Wreck-it Ralph

For this last blog post, I thought it might be relevant to talk about a movie I saw this weekend for my last blog post. Wreck-It Ralph is about a video game villain who doesn’t want to be the bad guy anymore. This is a movie about the negative effects of procedural rhetoric. Because Ralph has to knock down the building, its residents hate him. He doesn’t want to be hated, but the procedure forces him to continue knocking down the building every time. In the end, he doesn’t find a way to break the procedure; instead he makes peace with the fact that he has a role (albeit an unpleasant one) in his community.

Shift to another game in the movie: a rebel video game character from a defunct game succeeds in changing the procedure in game that doesn’t belong to him. In changing the procedure, he makes himself the leader of the game and relegates the true leader to the status of “glitch.” He defies the procedure, but doing so makes him wretched. He constantly struggles to prevent others from realizing what he’s done, and the deception marginalizes the true leader. He incites the other game characters to discriminate against her, and he prevents her from participating in the game.
Since she is unable to participate in the game, she is miserable. Ralph figures out the big secret, and helps to restore the girl to her rightful place, while eliminating the rogue character. All is right with the world again. And the amazing thing to me in all this is how protective the movie is of the procedural rhetoric. Any deviation from the procedure causes chaos, unhappiness, and possibly death. Why can’t the characters in the games/movie break the procedures? Because that’s how they were written. The procedures know better than the characters, and more importantly, the creator of the game is using the procedure to make an argument.
I view media very differently now. My kids were upset because Ralph isn’t allowed to be good. I was pleased that Ralph realized the important role he has to play in the game creator’s rhetoric.

Cow Clicker

As I mentioned in my presentation last week, the facebook game, “Cow Clicker,” was developed by Ian Bogost as commentary on facebook games.  You are allowed to click on your cow every six hours, and each time you click, you earn more clicks.  You can also encourage your friends to play, and then you can click their cows, too.  You can read more about Bogost’s thoughts on the game here.  He talks about four dangerous factors associated with social games: enframing, the idea that people are just there to accomplish tasks for one another; compulsion, the irresistible urge to go back and click the cow again; optionalism, which I take to mean the idea that nothing bad would happen if you didn’t click the cow; and destroyed time.  Destroyed time is a big one for me.  Why do people allow themselves to be sucked in?  Not just to these social games, like Farmville and Mafia Wars, but to Pinterest, or even facebook itself?  What are we getting from these experiences?  Some of these are easier to justify than others, but the Cow Clicker game is so purposefully ridiculous that it draws attention to the fact that although some of the other time sucks in which we engage may be wizzier, they are equally stupid.  I think it’s valuable to be mindful of how we’re spending our time and ask ourselves whether it’s spent well.  The digital nature of these things makes them portable.  We never just stare out the window at the doctor’s office, we play these games, update our facebook statuses, and check Pinterest for recipes.  It’s not inherently bad, but it’s also not inherently valuable.  I love the way Cow Clicker brings this issue out in such an amusing way.  Bravo to Ian Bogost, and I hope that the revolution he speaks to in his article comes about soon.

Procedural Rhetoric

In the first chapter of his book, Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost coins the term “procedural rhetoric.” First he goes on at length about procedure; then he goes on at length about rhetoric. Finally he pulls them together to make the argument that procedures themselves can make arguments. Since I’ll be discussing this in class tonight, I’m going to use this blog post to go over some of what won’t make it into my presentation.
I’m a technical writer, so I document procedures for a living. I also audit procedures, which means that I read written procedures and look for evidence that they are being followed. Both of these tasks are soul-suckers because life isn’t about procedures, it’s about goals. I want, for example, to feed my kids. There’s a procedure for that, and it goes a little something like this: 1) plan menu; 2) go to grocery store; 3) cook food. Yes, it’s a grand oversimplification, but even at that macro level, there are flaws. What if I didn’t plan the menu and go to the store, and it’s already dinner time? What if I did plan the menu and go to the store, but the lettuce is starting to turn brown, so I decide to throw it out? What if I planned the menu and went to the store, but the power went out, so I can’t cook? I can still feed my kids under any of these circumstances, but the procedural rhetoric tells me that I’m doing it wrong.
The procedure, which may be helpful in many circumstances, makes an argument for the right way to do something. So now if I order a pizza, I’m doing something wrong. If we eat cereal for dinner, I’m doing something wrong. If we go over to my mom’s house for dinner, I’ve failed. This is why people hate procedures. They don’t account for our human ability to reason and inject logic and creativity into our lives.
The computer can’t deviate from its established procedures. It is programmed to do one thing, and it can’t reason its way into a creative solution if it hasn’t been programmed to do so. That’s why procedural rhetoric is a topic worthy of exploration: it can weasel its way into your psyche with its intractability. It makes limits your creativity and your autonomy.

