Digital Writing and Readings

Thursday 20 August 2009, 12:27 am   //////  

[As I wrote on netpoetic.com:] Adam Parrish recently taught a class at NYU in the ITP program: Digital Writing with Python. I was very interested to learn about it and to see documentation of the final reading/performance, with some links to students’ blog entries about their projects. Here at MIT, I teach a class called The Word Made Digital in which students do poetry, fiction, and less classifiable writing projects using Python and other systems and languages. And, I know that Daniel Howe has taught the RISD and Brown class Advanced Programming for Digital Art and Literature.

I suspect, though, that these classes that are mainly focused on writing and programming are rather rare – much more rare, I’d bet, than design and art classes that are heavy on programming. It may have something to do with the number of galleries and curated Web sites exhibiting programmed visual art, which seems to me to be much greater than the number of similar edited venues for digital writing that’s driven by code. I’m not sure which way the causality flows. But several of the art-loving among us have some idea that, say, Processing programs can be aesthetic, even though they’re made of code. It’s not as common for literary folks to think of Python, Perl, or other programming languages (whether or not they start with P) as ways of creating literary art.

My sense is that having readings, of the sort that Parrish hosted at the end of his class and of the sort that the Electronic Literature Organization has sponsored and organized over the years, is a useful way to address this gap between literature and the visual arts. (Full-blown festivals, of course, don’t hurt either.) A reading allows writers to show off a program, which may be intricate, and explain how it works. It’s fun for those who are already into digital literature, and an accessible way for other literati to see what computational writing is about and how it bring certain literary qualities into the digital realm – even if it does radically subvert others. And since there aren’t as many official, edited, and well-promoted publication options for computational writers, going to do a reading can be a good way to appear in a context of other writers and reach a public.

I’m trying to do my part here by running a reading series for digital writing, but that’s grist for the next post [of mine on netpoetic.com].

This was posted here on Post Position for the convenience of those of you who subscribe to the feed or visit the site. If you want to leave a comment, please head over to this post on netpoetic.com.

Presence in Interactive Fiction

Wednesday 19 August 2009, 2:33 pm   /////  

The first issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, from earlier this year, sports a nice article by Alf Seegert, “Doing there’ vs. ‘being there’: performing presence in interactive fiction.” In it, Seegert sharpens the existing discussion of reader-response theory and IF to explain how IF may need to balance between boredom and overstrain and how the writerly role allows for new sorts of presence. He then conducts some good discussions of Jon Ingold’s All Roads (highlighting how the body of the player character is indicated) and Paul O’Brian’s Luminous Horizon (looking particularly at the subjective narration).

Looks like a single issue of the Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds costs £18, unfortunately. (Institutional subscriptions are £150.) Too bad, particularly since there are least three peer-reviewed, open-access, no-page-fee journals in the field (Game Studies, Digital Humanities Quarterly, and eLudamos) that were up and running before this one was founded. Update: That is the advertised price, but the issue is currently available for free, as is the article.

Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter Released

Tuesday 30 June 2009, 11:34 pm   ////  
Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter

Michael Gentry, author of the stunning, large-scale, Lovecraftian interactive fiction Anchorhead, has another full-scale IF, his first since that award-winning game came out in 1998.

Dave Cornelson, who founded the Speed IF competitions and the IFWiki, has led his interactive fiction company, Textfyre, to publish its first game.

The game that is so notable in both of these ways is Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter. It is available for either Windows or Mac for about $25. As with all of the planned offerings of Textfyre, this game is directed at a specific audience: young readers wanting to experience the pleasures of reading while playing computer games. The hope, no doubt, is that parents will appreciate the fun and literacy-enhancing qualities of interactive fiction.

You can check out the game online: There is an in-browser demo that runs using Microsoft Silverlight. (The game itself was developed in Inform 7, and was programmed by Graeme Jefferis, not Gentry.) The interface offers a book-like framework for the IF session and allows the player to flip ahead to a map or back to previous sections of the transcript. The illustrations were done by Erika Swanson. You can read more about the development of the game and the progress of the company on The Textfyre Times, Dave Cornelson’s blog.

The setting and the situation at the beginning of Jack Toresal is quite compelling, and after only a bit of interaction, I could see already that there are some interesting twists (including gender play), lots to explore, and a variety of people to meet and conversations to have. (I’ve played the game just a bit on my own; I was glad to also get to play and discuss the game with the Boston IF group yesterday.) Gentry’s writing is appropriate to the game’s audience, and is also effective and lively. Although this game probably lacks the tentacle attacks and generations of incest that made Anchorhead so chilling, it doesn’t pull punches for the kiddies – you can get Jack very unpleasantly killed if you don’t lead him to outwit his opponents.

Since Cascade Mountain Publishing ceased its run in 2000, I haven’t heard of a commercial IF company or publisher that has completed a project and released a game. Yes, there have been people selling their own IF in various forms – I’ve been one of them, with my hardback edition of Winchester’s Nightmare; Peter Nepstad has also sold his 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery. But Textfyre seems remarkable in accomplishing the commercial development and publication of a piece of interactive fiction that otherwise wouldn’t have been written, in putting together projects that involve many people. The company has wisely focused on a particular market, and on a particular type of reader/player that is not well-served by existing IF. Textfyre used a new development model in which programming is separated from writing and design, which themselves are potentially separated. (Gentry did both in this first title, but that won’t particularly be the case in others.) This first result, even though it is for younger readers, seems to be a good use of a major talent. Even to us older readers, it could be as interesting as a major release from an independent author. I’ll look forward to playing Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter further, and will hope that this release will just be an auspicious beginning for Textfyre.

Cheating

Thursday 14 May 2009, 4:16 pm   ///////  
Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007

Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, Mia Consalvo, The MIT Press, 2007.

Two main methodologies are used in Cheating to understand how and why people cheat at video games. The first is the analysis of how print publications and devices surrounding games (Nintendo Power, strategy guides, the Game Genie, and the like) help to shape our concept of these games, providing the axes along which they can be evaluated and how they should be played. Next, Consalvo interviews gamers and explores an MMO to find out what players consider cheating and what boundaries they draw as they play. What results is some real insight into single-player and multiplayer cheating and into various corporate, industrial, and legal perspectives as well as those of individual players. The book does not work toward a single definition of cheating; rather, it shows how players and game-makers are actively negotiating what’s fair and what isn’t, working to allow the enjoyment of the game, to map or adapt “real-life” ethics into the magic circle, and to build the gaming equivalent of cultural capital.

Newton and the Counterfeiter

Sunday 10 May 2009, 2:02 pm   ///  

My colleague Tom Levenson (also a fellow blogger) has a new book coming out in a few days, Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist. If you hop over to the Barnes & Noble page for the book, you can see the video that he went to shoot in London not too long ago. This should make it clear that Tom is not only a science writer who uncovers intriguing episodes from the lives of famous scientists (Einstein in Berlin) but also an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker who has done a slew of NOVA documentaries. The video (and the book) delves into how Newton worked in his seldom-discussed role as warden of the mint, inviting us to read about how a great scientific mind turned to police work. I hope that when I need to promote future books, I’ll be able to get away with writing computer programs or doing something else that’s easy.

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