Texts and Tools

Texts and Tools

Daniel Punday

Bringing the queston of ‘textuality’ into the cyberdebates, and refusing the conservative oppostion between contemplative reading and gaming, Daniel Punday argues that critics should embrace spinoff culture as a model for electronic writing.

Recent exchanges on the ebr about the nature of electronic discourse have circled around the question of which concept provides the most powerful way of describing writing in new media: hypertext or cybertext. blue thREAD to ‘electropoetics’ Underlying this debate is a fundamental if complex question: what is the nature of textuality in an electronic medium? Espen Aarseth coined the term cybertext; he uses the example of computer games to suggest that electronic text is essentially computational, and that the text we encounter when reading or playing is the product of a hidden and more basic structure by which this textual surface is created. The cybertext, as Nick Montfort and Markku Eskelinen have recently argued, is first and foremost a machine for creating textuality. Defenders of hypertext such as Katherine Hayles note that the appeal of serious literary works in an electronic medium frequently depends on the actual writing that we encounter, and that no matter how we access this material it remains the fundamental ìstuffî of our experience in reading. Hypertext, then, is first and foremost writing produced by a human being, whose access may be manipulated productively by a carefully constructed structure for reading. See the exchange in the ebr between Nick Montfort (“Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star”), Markku Eskelinen (“Cybertext Theory”) and Katherine Hayles (Cyberliterature and Multicourses,”What Cybertext Theory Can’t Do”).

Throughout this debate the element that goes undiscussed - the ìgivenî of the debate, if you will - is textuality itself. That is, critics have largely assumed that electronic writing is a special form of textuality, and that understanding it means pinning down its essential similarities with and differences from other forms of textuality. While Lev Manovichís discussion of new media (reviewed by geniwate in ebr) from the tradition of film comes to mind as a treatment that deemphasizes textuality and writing, Manovichís discussion is certainly the exception to the rule. See Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). Perhaps most typical of the emphasis on textuality is the collection of essays edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

It is difficult to argue with the idea that theorizing electronic writing means coming to some consensus about a particular form of textuality. So much of our practice in literary and cultural criticism in the last twenty years has been influenced by the poststructuralist claim that ìthere is nothing outside the text.î That is, every question of writing and interpretation, of culture and identity, boils down to a question of textuality. To suggest otherwise is to swim against the current not only of discourse about electronic writing, but of literary and cultural theory in general.

In this essay, I would like to consider briefly what happens when we shift our discourse about electronic writing from an issue of textuality to one of tools.


In his cranky defense of traditional reading in contemporary media culture, Sven Birkerts offers the following summary of the forces affecting the way his five-year-old daughter will think about reading:

We [her parents] buy books, borrow them from the library, and read to her regularly. But we also try to avoid any association of the medicinal - that books are good for her and that reading is a duty. So far it seems to be working. She is eager; she recognizes that books are a place away from routine, a place associated with dreams and fantasies.

On the one side, then, is the reading encounter, the private resource. On the other is the culture at large, and the highly seductive glitter of mass-produced entertainment. We are not so foolish as to prohibit it, but I sometimes wonder if we are being as wise as we might be in not curtailing it more. We have entered the world of Disney, and I am seized by the fear that there might be no way out. This past season it was Beauty and the Beast. I donít just mean that we saw the movie in the theatre once or twice, which would have been the beginning and end of it when I was a child; we saw the movie three, four, five times. We bought the book, illustrated with stills from the movie, and we read that, and looked through it, half a hundred times. The cassette of the songs was purchased and played until the emulsion on the tape wore thin…. Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994) 29.

Birkerts goes on to enumerate further examples of the repackaging of this Disney film, and concludes that ì[t]oday as never before in human history the child lives in an entertainment environment, among myriad spinoffs and products and commercial referencesî (29-30). It is easy to conclude that Birkerts is clinging to a sentimentalized idea of reading, and perhaps tempting to offer up some other form of textuality as an alternative. This is precisely what critics do when they celebrate electronic writing as a more challenging form of reader participation in the text. For a good overview of the problems of this equation between electronic writing and “interactivity,” see Marie-Laure Ryan’s Aarseth-inspired discussion of interactive, electronic, and ergodic texts in Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interacticity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 206-210. To do so, however, is to accept the terms for the debate that Birkerts provides.

