Game interfaces for academic writing?
Over the past couple of days, I read Ian Bogost‘s book Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. It’s very, very good, and I’m sure will be very influential within game studies and media studies more broadly. It’s certainly going to be helpful as I revise my article on The Wire. And Ian’s a great guy, having met him when I brought him to Middlebury to present at a symposium I ran in 2005 for integrating videogames into liberal arts curricula. And if this were a traditional book review, I’d spend a page and a half extolling its many virtues. But this is not a book review per se, so I’m going to fast forward to discussing the book’s main flaw. Again – it’s a great book and you should read it, but at the moment I find its flaw more bloggable than focusing on its strengths, as my main issue with the book speaks to broader concerns with academic writing and my own upcoming project.
One more caveat – I’m sure that the chief reason for what I found to be the book’s main flaw is that Ian is much smarter than I am. At least he’s much more literate than I am, if we think of literacy in terms of mastery of a domain of communication. Ian comes out of the academic discipline of comparative literature, and the practical realm of computer programming – both of these areas demand literacy in multiple languages, from French to C++. I have none of those skills – I’m hopelessly monolingual, and as such fit nicely within American Studies. Ian’s multi-linguic abilities drip off the page, comfortably crossing domains of knowledge from Baudelaire’s poetry to von Neumann’s architectural computing logic with apparent ease.
We might regard Unit Operations as operating on three levels of argumentation. The most accessible is criticism, where he analyzes specific games as well as poetry and films. In these moments, the theoretical underpinning of his approach is important, implicitly guiding the ideas but not serving as the object of discussion itself. The second level might be called theory in the “mid-level” sense of the term – such discussions engage with debates within the field of game studies (like ludology vs. narratology, the role of persuasion in games, the concept of fun, etc.). This form of theory is directly engaged with criticism, often emerging from specific readings of games, but also reflecting a broader level of argumentation and applicability beyond specific texts. The third level is what some people (including, I assume, most comp. lit scholars) call theory, but I would call philosophy, engaging with broader conceptual issues far more generalized than specific texts, medium, or academic specialty. Here Ian spends a good deal of time discussing the insights of a wide-range of thinkers, including Spinoza, Derrida, Deluze & Guattari, Benjamin, and probably foremost Badiou.
For me, the criticism and theory portions of the book were wonderful – smart insightful readings and engaged commentary on theoretical debates that move ideas forward without being either overly polemical or timidly pluralist. However, the philosophical moments were mostly lost on me, primarily discussing thinkers that I’ve either never read, haven’t thought much about since graduate school, or know just enough about to know that I’m not terribly interested in their work. This is an issue – the ideal reader for the work needs to be conversant with such a broad range of critical, theoretical, and philosophical models as to be almost uniquely limited to its author, the only person I know who is probably familiar with everything referenced in the book. Obviously the author of a book should be uniquely knowledgeable of its contents, but it’s more than that. As Ian worked through the wide range of philosophical insights, I regularly felt that I was not the intended audience for the book, lacking the knowledge of these thinkers to appreciate the insights Ian was undoubtedly offering – this is not because Ian was writing at a level of jargonistic abstraction (he wasn’t), but because to understand how he was interpreting or using material in an original way requires a background in that philosophy or discipline that I lacked. At other times, I felt completely in-the-loop, especially in his compelling readings of various games (from GTA to September 12th) and engagement with the debates within the field of game studies, primarily because I knew the games and literature he was discussing. My experience of reading Unit Operations was one of vacillation between strong head-nodding engagement and mind-wandering drifting through sections where I could not find a foothold.
Now here’s where it gets (hopefully) interesting, beyond just me griping that I’m not smart enough to understand Ian’s book. One of the chief values of Unit Operations is as a model of cross-media reading, exploring how viewing one text through the lens of another medium can offer unique insights. So let’s consider this book through the lens of the videogame medium itself. One key concept Ian uses to discuss games is Jesper Juul‘s distinction between emergent and progressive games: progressive games follow a predefined path for users to move toward completing the tasks in a game (think of most first-person shooters or adventure games), while emergent games allow for a variety of choices to lead to various outcomes (think chess or The Sims). Most progressive games have some capacity for user emergence encoded in their design, allowing for some choices to alter the gameplay experience, and many effective emergent games often have some progressive characteristics to guide user choices and prefer particular outcomes over others. They’re not exclusive categories, but tendencies on a spectrum.
Most books are designed as highly progressive in this sense of the word – structured linearly to be read in one continuous thread. But unlike most progressive videogames, books allow for widely emergent reading strategies, using an index or table of contents to navigate non-linearly, or the persistent ability to skim forward if you get bogged down reading something beyond your comprehension or interest (as I admit I did a number of times in Unit Operations). Yet the emergent capabilities of reading a book are typically reader-created, seeming to go against the book’s authorial design – you could say that by skimming parts of Ian’s book I’ve not truly read it, and certainly I’d acknowledge that I haven’t gotten everything from it that’s there for the getting. But assuming the author does not believe that the only correct way to read his book from cover to cover, understanding (and agreeing with) every point along the way, might there be other ways to design academic writing to allow for emergence to be guided more like it is in games, rather than just a reader wandering through a linear text? Might books be structured more like games to allow readers to choose their level of engagement, path through the argument, and appropriate degree of difficulty?
In the case of Unit Operations, I would like to be able to have a version of the book that offers the critical readings and a bit of theoretical engagement as a great text for teaching undergraduates videogame analysis, but the published version is probably too philosophically dense for most students. But even more than an “edited down” version for teaching (which I could make by only assigning particular pages), I would love to see a version of this type of academic book that can adjust to a reader’s desired degree of difficulty. Start with some critical analysis – if you want to know more about the philosophical underpinnings of the text, you can advance to a higher level of play; if not, move on to the next analytic arena. Instead of writing a book as a singular walkthrough of the ideas, design a variety of paths through the material that can adjust and respond to a reader’s abilities and interests. Perhaps even structure the ability to make connections between ideas that may not be apparent in the original author’s design, but emerge from the reader’s experiences and navigation. In other words, create an academic argument designed to be played through, rather than read.
For my own scholarly interests, I would love to be able to create such an interface for presenting my work on television narrative. I have no doubt that there are many people quite interested in intelligent critical analysis of television storytelling, but probably uninterested in the theoretical underpinnings grounding such an analysis. Others are perhaps more interested in what contemporary television might teach us about narratology or how my approach to television narrative attempts to cross an academic bridge between cognitive film studies and cultural studies criticism; scholars in fields outside of media studies might be interested in the “detachable conclusions” of the project but not care about the analysis of television per se. But instead of trying to write two or more versions of the same book, how might we use technologies of game interfaces to allow readers to navigate such a work in a variety of ways, changing their level of difficulty or focus as ideas are explored and conceptual space is mapped? Obviously the technology exists to allow for such a mode of composition, but there are many hurdles – would it be seen sufficiently as “scholarship” for the various institutions that grant legitimacy to such work (libraries, universities, scholarly associations, etc.)? Would readers want to read a book via a digital format? And how would my hopelessly mono-lingual brain be able to code such an interface?
If you’ve read this far, I’d love to hear any thoughts on these potential modes of scholarly communication and how you might respond to a game interface for academic writing. (And I’ll invite Ian to respond in particular.)
Filed under: Academia, Books, Media Studies, New Media, Videogames | 5 Comments