Thursday, September 13, 2007

Readings in Digital

I’ve gathered the resources I intend to return to first in the writing of my paper on Virtual Worlds and Virtual Romance this semester. This is a very brief annotated bibliography of the first books I’m looking at with this topic in mind; many of them are particularly useful works in virtual worlds studies. I hope this might be helpful to others as a resource for looking offline for respectable sources for virtual world studies; I've found that when reading articles online on topics like the virtual economy or interactive narrative much of the same surface impression appears repeatedly, and these are some works that get beneath that surface.

Digital Texts / Digital Worlds

Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds.
Edward Castronova approaches the new concerns of virtual worlds not from a social perspective but from an economic one. With the monopolies and mercenaries of Second Life and the still thriving trade in virtual gold and avatars virtual worlds must be considered as places where people go not only to play but to profit. Castronova considers the implications of the various economic factors affecting virtual worlds, including the use of cheap labor for “goldfarming” and the profitability and contract inherent within the subscription model still in use by most MMOs today.

Crawford, Chris. On Interactive Storytelling.
In On Interactive Storytelling, Chris Crawford begins by determining what makes a story, particularly for the purposes of storytelling in games. There is an expectation on the part of gamers that Crawford notes allows games to escape the actual confines of storytelling: “Games have never paid much attention to the many structural requirements imposed on stories…players don’t complain when games jerk them through wild dramatic gyrations because they don’t expect games to follow the protocols of storytelling” (14). However, this doesn’t mean that games should be limited by this historical trend, and Crawford goes on to address how the future of games might address the diametrically opposed demands of interaction and narrative.

Juul, Jesper. Half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds.
Jesper Juul writes particularly compellingly when he is discussing the relationship between computer systems themselves and the playing of games; essentially he points out that there is no more appropriate use for both to be put towards. At the heart of game design is the creation of the rules that will govern someone’s play; without rules, a game cannot exist.

King, Brad and John Borland. Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture.
In Dungeons and Dreamers, Brad King and John Borland offer a history of developments in the last thirty plus years of computer gaming. They begin their account before the first computer games emerged, as they pinpoint two origin concepts and discuss the rest of the history of gaming in those terms. Both occurred in 1972: the first is the creation of the paper based gaming system Dungeons & Dragons, the second the craze surrounding arcade video games. This offers a familiar duality of storytelling based gaming, where almost everything was left to the imagination of the players, and the electronic based action and reflex gaming of the arcade. In surveying the developments in computer gaming, Borland and King begin with these earlier forms, noting the origin roots that would have a strong influence on the computer games of today. If you’ve ever read a comic in Penny Arcade and not gotten the joke, then it’s likely you weren’t as thoroughly immersed in computer game geek culture as a few of us were in the late 80s and early 90s—Borland and King can catch you up on what you missed while seeing the outdoors or going on dates.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage.
Marshall McLuhan has been heralded as a prophet, named the patron saint of Wired Magazine, and even made a cameo in a Woody Allen film--all this from a man who didn’t want his own grandchildren watching television. McLuhan looked at media with a brilliant nonlinearity that has made him infinitely quotable, so I’ll let him explain himself: “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, pyschological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty--psychic or physical.”

Meadows, Mark Stephen. Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative.
Everything from CYOA books to MMOs fall under what Meadows refers to in his work Pause & Effect as interactive narrative: “An ‘interactive narrative’ is a form of narrative that allows someone other than the author to affect, choose, or change the events of the plot” (238). While a narrative is being offered, it is always secondary to the demands of interactivity, as the user is confronted not with a written linear text but with a screen, an interface, a host of characters and a perspective that differs from game to game. Most importantly, a game must be playable. Often the criticism is leveled at computer games that the stories are not “literary.” However, this misses the point: these stories must be designed to work as part of a whole subject to interactions of the user, not as a master story to be “read.” Balance varies across the genre: greater openness comes at expense of the planned story, while a planned story requires the limiting of user freedom.

Montfort, Nick. Twisty Little Passages.
In Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages, Montfort explains the literary connection between interactive fiction and the riddle: “the most direct counterpart to interactive fiction in oral and written literature is seen in the riddle…by presenting a metaphorical system that the listener or reader must inhabit and figure out in order to fully experience, and in order to answer correctly, the riddle offers its way of thinking and engages its audience as no other work of literature does” (4). This metaphor of the riddle offers Montfort the opportunity to draw a comparison that declared that riddles and interactive fiction “both have a systematic world, are something to be solved, present challenge and appropriate difficulty, and join the literary and the puzzling” (43). The ability of a riddle such as one by Swift to remain literature while existing as a challenge for the reader reveals that “the literary and puzzling aspects of the form are hardly inherently antagonistic, but rather must work together for the effect of certain IF works to be achieved” (63).

Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. MIT Press: Boston, 1998.
In Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, the holodeck mentioned in the title remains now a construction of a media fiction, in particular the Star Trek universe. The Star Trek vision of the holodeck is of a space where anything can be projected and interacted with on the same level as reality—people, food, and scenery. Janet Murray describes the seduction of the holodeck: “The Star Trek holodeck is a universal fantasy machine, open to individual programming: a vision of the computer as a kind of storytelling genie in the lamp” (15). However, like the genie that fulfills wishes in sometimes disastrous ways, there may be a dark side to the holodeck story world—“If we could someday make holographic adventures as compelling as Lucy Davenport, would the power of such a vividly realized fantasy world destroy our grip on the actual world? Will the increasingly alluring narratives spun out for us by the new digital technologies be as benign and responsible as a nineteenth-century novel or as dangerous and debilitating as a hallucinogenic drug?” (17).

Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. Arcade Publishing: New York, 2000.
In Trigger Happy, Steven Poole does not set out to tell of a videogame revolution to come in the future: he is instead a chronicler, exposing the revolution that he has already seen happening around him. It is not a matter of whether the videogame will become an art form; instead, it is a matter of how the videogame already is an art form and what the next steps of its evolution will be: “…when videogames are at their best, what you’re doing is something vastly more creatively challenging than watching a docusoap or a quiz show…that hunk of molded plastic, that PlayStation or Dreamcast, is a magic box that allows you to play with fire. A Prometheus engine” (206). The examples Poole offers, the PlayStation and Dreamcast, are two previously popular gaming platforms allowing for the playing of games on the television set that have now been superseded by newer systems. Poole gives these systems and by extension their more recent counterparts a mythical significance, fire being the gift of Prometheus from gods to man, a life saving tool and potential destructive force.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2001.
In Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Electronic Media, Marie-Laure Ryan takes the concept of Virtual Reality as a technical construct and uses it to create a framework for discussing different experiences of text. She first defines “Virtual Reality” as “a computer-generated three-dimensional landscape in which we would experience an expansion of our physical and sensory powers; leave our bodies and see ourselves from the outside; adopt new identities; apprehend immaterial objects through many senses, including touch; become able to modify the environment through either verbal commands or physical gestures; and see creative thoughts instantly realized without going through the process of having them physically materialized” (1). At the time Ryan is writing, 2001, this virtual reality remains mostly a construct in progress; five years later this remains the case.