Database Art

Check out this blog post about collaborative database art: http://www.labnol.org/software/turn-images-into-pixel-art/12978/.  Download the Excel portraits of painter Vincent van Gogh and play around with it. 

I work for the military, so I deal with spreadsheets every day.  We use them to measure and analyze data, and we share them with one another as a way of backing up assertions regarding the meaning of the numbers.  The wonderful thing about storing data this way, and the reason the military loves it, is that you can use Excel’s tools to sort the data in multiple ways, to drill down to the data that’s relevant to your command, to hide/ignore the data elements that won’t affect your decisions, and to add or delete data at will. 

With this in mind, I examined the van Gogh portrait.  It can’t be sorted and you can’t drill down, because there is no text associated with the cell color.  That could easily be rectified by going in to each cell and typing a code in the same color as the background.  What you can do is rearrange, add, or delete data.  You can stretch or shrink the columns and rows.  In the end, the only resemblance you picture will have to the original is its color scheme.

The utility of this kind of art, as described by the manufacturer of a software that develops software to automate this process, is the ability to customize spreadsheets with logos.  Really?  I kind of think it’s just a toy.  It reminds me of the found poem web sites we’ve looked at, because it allows the use of new media to re-imagine something.  And yes, maybe sometimes something poignant happens, but most of the time, it’s just a party trick. 

I’ve been much more impressed with databases such as the whale hunt, but this pixel art certainly shows that databases aren’t just for the military anymore. 

Go to https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_R-bIhtow3OSmViU25tNTlxa1E/preview for my version of van Gogh.

More on Interactive Fiction

I started playing an IF game called Lost Pig (http://www.grunk.org/lostpig/) because I wanted to write about it for my paper.  This lead to an interesting e-mail exchange with the game’s creator, so I thought I’d share.  My questions are in italics, and his answers follow.  I especially liked how he talked about complicity, which seems relevant based on our discussion of The Barron. 

1) I’m interested in the interactive fiction genre.  Is interactive
fiction more of a game or more of a story?  What makes the genre so
compelling, and why did you choose it as a vehicle for telling your
story?  What did the affordances of the genre allow you to do that a
traditional short story wouldn’t?  Do you think that your game could
be successful in a different genre, such as a story or a video game?

I think that whether IF is more of a game or more of a story is entirely up to each individual author. Lost Pig is definitely more of a game, but (for instance) Emily Short’s Galatea is more of a story (or rather, several stories, since the ending depends entirely on how the player chooses to interact). One of the cool things about the medium is how it can be used in multiple ways to achieve different effects.

In my opinion, the main thing that games-as-storytelling or games-as-art provide (which IF is especially good at, but which other kinds of games can do too) is complicity. Unlike a novel or a movie, a game requires the player to perform the actions that drive the story forward, and if it’s done well, the player feels responsible for the successes and failures that result. This works with humor as well: if the *player* decides to light Grunk’s pants on fire or to swallow a whistle whole, the result can be more amusing than if they were just reading a static story in which those things happened. And that effect is magnified with IF’s open-ended parser because of the illusion of choice that it provides. The player thinks it’s their idea to burn their pants, even though technically I had to think of it first.

