May 052009

Edward Picot brings up some interesting points in his latest essay Play on Meaning? Computer Games as Art up on both and the Hyperliterature Exchange.  I’m most struck by this passage:

The insistence on interactivity as an important element of hyperliterature – and on computerised role-playing games as a paradigm of interactive art – has always begged a number of questions, however. First of all, champions of “traditional” literature are inclined to argue that new media theorists are starting from an incorrect model of the relationship between author and reader. Readers do not receive text “passively” – they interpret it, and many modern(ist) texts, far from spoon-feeding their readers with predigested messages, are deliberately written in fragmented, ambiguous or enigmatic ways so as to oblige the audience to make interpretations. If this is granted, then the claim that interactive fiction is “liberating” its readers by re-defining their relationship with its authors begins to look simplistic.

I would certainly agree that anyone arguing that text is received passively is starting from an incorrect model–at least as far as more postmodern or post-avant texts go. But I have issues with the idea that this is one of the strong arguments toward an interactive literature.

In my mind, interactivity and generativity are tightly bound. A New Media artwork in which I can simply move sprites around is boring, even if these sprites do contribute somehow in “winning” something (and I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of “winning” an artwork). I’ve always been more interested in getting the reader/user to participate in the generation of the work itself.  This can happen beyond the interactivity of the piece–any New Media artwork that uses an external datastore is particpatory, if only in capturing the zeitgeist of a particular tag on a particular website. You may not be able to alter the datastore from the piece itself, but the datastore itself is changing constantly.

I have a much more materialistic view of the artwork. Yes, with a traditional book, interpretation will change the way the text is received. The text in the book, however, does not change; it will materially always be the same. A New Media Poem should subvert this–there’s no hope of closure with new media poetry, because the very material of a good new media poem is dynamic.

Picot recognizes this here when, in a discussion on the work of Rod Humble, he states, “To a child, the phrase “Let’s play!” means something different from ‘Let’s play a game!’ The second phrase means ‘Let’s play a game with predefined rules’, whereas the first means ‘Let’s have fun’, and may involve rules or may not.” One of the reason’s I’ve never really explored a game aesthetic seriously in my work is because of this very fact–the very concept of “game” requires the constraint of rules. Rules are stable, and with rules one is given a sense of closure. All games can either be won or lost–which implies that the idea of closure itself is inherent in the game form itself.

New Media theoretician Lev Manovich wrote a famous essay that I think is all-too-overlooked in discussions of New Media art and literature. Database as a Symbolic Form explores the marked differences between narrative art and a database art. Manovich discusses this very point that nags Picot:

…Computer games, for instance, are experienced by their players as narratives. In a game, the player is given a well-defined task – winning the match, being first in a race, reaching the last level, or reaching the highest score. It is this task which makes the player experience the game as a narrative. Everything which happens to her in a game, all the characters and objects she encounters either take her closer to achieving the goal or further away from it. Thus, in contrast to the CD-ROM and Web databases, which always appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material could have been added without in any way modifying the logic of the database, in a game, from a user’s point of view, all the elements are motivated ( i.e., their presence is justified).
Often the narrative shell of a game (“you are the specially trained commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make your way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel…”) masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary “Tetris”: when a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear. The similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic – that of an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to win.

Here is the crux of why I dislike New Media art that explores the game meme. It’s a narrative art, and much of it’s narrative technique, while not linear, smacks of the novel. In fact, I can see where one could write a New Media novel as a game–but poetry is not a novel, is not fiction, and doesn’t require narrative. The exploration of a poem resists closure and teleology at its core–no matter what form it’s in. The New Media Poem is a wild, aimless child.

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 Posted by at 5:06 pm

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