An archive of distraction (hopefully)

I really liked Bea’s point today about (re)learning what objects get to be relevant to academic study — I was thinking about something like that when I was reading In the Shadow of No Towers in the Div School cafe last week. I felt a little self-conscious reading a giant and colorful comic book instead of a more “scholarly” text. One of the morning regulars — a staid-looking older guy — saw me and asked, “are you reading that for a class?” I was immediately defensive (This old guy is so narrow minded! He just doesn’t get it!). I tried to cast my explanation of the book in the most academic light possible, but I didn’t need to — it turned out that he had read Maus when it came out and just thought it was really cool that Spiegelman was assigned reading. We started talking about whether No Towers represents middle America in a way that is problematic or just accurately critical. It ended up being a really great conversation.

This is kind of what I was trying to get at on Tuesday, which I wanted to come back to here in case I was a little too opaque in my presentation. One of the things that I really love about I’m Trying to Reach You (the book I’m writing on) is how it shows the seemingly trivial zone of YouTube procrastination as a place that can be rich with meaning and value. This certainly isn’t to say that whatever you do on YouTube is Art, or that you should put off working on your finals to endlessly click through videos because “that’s what’s really real, bro.” But I think that that it’s important and difficult to remember that, as Patrick pointed out today, ‘ephemera’ can be meaningful, and even if it isn’t, it can still merit consideration and engagement.

Preparing my presentation made me realize just how many YouTube videos I have re-watched, learned from, and been moved by, often while thinking “I shouldn’t be doing this!” I would love to know the videos (or sites, or craigslist poems, or whatever) that you all find yourself returning to and sitting with, so please post them here! Since we’re going into finals week I figured you could all use some distractions that come highly recommended.

I’ll start with the Jeanann Verlee poem that I played during my presentation (I didn’t want to leave “soak up the semen” without context…):

frustration in Galatea

In class and on the blog, several people have mentioned the frustration that seems inherent to the experience of playing Galatea. I really loved the game (I’m calling it a game here mostly for convenience, not to make an argument about the distinction between interactive fictions and games), but, especially during the first few plays, I also felt that frustration. A lot of the time, I think that the game was resistant in a useful way, but I could also see how it might prevent a player from playing through more than once or twice. I want to think about this frustration as a product of the tension between the content/mode of engagement that the game requires and the formal elements that it delivers. 

I’m particularly interested in the way that the objectives of Galatea (what we might get out of it) do or don’t match up with the ways of achieving them that the form seems to propose. “Objectives” are obviously difficult to talk about in this game, even after playing it a few times or reading potential endings (both of which actually make things murkier in terms of “objective”). But this matters on a really basic level — when you start playing you don’t know what sorts of things you might be aiming for, so it’s hard to know what actions to take. So your initial actions, and maybe all of your actions, have to be kind of shots in the dark. You undertake them not to move toward some specific goal, usually, but with the hope that performing them will give you a better idea of what that goal could be. 

But also the interactions that the game seems to formally suggest aren’t really conducive to getting to anything meaningful. The potential routes for investigating things or achieving objectives that are suggested to us either by the text-based format are generally unproductive. In the form of a more traditional text-adventure game, it makes sense to begin to move around the space, find objects, and understand your options. But in Galatea, this leads to blank walls, and ultimately to the game ending. 

Interacting with Galatea herself doesn’t really resolve this problem — you are bound get a bunch of “your question cannot be formed into words,” which imply that you are failing to understand the basic conventions of gameplay, not that you are starting down the path that leads you to the more interesting endings. Even when you can form your questions into words, Galatea starts out as cold and difficult to engage. This is really necessary to the plot(s) and the potential payoff(s), but it also makes the game particularly frustrating. This could be an asset — not having much of a guide allows the game to be open-ended and reflective of what the player puts into it. I think that the game’s formal elements, especially the ambiguity and lack of visual representation, are a great way to get at the problem of making meaning out of an interaction with another being. But the frustration sometimes seems to go beyond this function in ways that aren’t useful.

I wonder if there would be a way for Galetea to ease the player into a new way of interacting with the traditional text-adventure format. As we discussed, Braid does this wonderfully — it forces us to reconsider the conventions of a platformer, but at the same time it uses our familiarity with them as a baseline from which to move. Galatea’s form also brings to mind a specific type of gameplay, but it doesn’t seem to use its player’s familiarity as effectively. I think that Galatea might provoke a meaningful experience more consistently if it could use the gameplay cues implied by its formal structure as a means to better teach the reader how to play it.

