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Site, life REALLY updated

Hello, world! I’m currently in the middle of a personal Great Convergence – all of the ideas, practices, and people I love are, I’m realizing, connected to me in more profound ways than I ever realized; and I’m suddenly completely unafraid of telling them (and anyone else who cares to listen) exactly what I’m thinking and feeling. Which there’s a lot of.

As you can see, my web portfolio has also evolved. Cjritter.com is now rettirc.net, a domain name that hits closer to home for my life and goals. Its design is in Beta right now: I’ve got a great idea for a new splash page that will act as a central hub for all the site’s content, and I just need to teach myself how to make it in Javascript (which my savvy Georgia Tech students tell me is the hippest, most trends-and-standards-compliant way to make what I want to make). So look for that soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my site’s revisions – on what works and doesn’t work for a reader.

And more to read there shall be. Soon. But as I bustle away on a new book, two articles, and several blogs, you can go to GameOnGirl.com and listen to me gush in a podcast with my grad school friend Regina McMenomy about how my work has coalesced and progressed in the last couple of years, as 1) I’ve had time to digest the staggering amount of great stuff I read in grad school; 2) I’ve reinvented and reignited my teaching by turning to Service Learning, 3) I’ve begun a new business with some colleagues – Lightsome Communications Consortium – which is aimed at improving the communications performance of socially responsible organizations; and 4) I’ve met the love of my life.

Videogames and print culture

Last Friday, I gave a presentation with my friend and collaborator Shawn LameBull to the English department on the significance and complexity of videogames as media. (Here’s an audio recording of the presentation, and here’s a link to the Prezi “slideshow” that accompanied it.) Afterward, Dr. Kirk McAuley, a professor in the department, ruminated on some of our claims on Facebook, and his ruminations generated quite a lengthy discussion that involved several of the department’s professors.  Here’s my response to this thread, which has grown so large that it’d be unwieldy over on Facebook.

First of all, I’m flattered that my colloquium has occasioned this discussion. Trying to figure out the “connections / disconnections between videogame and print culture” has been the biggest challenge of the last four years for me, as I’ve gone from studying literature to videogames. It’s also been the biggest challenge of the game studies field, which is full of English majors but also a lot of folks from other disciplines. Ultimately, establishing what videogames have taken from older media and what new things they offer is beneficial for both books and games, because it gives us an appreciation for the capabilities of each medium. And for its scholars too.

Well, what are the differences between novels and videogames? Patty’s right: we need definitions. So here are a few that have helped me make the distinction.

Story: Any account of actions in a time sequence; any narrative of events in a sequential arrangement. (William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed.)

Game: a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable (Jesper Juul, Half-Real).

The first definition is clear enough, but the second might need some unpacking. Juul does this himself, though I fill in where he’s vague (in italics):

Rules:  Games are rule-based. Game rules govern actions players can and can’t take in the context of playing the game.

Variable, quantifiable outcome: Games have variable, quantifiable outcomes. Games can end differently; the player can win or lose.

Valorization of outcome: The different potential outcomes of the game are assigned different values, some positive and some negative.

Player effort: The player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome. [This is ] another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict.

Player attached to outcome: The player is emotionally attached to the outcome of the game in the sense that a player will be winner and “happy” in case of a positive outcome, but a loser and “unhappy” in the case of a negative outcome.

Negotiable consequences: The same game (set of rules) can be played with or without real-life consequences.

Defining story and game is essential because while a novel contains only stories, a videogame contains both stories and games (or many do – the ones I study, at least).  When you’re moving your avatar across the map, solving puzzles and killing Nazis and so forth, you’re playing a game: you’re trying to achieve an objective, and you’re overcoming conflicts to get there. But when your character appears in a cutscene, or when you read about your character’s backstory, you’re receiving a narrative.

Where videogames get especially tricky is in the ways they combine their stories and games. Videogames convey their stories just like other storytelling media: they contain written stories that we read, movies we watch, radio plays we listen to. But they often intersperse stories with games, and in a variety of ways. Some games parcel out story parts in between periods of gameplay: get to the end of the level, and hear the story of the princess you’ve saved. The player embodies a character in these stories (usually the protagonist), so he has the formally odd but experientially immersive experience of hearing stories about actions he’s just completed. Some videogames will recount a story while the player is playing a game – usually an audio story, like a radio play – thus confusing the story/game distinction even further. And some videogames – the ones I’m most interested in – will change their stories’ plots because of actions the player takes. Imagine a “Choose your own adventure” story, but far more complicated.

