Death and the Powers Arrives

The opera and “robot pageant” composed by Tod Machover, directed by Diane Paulis and with a libretto by Robert Pinsky has finally been staged in Monaco. I won’t see it until it comes to the Boston area in a few months, but I’m delighted to see the project reach the stage. Death and the Powers (discussed in this WBUR interview) has been in the works for about a decade. I wrote about it as we rang in the new year (2006) at Grand Text Auto, and I was very pleased to hear the workshop performance of the opera at A.R.T., here in Cambirdge. By now, we not only have the performances in Monaco: The libretto has been printed in Poetry and is available online at the Poetry Foundation. And those of us in the US can look forward to the March arrival of Death and the Powers in Boston.

Notes on the IF Community

I was a sort of “international observer” at the latest ELMCIP Seminar in Bergen, Norway. ELCMIP is a European project, funded by HERA, which looks at the ways electronic literature communities function and foster creativity. On the first day of the seminar (Monday, September 20) I presented about the IF community, supplementing that evening’s screening of Get Lamp at the Landmark Cafe. I offered some thoughts, summarized here, for those working in other types of electronic literature practices.

By “interactive fiction” (often abbreviated “IF”), I mean pretty much exactly what you will find if you Google for the term and starting looking through the first several pages of results. In my dissertation, I defined interactive fiction as: “A form of text-accepting, text-generating computer program that narrates what is happening in a simulated world in reply to input from a user, or interactor. Interactive fiction can have literary qualities and qualities of a game.” In recent decades, people have used the term in different ways, but this is how the interactive fiction community understands IF today and has understood it for a while. This means that IF is not defined by a particular platform, the way that Flash games are, but that people do expect something to work like a “text adventure,” with the simulation of space and objects and natural-language-like input, to be considered IF. Members of the interactive fiction community may find chatterbots, story generators, hypertext fiction, point-and-click graphical games, and other things very interesting, but these productions would not have a place in the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, for instance, because they aren’t interactive fiction.

I have to note at this point that I can’t offer any proper sort of study of the interactive fiction community, as I am not an anthropologist by training (or pretension) and I don’t understand the workings of community in the way that people with a better background would. What I can offer, as a member of this community, are some notes about my experiences and some pointers to ways I have seen the community working together. My hope is that may notes may be of some use in generating ideas about e-lit community or for someone undertaking a systematic study.

Also, I’ll explain at this point that what I and others call “the IF community” is not the only IF community, even for English-language work. One other community is that of authors and players of ADRIFT games. ADRIFT (Adventure Development & Runner – Interactive Fiction Toolkit) is an easy-to-use shareware system for IF development. Another locus of interactive fiction practice and playing is “adult interactive fiction” or AIF, which prominently depicts sexual activity. The AIF community has its own annual awards, the Erins, which are analogous to the IF community’s XYZZY Awards (discussed later). Beyond these communities, there are IF communities, or at least IF activity that involved several people and that I know about, in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Russian language communities.

An important early resource for the IF community was the IF Archive, originally hosted in Germany thanks to Volker Blasius. The archive was announced on November 24, 1992 and is mirrored today on sites throughout the world, with the main site being The archive was originally accessed only by anonymous FTP and can still be reached by that method today, although there is a simple Web interface at the main site and a searchable interface at Baf’s Guide to the IF Archive. The “archive” is not a repository for an organizations old, inactive files; it a system for publishing and sharing new work, including the games for each year’s IF Competition.

The IF community communicated for many years on two USENET newsgroups – and some in the community still read these newsgroups. and were not originally devoted to what we now call IF, but those discussions came to predominate. The “arts” and “games” groups do not argue for different perspectives on interactive fiction; they are simply for discussion of making games (“arts”) and playing them (“games”).

A central institution in the IF community – perhaps the central one – is the annual IF Competition, which began in 1994. Now in its 16th year and run by Stephen Granade, “the Comp,” as it is called, showcases a wide variety of short games, some poorly written and/or poorly programmed and others quite exemplary. While winning the Comp or placing well in it is certainly desirable, anyone who enters the comp can be sure that dozens, if not hundreds, of people will play the game submitted. Many will even write review of it, since it is a tradition among the most enthusiastic members of the IF community to review all of the Comp games. Competitions are central to many popular communities of digital practice – the demoscene as well as creators of Flash games, homebrew 8-bit games, and graphical games. These comps or compos usually do not involve substantial rewards for winners or agonistic competition; instead, they provide an event (in person in the case of the demoscene, online in other cases) that focuses the interest and energy of the community.