I’m sure that one could create an entertaining videogame or prose story about Grunk. But because of those things, it wouldn’t be Lost Pig.

2) I noticed that you won the 2007 IFComp for Lost Pig.  It’s my
understanding that this competition is judged by a bunch of IF
junkies.  What made your game so interesting to this experienced group?
Do you think that IF could be a good teaching or marketing tool, or
is it strictly for fun?

 I think the thoroughness of implementation was a big factor in Lost Pig’s success. It’s very common, especially with games written by novices, to find that the author hasn’t really taken into account many of the things the player might want to try. It can be disappointing to repeatedly see a game refer to objects or situations that suggest a particular course of action, only to receive a generic refusal because the author hasn’t anticipated them. The two main ways to deal with this are to try to give interesting and appropriate responses to things the player is likely to try, and to try to steer the player toward actions that are likely to provoke interesting and appropriate responses. Lost Pig attempted both, and the reviews suggest that it was relatively successful.

I don’t know about IF being a marketing tool, but I have heard about people using it with some success as a teaching tool. In particular, I’ve read about people using it for teaching language skills: interacting with an IF game requires the player to understand what they’re reading well enough to formulate appropriate responses, or else the game can’t continue. It’s almost like every turn is a miniature pop quiz: “OK, based on what you just read, what should happen *next*?”

Author and Reader in Harmony

In “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes argues that we should remove ideas about the author from our interpretation of a work.  He claims that by acknowledging a text’s author, we limit the text; and I think he’s right.  If I were to read a text knowing it was written by a politician I abhor, I would naturally come at it with a negative predisposition.  Alternatively, if I thought it had been written by a politician I admire, I would be likely to try to find ways to agree with the text. 

I’ve often found an author I enjoy and read all of her books.  Perhaps the third and fourth books weren’t as engaging as the first and second, but I’d persist because I believe in the author’s ability to write engaging work.  I might even go so far as to convince myself that something I wouldn’t otherwise enjoy is brilliant simply because it was written by a favorite author.  For example, I love most of J.D. Salinger’s work.  His short story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in The New Yorker on 19 June 1965, is, I admit reluctantly, an exception.  It rambles, defies logic, and is generally smug and pretentious.  I don’t want to believe that, but I do.  And the reason I don’t want to believe it?  I love J.D. Salinger in all his reclusive, brooding, perpetual adolescence.  He feels like an old friend, and I don’t want to dislike my friend’s story.

With that in mind, yes, I agree with Barthes.  By associating good old J.D. with his work, I make it difficult for myself to even know that I dislike it.  But unlike Barthes, I’m not sure that my presence in or ownership of a work is precludes the author’s.  I think there is room for a reader and an author, and there must be!  Because so often it is impossible to separate the text from its author; and in those cases the reader must simply be self-aware and keep her biases in mind as she reads.

The blog is new media too, right?

I’m going to talk about Uncomfortably Honest and Honestly Uncomfortable today.  This is a blog found at http://karencordano.blogspot.com/, written by a high school friend of mine.  Compared to some of the electronic literature and games we’ve been studying, I’m not sure that a blog really fits the bill.  But it’s such an important new genre, and one of the few that I feel comfortable with, that I wanted to discuss it. 

In her blog, my friend Karen discusses the challenges of motherhood, often as they relate to her sometimes paralyzing anxiety disorder.  The subject matter is highly personal, and true to its name, it often makes me uncomfortable.  The diary-like tone adopted by many bloggers makes me feel like a voyeur reading something secretly, and I don’t like the feeling.  I’m a private person, and I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who tell-all.  In our culture, however, telling all is the norm, and not doing so can make you seem like a Luddite.  When Karen’s 2 October 2012 post discusses her body image and especially her fat calves, I felt profoundly upset.  This is a concern that any woman can have, and had I read this in a magazine article written by a stranger, I would have sympathized.  But because I know Karen, I was embarrassed for her.  I wanted to shush her lest someone unkind overhear and make fun. 

