image in context of the text and the text in context of the image. In this, they become interdependent, the meaning produced by both wholly dependent on the two together.

Showing and telling may trade off, and the ultimate form of comics involves a balance between the two. What is most significant and powerful about comics is the way in which the two may be combined and juxtaposed.

McCloud does not examine in depth the ideas of the conflict between showing and telling literary form itself. Indeed, the text presented in comics tends to automatically assume the role of “telling” because the text is presented clearly and may be simply heard, whereas the image is what must be visually seen. To mix a narrative showing with an image becomes confusing, and the image takes on the role of the illustration, or often the “interpretation” of the textual scene.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMcCloud, Scott
TitleUnderstanding Comics
Tagsmedia theory, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon
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