Mary Flanagan Speaks in Purple Blurb, Monday 11/2 6pm

On Monday (November 2) at 6pm in MIT’s room 14E-310,

The Purple Blurb series of readings and presentations on digital writing will present a talk by

Mary Flanagan.

Mary Flanagan

author of Critical Play: Radical Game Design (MIT Press, 2009)

Mary Flanagan is the creator of [giantJoystick], and author of [theHouse] among other digital writing works. She is Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth, where she directs Tiltfactor, a lab focused on the design of activists and socially-conscious software.

Flanagan investigates everyday technologies through critical writing, artwork, and activist design projects. Flanagan’s work has been exhibited internationally at museums, festivals, and galleries, including: the Guggenheim, The Whitney Museum of American Art, SIGGRAPH, and The Banff Centre. Her projects have been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Pacific Cultural Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Flanagan writes about popular culture and digital media such as computer games, virtual agents, and online spaces in order to understand their affect on culture. Her co-edited collection reload: rethinking women + cyberculture with Austin Booth was published by MIT Press in 2002. She is also co-author with Matteo Bittanti of Similitudini. Simboli. Simulacri ( SIMilarities, Symbols, Simulacra ) on The Sims game (in Italian, Unicopli 2003), and the co-editor of the collection re:skin (2007).

Flanagan is also the creator of The Adventures of Josie True, the first web-based adventure game for girls, and is implementing innovations in pedagogical and values-based game design.

Using the formal language of the computer program or game to create systems which interrogate seemingly mundane experiences such as writing email, using search engines, playing video games, or saving data to the hard drive, Flanagan reworks these activities to blur the line between the social uses of technology, and what these activities tell us about the technology user themselves.

A representative from the MIT Press bookstore will be at the talk offering copies of Flanagan’s books for sale.

Invisible GeoCities

GeoCities, founded in 1995, grew to become the third most visited site on the Web in 1999, when it was bought by Yahoo! for more than $3.5 billion. It offered free Web hosting in directories themed as different cities. Many people published their first page and first site on GeoCities. The Archiveteam has been working to save as much of it as possible; this wildly individual Web work won’t be completely lost to us as much of the pre-Wayback Web is. But at midnight Pacific Time, the plug will be pulled on this significant and populist piece of the Web. Here is, not an archive, but at least a peek at some of what will go dark.

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

from geocities

Platform Readings: Jaguar, Pseudo 3D

As an Atari Jaguar owner, I suppose I have something of a soft spot for the system, but I really do wish that it had more than one awesome game. There’s a recent article on the failure of Atari’s last console by Matthew Kaplan. He ends up singing of the Jaguar rather as if it has been the Great White Hope, sadly fallen to Japanese consoles, but touches on several interesting aspects of the console along the way. Technology, pricing, and marketing are all discussed in some detail. This will help us remember the “64-bit” claims that were made for the system and the never-shipped VR helmet that made appearances at trade shows. Thanks to Jason Scott for this link.

Pseudo 3D graphics is the road less traveled these days, but this non-polygon method of making racetracks and other planar spaces appear to be 3D is fascinating. It’s written up very clearly, with code, example images, and discussion of games that use unusual pseudo-3D techniques, in an article by Louis Gorenfeld. I like how the advantages and disadvantages of these techniques are discussed – the method is treated as neither strictly inferior or “way better” than what we usually think of as 3D. This one’s not only relevant to platform studies, but an obvious topic for a blog called Post Position. Thanks to Josh Diaz for the link.

&Now in Buffalo

I’m not up to a writeup of the recent &Now: A Conference of Innovative Writing and the Literary Arts, a festival/conference (“festerence,” as someone noted) which just shuffled through Buffalo. But while you are waiting for the deadpan article in Harper’s about the event, these should be worth about 3000 words.


Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, trans. Peter Smith, biligual edition, Les Figues Press, 2010
Babyfucker, Urs Allemann, trans. Peter Smith, biligual edition, Les Figues Press, 2010

“… mirrors and copulation are abominable because they increase the number of men.” —Borges

Babyfucker is far more disturbing than the title suggests. The book, written by a Swiss author, spawned a controversy in Germany in 1991. It begins unabashedly with the sentence “I fuck babies,” which the narrator declares to be his sentence. It is the reader’s sentence, too. However, there are no detailed representations of infant pedophilia. There is terse, detached description of an impossible garret, filled with baskets of babies, supplied with a spigot and drain for morphine-laced milk; trepidation at humanity and new life; a man who sees himself in the mirror as a baby — then as made up, limb by limb, of babies. If there are specific sexual visions here, they must belong mainly to the reader, not the text. Among other unsettling things, the volume (which is yellow and pink, tiny, and cute) shows the reader’s involvement in literary atrocities, in any violation committed by shared imagination.

Morpheus Biblionaut

Writer, publisher, and collaborator of mine William Gillespie just read (yesterday afternoon) an extraordinary piece here at the &Now festival in Buffalo. The multimedia piece is Morpheus Biblionaut, which he created with Travis Alber of Gillespie pulls out the stops for this tale of an American astronaut and poet who returns to earth to find almost no radio activity, except, perhaps, for one signal. Plug in, isolate yourself for a space of time, and read this one!

