Tag Archives: agency

ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.

Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.

I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory.  In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a  certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.

His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.

Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.

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ENG 730: Atari, Design Constraints, and Ecology

Thinking through Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, I was reminded a bit of some of the conversations we had last class regarding design and the material constraints that technology imposes.

I think the role of hardware struck me particularly with questions of porting. As they write regarding Pac-Man‘s port to the Atari, “Porting a graphical video game from one computer platform (the arcade board) to another (the Atari VCS) does not demand a change in fundamental or representational of functional mode.  Both versions are games, rule-based representations of an abstract challenge of hunter and hunted. Where the two versions diverge is in their technical foundations–in their platforms” (67).

This is a key observation, as it hits at the material implications of replicating player experience or game cohesion across platforms. The invention process of remaking a game for a different system requires ample creativity when the systems are different enough–particularly in graphic affordances and machine communication.  In this way, the designer is not making new content or rules, but they are making a new means to express the content or rules, a new way to interface with the machine to attain a similar end. With this situation in mind, I think about parallels with translation or transcription, but I wonder how far those alphabetic, or at least textual, metaphors can apply in this case. In both cases, one is working in different systems, but the technology of a semiotic system differs from the technology of a video game hardware.

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CCR 633: Multimodality, Part 2

Chapter three begins with the “prosumer,” an idea that Alexander and Rhodes borrow from Daniel Anderson. The “prosumer,” they describe, is “a convergence of the consumer and the professional in terms of new media tools” (106). Many new media tools allow consumers, formerly just receivers, to produce products, thereby acting as professionals. This, in turn, allows a more critical focus on production, as it is no longer black-boxed behind the usual channels, but in the hands of the consumer.

This similar idea–that of consumer as professional or producer–also connects with the Situationalist notion of “détournement,” a form of “pillaging or appropriation,” as Frances Stracey describes (qtd. in Alexander and Rhodes 112).  The Situationalists argued that capitalism had the constant need to project a “spectacle” of needs that inspire consumers to thirst after products, so people should critically produce to counter this.

Alexander and Rhodes connect these ideas to current DIY movements, but emphasize the “critical” dimension of this production. In other words, it’s not simply enough to be critical, in a humanities sense, or to produce; one must use production in a critical way, engaging in multimodal production through new media tools. They provide the example of images that grew in “excess” from their work that argue their work or ethos as “queer rhetoric” scholars in different ways.

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ENG 730: Auteurs and Capital

In composition studies, a recent move to designer over author has started to take place in some areas of the field, and I think the readings present and interesting addition to this, as in composition studies this shift is often made in terms of “marketable skills,” reflecting the role of labor and capital in education.

But more to the readings. I find the notion of author or designer often has a tension with the Romantic creator view and the skillful rhetor responding to an situation. In this context, I feel like Miyamoto presents a nice case study. On the one end, as diWinter seems to argue, he has particular views or focuses that flow through his work, presenting a more Romantic, or expressivist, author function:

  • “The strong connection to childhood and joy;
  • The influences of nature and the natural world; and
  • A desire to share a common feeling— kyokan— so that designers can feel closeness with players and players can be immersed in the experience of the game.” (1)

One can see, for example, how the “violence” in Super Smash Brothers, is rendered in the more contest-oriented approach like Sumo and not in terms of the violence of other games, or how Mario’s “violence” is more cartoonish and comical. This reflects the connection to joy and fun. And the abundance of caves and wonder that stud Miyamoto’s work reflect his own childhood experiences, as his own quotes argue, with childhood and the natural world. Regarding the last point, diWinter argues how Miyamoto, especially later on, uses experiences from his everyday life, like fitness or gardening, to inspire his work.

All of these design traits do seem to have a rhetorical deliberateness, even with the team-oriented approach, as John points out, that games have.

But on the other end, the market also informs design. Constructing Mario based on the Game and Watch controller not only presented a design constraint and philosophy; it also made good market sense. When Miyamoto was recruited to save the Wii, that was market-based pressure. And while his own experience of exercise informed Wii Fit, reflecting his design philosophy, it also opened up an important market and was framed in this way.

These market and labor forces are even more strongly articulated in the other works. For example, as Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter argue, “The ‘militainment’ of America’s Army and the ‘ludocapitalism’ of Second Life display the interaction of videogames and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market” (xiv).  Videogames grew up in a strongly capitalist network, with strongly entrenched notions of modern empire. Past economies, like the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the scribes of medieval Europe, operated through different trends and affordances of labor and circulation–and different views of autuer–though it’d be reductive to say that threads don’t carry through multiple periods.

This takes me back to my initial focus–author as Romantic creator or situationally astute rhetor–and the role this has in our current market. I increasingly think that designer and author works in a more networked process, and these networking skills are key literacies for work in the modern age; but the “innovators” are the ones who tend to get the most credit. In my current project, for example, Will Wright is considered to be genius behind The Sims, SimCity, etc., but his notebooks are threaded with phone numbers, questions and answers from meetings, user-testing notes, more signs of orchestration and teamwork. And, for another example, some books, like Doom or Console Wars, treat teams of people with an almost hagiographic aura, while technology and markets also play a major role.

As Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peutur, articulate, games exist within a complex intersection of circuits. I reckon a designer is part of this, seizing on the kairos and tools of production when producing a game, but authorship is quite diffuse among the humans and nonhumans of the rhetorical situation. The magic circle isn’t really that separated from “ordinary life.”

CCR 633: I Can’t Even

I may touch on Swinging the Machine in this post, but I need a space to think through what happened a bit. If I need to write a make-up post, I can, but I simply couldn’t write one tonight.

I think Trump’s policies are destructive and that he is morally dubious, or even repugnant. But, this isn’t what worries me. What worries me is that Trump’s election may legitimize ideologies and discourses that could destroy our democracy as we now conceive it. In this way, I am not worried about Trump per se; I am worried about what people call Trumpism. I don’t think that this destruction is inevitable, but I think that Trump’s election presents a shock to the system and requires a radical examination of “politics.” As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into thin air,” and now, we need to figure out what to do.

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Civilization, Ideology, and Informatic Control

One of the elements I find most interesting is the distinction between ideological critique and the algorithm, which Galloway, in particular, describes, but also seems to inform Friedman.

When describing playing Civilization, Galloway notes the “soft racism” and questionable God view that informs the game, like the problematic “attributes” given to civilizations–like how the Aztecs aren’t “industrial–or the absence and simplification of many civilizations. To Civilization‘s defense, subsequent additions have addressed some of these issues, like the inclusion of more civilizations, like Polynesia, and dropping essentialist attributes for more civilization-specific qualities.  But, things like the progress narrative, the valuing of military dominance, the potential simplification of ethnicities, and the role of commerce and territory still pose potential problems, ripe for ideological critiques.

Galloway moves from this into what he calls the “third level” of critique, “informatic critique,” which he describes as a “formal critique rooted in the core principles of informatics that serve as the foundation of the gaming format” (99). He asks, “whether it [Civilization] embodies the logic of informatic control itself” (101). Though I still had some trouble ultimately figuring out what Galloway meant by this, I think it reflects the way a phenomenon gets enacted by a computational system.

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CCR 633: Labels, Emergency, and Ontology

Early on in her introduction for Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, Lisa Gitelman states a thesis that also expresses a methodology and worldview regarding textual machines:

Edison identified his phonograph as a textual device, primarily for taking dictation. With this mandate, the invention emerged from Edison’s laboratory into and amid a cluster of mutually defining literacy practices, texts, and technologies, among them shorthand reporting, typescripts, printing telegraphs, and silent motion pictures. Even Edison’s own famous light bulb, now a universal icon for “I have an idea,” had to make sense within an ambient climate of textual and other representational practices, a climate it would, in fact, have an ample share in modifying. (1)

In many ways, this connects to many of the questions already taken up in the class, like the role of sociotechnical systems or alphabets as technologies  or the notion of ambience and complexity. Here, in particular, I am definitely feeling Rickert and Heidegger: that the phonograph emerged from and became intelligible through a “world” [Welt] of already existing relations. For example, as Gitelman argues, shorthand, or “phonography,” as a technology set the stage for the phonograph. Without this already circulating ambience, the phonograph would not have had the same intelligible impact.

On the one had, this sort of claim reminds me a bit of Steven Johnson’s “adjacent possible,” an idea that certain networks, ideas, and materials need to be in place in order for an idea to take root. Often, as he points out with Charles Babbage’s  “computer,” an idea that is ahead of its time dies out. It needs to still be in stage of possibility, but such a possibility must be “adjacent” to the present and the local.

But the role of labels, as Gitelman details, provides an interesting complication. As she writes, “The label is a vital cultural nexus, a point where producers meet consumers, where owners meet spectators, where novelty and originality enter the commonplace of the market and commodities perform” (151). I want to spend some time with this idea.

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ENG 730: The Game and Immersive Narrative

Watching The Game, I kept thinking of Kafka. In many of his stories, Kafka presents this looming network that always recedes as the protagonist gets closer to solving it. I think A Messenger from the Emperor puts it best:

“he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years. . .

In The Game, Nicholas, much like many of Kafka’s characters, must navigate the ever-withdrawing, seemingly omnipotent CRS. Things escalate as he goes forward, almost to an absurd degree. And at the end, instead of closure of catharsis, we get this bizarre party. As John notes, no one seems to recognize the emotional turmoil that Nicholas endured, revisiting the suicide of his father, shooting and thinking he killed his brother, and attempting suicide himself, only to stumble into a room of friends and strangers who only moments ago–he thought–were trying to kill him.

I guess my frustration stemmed from the notion of immersion and boarders that Murray discusses. As Murray writes, “Part of the early work in any medium is the exploration of border between the representational world and the actual world” (103). When immersed, much like the Holodeck example from the beginning of the book, one is caught up in a procedural, participatory medium, as Murray describes. But as she also notes, this participation is “a visit,” and we must often “actively create belief” (110). There is a border, in other words, between the illusion and the larger world in which that illusion sits.  This larger world may have its own hyperreal characteristics, but it is nonetheless distinct–or seems to be.