Recent years have seen other IF events of different sorts, including “minicomps” with different themes and the “Speed IF” sessions in which several participants each write a themed or constrained game in two hours. Some of the community’s events highlight the different metaphors that are in play, ones that work across literary and gaming concepts. Although works of interactive fiction are conventionally called “games” and the people who interact with them are called “players,” the person who writes a game (almost always the same person who programs it) is an “author.” The online “Interactive Fiction Book Club,” founded in 2001, brought together those who had played a particular game for conversation modeled on conversation about books. In 2009, “Interactive Fiction Writing Month,” with some in-person events that took place mainly at CMU, made an obvious connection to National Novel Writing Month. The annual XYZZY Awards for interactive fiction, on the other hand, are styled after the Oscars. Although they are awarded by popular nominations and popular vote, they are named in the manner of Academy Awards and presented at an online event. Many IF community members even virtually dress up for the award ceremony.

The XYZZY awards take place on ifMUD, a simple text-based MUD that serves almost entirely as a chat room. That is, role-playing and puzzle-construction and -solving have little place there and RPG-style combat has none. The people on ifMUD do use some of the unique MUD-like facilities to support their communications, however, and they also program new capabilities into the MUD for that purpose. There is a bot, Alex, who parrots things that he has been taught, allowing people to query him for the definition of terms and acroymns. An “automeeter” keeps track of which pairs of people have met in person. People use another bot, Floyd, to play IF together on ifMUD, participating in “Club Floyd” sessions. People also ask for programming, design, and writing help, and sometimes even discuss theoretical or critical ideas. Much of the discussion is not directly focused on IF, but when one does want to discuss IF in real time, ifMUD is a great place to do so.

There are now local groups that meet in person to discuss and play interactive fiction. The one I know most about is the one I host in Cambridge, Massachusetts, The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction, organized by Kevin Jackson-Mead. PR-IF meets monthly, and had a hotel room with snacks and talks, thanks mainly to Andrew Plotkin, at Penny Arcade Expo East. They have also produced a card with instructions for first-time IF players. I organized the first meeting of the PR-IF writers’ group, Grue Street. And two successful events have been held in which the public was invited to play interactive fiction together: the early MIT version of Zork, in the first case, and Admiral Jota’s Comp-winning game Lost Pig in the second.

By now, most people who deal with electronic literature in some way seem inclined to accept that interactive fiction falls under this umbrella term. But even if some resist this, it’s hard to ignore that the community itself connects its meetings, events, roles, and practices to literary ones. Of course, simply importing the institutions of IF into other communities is unlikely to be helpful: Other e-lit communities may not need an FTP site, two USENET newsgroups, a MUD, and so on. But understanding how different structures, conventions, and tools have helped IF authors and players could have broader applicability. For instance, the IF Comp has worked to encourage the annual production of games, but it has also dominated IF production so that the best-known games are those short ones released for the IF Comp. (The community has responded with other comps and with projects to review other games, so the IF Comp is not too much of a victim of its own success.) Nevertheless, this situation can highlight the benefits and the dangers of a regular, central activity with its own format requirements. Considering the IF community may also point the way to other groups that are less obviously literary, but are creative communities of practice involved with computing.

A Deterministic ppg256

Last night I premiered ppg256-6 in Bergen, Norway:

perl -le '@d=split/ /,"eros won to tree for fire sex sever ate nice tin elfin wealth";@t=split//,"_bhlmnpstw";{$_=localtime;/(..):(.)(.):(.)(.)/;print"\n$t[$3]".($4%2)."ck $t[$4]".($3%2)."ck\n"if!$5;print"\\"x$5." $d[$1%12] $d[$2] $d[$3] $d[$4] $d[$5]";sleep 1;redo}'

This is the latest in my series of 256-character poetry generators written in Perl. An unusual feature of this one is that it is deterministic: If run at the same time, it will produce the same output. Those who run Windows should check the ppg256 page for a .pl file that will run on that OS, on ActivePerl.