What if, instead, we refuse the terms of Birkertsís opposition? What if we embrace spinoff culture as our model for electronic writing?

One of the most common rhetorical moves in the hypertext/cybertext debate has been to suggest that the best and most challenging example of new media is the computer game. Itís not hard to see why: computer games are not only unique to this new medium, but evidence the widespread appeal of computer-mediated creative products. Having noted that new media critics depend on the idea of textuality, it should be no surprise that the games most often discussed by these critics are texts. I do not mean that these games always have writing and typing as a key component. Although they frequently do - think of Aarsethís discussion of Deadline in Cybertext - I am more interested in the fact that these games are almost universally free-standing creative products. Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 115-28. That is, each one is a text. This wouldnít be remarkable except for the fact that much of the energy within the game industry arises not out of such free-standing games, but out of games built either around multiplayer platforms, or that reach out to broader creative communities. Because it seems to me that the latter offers a better example of the kind of creative practice that Birkerts dismisses, I would like to spend some time in this essay considering what happens if we put these types of games at the center of our new media discourse.

Let me offer as an example a game released this year that garnered yearsí worth of anticipation in the gaming community, but which is likely to attract little attention from new media critics: Neverwinter Nights. This game is one of many computer role-playing games that takes as its starting point the venerable Dungeons and Dragons rules. The game itself ships with a ìstoryî that follows the heroic adventures of single player - precisely the sort of story that critics developing a poetics of the cybertext might parse for narrative and gameplay elements. But if we were to do this, we would almost entirely miss what has made players so excited about the game. This is because Neverwinter Nights also includes a toolset that allows players to design ìmodulesî that other players can then run as stand-alone storyworlds. The single-player story that ships with the game is essentially such a module - albeit on a large and sophisticated scale. The toolset is organized around designing spaces (a tutorial is provided here: http://nwn.bioware.com/builders/toolsetintro.html). Designers begin by defining a starting space of a modest size - such as a room within a building - and selecting a terrain-type, and can then place objects and creatures within those spaces. These smaller spaces are then linked together by emplacing doors and other transition points. Essentially, these spaces function as potential narratives to be encountered as players move characters through them. Certain locations within a space, for example, can be set to trigger events when players pass near or over them; creatures can be defined as friendly or hostile, and can be set to respond with particular dialogue options when characters approach. Sounds are keyed to locations as well, so that as characters move through the space some environmental sounds (for example, wind) become louder while others (the chirping of a bird) gradually fade away. Within weeks of the gameís release dozens of fan sites had sprouted up around the internet (like http://nwvault.ign.com/index2.shtml). These sites collect player-authored modules, organize players together for online adventuring in such modules, and give tips for fine-tuning storyworld design.

Neverwinter Nights is a more complex textual object than the games that provide the fodder for most analysis of electronic narrative. Indeed, what makes Neverwinter Nights interesting is that it is less a text than a tool providing a way for players to construct storyworlds for others to use. Although new media critics might well ìreadî the individual modules produced in terms of their textual structure, very little of the text-based analysis that has been developed by critics applies well to such a tool in general. To understand a text is to analyze its component parts and systems of organization; to understand a tool is to analyze the forms of production that it makes possible. When I suggest, then, that we treat a game like Neverwinter Nights as a tool, I am emphasizing the uses to which it can be put, rather than a set of structures implicit within it. While uses are determined in part by structural features of the tool, precisely what is interesting about a tool is its range of possible uses.

Neverwinter Nights is perhaps the most extreme version of an evolution of games towards community involvement and authorship that, it seems to me, is best categorized under the concept of tools. Quite a number of games include toolsets that allow players to construct the equivalent of Neverwinter ‘s modules: from historical strategy games such as Microsoftís popular Age of Empires series to childrenís puzzle games such as Humongous Entertainmentís Freddi Fish and Lutherís Maze Madness. The principle of encouraging players to become game authors by giving them building tools goes back at least to Doom, J.C. Herz discusses the importance of releasing the source code for Doom in Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts, and Rewired Our Minds (Boston: Little, Brown, 1997), 89-90. but is perhaps most evident today in the online community that has grown up around The Sims. Although this game doesnít include an explicit toolset as part of the game, the publisher provides tools on its website ( http://thesims.ea.com/us/index.html) and sponsors ìThe Sims Exchangeî for trading user-developed objects.