This got me thinking.  Karen chose to expose her fat calves to the world.  She must not be embarrassed by them in the same way I am.  Sure she’s embarrassed, that’s what the post was about.  But sharing them with the world is within the realm of possibility for her.  And that means that there are other things that are not within that realm.  I started wondering what Karen doesn’t blog about, and I realized that even something as highly personal as a blog is exquisitely crafted to present a persona—and not just any persona.  It presents the persona the author wants you to see.  So Karen is happy to be seen as an anxiety-riddled mom with fat calves.  And that’s who she is.  But there is so much more to her that she can never express on that blog, yet the blog reduces her.  Instead of making me more comfortable with the genre, it makes me more suspicious.

Promiscuous Design, or Crazy Young Whippersnappers?

I was very interested in the reading in Reading Moving Letters because the question in the introduction, “What do we need to read, to interpret, when we read digital literature?” is exactly the question I was asking myself as I reviewed the digital literature assigned for this week.  I opened the web sites and felt lost and old.  Lost because I often literally couldn’t figure out how to navigate the literature, and old because I felt that if I were 20 instead of 35, I would have been born know how to navigate it.

To me some electronic literature feels like experimentation instead of expression.  For example, in “Promiscuous Design, the seemingly unrelated pictures and meaningless phrases don’t make sense at first.  I say “at first” because I assume that there is sense to be made if you have the diligence to work e everything through to its natural conclusion.  I didn’t have that diligence.  Instead I felt frustrated, like I was reading the poetry of an angsty 15-year-old malcontent. 

Wardrip-Fruin’s distinction between the writer and the computer scientist strikes a chord with me, because some electronic literature screams “because I could!”  In other words, I get the feeling that the piece exists as a way to showcase the author’s talent with digital media instead of as the best way to express a distinct idea creatively.  But Wardrip-Fruin claims that I have to read both process AND data.  I have to see the whizzy underbelly of the project along with the solid, meaningful content.  The meaning of the piece lies somewhere in-between. 

Wardrip-Fruin goes on to advise that readers of digital literature should increase our awareness of the experience brought on by its interactivity options.  This awareness is what has always stumped me, though.  My awareness of the options makes it seem contrived and aggressive.  The later discussion of the computation aspect of digital literature as context is something I am better able to understand.  I’m not ready yet to say how the context is defined by the computation, but from now on when I try to interpret these pieces of electronic literature, I will have that it mind.

Letterscapes: a Creative Response

Letterscapes by Peter Cho is a collection of twenty-six interactive scenes, one for each letter of the alphabet.  When I select a letter from the main dark blue screen, in which small white letters are swirling like water down a drain, the screen focuses in on that letter.  Movement of my mouse triggers movement of the letter. Each letter behaves differently.  Some letters are distorted into individual pixels, but when my mouse and the letter stop moving, its recognizable form returns.  Some letters keep their form but swirl or spin.  Some letters float or fly gently, others lurch and convulse violently.

Cho calls these scenes “typographic landscapes,” but what I see is a child’s letter recognition game gone awry.  As a parent of young children, I’ve downloaded several letter recognition apps for my iPhone.  These apps are designed to show children how the letters of the alphabet look and to allow the child to interact with the letter in some way.  For example, some tell the child how the letter sounds; others allow the child to practice writing the letter with his finger.  Letterscapes begins with the same model.  The user selects a letter and interacts with it.  The difference is that the interaction is essentially meaningless.  There is no deeper understanding that comes from the interaction.

The introduction from the Electronic Literature Collection Volume Two suggests that the user meditate on reference, representation, and abstraction.  I can see where the reference to a known shape, a letter, calls to mind certain concerts: perhaps literacy or communication of ideas.  The changing representation could call to mind the fact that letters are simply representations or symbols which have no meaning outside our culture’s shared understanding.  The abstraction of these symbols could make the user question the literacy and communication of ideas represented by letters.  But to be honest, this analysis is a stretch to find meaning.  Letterscapes didn’t entertain or enlighten me.