The New Electronic Literature Directory

I interviewed Joseph Tabbi, author of Cognitive Fictions and editor of electronic book review, about the Electronic Literature Directory project that he’s currently heading. I took over from Joe early this summer as president of the Electronic Literature Organization. The Directory, which has already had success in its “version 1” form, has been reworked to allow collaboratively-written and richer writing about e-lit work.

nm: Joe, what sorts of people are going to find something compelling in the Electronic Literature Organization’s new Directory?

jt: I imagine the majority of readers are going to be teenagers and college students, people who have come of age learning to read in different ways than you or I learned. You and I may have retrained our habits of attention with each new delivery device. But the current generation of readers likely started with web browsers, wikis, blogs, texting, sexting and so forth.

nm: What do you envision this project will offer when it’s – “completed” is perhaps the wrong word, but when we’ve had large-scale participation and significant coverage of e-lit?

jt: The renewal of a general audience for literary arts – the way that Grub Street writers and publishers turned newspaper and letter readers into an audience for novels. (But of course, e-lit does not, and surely won’t, look at all like nineteenth-century realist fiction.)

nm: What stage of the project are we at now?

jt: We’ve got a sample of works and some model descriptions of works. We have a cohort of editors to build on that sample, and a programmer and graphic artist who will turn the current wrap into a designed interface. That will happen early next year. We’ve also got a number of prominent e-lit authors who are going in to ‘tag’ the works, which ought to expand the language we have for talking about works that in many cases will be sui generis. Others will be right in the mainstream of literary production.

(By “mainstream,” I mean antecedents like Oulipo’s processual writing, Musil’s conceptual writing without character or ‘qualities,’ the novel before Fielding and Richardson, and very likely the formulaic, generative epics in oral traditions.)

nm: The ELO had previously developed a directory with a different format and different sorts of listings. Can you tell me some about what you learned from that project, how the current one builds on it, and in what ways it’s trying to go beyond the “1.0” version?

jt: Now, as then, we have plenty of writing by women, people of color, writers whose first language is not English, and so forth. But there’s no need to divide all this up, at the start, into special-interest group-writing, the way it’s done at a Borders or Barnes & Noble. That’s how 1.0 was set up, but the idea here, in version 2.0, is not to impose top-down categories (however inclusive and open-minded the categorizers might imagine themselves to be): the thing is to use the low-level tagging (an affordance specific to networked media) as a way for semi-autonomous communities to elaborate their own vocabularies, their own favored works, and ultimately their own values.

Another difference – I learned that you need many, many editors, not a few. And you need to set things up so that a contributor who’s not an editor, not an e-lit author, and not anyone special – can feel comfortable drafting an entry and see it live the moment it’s submitted. If it’s not that easy, people won’t bother to write about works they have discovered. And if that happens, we’ll lose the chance to locate, cultivate, and renew a general literary readership.

nm: It’s clear that the Directory will benefit the reader who is seeking e-lit to read, seeking to learn about new and different forms of writing, and looking for critical perspectives. How will the Directory benefit the contributor? Why should people interested in different forms of e-lit want to write entries and take part in the Directory project?

My expectation is that the more people use it, the more people there will be who want to use it. We need to make better known the Directory’s common cause with other existing projects – directories of interactive fiction, the Siegen-based┬áDirectory of critical writing on e-lit, NT2’s directory of French e-lit, the Australian directory under development at the University of Western Sydney, and many, many others. A number of us, from the ELO board, will be in Sydney in December to discuss that particular co-development. But it has to be more than an exercise in mutual respect and swapping entries. We need to instantiate these affinities with a design that makes, for example, an Australian or an IF entry stand out as such. And we need to use the same community-building processes that are current in software development and so familiar to the next generation of readers.

nm: So, once someone does want to take part in the project, how can that person get involved and contribute?

jt: It depends I think on where people are coming from, whether they approach the field as a researcher/scholar, an author, or a general reader. Anyone can post a description of works they’ve discovered, comment on an existing post, or compose an alternative description. Those who have works of their own, can fill out a stub entry so that others can draft a description. And those who have a professional stake in the field can join the editorial workgroup, where they can participate directly in the project development and their entries will be credited as academic publications.

By bringing the scholars, authors, and audience this way into a single forum, maybe we can begin to change the current situation where intellectuals and creators talk only to themselves. At the least, those who read around in the directory should get a sense that literature is not a settled body of work but a field that’s in the making, and nothing’s stopping anyone from taking part in that.

I encourage readers to leave any questions you have about the Directory for me and/or Joe in comments.

Welcome Back, ELO Site

I’m serving now as the president of the Electronic Literature Organization. We’ve been working to move the site to a new server, which has unfortunately left most of down for a while. (We did make a point of getting the Electronic Literature Collection, volume 1 back up as soon as possible at the new site, so that teachers, students, and other readers would have access to it.) I’m sorry for the inconvenience. My thanks go to the ELO directors who worked on this and to our new system administrator, Ward Vandewege, for managing the transition. Our new host and our retooling should mean that we will be able to avoid outages like this in the future, and that we will be able to better develop the site and our other ELO projects.