As is evident in the cases of Neverwinter and The Sims, player participation in the authoring of worlds and objects is an essential part of the attraction of these games. This is an appeal that can be traced back to MUD and MOO play, where online participants in virtual spaces frequently become authors of objects or spaces in this world. Part of the enjoyment of these spaces is developing a world whose history is marked by the objects left within them. Indeed, one could argue that the moment that players join such online communitites they are authoring objects, since they usually write a description of themselves that other players see, and thus appear in this virtual space as one of many objects. Although the resulting spaces are textual and can be analyzed as examples of hypertext or cybertext, doing so misses the point of the way in which players participate creatively. It isnít, I think, so much that we have a peculiar kind of text that demands reader participation; rather, we have a kind of creative practice that turns to these games and online communities as tools for expression and participation.

The creative practices that have grown up around such tool-based games seem to me to be part of a broader spinoff culture that Birkerts dislikes. Observing the fan communities that have grown up around multimedia franchises such as Star Wars or Star Trek, Henry Jenkins describes what he calls ìparticipatory cultureî in which fans discuss and rewrite such popular films and television shows. For him, ìThe ongoing process of fan rereading results in a progressive elaboration of the series ëuniverseí through inferences and speculation that push well beyond its explicit information; the fansí meta-text, whether perpetuated through gossip or embodied within written criticism, already constitutes a form of rewriting.î Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992), 155. Jenkins captures here a type of creative practice that takes a text as its starting point, but which treats that text merely as a vehicle for expression and commentary. These starting texts, in other words, become tools by which fans accomplish something quite different from the original intentions of the screenwriters. To talk about the resulting fan writing as texts is to miss, I think, what is most interesting: not the structure of the writing, but the nature of the practice that produces it. Treating both fan writing and games such as The Sims as tools instead of texts is a way to capture the importance of these practices.


The participatory practices I have described need not, of course, involve electronic media; indeed, many of Jenkins’s texts are decidedly low-tech. But it should be clear that the ease of exchanging information electronically coupled with the inherent connection between new media and editing has helped to combine the two into an evolving tool aesthetic. Manovich describes new media objects as essentially “modular” (30) and available for “transcoding” from one text into another (45-48).

Claiming that new media objects demand more activity from the reader is as old as arguments about hypertext. But in describing these games as tools, I am trying to identify a particular reading activity based on construction rather than choice. Texts may provoke response and raise questions, but the reader can make only so much out of the given topics and situations. Even hypertext fiction gives readers only a limited range of choices, usually between one or another narrative strand. Underlying this way of thinking about reader participation is the assumption that a readerís choice investigates a fixed body of textual events. It is for this reason that Aarsethís suggestion that ìintrigueî structures the position of the player in adventure games has so often provided the best example of the concept of cybertext; here the task of investigating ìa secret plot in which the user is the innocent, but voluntary targetî (112) comes to embody the traditional ways of thinking about electronic writing.

When games function as tools instead of as texts, players are asked to bring interests and concerns that shape experience of play, and that produce various texts as a result. This is partially implied in Ryan’s discussion of the “virtual” as potential rather than simulacrum in Narrative as Virtual Reality. Ryan considers the similarity between virtual and toolmaking (38), but does not consider textuality the fundamental term in discussing electronic media. This is a fundamental break from the textual assumptions that underlie even the most radical electronic poetics. Writing against what he takes to be Katherine Haylesís argument that codework poetry is essentially a string of free signifiers that read like text, N. Katherine Hayles, “Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers,” Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation, ed. Timothy Druckery (New York: Aperture, 1996): 259-77. John Cayley (“The Code is not the Text (unless it is the Text”)) offers the cybertextual suggestion that codework poetry deploys a duality of textual levels, what he calls ìa pretended ambiguity of addressî shifting between machine and human reader. Even writers of such challenging texts still think of themselves as producing texts to which readers are asked to respond rather than contribute. Rita Raley (“Interferences: [Net.Writing] and the Practice of Codework”) remarks about the political implications of radical codework writing, which hopes ìto awaken us to ñ also to comment upon and recompile ñ the varied and various data streams that we engage, filter, and disregard while multi-tasking.î Despite the radical goals she describes, Raley locates codework poetry in the artistic traditions of e.e. cummings and Dada, and suggests that codework is one in a long line of textual and art objects.