Watching and Gender in Braid

I was really interested by Taylor’s identification on Tuesday of a mode of relating to videogames as a “watcher,” and I wanted to think more about what that might mean, particularly in Braid. The secondary position of the watcher speaks a bit to the modes of engagement that get implicitly created through the category of “game,” which casts people as either players or non-players along a gradation of intensity (gamers vs. casual players). But the watcher is (maybe) a mode of relating to games that is outside of this logic. A watcher (as I am defining it) isn’t just a non-player who happens to be in the room or a player who is waiting for a turn. It is its own category, a specific position in the social space that forms around the game. And watchers don’t necessarily become players just by entering into gameplay. They are gone easy on (or taught, brushed off, etc) in a way that changes the normal relation between participants.

Obviously this isn’t a strict category, but I did find it a useful one in thinking about my own relationship to videogames in general, and maybe in the specific mode of engagement that Braid provokes. It hadn’t even occurred to me to categorize myself as a watcher, but as soon as Taylor brought it up I realized that it describes a ton of my engagement with games. Once I started thinking about it, I immediately began to realize the depth of my own familiarity with games that are outside of my own experience as a player. It opened up a whole category of knowledge about games that I hadn’t even considered.

Thinking about the watcher in terms of my own experience immediately lead me to thinking about gender — my experiences of watching games are all pretty fundamentally tied up in being ‘the girlfriend’ in an otherwise male space. When Patrick asked us about our engagement with videogames at the beginning of class, I saw my relationship to them as a basically decreasing one. I played a lot of videogames through early adolescence, and then gradually learned to put them aside in favor of more “grown-up” entertainments (a view that I’ve had to un-learn in the past few years, and which I don’t mean to endorse at all). But with this new category, I saw my engagement with games not as an “age-appropriate” diminishment in interest, but rather as a “gender-appropriate” change in mode of interacting.

But that is just me. I doubt that it is an uncommon experience, but there are countless other ways to experience yourself as a watcher and I absolutely don’t want to code the category as inherently female. I also don’t want to imply that the watcher/player dynamic is always a gendered one. But I say all of this about my own reaction because I do think that the category of the watcher could be a helpful guide for thinking about gender in Braid, specifically in the way that it might unit) the game’s treatment of masculinity, memory, and the cultural archive of platform games.

Braid plays on those qualities of platform games that are so familiar that they feel inevitable, and that are thus hard to even notice. It makes those qualities just strange enough that we have to pay attention to them, hopefully in a way that makes us think about them more critically.  But this simultaneously shows us our deep knowledge of and visceral familiarity with games in this format. To do this it highlights the specific role of the habituated player: someone who knows the objectives and rules implied by the space so well that they can operate through them without needing to think about their underlying logic. By starting from one of the most ubiquitous forms of childhood games, Braid is able to emphasize the expertise of its player as a player and to evoke nostalgia for this mode of playing.

But I’m interested in how Braid specifically uses watching as a central means of re-educating its audience’s internalized familiarity with platform games. The player has to learn to use time, and this requires watching actions that have already been performed. This is especially true as the duration of time reversal gets longer, like the second level of world three, or in cases when you realize that you made a mistake a long time ago, and have to go back to correct it. Even if you speed up these reversals, they require some watching, which thus becomes a central component of playing.

This is maybe a good example of how playing and watching are not so separable. But still, the kind of knowledge that you get from playing and the kind that you get from watching are really different (I know this is true because the professor said so!: “But if you choose to play with another person, do not just be a spectator. Be sure to play for at least some portion of the experience to feel what it is like.”). I think that this is true even when the watching happens within the space of the game.

It seems to me that the final world is really hinging on the crucial difference between these two kinds of interaction (though I’ve only watched it, so maybe I’m wrong….). Playing shows the avatar working to save the Princess, watching reveals her attempt to get away from him (obviously this is dependent on temporality and lots of other things, too). By forcing the player (whose avatar is importantly always male) to become a watcher, the game forces a new kind of knowledge. Re-evaluating masculinity centrally requires watching, not just playing. And, I would argue, the nostalgia that is central to both Braid’s content and its form causes this knowledge to get cast back across the player’s personal gaming archive. The knowledge that we get from the watching in the last world teaches us something about the Mario/Princess relationship, but also maybe something about our own personal (and gendered?) pattens of interacting with games.

