First Person, Games, and the Place of Electronic Literature

First Person, Games, and the Place of Electronic Literature

Scott Rettberg
Riposte to: 

Scott Rettberg, responding to “The Pixel/The Line” (section 4 of First Person) wonders whether electronic writing isn’t evolving into a subspecies of electronic art, one that uses words as material, ‘just as sculptors use clay.’

I teach in an undergraduate literature program, and I recently taught an introduction to new media studies course in which First Person was featured prominently on the reading list. I have been asked to respond to the “New Readings” section of First Person, which includes three critical discussions of electronic literature. After briefly addressing the essays specific to this section, I will offer some thoughts on pedagogical aspects of using this book in my course. I would also like to step back a bit and consider the place of both games and electronic literature in the developing and contested field of new media studies. If “new media studies” is a distinct field, then First Person can be read as a compelling snapshot of the current state of that field, which has broadened considerably in recent years.

All three essays featured in the New Readings section of First Person are exemplary discussions of the work they explore, and each exemplifies a different critical reading strategy. Nick Montfort’s “Interactive Fiction” is a genre study that lays out for us many different ways to think about a genre that many have dismissed as “text adventure,” and can be understood as an introduction to the form, a work of advocacy more than a close reading of any particular work. Montfort’s essay is an invitation to take seriously, and to study from a literary, narratological perspective (among others), the form of interactive fiction. N. Katherine Hayles’ “Metaphoric Networks in Lexia to Perplexia ” is an exemplary close reading of another sort, one that first situates a specific theoretical approach and framework, that of the analysis of subjectivity from the “posthumanist” perspective, and then proceeds to analyze Talan Memmott’s work from that perspective. Hayles finds Memmott’s complex pastiche of poststructuralist theory, Greek and Egyptian mythology, cybernetic musings, and neologistic “codework” a fertile ground for tilling, a “tutor text” to help us build an understanding of the relationship between human language and machine language, the relationship between text and image, and the relationship between human subjectivity and machine-mediated consciousness. Jill Walker’s “How I Was Played By Online Caroline ” is an exquisite example of reader-response criticism, or more specifically reader-response-to-reader-response-text criticism. Because Online Caroline is technically and thematically based on the user’s personal reaction to it, Walker made a wise choice in inserting herself into her analysis of the work. Walker’s actions, reactions and emotional response to Online Caroline serve to help us understand the methods of a work centered on the ideas of surveillance and manipulation.

Among the twenty-five essays in First Person, only a few focus specifically on electronic literature. In addition to the three mentioned above, Stephanie Strickland’s “Moving Through Me As I Move,” lays out a framework for understanding new media poetry including work by Jim Rosenberg, Mez, Jim Andrews, and Strickland herself through the metaphor of the stenographer’s “operation of an appliance.” John Cayley’s “Literal Art” also provides a context for reading specific types of digital poetry, particularly Cayley’s own work, by reminding us that underneath every digital production lay strings, not only of zeroes and ones, but also of written language.

First Person is more focused on computer games than it is on electronic literature. This is not necessarily a criticism of the book. Outside of a few scholarly monographs, few titles have appeared in print that treat computer games in as serious and analytic a way as First Person. The book gives the narrative elements of computer games a particularly sound hearing. Reading the book actually convinced me that it would be acceptable, even necessary, for me to adjust the syllabus of my introduction to new media studies course in order to make some room for the discussion and analysis of computer games. The course as I teach it is both a historical overview of new media and an introduction to electronic literature: Storyspace and web hypertexts, kinetic poetry, serial email narrative, interactive fiction, and other computer-based literary forms. This was the fourth semester that I’ve taught the course, and it was the first time that I decided to include computer games (other than interactive fiction) in the curriculum. I’ve come around to the conclusion that it would be almost irresponsible not to spend some time on contemporary computer games as we study narrative in electronic forms.

Games, having out-sold Hollywood for several years now, are clearly a culturally dominant form of expression. My typical students are quite likely to have spent more hours of their lives playing computer games than they have reading books. If, as a result of their course in new media studies, my students come away with some tools to engage more critically, analytically, and reflexively with the games they spend so much time with, I consider myself to have done at least part of my job. First Person provides a critical framework for the discussion of computer games that students find engaging. The book lays out the ludology/narratology debate and provides a whole slough of structured approaches to analyzing the rules of play and to rethinking the functions of narrative in games that at least often dress in the garb of storytelling.