We may do better, however, to think of making art in this medium as producing tools for reader participation - as in, for example, electronic works like M.D. Coverleyís web mystery project, M is for Nottingham (http://califia.us/IncubationDrama/), where readers join as investigators and writers, producing the text at the same time that they investigate the mystery. The mystery was developed first on the web, and then performed at Traceís Incubation 2 conference in Nottingham. Conference attendeed were ìinvited to join the drama on the Web”; once there, “at the Website,” players chose a persona, “either a ëstock characterí or one they create”; at the Website they could then collaborate in the “writing of the action, insights, and dialog for the mystery plot”; upon arrival in Nottingham, the investigations continued, and lastly, “on the appointed evening,” players and audience met for the denouement in (where else?) the “conservatory.” “Some alert sleuths,” the author/organizer wrote, “may notice actual persona of the drama in costume during the events of the conference.î Such a writing event is far more interactive than any fixed text - whether hypertext or cybertext - can be.

But even such a project does not go far enough; it hints at tool-based creativity practices without really moving away from the centrality of the text itself. If we think of the games that have leant themselves most successfully to user toolsets, we might notice that all of them have a strong spatial sense. Probably The Sims is the best example: here is a game all about designing a space and filling it with objects. Likewise, MUDs are essentially spatial constructions even though they are created out of words. The spatial quality of these tool-based games shouldnít really be surprising; we might recall Brenda Laurelís insistence on computer interface as a form of theatre in which human activity is staged. Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1993). Space is essential to Laurelís theory because it defines the computer as a medium for creative activity. The games that I have been discussing here, likewise, offer an essentially paradoxical space, since they are constructed in very personal ways to be shared with others. The space of these games quite literally embodies the act of reaching out: extending yourself in space at the same time that you represent that space and offer it up to others to play in. This is why the kind of tool model that I am suggesting for studying new media applies better to games than to more traditional editing software like Adobe’s Photoshop. Although a program like this is a tool for creativity, and although it may be a vehicle through which many people might exchange their work, it lacks the representational space that Laurel describes, and thus functions much more as a traditional artitstic tool such as a paintbrush or camera.

I hope it is clear that I am not suggesting that such forms of creative play are better than the types of creativity prompted by the reading of a text. Tools, it seems to me, are less limiting in the types of creative responses they prompt and the variety of their uses. Tools dictate a style of creativity rather than a topic or subject. A paintbrush, for example, provides very few limits on what can be represented, but that lack of direction does not render our tool-using creativity any less rich or powerful. As any amateur artist knows, it’s much easier to make a bad painting (using the paintbrush as a tool) than it is to have a bad reading of a novel (using the text as a starting point for interpretive response). However, precisely because tools provide very little internal direction for their use, they tend to create communities of people who share an interest in exploring these possible uses.

The image of creativity that I have in mind is perhaps best summarized by Charles Altieriís suggestion that some postmodern poetry ìbecomes actual habitation, a directly instrumental rather than contemplative use of language. Charles Altieri, Postmodernisms Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 35. The paradox of building a space at the same time you build yourself recalls the way that Foucault uses the word technology in his later work to define a ìmatrix of practical reason,î or a productive form of regulation. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, ed. Luther H Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 18. Foucault, of course, is most interested in technologies as a way of thinking about how political power operates so as to direct individuals in the construction of social, intellectual, and moral identities. The paradox is clear, I hope: technologies in Foucaultís sense are tools that we use to construct (among other things) ourselves. In calling the tool-like games that I have been discussing in this essay technologies, Iím trying to suggest a similar productivity that ultimately folds back onto the self. Computer-based writing tools provide a means of self-expression, but also involve creating a space in which the self is staged and limited by the statistical and logical limits of the storyworld. One expresses by constructing a world that shapes and delimits how one can play.

Thus far, it has been mostly the gaming community that has embraced the tool function of electronic texts; by and large they have used these tools unabashedly for entertainment, often of the most escapist sort. It remains to be seen if the writers and artists associated with ìserious hypertextî and other new media forms will develop an interest in such tools and the kinds of communities that form around them. To do so, however, seems to me one of the most important directions for new media, a direction that promises to transform how we think about creativity, authorship, and - yes - textuality.