But the blurring of that border is what seems to make The Game and The Grasshopper examples so haunting. As John notes, Nicholas ends up no longer really playing in a way, as he thinks that he is actively fighting a real entity. For example, toward the end, the ontology of the gun is ambiguous: in the actual world, it’s a prop; in the representational world, it’s a gun. But for Nicholas, the representational world has become the actual world. The game, and all of its trappings, has become his new reality, including the gun. And, as many others have noted, the “voluntary” element of Nicholas’ participation feels murky, making this “game” all the more problematic.

Connecting it back to Kafka, I think the reason why The Trial is so haunting is that the legal system has left its boundaries. To draw from Huizinga, the court has flooded outside its magic circle and has become an existential way of life. K is guilty without his consent, and forced to solve the maze of “state sanctioned violence” as Murray calls it (131), as himself, not a player version of himself.

In a similar note, The Game shows this haunting Grasshopper-like dystopia where the representational aspect of play has permeated and supplanted actual life. But, the game ends, and this is the strangest part. As Murray points out, digital mediums have a more ambiguous ending, often created by their interactive aspect. They often end through exhaustion and not a linear progression. The same could be said for the movie.

The doctor/actor jokes at the end, for example, that if Nicholas didn’t jump, he’d have to throw him.  This raises the question on how prescriptive the game was. Jordan points out that the game maybe was not that interactive, and indeed, it’s hard to see how the game wasn’t pulling all the strings, giving CRS an almost deterministic quality that feels godlike, all driving toward this “ending.” Were there alternative endings? What if, for example, Nicholas didn’t drink the tea? What if he didn’t get the gun from his house? What other rhizomes could he follow, and would those rhizomes still lead to that party in that way?

Much like K’s demise in The Trial, the ending in The Game feels inevitable, and I wonder–since they lied to him before, including about him not being picked to enter the game in the first place–whether the game is really over. Once you turn life into a game, it doesn’t feel easy to get out, and maybe Nick’s blithe acceptance at the end is a sort of absurdist, nihilistic acceptance of the Grasshopper’s wisdom. Worst birthday gift ever.

CCR 633: Handwriting and Withdrawal

One of the tensions in the reading, particular in Thorton, was the role that handwriting has between self, discipline, and social role. Early on, Thorton writes, “Faithful imitation of penmanship models-what teachers would call good handwriting-thereby signals  conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality” (x). This immediately connects with some of the disciplining that Trithemius discusses in relation to scribe work. In both, a certain rigor and repetition, a discipline of the body and the “hand” takes place.

I think, then of writing’s broader potential to discipline, like what McCruer discusses in composition’s ability to “compose bodies” in “De-Composition” (2008) or even in formal rubrics, genre conventions, curricula, the Harvard rhetoric requirement, and pre-set forms, like the five paragraph theme. This capacity that rhetoric and writing has to conform and prescribe has along history, as Thorton points out.

But, in slightly different sense, writing also created or highlighted larger social identity, and in this way it also polices or defines. For example, as Thorton points out, business, itself a core catalyst to writing instruction (p. 6), prescribed more clerk-like ways of writing, rejecting the flourishes of more gentlemanly backgrounds. Writing was also gendered, with many “feminine” scripts designed to take longer and exhibit “fair” qualities. As Thorton writes, “mercantile advice books urged men of commerce to shun penmanship refinements appropriate for gentlemen in favor of a straightforward ‘Clerk-like Manner of Writing.’ And where men might be urged to cultivate a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ hand, Women were urged to cultivate ‘fair’ one” (37).

And through this quality, handwriting, seemed to exhibit a sort of self-expressive quality, growing from social identities. As Thorton writes,  “As each human being performs a socially differentiated part, so is each given a different ‘script.’ Conversely, by reading that script for its social information one could learn all there was to know about the writer. Here at last was a sincere medium of selfhood” (37). Hand writing analysis and associations with different scripts connected the self (albeit a socialized self) to the script, presenting a certain window of expression.

But once again, the movement to “automatic handwriting” and related systems of standardization, like the Palmer method, disciplines expression, but through a certain systematized erasure. By making writing more standardized and less idiosyncratic–whether justified through “science” or a sort of “lore”–one is essentially erasing the body, or trying to. This erasure or withdrawing is particularly bad for embodied backgrounds that do not fit the standard, like lefties, people with disabilities, or those with less training and resources. It is a sort of gate-keeping, but one that erects its gates by assuming writing a certain way is a type of present-for-hand skill and not a complicated, socialized, embodied action.

With this, I often think of a quote by Nirma Erevelles about special education that has been following–or rather haunting–since last semester: “Haunting these policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. . . In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable.” (Disability and Difference). In other words, as the body withdraws from systematization, quantification, and abstraction–as it often does–what bodies and what people get left behind?

And though handwriting is still “a thing” as they say, something that we discuss and learn and use, I am curious about the same disciplining, social-signifying, and withdrawal (in a Heideggarian sense) that takes place in today’s context through digital print or new media.