I presented right after on ppg256, my series of poetry generators.

Of Late

People I know have been up to many things lately, and many of these surely deserve a full, thoughtful blog post. I won’t manage that, so the least I can do is mention that …

Jason Scott continues to back up Geocities, and, in the process of doing this, has posted page-heaps of under construction and email icons. Warning: ginormous.

Jason Nelson presented his new, uncanny, crapcredible game, Evidence of Everything Exploding.

Jason McIntosh has a great video about a non-digital game, Diplomacy, that he and friends did during a day-long session, wearing more-ot-less nationally appropriate hats.

zzzZRT: Unit compliance -- 0%. Unit appears incapable of mentioning people with any other first name. Attempting repair...

Jill Walker Rettberg has a short and insightful video about blogging as a way of learning.

Robert Pinsky’s libretto was sung in a musical reading of Tod Machover’s opera Death and the Powers at Cambridge’s A.R.T. on September 17. The workshop presentation (check out the photos) was a major milestone toward a full production of the digitally augmented “robot pageant,” which I found zestfully written and very cleverly framed.

Lots of people are playing and reviewing Interactive Fiction Competition games. A list of way-many reviews was put together and is being updated by Yoon Ha Lee.

Curveship in AI Magazine

Delightfully, the current issue of AI Magazine (Volume 30, number 3, Fall 2009) is on computational creativity. The number offers articles on the field overall; the history of workshops on the topic; computer models of creativity; and creative systems to generate music, stories and their tellings, moves of chess, and humor. The last article is computer-generated in high Hofstadter style.

Pablo Gervás’s contribution, “Computational Approaches to Storytelling and Creativity,” provides a clear introduction to the concept of creativity and the history of the term, analyzes the relevant features that storytelling systems can work upon, gives an outline of work in computational creativity so far, and continues with a capsule summary of several important storytelling systems. The last one of these is my system nn, which I renamed “Curveship” as I started focusing on a public release of the software.

In the nn system for interactive fiction (Montfort 2007) the user controls the main character of a story by introducing simple descriptions of what it should do, and the system responds with descriptions of the outcomes of the character’s actions. Within nn, the Narrator module [now called the Teller] provides storytelling functionality, so that the user can be “told” the story of the interaction so far. The Narrator module of nn addresses important issues in storytelling that had not been addressed by previous systems: order of presentation in narrative and focalization. Instead of telling events always in chronological order, the nn Narrator allows various alternative possibilities: flashbacks, flash-forwards, interleaving of events from two different time periods, telling events back to front. It also captures appropriate treatment of tense depending on the relative ordering of speech time, reference time, and event time. Focalization is handled by the use of different focalizer worlds [now called concepts] within the system. Aside from the actual world of the interactive fiction system, nn maintains additional separate worlds representing the individual perspectives and beliefs of different characters. These can be used to achieve correct treatment of focalization (telling the story from the point of view of specific characters). [pp. 57-58]

In discussing the systems, Gervás notes (and I agree) that the other systems he discussed, ranging from Klein’s Novel Writer and Meehan’s Talespin to The Virtual Storyteller and Riedl’s Fabulist, are system for inventing stories, while nn’s Narrator (Curveship’s Teller) is the only system for telling stories. He writes:

If the processes for inventing stories in the reviewed systems rate low in terms of creativity, the rating obtained by processes for telling stories is even sadder. The challenge of how to tell a story has received very little attention in general, and it is mostly tagged on as a final stage to systems that concentrate on inventing stories. The nn system is a notable exception in that it involves a significant effort to model computationally some of the basic elements contained in Genette’s work on narrative discourse (Genette 1980): relative order of presentation and focalization. However, all the systems that tell the stories they invent do in fact include default solutions to many of the technical challenges involved in telling a story. [p. 60]

Although Gervás has provided a good take on the system, I’ll just note one way in which Curveship (née nn) does a bit more than the article might suggest to reader and one way in which it does less.

Genette described five categories of narrative discourse: order, frequency, speed, mood (which includes focalization), and voice (which includes distance). Curveship can vary not only order and focalization; it also allows for significant variation in the other three categories. I hope this will be of practical interest to interactive fiction authors and to those seeking to teach narrative theory using Curveship. However, the main research advances that have been made so far are in the two areas that Gervás indicates: order and mood (specifically, focalization).

While Curveship can automatically creative narrative variation based on parameters, I have to note that I am not putting it forth as a creative system. This makes it unlike many of the programs discussed in Gervás’s article and in this issue of AI Magazine. Given a specification for telling (which is called a spin), the system can make the appropriate changes and generate suitable text. However, the system does not, by itself, determine how a story should be told. The code that individual IF authors and AI researchers write is needed to accomplish that task.

Of course, formalizing the elements of narrative variation is necessary for any principled system that is supposed to vary the telling of a story. I hope that Curveship’s Teller will be deeply relevant to work in the creative invention and telling of stories, and that it will be used not only to enable new sorts of learning systems and interactive fiction pieces but also, in modified or unmodified form, as a component of creative systems.