Now, the reader/player/audience agency issue. Agency is a loaded word for us academics, what with all its different definitions; but I’m going to leave it alone here, both for space and for my sense of what we’re really talking about here: interactivity. We often say videogames (and all digital media) are unique because they’re interactive, but as Kirk points out, readers interact with novels too. I’ve found this taxonomy of types of interactivity very useful:

Mode 1: Cognitive Interactivity; or Interpretive Participation with a Text

This is the psychological, emotional, hermeneutic, semiotic, reader-response, Rashomon-effect-ish, etc. kind of interactions that a participant can have with the so-called ‘content’ of a text. Example: you reread a book after several years have passed and you find it’s completely different than the book you remember.

Mode 2: Functional Interactivity; or Utilitarian Participation with a Text. Included here: functional, structural interactions with the material textual apparatus. That book you reread: did it have a table of contents? An index? What was the graphic design of the pages? How thick was the paper stock? How large was the book? How heavy? All of these characteristics are part of the total experience of reading interaction.

Mode 3: Explicit Interactivity; or Participation with Designed Choices and Procedures in a Text

This is ‘interaction’ in the obvious sense of the word: overt participation such as clicking the nonlinear links of a hypertext novel, following the rules of a Surrealist language game, rearranging the clothing on a set of paper dolls. Included here: choices, random events, dynamic simulations, and other procedures programmed into the interactive experience.

Mode 4: Meta-interactivity; or Cultural Participation with a Text

This is interaction outside the experience of a single text. The clearest examples come from fan culture, in which readers appropriate, deconstruct, and reconstruct linear media, participating in and propagating massive communal narrative worlds.  (Eric Zimmerman, “Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four Naughty Concepts in Need of Discipline.”)

Given these classifications, it’s obvious that both novels and videogames engender types 1, 2, and 4. Explicit interactivity is where videogames innovate and shine – players have to make active choices and enact specific procedures in order to get to the end of a videogame. To win it.

For me and Shawn, the key part of Zimmerman’s definition of explicit interactivity is the phrase “designed choices and procedures,” because it gets at the most important question that we ask of a videogame we’re analyzing: what are the procedures the authors want us to enact? What can’t we enact? Furthermore, as Kirk and Patty discuss around the middle of the thread, how much can players subvert the procedures that the authors design for them? (You’re right, Patty: cheat codes and mods are a couple of ways players do this. Maybe this is where player agency really exists, if we define agency as the ability to alter a text to our own ends.)

Interpreted in the context of a videogame’s stories and story parts (setting, characters, dialogue, etc.), as well as the gameplay goals, the procedures a game allows and prohibits are symbolic and value-laden. A lot of the time, they represent procedures in the material world.  Combine those procedural rhetorics with all of the visual, aural, spatial, and linguistic rhetorics of a given game, and read those in the larger contexts of representations in other videogames and films and novels and so forth, and you have some understanding of a videogame’s meaning as a text.

So are videogames shallow? Am I shallow for studying them?  The answer’s obvious to me, and you can imagine my personal reaction to Aaron’s comment. However, we’re speaking at slightly cross purposes: Aaron is (I’m presuming) referring to the content of videogames, and I’ve been talking about their form. I’ll freely admit that no videogame I’ve seen has conveyed the intellectual or psychological depth of Proust. Maybe they never will – every medium has its strengths and weaknesses.  Videogames’ main strength thus far is in modeling complex systems, as well as actions and consequences within them. I think there’s deep rhetorical potential there. As for the depth of their stories, give them time: they’re only about a generation old, you know.

Oh, and Todd: we’re working on it.

Diss update

If you click on the Dissertation link up above, you’ll find that it now goes somewhere: to drafts of my intro and one chapter. Feel free to take a look at ’em. You can comment on them too – just email me for site permissions.

Instructions fail

Again I have submitted a picture to FAIL blog, thinking it was worthy of their venerable catalogue, and again I’ve been rebuked. Apparently, they get enough submissions these days that they have to employ a review board. And so the funny Internet picture/video publishing world has come to resemble the academic publishing world. Alas.

Well, this is why I have my own damn blog.

This picture is from the instructions for a coffee- and end table set we just got. It speaks for itself.

instructions-fail

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Sign fail

Screw you, Failblog! This is funny shit.

sign-fail-800-600

Crysis and class warfare

The story of my dealings with Crysis has thus far been a classic case of tweaking and frustration, the kind of stuff that gives console jockeys their best arguments against PC games. Crysis, as we all know, is not of this world; I’m pretty sure it sailed out the window of a flying Delorean. When you try to run it, it scoffs at your system, declaring that it and you are just simply not worthy.