This is neither to say that computer games have pushed electronic literature out of the new media curriculum nor that they should. While I would argue that narrative and storytelling are key components of many contemporary computer games, ranging from Halo 2 to Fable to Homer Simpson’s Hit and Run to Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, the types of story offered by these ludic experiences are vastly different from those we expect from literary reading. Games often have richly imagined plots and backstories, and a great deal of thought goes into establishing settings and providing photorealistic detail. But the stories provided by games are often simple and wooden, easily abstracted to three word summaries: hero rescues princess, warrior saves planet, or man kills zombies. I’m being reductive, but it seems to me that the essential purpose of story in computer games is marketing. In a marketplace flooded with games, the majority of which are essentially one of the same dozen or so types of games, developers need to reach for tertiary elements in order to distinguish their game from their competitors’ games. Sometimes they do this through graphic effects (one game is better than the other because its characters’ hair looks real as a breeze moves across the screen or its flames flicker just like real flames in a gust), but just as often they accomplish this through the use of a richly imagined or borrowed backstory (my first person shooter is better than yours because the alien invasion is more fully developed, my RPG is better than yours because it takes place in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth). Player characters in computer games are often purposefully left sketchy and under-developed, as Ken Perlin explains in his essay, “Can There Be a Form Between a Story and a Game.” The first person avatar is typically a vacant vessel to be filled by the actions and emotions of the player who purchased the product.

Computer games are compelling objects of study in a literary new media curriculum, not because the stories they tell are any better than those available to us from print novels, hypertext fiction, or any other narrative form - in fact they are typically weaker as stories than most fiction - but because they offer an interesting counterpoint to the questions of agency and authorship that we deal with in discussions of hypertext, interactive fiction, digital poetry and other new media forms. In a printed, fixed, linear form of story, the reader’s agency takes place in imagination, visualization, and interpretation. The textons and the scriptons are typically one and the same. In interacting with works of hypertext fiction, the reader takes on an additional role. While it would be a stretch to think of this role as co-authorship, the reader is making decisions, be they informed or uninformed, which affect the composition of the text that is actually read. The reader plays the role of arranger, in addition to that of interpreter. In works of interactive fiction, the reader does have a limited role as co-author. The interacting reader is actually writing part of the text of the reading experience, and the text-machine is responding to and delivering text on the basis of that input. Many readers, on first interacting with a work of hypertext or interactive fiction, will complain that the work is not literature because the work is not “telling” a story, but instead demanding that its reader play an active role in the story’s arrangement, composition, and delivery. One of the principal challenges for a storyteller in any new media form is to balance the demand for interactivity implicit in any interaction with a computer and the converse expectation that most readers have of fiction, to be told a story.

While reading fiction is not the same type of passive, slack-jawed media consumption as watching the latest reality show on network television, most readers expect the work of reading fiction to be intellectual, internal, and personal. Hypertexts and interactive fiction ask readers to participate in the traversal of the text, in the operation of the text-machine. On one level, the stories told by computer games are more highly interactive than those of any other new media form: the player is usually a first person participant. Within the constraints of the given game, the way the protagonist moves, where she goes, what she does, what she thinks, and feels are all chosen by or imagined by the player, and not imagined for her. As such it may be more productive, as Henry Jenkins argues in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” to think of games not as stories, but as narrative architecture for emergent narratives that are largely created by the players themselves.

In his First Person essay, “Genre Trouble: Narrativism and the Art of Simulation,” Espen Aarseth argues, in response to an ebr essay by Katherine Hayles asserting a connection between computer games and electronic literature, that the “paternity case is rather weak” and that “digital literature is still literature, pure, if not simple.” It seems to me that the question of paternity is ultimately irrelevant. There are ludic aspects of electronic literature, and there are narrative elements of games. We are bound to study the two types of new media alongside each other, at least in environments where narrative is a concern. Ultimately, the ludology/narratology debate is itself productive only in a historical sense. The ludologists have made their point. Games are different animals from narratives, and require their own critical vocabulary. The tools of narratology shouldn’t simply be jury-rigged to address aspects of gameplay that are specific to computer games. The narrative aspects of games, however, can and should be addressed, and the ludologists will inevitably borrow and adapt some of the timeworn tools of narrative analysis to do so.

There is little reason to worry about the future of computer game studies. All claims to the contrary aside, the academy follows the marketplace. The business of computer games has developed on an enormous scale during the past two decades as the fastest growing global entertainment industry. It is only logical that computer game studies have become established within the academy. As the industry continues to grow, it will have needs for practitioners, for theorists, for research and development, and it will turn to universities to fulfill those needs, and will help to provide funding to those programs that do. Computer game studies will prosper because it is a field with clear commercial applications.

The future of electronic literature is more uncertain. A complete curriculum in new media studies now includes not only electronic literature and electronic writing, but also discussion and analysis of computer games, network and digital art, and the cultural effects of a variety of network communication technologies. If four years or so ago, theorists such as Aarseth and Markku Eskelinen felt an urgent imperative to distinguish game studies from narrative studies of new media, that work is by now well accomplished. Yet we still are left with the question of where electronic literature fits both within the academy and within the culture at large.