Fogle and narrative unity, or whatever

Chapter 22 is full of Chris Fogle’s potentially contradictory positions on the merits of awareness, indifference, conscious choice, and accident. As we discussed in class, his declarations are sometimes hard to resolve. The indifference of “whatever” characterizes the wastoid, but Fogle’s father also “essentially said whatever” to his life (194). Important thinking gets done in “accidental, almost daydreamy ways” (192), and yet his transformation comes when he “decided” that he “had some very important, sustained, concentrated thinking to do” (178).

There are lots of ways that one could try to map these seeming contradictions out in a way that renders them consistent, but I think that trying to resolve them into some kind of coherent life-philosophy misses the way that their differences work to serve Fogel’s narrative needs moment-to-moment. Especially in light of Dave Wallace’s later critique of Fogle’s autobiographical style (259), I think that we can see the shifts in life-philosophy that narrator-Fogle is espousing as actually enabling his narrative to hang together in a way that feels acceptable to him and that seems to coherently answer questions about how he got to where he is. 

Part of what characterizes Fogle’s storytelling is the seeming grounding of the narrator as a whole and complete entity occupying a single point in time. This enables him to talk about things as he understands them right now, and use this more complete understanding as a way of organizing and making sense of the past. We could see this as coming from the fact that he is not carefully crafting a memoir over months or years, but rather rambling in front of a camera for a few hours. But Fogle’s positioning as narrator actually changes a lot over the course of the chapter. At different moments, he has different goals and concerns, which change the way that he uses the material of his narrative. This is really clear in his use of detail in his memory at different moments. Whether he is inventing those details or not, they serve a narrative purpose. On 191, deep in his description of his wastoid phase, he mentions DePaul’s identical buildings “whose names I don’t recall at this moment.” But on 217, in the heightened awareness lent by the impending transformative moment, he says “I knew Garnier Hall […] on this day I had somehow gone to 311 Garnier Hall instead of my own political science class’s identical 311 Daniel Hall.” The quality of his memory gets mobilized to serve the version of himself that he is trying to describe in the moment.

So I’m interested in how narrator-Fogle uses the different versions of his philosophy on intentionality and accident as tools to make sense of different parts of his story. To understand the impact of the substitute teacher and to follow the familiar pattern of transformative life event (here represented by the Christian girl), he has to emphasize the the accidental as ultimately determining his path. But to distance himself from the “whatever” that he sees even in his father’s approach to life, he has to at other moments paint conscious choice as the motive force behind his narrative. 

If we see his chapter as an example of a certain kind of memoir — one that explains and clarifies the subject rather than complicating him — then the work of his storytelling is the work of holding these different philosophies together just closely enough that they will look like they are part of a single subject’s way of understanding of the world, but not so close that their contradictions will overwhelm each other and undermine the narrative’s sense of unity. 

DFW and fake reality

I really enjoyed our conversation about the David Foster Wallace essay, and I am excited to read all of your thoughts! I want to talk about his turn to telecommunications at the end of the piece, and his dissatisfaction with the proto-internet as a solution to the problems of TV. Specifically, I’m interested in the way that he frames himself as an entity that is prior to and more real than TV and TC. I think that this is really evident when he explains that, no matter how advanced telecomputing gets, “escape from the limits of genuine experience […] can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all of my time pretending I’m not in it), and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant” (75, for me). From this we can see his separation of “genuine experience” from some like “mediated experience” or “virtual experience.”

There are lots of grounds on which he might be basing this distinction, but I wonder how fits with his previous assertions about how fundamental TV is in structuring the way that his generation perceives the world. When he has already established that he can’t view reality in a way that isn’t somehow “cinematic,” I wonder what the utility is in drawing this distinction between real reality and faux reality. Admittedly I am evaluating this in the unfair light of our media landscape today, but I think he misses something when he talks about “my own reality.” What is he trying to distinguish this from? Fake reality? By his own argument, it isn’t really possible to disentangle these two ideas. As soon as I’m a subject in the world, I’m fundamentally made up by the media that I interact with.  

I don’t think that this negates any of DFW’s criticism of TV as it was in 1990. Just because it centrally shapes our form of perception doesn’t mean that it does so in a useful way, or that we can’t criticize it. But instead of saying “the kind of world that we create through TV is really shitty, we should try to find better media forms and better ways to engage them,” he says “the kind of world that we create through TV is really shitty, we should try to stop creating worlds through media.” With this approach, his criticism of TC is inevitably a negative one. As long as he is looking for a kind of media that allows him to return to a realer reality free of “artificial enhancement” (75), he is going to be disappointed.

Again, I think that his criticisms of that specific kind of TV and the way we engage with it (6 hours a day) are really useful. But I wonder how we can apply them productively to modern media, rather than just throwing up our hands.