Well, it wasn’t supposed to be that for me. I have resisted trying Crysis until recently, because I knew my poor old GeForce 8600 GTS 256mb was going to fail miserably. But then I got this sexy new Radeon 4870 1gb, the first really nice video card I’ve ever had. No, I’m not all über 1337 – I don’t have two of them in Crossfire – but that’s because I like to preserve peace and harmony in my marriage.

In short, I expected wonderful things from my new card. Fallout 3 obliged, giving me almost no lag on its highest settings. But Crysis did not. On top of that, it developed a very odd and very obnoxious problem after I’d played it two or three times: the game would run okay (framerate issues notwithstanding) unless I hit a keyboard key like Tab or Escape, at which point it would take anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds to open a simple menu.

Searching for support on the forums returned nothing (other than showing me just how many poor saps have problems with this game, and how we players are pretty much left by EA to fend for ourselves with this stuff, like little kids who get “taught” to swim by being tossed into the deep end and then left). But I did find a fabulous tweak guide site, self-published by one Koroush Ghazi, the kind of Internet saint who toils away by himself making free software guides that pick up the enormous slack left by program developers. His Deluxe Vista Tweak Guide is a steal at $5, and taught me more about Vista than I’d learned in two years of playing with it myself and getting little fixes here and there. Wish him well.

So I work my way through the Vista Tweak Guide over a couple of nights and finally move into Ghazi’s Crysis Tweak Guide. Work through it, learning a lot about shaders and volumetric effects and post processing. Get the game to about 25 fps. And yet the menu lag problem persists. Noting a couple of sideways references to Logitech keyboards on EA’s forum, I open up the good old Device Manager to see about my keyboard driver. And, lo and behold, I notice that I’ve got two keyboards installed, using the exact same driver and resources. I delete one and the problem disappears.

At least I had the computer plugged in.

My (embarrassing) lag problem now gone, I’m still faced with the framerate thing. Of course, I could crank down all of my settings to Medium (!), which is what the game does when I hit the “auto-detect” button. But am I alone in feeling insulted when a game does that? Obviously, I’m not enough of a gear head to go out and buy a HP Blackbird, or two video cards. I made certain concessions in the mobo and CPU when I built my rig; I knew that. But where I’m trying to lead to here is something about videogames and class – especially PC games. One of the unique features of the PC game industry is that it lets game developers push the limits of people’s hardware far and fast. There are plenty of advantages to this, quicker evolution of games’ visual quality being the most obvious. But in a realm that already requires a certain amount of class privilege to even enter, the PC games sector seems to have an additional gradation of hierarchy. Or maybe it’s more like four gradations: Very High, High, Medium, and Low. “You can come in,” the game says to me haughtily, “but you must ‘ave ze chicken. We can take you in eight weeks.” Well, I’m here to tell you: I heard that Crysis has a big sore on its lip.

I hate myself for loving the Super Bowl

Here’s some more evidence for why the RIAA should embrace Rock Band/Guitar Hero as sales tools.

Guitar Hero Aerosmith introduced me to the Joan Jett song, “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” It’s an okay song; I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to it. That is, until last night, when Faith Hill sang a re-lyricized version of it at the beginning of the Super Bowl.

Am I the only person that finds that song choice deliciously ironic?

About this blog

Having never really blogged before,  I suspect that a bold declaration of this blog’s raison d’ etre at the top of it might be presumptuous and foolish, not unlike a dissertation prospectus.

Nevertheless:

Sitting in a room of my own under a self-/diss. director-imposed mandate to Write Every Day, I find myself producing all these freewritey things that would, I think, work well as blogs. They’re my early thoughts on stuff that may make it into my diss, and thus, I welcome anyone’s responses to them. Help me hone my thoughts!  Earn a spot on my Acknowledgments page! Or just watch me ramble and cast about.

Since I’ve been spending just as much time tweaking this website over the last few weeks as I have writing, I have a big backlog of potential blogs sitting in my notebook, just waiting to be  posted once there was a place for them. So it may seem like I’m extra prolific for a little while. This probably won’t last.

Behold my new site!

After about three weeks straight of hacking and slashing through Dreamweaver and (sort of) learning a ton of website creation stuff, I can finally start adding content to this sucker. Hmm. Now for the hard part.