A fantasy in theory

As many of you know, I’m writing this dissertation thing. For this project, I am tasked with not only coming up with some interesting/new/significant analysis of a videogame, but also with an interesting/new/significant way of analyzing videogames. A new theoretical approach. A toolkit, if you will, which others can use after I present it.

In academia, theoretical toolkits are usually packaged in big long chunks of text – books and, for the smaller ones, articles. We’re trained to produce work like this, and it has lots of great features: depth, sustained thought, nuanced argument, careful attribution, etc. However, academic writing (not to mention print in general) has a few of shortcomings that make academics’ theoretical toolkits kind of unwieldy for future users. One is that it doesn’t do nonlinearity well.  Since text is a linear medium, written arguments have a hard time describing nonlinear things, like networks. Plus, historically and culturally tied as it is to print, academic work usually isn’t very good at portraying things visually, or, more accurately, multimodally – using words and visuals.

Broadly speaking, I want my theoretical toolkit to let me map networks: networks of ideological, rhetorical, technological, economic influence that run amongst and between videogames and players. Something that can address a game as text and a social space; that can describe players’ relationships with the game and each other; that can get to larger forces that help explain why players find those affinities with the game and each other. I envision it as a 3D web, like those ones you see of the whole Internet. Each node in the web would be an “agent” of influence: a player or a group of players; a game’s rules, characters, or narratives; the game’s developers; an ideology; a cultural myth; a dialectical struggle. At the heart of the web would be a story – a specific time and place where cultural meaning was made or maintained, minds were transformed or significantly untransformed.

This has me fantasizing about programs. Wouldn’t it be cool if I could make a software program that would let me (and future scholars) create such a map? Like any scholarly theory, the program would contain a description of why it works the way it does, i.e., my basis for my theory. But it would also be functional. Thus, the web it makes would serve as a central illustration of my argument, but it would also function as the work’s main mode of organization: readers would click on nodes in the web and read about the agents in detail. And so the program would let me preserve the best features of academic writing while adding some of the best features of electronic communication.

Could such a program exist? Does one already exist? How hard would it be to make one?

One comment

  1. JM says:

    When I read this, which explains things a little differently than a brief chat in the hall or in the Bundy or wherever it was, my thoughts changed from “help Chris find a visualization tool” to “explain data organization to Chris.” :) What I’m seeing here simply a relational database, and–as I tell clients all the time–once you have data, and structured data, you can do anything you want with it. If that’s creating a read-only display of the tables and their connections, and then the data in the tables and their connections, then so be it. If that’s creating those read-only displays but with the ability for other people to add to it, then that’s a whole other type of application that has to bring along with it issues of authentication and permissions and blah blah.

    But fundamentally all you’re asking is really how to design an appropriate relational database, how to get information in there, and how to get it back out again. I truly don’t mean this in a snarky way, but that sort of thing is just kind of the thing that people do in a dynamic web environment, and often. For me? I do it daily. But I recognize that you aren’t me. For one, you’re taller.

    What I see in your post is you thinking about the end result — the visual display of things. What you want to _see_. But before you can see it, you have to design the underlying data structures–what are the 1-1, 1-many, and many-many relationships that get you to the place where you can then produce the visual from them. The question then remains if this application and its result is, in itself, a theoretical toolkit or if it is simply a content management system that, through its output, allows you to visualize connections that then helps you to illustrate the theory you’re presenting. I have to say that I’m a little skeptical about the former. I mean, if I were to create an archive and a specific set of tools to use with it, there would be theory behind it, and output from it, and theory able to be applied to the output to make new knowledge. But does the archive and its tools function as theoretical toolkit or a methodological toolkit? I consider it the latter. But that’s me.

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