In recent years, as the discipline of English has engaged in its continuous process of self-redefinition, English and literature programs have become more welcoming to the study of electronic literature, digital textuality, and to the larger notion of “digital humanities.” The mission of English programs is to examine through literature not only where our culture is today but also where it came from. As a discipline, English has traditionally served a conservator’s role, embracing the study of not only those literary forms currently in vogue in the popular culture, but also serving as a kind of historical memory, as a repository of literary forms from the oral tradition onwards. Literature programs are an institutional setting for the study of textuality writ large, and even the most obscure of literary forms eventually finds a place within them. It should come as no surprise then that faculty positions in new media are popping up, here and there, in English and literature programs in universities in the United States and elsewhere. Literature programs should be able to offer students the opportunity to study weblogs alongside Spenserian sonnets, hypertexts in addition to chained renga. The study of electronic literature might help us to understand what is becoming of our language and our culture as our lives are increasingly mediated by network communication. The readings performed by Hayles, Montfort, and Walker in First Person are valuable contributions to the study of forms of electronic literature that, in the context of the culture writ large, are just as obscure as Jonson’s masques. These works of hypertext, interactive fiction and hybrid multimedia narrative are worthy of study not because they are becoming culturally dominant in the same way as computer games, but because they are literary forms native to the computer, because they stretch the medium in which they are based to make room for literary experience within it.

At the same time as the odd new media course is popping up here and there within literature curricula, art programs have fully embraced new media to the extent that it is now unusual for a university art program to not have at least one practicing new media artist on staff. Last summer I attended the 2004 International Society for Electronic Arts conference, which included more than 1,500 participants. I was somewhat shocked by the immensity of the field. Even the largest conference I’ve attended which focused on electronic literature included no more than 200 participants. I suppose it isn’t particularly surprising that the art world, which cycles through new movements quickly and which has long embraced a diversity of approaches and media, would lead the academy in adopting computer and network-based art forms.

While new media finds some acceptance in literature programs and a hearty embrace in art programs, the reactions of creative writing programs to new media have been considerably less charitable. The United States, which has hundreds of MFA programs in creative writing, offers no creative writing programs dedicated to electronic writing. Even Brown University, which has offered workshops in electronic writing longer than any other university and now has an MFA fellowship in electronic writing, does not have a single full-time faculty member devoted to electronic writing. Perhaps this is because the MFA in creative writing is ultimately a professional degree, designed to produce published writers and writing teachers who will go on to work in other MFA programs. Most poets, for instance, would never hope to sustain themselves on the mass-market sales of their writing. But there is a publishing economy involved in their craft, there are institutional systems in place that acknowledge and reward achievement in poetry, and there are jobs for successful poets. It is possible to be a career poet in a way that it is not possible to be a career electronic writer.

From the standpoint of developing the corpus of electronic literature and a context in which it can be studied, critical writing about electronic literature, such as the three new readings in First Person, is of vital importance, but the production of new works of electronic writing by talented creative writers is even more crucial. In a recent report, an institution no less than the National Endowment for the Arts has declared a decline in literary reading, and placed at least part of the blame for that decline on time spent interacting with the networked computer. It seems to me that there are clear cultural benefits to creating more works of electronic writing for the networked computer. If literary reading in general is in decline, and the time we spend on the network is partially to blame, shouldn’t we then have more literary reading experiences on the network, to be read in that media-specific context?

There will always be some writers willing to spend time writing and developing new kinds of literary reading experiences for the networked computer. At present however there is little in the way of support for those endeavors, at least not in any of the ways that writing has traditionally been supported by the culture at large. There are no best sellers in the world of electronic literature, there is no Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award, and ultimately, there are no specific jobs for writers who choose to make electronic writing their vocation. Writers don’t typically write with an institutional context in mind. Writers create in order to give voice to their ideas, using the appropriate tools at their disposal. But without an institutional context, their efforts cannot be sustained in the way that they should be.

So what will become of electronic literature? It’s my guess that electronic writing will end up living and growing where institutional shelter is provided to it. At this point it seems likely that electronic writing will not find an institutional home in creative writing programs, but rather in studio art programs. Perhaps it’s a bellwether that both Michael Joyce, author of the influential first hypertext fiction, afternoon, a story, and Mark Amerika, author of the prominent early network hypertext Grammatron, now find their audiences in the art world. It is entirely possible that electronic writing will become a subspecies of electronic art, one that uses words as a material, just as sculptors use clay. While this is not the worst-case scenario, certainly other narrative forms orphaned by the literary establishment have found shelter and prospered in that world, I believe that something will be lost if this turns out to be the case.

Efforts can be made to make room for electronic literature in literary contexts. Organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization, trAce, Turbulence, and the Institute for the Future of the Book can work to make electronic writing more widely disseminated and accessible. Prizes such as the Electronic Literature Award and the trAce/AltX prize could be renewed to help develop a way of acknowledging and rewarding exceptional works of electronic literature. Critics and educators can share their pedagogical strategies for the study of electronic literature in literary contexts. Funders such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and major foundations could invest in the development of electronic literature. At least one or two creative writing programs could have the courage to break the assembly line mold of workshop writing that more often than not results in the production of still more well-crafted stories of middle class suburban life, to try to help invigorate electronic literature with carefully crafted works. Ultimately, of course, the deciding factor will be the writers themselves. Their ongoing efforts will determine whether electronic writing develops into a vibrant sector of the literary landscape or whether it languishes into an anomaly, an interesting but minor literary movement that developed near the end of the twentieth century and withered sometime during the dawn of the twenty-first.